Saturday, June 12, 2010

Book sixteen: Hot Stuff by Alice Echols.

I hit my musical stride in the 70s, right smack dab in the middle of disco.  I'll admit it: I loved disco then and I've loved it ever since.  And even though there wasn't a discotheque any where near Worland, Wyoming, I shook my groove thing and danced the last dance every chance I got.  It was pretty dang sad when I finally got to college, hoping to spend endless nights dancing to disco only to discover that disco had died.

So it was fun to relive the glory days of disco in Alice Echols' book, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture.  I'll start by saying that with the academic attitude and endless references, this book reads more like a doctoral thesis than a breezy book about pop culture of the 70s. But maybe that's what makes it interesting.  Echols eschews the idea that the 70s was a vapid decade that ditched the lofty, hippie-inspired ideals of the 60s in favor of meaningless sex, drugs, and something less than rock and roll. 

Instead, she suggests that disco was created by and helped liberate many overlooked social groups, in particular blacks, gays, and women.  And she makes a convincing case.  While the music of the 60s was largely by and about straight, white men, disco was invented and took off in underground clubs where blacks and gays (and the women who love them) were discovering new found freedoms. However the association with those same groups (particularly the gays) may be partially to blame for the amazing speed at which disco fell out of favor. Hot Stuff offers interesting tales of DJs who used its gay roots to inspire anger (and it was violent anger) against disco. The book dredges up some stellar anti-gay quotes from DJs in the late 70s and 80s.  Those same quotes today would easily destroy careers. 

Echols also tracks the influence of disco on music from the 70s forward.  She starts the booking talking about being a DJ in college.  It's obvious that she gets dance music, so she's well suited to write about the subject and to identify links between artists and styles.  Since reading the book, I hear disco influences everywhere.  And the references in today's music are frequently more than just a borrowed beat or phrase (although there's plenty of that going on too).  Even artists like Lady Gaga seem to make more than just passing references to disco hits like Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.

You can't read this book without coming away with a sense of how much disco did to help make homosexuality more socially acceptable.  Stories about the Village People and other gay artists and promoters like Sylvester demonstrate how strangely acceptable being gay was during the late 70s.  Sure there was a big backlash (remember Anita Bryant) but I don't think you get to the current acceptance of gays without disco.

Some of Hot Stuff's best moments are when Echols talks about how hugely popular disco became.  The chapter on Saturday Night Fever is loaded with fun anticdotes.  For example, the movie was so popular in Brazil that it spawned new words like the verb travoltar (to Travolta).

If you still hate disco, you might want to skip this book.  But if you're still working at stayin' alive, Hot Stuff is worth the read.

1 comment:

  1. Mary (Shambaugh) RauchfussJune 12, 2010 at 5:26 PM

    I love disco. I remember going to see the Village People in the 70's with my friend, Douglas. We are still friends and still talk about going to this concert, only now we talk about it with his partner, Rob :)