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Book review: Hot Stuff by Alice Echols


For many music lovers, the disco era was something to endure until the next big thing would mercifully come along. Disco seemed endlessly repetitive, the lyrics were banal, and damn, all that polyester. In short, disco is an era the American mainstream would largely like to forget. To paraphrase Dylan, we were so much older then, we're younger than that now.

By the time disco's mainstream popularity took off in 1973, however, some segments of American life -- at least of American nightlife -- were already three years into their discovery of a music that, for them, "changed everything."

Alice Echols was a DJ during the disco era; today she's a professor of American studies and history at Rutgers. She has combined her unlikely combination of talents to write a fascinating book about the disco era and its influence on American life. Already known as one of the country's premier musical sociologists, Echols (Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin) gets to the point quickly: In its early days during the early 1970s, mainly in big city dance clubs, disco became a galvanizing force, a speeding up of social changes that had already roiled American society for a few years.

Disco, says Echols, reflected the big changes in society and added fuel to the fire. Women's newfound sexual freedom -- and feminism's scorn of "3-minute sex" -- found a supportive environment in discos as well as the songs played there (goodbye "Where Did Our Love Go," hello "Hot Stuff" by Donna Summer). As Echols says, "There's no way to make sense of how we got from Diana Ross to Lil' Kim without exploring disco."

African-Americans in the recording industry were able to expand their sound beyond gritty "soul," experimenting with lush orchestral arrangements on top of strong beats (goodbye Wilson Pickett, hello Teddy Pendergrass or Barry White).

Most of all, says Echols, disco was the coming out party, pun intended, for gay culture in the U.S., its development and its eventual commercialization.

After the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots that marked the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, gay discos started showing up in large American cities. For gay men in the early '70s, disco became a celebration of new freedoms, a revelation of their increasing numbers, and a kind of social laboratory. Some of the most interesting parts of Hot Stuff are when Echols describes how disco led to a new public identity for gay men. One example: Many gay discos were like sweatboxes, so shedding shirts became common -- and thus gay men toning their torsos at the gym was born, which led to a whole new self-presentation by gay men (goodbye cashmere sweaters, hello 501 button-fly jeans). Mustaches, muscles, aviator jackets and short hair were suddenly the style.

At the time, gay writer and activist Douglas Crimp tried to make sense of what he was seeing on the dance-floors of gay New York. It looked to him as though gay men were developing nearly identical bodies fashioned for a specific activity. And it dawned on him: "These bodies have been made into dancing machines."

And, of course, we all know how gym culture exploded in the U.S. soon afterward.

Much of America was still very naïve about gay men and how they lived, so most straights didn't get many of the in-jokes; nearly all non-gays, for instance, thought Abba's "Dancing Queen" was about a woman. Echols is funny while mapping the rise of the Village People, six guys dressed as various gay fantasy figures (cop, biker, cowboy, etc.), but who were largely seen at the time by straight America as a straightforward parody of macho culture, without the sly gay references. When bands started playing the group's "YMCA" at high school proms or wedding parties, the effect was complete.

Within four years of Stonewall, disco had become a big, big moneymaker and took over America's pop charts, for better (much of the Philly Soul phenomenon, Donna Summer) and worse ("Ring My Bell" by Anita Ward and "Disco Duck"). Disco finally conquered U.S. popular culture with the 1977 release of the film Saturday Night Fever which was, says Echols, "a hetero-sexualized, Hollywood version of disco life." Suddenly, for straight America, life was indeed imitating the movies; schlocky disco-pop ruled; and yes, Dance Fever invaded television.

Lots of things killed disco, namely a "guitar-rockers' backlash," the crappy cheesiness of too many disco-pop songs, and, of course, the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic which turned former gay meeting spots into potential death zones.

Today, dance club music is an outgrowth of the old disco tree, dolled up and computerized to within an inch of its life, perhaps, but a descendant of disco nonetheless. Gay culture, particularly in fashion, has been largely absorbed into the mainstream. Women singers can be as bold as they like. And no producers are held hostage to their ethnic backgrounds by anyone but themselves. What's undeniable after reading Hot Stuff, is that the era mainstream America would love to forget really was as important, although perhaps in different ways, as it seemed at the time.

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