Saturday, May 10, 2008

In Defence of Disco - Richard Dyer

In Defence of Disco by Richard Dyer was first published in the magazine Gay Left, Issue 8, in 1979. It has been republished in academic contexts, but doesn't seem to be available online (except embedded in the pdf archive of Gay Left magazine). This was a groundbreaking work in taking disco seriously, and many of its conclusions can equally be applied to the later dance music scenes dismissed as politically unsound by those who like a strong dose of didacticism with their music.

All my life I've liked the wrong music. I never liked Elvis and rock 'n' roll; I always preferred Rosemary Clooney. And since I became a socialist, I've often felt virtually terrorized by the prestige of rock and folk on the Left. How could I admit to two Petula Clark LPs in the face of miners' songs from the North East and the Rolling Stones? I recovered my nerve partially when I came to see show-biz music as a key part of gay culture, which, whatever its limitations, was a culture to defend. And I thought I'd really made it when I turned on to Tamla Motown, sweet soul sounds, disco. Chartbusters already, and I like them! Yet the prestige of folk and rock, and now punk and (rather patronizingly, I think) reggae, still holds sway. It's not just that people whose politics I broadly share don’t like disco; they manage to imply that it is politically beyond the pale to like it. It's against this attitude that I want to defend disco (which otherwise, of course, hardly needs any defence).

I'm going to talk mainly about disco music, but there are two preliminary points I'd like to make. The first is that disco is more than just a form of music, although certainly the music is at the heart of it. Disco is also kinds of dancing, club, fashion, film- in a word, a certain sensibility, manifest in music, clubs, and so forth, historically and culturally specific, economically, technologically, ideo­logically, and aesthetically determined- and worth thinking about. Second, as a sensibility in music it seems to me to encompass more than what we would perhaps strictly call disco music, and include a lot of soul, Tamla, and even the later work of mainstream and jazz artists like Peggy Lee and Johnny Mathis.

My defence is in two parts: first, a discussion of the arguments against disco in terms of its being ‘capitalist’ music and, second, an attempt to think through the- ambivalently, ambiguously, contradictorily- positive qualities of disco.

Disco and Capital

Much of the hostility to disco stems from the equation of it with capitalism. Both in how it is produced and in what it expresses, disco is held to be irredeemably capitalistic.

Now it is unambiguously the case that disco is produced by capitalist industry, and since capitalism is an irrational and inhuman mode of production, the disco industry is as bad as all the rest. Of course. However, this argument has assump­tions behind it that are more problematic. These are of two kinds. One assump­tion concerns music as a mode of production, and has to do with the belief that it is possible in a capitalist society to produce things (e.g., music, such as rock and folk) that are outside of the capitalist mode of production. Yet quite apart from the general point that such a position seeks to elevate activity outside of existing structures rather than struggles against them, the two kinds of music most often set against disco as a mode of production are not really convincing.

One is folk music - in the United Kingdom, people might point to Gaelic songs and industrial ballads - the kind of music often used, or reworked, in Left fringe theatre. These, it is argued, are not, like disco (and pop music in general), produced for the people, but by them. They are ‘authentic’ people's music. So they are -or rather were. The problem is that we don't live in a society of small, technologically simple communities such as produce such art. Preserving such music at best gives us a historical perspective on peasant and working-class struggle, at worst leads to nostalgia for a simple, harmonious communal existence that never even existed. More bluntly, songs in Gaelic or dealing with nineteenth-century factory conditions, beautiful as they are, don't mean much to most English-speaking people today.

The other kind of music most often posed against disco, and ‘pap pop’ at the level of how it is produced, is rock (including Dylan-type folk and everything from early rock 'n' roll to progressive concept albums). The argument here is that rock is easily produced by non-professionals- all that is needed are a few instruments and somewhere to play - whereas disco music requires the whole panoply of recording studio technology, which makes it impossible for non-professionals (the kid on the streets) to produce. The factual accuracy of this observation needs supplementing with some other observations. Quite apart from the very rapid - but then bemoaned by some purists - move of rock into elaborate recording studios, even when it is simple and producible by non-professionals, the fact is that rock is still quite expensive, and remains in practice largely the preserve of the middle class who can afford electric guitars, music lessons, and the like. (You have only to look at the biographies of those now professional rock musicians who started out in a simple non-professional way - the preponderance of public school and university-educated young men in the field is rivalled only by their preponderance in the Labour party cabinet.) More important, this kind of production is wrongly thought of as being generated from the grassroots when, except perhaps at certain key historical moments, non­-professional music making, in rock as elsewhere, bases itself, inevitably, on pro­fessional music. Any notion that rock emanates from ‘the people’ is soon con­founded by the recognition that what ‘the people’ are doing is trying to be as much like professionals as possible.

The second kind of argument based on the fact that disco is produced by capitalism concerns music as an ideological expression. Here it is assumed that capitalism as a mode of production necessarily and simply produces ‘capitalist’ ideology. The theory of the relation between the mode of production and the ideologies of a particular society is too complicated and unresolved to be gone into here, but we can begin by remembering that capitalism is about profit. In the language of classical economics, capitalism produces commodities, and its inter­est in commodities is their exchange value (how much profit they can realize) rather than their use value (their social or human worth). This becomes partic­ularly problematic for capitalism when dealing with an expressive commodity­ such as disco - since a major problem for capitalism is that there is no necessary or guaranteed connection between exchange value and use value. In other words, capitalism as productive relations can just as well make a profit from something that is ideologically opposed to bourgeois society as something that supports it. As long as a commodity makes a profit, what does it matter?

Indeed, it is because of this dangerous, anarchic tendency of capitalism that ideological institutions - the church, the state, education, the family - are necessary. It is their job to make sure that what capitalism produces is in capitalism's longer-term interests. How­ever, since they often don't know that that is their job, they don't always perform it. Cultural production within capitalist society is, then, founded on two pro­found contradictions - the first between production for profit and production for use; the second, within these institutions whose job it is to regulate the first contradiction. What all this boils down to, in terms of disco, is that the fact that disco is produced by capitalism does not mean that it is automatically, neces­sarily, simply supportive of capitalism. Capitalism constructs the disco experi­ence, but it does not necessarily know what it is doing, apart from making money.

I am not now about to launch into a defence of disco music as some great subversive art form. What the arguments above lead me to is, first, a basic point of departure in the recognition that cultural production under capitalism is necessarily contradictory, and, second, that it may well be the case that capitalist cultural products are most likely to be contradictory at just those points - such as disco - where they are most commercial and professional, where the urge to profit is at its strongest. Third, this mode of cultural production has produced a commodity, disco, that has been taken up by gays in ways that may well not have been intended by its producers. The anarchy of capitalism throws up commodities that an oppressed group can take up and use to cobble together its own culture. In this respect, disco is very much like another profoundly ambiguous aspect of male gay culture, camp. It is a ‘contrary’ use of what the dominant culture provides, it is important in forming a gay identity, and it has subversive potential as well as reactionary implications.

The Characteristics of Disco

Let me turn now to what I consider to be the three important characteristics of disco - eroticism, romanticism, and materialism. I'm going to talk about them in terms of what it seems to me they mean within the context of gay culture. These three characteristics are not in themselves good or bad (any more than disco music as a whole is), and they need specifying more precisely. What is interesting is how they take us to qualities that are not only key ambiguities within gay male culture, but have also traditionally proved stumbling blocks to socialists.


It can be argued that all popular music is erotic. What we need to define is the specific way of thinking and feeling erotically in disco. I'd like to call it ‘whole body’ eroticism, and to define it by comparing it with the eroticism of the two kinds of music to which disco is closest- popular song (i.e., the Gershwin, Cole Porter, Burt Bacharach type of song) and rock.

Popular song's eroticism is ‘disembodied’: it succeeds in expressing a sense of the erotic that yet denies eroticism's physicality. This can be shown by the nature of tunes in popular songs and the way they are handled.

Popular song's tunes are rounded off, closed, self-contained. They achieve this by adopting a strict musical structure (AA BA) in which the opening melodic phrases are returned to and, most important, the tonic note of the song is also the last note of the tune. (The tonic note is the note that forms the basis for the key in which the song is written; it is therefore the harmonic 'anchor’ of the tune, and closing on it gives precisely a feeling of ‘anchoring,’ coming to a settled stop.) Thus although popular songs often depart from their melodic and harmonic beginnings - especially in the middle section (B) - they also always return to them. This gives them- even at their most passionate, as in Cole Porter's ‘Night and Day’- a sense of security and containment. The tune is not allowed to invade the whole of one's body. Compare the typical disco tune, which is often little more than an endlessly repeated phrase that drives beyond itself, is not ‘closed off.’ Even when disco music uses a popular song standard, it often turns it into a simple phrase. Gloria Gaynor’s version of Porter’s ‘I’ve got you under my skin’, for instance, is in large part a chanted repetition of 'I've got you.’

Popular song's lyrics place its tunes within a conceptualization of love and passion as emanating from ‘inside,’ the heart or the soul. Thus the yearning cadences of popular song express an erotic yearning of the inner person, not the body. Once again, disco refuses this. Not only are the lyrics often more directly physical and the delivery more raunchy (e.g., Grace Jones's ‘I Need a Man’), but, most important, disco is insistently rhythmic in a way that popular song is not.

Rhythm, in Western music, is traditionally felt as being more physical than other musical elements such as melody, harmony, and instrumentation. This is why Western music is traditionally so dull rhythmically - nothing expresses our' Puritan heritage more vividly. It is to other cultures that we have had to turn - ­above all to Afro-American culture - to learn about rhythm. The history of pop­ular songs since the late nineteenth century is largely the history of the white in­corporation (or ripping off) of black music - ragtime, the Charleston, the tango, swing, rock 'n' roll, rock. Now what is interesting about this incorporation or ripping off is what it meant and means. Typically, black music was thought of by the white culture as being more primitive and more ‘authentically’ erotic. Infusions of black music were always seen as (and often condemned as) sexual and physical. The use of insistent black rhythms in disco music, recognizable by the closeness of the style to soul and reinforced by such characteristic features of black music as the repeated chanted phrase and the use of various African percussion instruments, means that it inescapably signifies (in this white context) physicality.

However, rock is as influenced by black music as disco is. This then leads me to the second area of comparison between the eroticism of disco and rock. The difference between them lies in what each ‘hears’ in black music. Rock's eroti­cism is thrusting, grinding - it is not whole body, but phallic. Hence it takes from black music the insistent beat and makes it even more driving; rock's repeated phrases trap you in their relentless push, rather than releasing you in an open-ended succession of repetitions as disco does. Most revealing perhaps is rock's instrumentation. Black music has more percussion instruments than white, and it knows how to use them to create all sorts of effects - light, soft, lively, as well as heavy, hard, and grinding. Rock, however, hears only the latter and develops the percussive qualities of essentially non-percussive instruments to increase this, hence the twanging electric guitar and the nasal vocal delivery.

One can see how, when rock 'n' roll first came in, this must have been a tremendous liberation from popular song's disembodied eroticism - here was a really physical music, and not just mealy-mouthed physical, but quite clear what it was about - cock. But rock confines sexuality to cock (and this is why, no matter how progressive the lyrics and even when performed by women, rock remains indelibly phallocentric mu­sic). Disco music, on the other hand, hears the physicality in black music and its range. It achieves this by a number of features, including the sheer amount going on rhythmically in even quite simple disco music (for rhythmic clarity with complexity, listen to the full-length version of the Temptations' ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’); the willingness to play with rhythm, delaying it, jumping it, countering it rather than simply driving on and on (e.g., Patti Labelle, Isaac Hayes); the range of percussion instruments used and their different effect (e.g. the spiky violins in Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock's ‘Tell Me a Bedtime Story’; the gentle pulsations of George Benson). This never stops being erotic, but it restores eroticism to the whole of the body and for both sexes, not just confining it to the penis. It leads to the expressive, sinuous movement of disco dancing, not just that mixture of awkwardness and thrust so dismally charac­teristic of dancing to rock.

Gay men do not intrinsically have any prerogative over whole-body eroticism. ­We are often even more cock oriented than non-gays of either sex, and it depresses me that such phallic forms of disco as Village People should be so gay identified. Nonetheless, partly because many of us have traditionally not thought of ourselves as being ‘real men' and partly because gay ghetto culture is also a space where alternative definitions, including those of sexuality, can be devel­oped, it seems to me that the importance of disco in scene culture indicates an openness to a sexuality that is not defined in terms of cock. Although one cannot easily move from musical values to personal ones, or from personal ones to politically effective ones, it is at any rate suggestive that gay culture should promote a form of music that denies the centrality of the phallus while at the same time refusing the nonphysicality that such a denial has hitherto implied.


Not all disco music is romantic. The lyrics of many disco hits are either straightforwardly sexual - not to say sexist - or else broadly social (e.g., Detroit Spinners' ‘Ghetto Child,’ Stevie Wonder's ‘Living in the City’), and the hard drive of Village People or Labelle is positively antiromantic. Yet there is nonetheless a strong strain of romanticism in disco. This can be seen in the lyrics, which often differ little from popular song standards, and indeed often are standards (e.g., ‘What a Difference a Day Made’ by Esther Phillips, ‘La vie en rose’ by Grace Jones). More impressively, it is the instrumentation and arrangements of disco music that are so romantic.

The use of massed violins takes us straight back, via Hollywood, to Tchaikovsky, to surging, outpouring emotions. A brilliant example is Gloria Gaynor's ‘I've Got You under My Skin,’ where in the middle section the violins take a hint from one of Porter's melodic phrases and develop it away from this tune in an ecstatic, soaring movement. This ‘escape’ from the confines of popular song into ecstasy is very characteristic of disco music, and nowhere more consistently than in such Diana Ross classics as ‘Reach Out’ and ‘Ain't No Mountain High Enough.’ This latter, with its lyrics of total surrender to love, its heavenly choir, and sweeping violins, is perhaps one of the most extravagant reaches of disco’s romanticism. But Ross is also a key figure in the gay appropriation of disco.

What Ross's records do - and I'm thinking basically of her work up to ‘Greatest Hits volume 1’ and the 'Touch Me in the Morning' albums - is express the intensity of fleeting emotional contacts. They are all-out expressions of adoration that yet have built on to them the recognition of the (inevitably) temporary quality of the experience. This can be a straightforward lament for having been let down by a man, but more often it is both a celebration of a relationship and the almost willing recognition of its passing and the exquisite pain of its passing - ‘Remem­ber me / As a sunny day / That you once had / Along the way’; ‘If I've got to be strong / Don't you know I need to have tonight when you're gone / When you go I'll lie here / And think about / the last time that you / Touch me in the morning.' This last number, with Ross's ‘unreally’ sweet, porcelain fragile voice and the string backing, concentrates that sense of celebrating the intensity of the passing relationship that haunts so much of her work. No wonder Ross is (was?) so important in gay male scene culture, for she both reflects what that culture takes to be an inevitable reality (that relationships don't last) and at the same time celebrates it, validates it.

Not all disco music works in this vein, yet in both some of the more sweetly melancholy orchestrations (even in lively numbers, like ‘You Should Be Danc­ing’ from ‘Saturday Night Fever’) and some of the lyrics and general tone (e.g., Donna Summer's 'Four Seasons of Love' album), there is a carryover of this emo­tional timbre. At a minimum, then, disco's romanticism provides an embodi­ment and validation of an aspect of gay culture.

But romanticism is a particularly paradoxical quality of art to come to terms with. Its passion and intensity embody or create an experience that negates the dreariness of the mundane and everyday. It gives us a glimpse of what it means to live at the height of our emotional and experiential capacities - not dragged down by the banality of organized routine life. Given that everyday banality, work, domesticity, ordinary sexism, and racism are rooted in the structures of class and gender or this society, the flight from that banality can be seen as a flight from capitalism and patriarchy as lived experiences.

What make's this more complicated is the actual situation within which disco occurs. Disco is part of the wider to and fro between work and leisure, alienation and escape, boredom and enjoyment that we are so accustomed to (and that ‘Saturday Night Fever’ plugs into so effectively). Now this to and fro is partly the mechanism by which we keep going, at work, at home- the respite of leisure gives us the energy to work, and anyway we are still largely brought up to think of leisure as a ‘reward’ for work. This circle locks us into it. But what happens in that space of leisure can be profoundly significant; it is there that we may learn about an alternative to work and to society as it is. Romanticism is one of the major modes of leisure in which this sense of an alternative is kept alive. Roman­ticism asserts that the limits of work and domesticity are not the limits of experience.

I don't say that romanticism, with its passion and intensity, is a political ideal we could strive for - l doubt it is humanly possible to live permanently at that pitch. What I do believe is that the movement between banality and something ‘other’ than banality is an essential dialectic of society, a constant: keeping open of a gap between what is and what could or should be. Herbert Marcuse in the currently unfashionable ‘One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society’ argues that our society tries to close that gap, to assert that what is is all that there could be, is what should be. For all its commercialism and containment within the to and fro between work and leisure, I think disco romanticism is one of the things that can keep the gap open, that can allow the experience of contradiction to continue. Since I also believe that political struggle is rooted in experience (though utterly doomed if left at it), I find this dimension of disco potentially positive. (A further romantic/utopian aspect of disco is realized in the non-commercial discos organized by gay and women's groups. Here a moment of community can be achieved, often in circle dances or simply in the sense of knowing people as people, not anonymous bodies. Fashion is less impor­tant, and sociability correspondingly more so. This can be achieved in smaller clubs, perhaps especially outside the centre of London, which, when not just grotty monuments to self-oppression, can function as supportive expressions of something like a gay community.)


Disco is characteristic of advanced capitalist societies simply in terms of the scale of money squandered on it. It is a riot of consumerism, dazzling in its technology (echo chambers, double and more tracking, electric instruments), overwhelming in its scale (banks of violins, massed choirs, the limitless range of percussion instruments), lavishly gaudy in the mirrors and tat of discotheques, the glitter and denim flash of its costumes. Its tacky sumptuous­ness is well evoked in ‘Thank God it’s Friday’. Gone are the restraint of popular song, the sparseness of rock and reggae, the simplicity of folk. How can a socialist, or someone trying to be a feminist, defend it?

In certain respects, it is doubtless not defensible. Yet socialism and feminism are both forms of materialism - why is disco, a celebration of materialism if ever there was one, not therefore the appropriate art form of materialist politics?

Partly, obviously, because materialism in politics is not to be confused with mere matter. Materialism seeks to understand how things are in terms of how they have been produced and constructed in history, and how they can be better produced and constructed. This certainly does not mean immersing oneself in­ the material world - indeed, it includes deliberately stepping back from the mate­rial world to see what makes it the way it is and how to change it. But materialism is also based on the profound conviction that politics is about the material world, and indeed that human life and the material world are all there is; there is no God, there are no magic forces. One of the dangers of materialist politics is that it is in constant danger of spiritualizing itself, partly because of the historical legacy of the religious forms that brought materialism into existence, partly because materialists have to work so hard not to take matter at face value that they often end up not treating it as matter at all. Disco's celebration of materialism is only a celebration of the world we are necessarily and always immersed in. Disco's materialism, in technological modernity, is resolutely historical and cultural - it can never be, as most art claims for itself, an ‘emanation’ outside of history and of human production.

Disco's combination of romanticism and materialism effectively tells us - lets us experience - that we live in a world of materials, that we can enjoy them but that the experience of materialism is not necessarily what the everyday world assures us it is. Its eroticism allows us to rediscover our bodies as part or this experience of materialism and the possibility of change.

If this sounds over the top, let one thing be clear - disco can't change the world or make the revolution. No art can do that, and it is pointless to expect it to. But partly by opening up experience, partly by changing definitions, art and disco can be used. To which one might risk adding the refrain, if it feels good, use it.


valter said...

Thanks, a very interesting read!

Anonymous said...

I´m wondering why I started writing articles with a materialist perspective on capitalist music when those guys had already a really advanced analysis back in 1979. Probably because the music changed and capitalism still exists, as well as certain resentments against pop music. Even if I don´t agree with all points (the paragraph on romanticism is weak) it is good to see that there was already an approach influenced by the Frankfurt School on Dance music.

. said...

Well unkultur I agree Dyer's is a good article, but definitely not the last word. Not sure how much of a Frankfurt School influence there is in this piece though, in a way he is arguing against a crude simplified version of Adorno - that disco=mass culture=rubbish.

Rachel said...

This is a great article. I read it first in "On Record" a collection of essays edited by Simon Frith. It really stood out to me then, and still rings true. Have you read Camille Paglia? She writes "I view disco, at its serious best, as a dark, grand Dionysian music with roots in African earth-cult".
I love your blog by the way--absolutely brilliant.

. said...

Thanks PF will check out Camillie Paglia on disco. Had a look at your Pop Feminist site and liked it, will link to it when I get round to updating links. Perhaps you can even persuade me out of my life long aversion to The Beatles.

Rachel said...

Aversion, eh? Strong words. Read the blog I'm working on for my roommate of similar disposition:

Anonymous said...

terrible read