You either love it or hate it. But one thing's for sure: rumors of its death are premature. This fast paced yet in-depth look at one of the most outrageous eras in musical and cultural history discusses the fashion and the freaks, the music-makers and the celebrators, to uncover why disco was so revered and reviled. In its early days, disco was dismissed by the public as producers' music made by studio musicians. But this amalgam of African-American rhythm and blues, soul, and funk soon caught fire, bringing together gay and straight, black and white, young and old in a way no other popular music has before or since a phenomenon that is still reverberating through the culture.
As it takes you from the history of dance halls to the rise of impossible-to-get-into clubs; from the reigning queens (Gloria Gaynor, Grace Jones, and Donna Summer among them) to the wanna-bes (including Dolly Parton, Frank Sinatra, and even Ethel Merman!); from the political mayhem of the Vietnam era to the party-all-night eighties, Hot Stuff will make you want to dust off those platform shoes, dig out your mirrored ball, and shake your booty all night long.
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About the Author
John-Manuel Andriote is a graduate of the Northwestern University journalism program. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The Advocate, and other periodicals. He is the award-winning author of Victory Deferred and The Art of Fine Cigars and lives in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
It's cold tonight and there's a line waiting to get into what everyone's calling the "hot new disco" here in my nowhere-in-particular hometown. As we approach the door, the thumping beat vibrates the walls. I can hear Donna Summer's "Last Dance" as clearly as if I were standing on the dance floor. Red and blue lights flash through the steam-covered glass of the door. Here I go! Five bucks? I guess I've got to get over the sticker shock of this disco scene. I guess it's the price you pay for the experience.
Would you look at that dance floor? There are lights in the floor itself! Multicolored fog is rising from the floor, dry ice and hot lights fusing to create a kind of indoor bog pulsing with very human life. Men and women become strangely gesturing shadows through the atomized veil. You can't see the girls' stiletto heels or the guys' platform shoes. The fog smells like chocolate. It makes my daiquiri taste a little funny. Maybe a rum and coke wouldn't be as bad with a little chocolate edge?
Lights twirl overhead, ricocheting off the big mirror ball spinning above the middle of the dance floor, reflecting off the mirrored walls.
The deejay is on a Donna Summer riff. He just went from "Hot Stuff" right into "MacArthur Park" -- without a pause. Come to think of it, "Last Dance" lasted a long time. It must have been one of those new twelve-inch disco discs. They've been around in the big-city clubs for a while, but we're a little slow out here in God's country catching on to those city things.
That's probably why disco didn't catch on here until after Saturday Night Fever came to town last winter. People wanted to get out a bit, catch a movie, after all those long, slow winter nights. The Blizzard of '78 really made us all a little restless. Ever since that movie, kids are going out to the disco. At first they were embarrassed to be seen here. Everybody thought disco was just for gay guys or black folks. John Travolta showed them that straight white guys can like disco-and even be good dancers. Now some of them are embarrassed to run into their own parents, and their parents' friends, here! The younger kids go to the roller rink on Saturday mornings for their kiddie disco party.
Mostly everyone comes here. This place has been around since the sixties, when it was called The Dial Tone. It's no Studio 54. It's out on this back road in the sticks. You don't have to be famous or gorgeous to get in. But you do have to be cool. And the joint sure gets jumping! Sometimes my friends take a puff or toot of things those kids who used to be called the bad kids at school bring along to do out in the parking lot. When that disco beat-and whatever they puffed or tooted-kicks in, they're sliding out on the dance floor with everyone else, just like those slide drums in the music.
It's great to be here. What a week I've had. What a life I've had-at the ripe old age of twenty. I guess like everybody else in America in 1978, 1 just want to relax and cut loose a little bit. AH right, now, there's that Alicia Bridges song. I love the nightlife, too! What a scene! Disco rules!
Rule it did -- at least for a little while. The rat-a-tat-tat of the disco beat that brought us to our feet in the seventies seemed to swell out of the depths of our souls as it transported us somewhere ethereal and, some even said, divine. It lifted us up and out of ourselves, helping to heal the wounds that the sixties and the first part of the seventies had inflicted on the nation's bruised psyche.
Like other dance music before it, disco appeared when it did because it was what people needed. In troubled times, people seek the kind of release that comes from intense physical activity like athletics and sex. Disco blended athletics and sex in one joyous belt of exuberance that shook-and shook up the land with its mixture of hedonism and hilarity. In the late seventies, at disco's peak, getting down with the music was the best way to get your mood up and get on with your life. That was a major challenge for a lot of people at the time.
For all their liberation movements and monumental achievements, the sixties were a dark night of the soul for many Americans. Free love and flower power ran smack up against a level of hatred and violence that stood out even in such a hate-filled and violent century. From assassinations of beloved leaders to the British Invasion of rock musicians, from the war in Vietnam to the war at home for civil rights, from walking on the moon to flying higher than the moon at Woodstock, the sixties was a decade of sharp contrasts and social upheavals.
The decade's idealism and strife carried into the seventies.
Even the most upstanding citizens found their faith in America challenged by the harsh economics and politics of the new decade. "The years that followed the sixties were like the proverbial 'morning after,' " write Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster in The Century, their sweeping overview of the twentieth century. "The cupboards were bare, the once-mighty passion for public acts now spent, along with much of America's heretofore indefatigably optimistic spirit."
The seventies began with more violence when four student antiwar protesters were killed by National Guardsmen at Ohio's Kent State University on May 4, 1970. High unemployment and what was called "stagflation" went hand-in-hand with oil shortages and a dawning awareness of the environmental impact of the nation's optimistic expansion after World War II. Only a year after celebrating America's withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, Americans' faith in their government was shaken to the core with the Watergate scandal and disgraced resignation of President Nixon. As Jennings and Brewster so aptly put it, the seventies started with "the feeling that American civilization had entered into an irreversible decline."
Copyright © 2001 by John-Manuel Andriote.