"What Is This Thing Called 'Disco'?"

catalogue essay for the → ↑ → exhibition Asphixiation, George Paton Gallery, Melbourne, 1980
reprinted in Art & Text No.3, Melbourne, 1981
reprinted as gallery hand-out for Do You Think I'm Disco exhibition, Longwood Art Gallery, Bronx New York, 2005
ABBA; Silver Convention

Why not start off this analysis with a wild claim: "Disco would most probably have to be the (or one of the) most recent and current trends that has affected popular culture." Such a problematic claim will inevitably lead us to interesting places. Disco needs critical investigation for the sole reason that there is so much of it around, and so much of it in areas outside of itself. Water, water, everywhere nor any drop to drink.

There are a variety of ways to tackle an analysis of disco. One very profitable way would be to look at it as a hybrid musical style, historically noting when and where other musical styles merged with and counteracted others to produce disco music. Someone will no doubt provide us with a writing on the birth of disco out of funk, soul, motown, rhythm & blues, etc. However, this article is not concerned with the problems inherent in such classification (even though they are real problems in attempting to write about a thing called "disco"). The critical value in genre categorization has always been flimsy and self deceiving, mainly because of the essentially arbitrary limitations that are used to define the genre. Disco, like any other musical style or form (especially in the realm of popular culture) is a mutant, and is furthermore the off spring of a whole history of mutants. Thus, one cannot call it the bastardization of purer forms. Rather than look at disco in terms of specious definition and historicism, this article proposes to set up problematics, possibilities, and observations concerning the ideology behind gestures and manoeuvres that fall under the name of "disco"; the functions that such a music serves and performs; the implications of consciously using and utilizing the name "disco"; and the critical effects of organizing a political stance against the name of "disco".

As you will notice, a distinction has already been made between disco and the name "disco". What seems like a silly play with words is in fact a very valid distinction in meaning. When I talk about disco, I would be referring to the meaning of the word, which for communication purposes would entail the definition of it primarily as a musical type. When I talk about the name of "disco" I am talking about the power behind using that word, a power that embodies a knowledge of quite definite effects and reactions resultant from uttering that word. Disco, as a defined body is a mystery such is the nature of style when it comes to specific definition. Disco, as a word that means little but implies a lot, is not such a mystery, because the traces of disco the marks of its absence are painfully perceptible. When disco appears anywhere, there is no doubt what it is that is appearing. We point to it, but we can't touch it.

Eruption; The Sylvers

So let us look at actual cases of the usage of this thing called "disco". Such usages in popular music/culture encompass all the varying perspectives on disco that are related to it as being seen as a form and/or a style. One can quite easily make broad categorical distinctions by hypothesising a mathematical type of equation like: "Artist (A) + Disco (D) = X". This in particular has profitable application where the artist is not normally (in comparison to the artist's previous output) considered to be a disco artist per se; where the consequent product of this artist has either a stench or an odour of self consciousness about it, ranging from blunt parody to restrained experimentation. Some examples would be:

David Bowie (style is style and disco is just another style); Blondie (modern pop as in a displaced 60's, where Moroder has replaced Spector); Talking Heads (incorporation of popular themes into modernist art preoccupations); Tubes (satire of American culture); Sparks (lyricists for Moroder); Magazine (the art of funk); Pop Group (the rhythm of barbarism in a hypocritical society); M (popular culture of the modern age, i.e. capitalism); Lori and the Chameleons (the aesthetics of cuteness and innocence); Telex (70/80's equivalent of 50/60's instrumental pop bands); Gang Of Four (working class ethics); Public Image (disorienting experimentation); Little Nell (the theatrics of being young, camp and saucy); Roxy Music (cheesy picture of the stylish discotheque); Human League (toying with futuristic outlooks); Delta 5 (danceable mundanity); Kraftwerk (the sterility of technology); Yellow Music Orchestra (European delusions); Lou Reed (perverted sense of humour of an aged cynic); Brian Eno (the science of music); Robert Fripp (practicing elaborate theories on the dance floor); Residents (playing with language and meaning when is a 12" disco single not a 12" disco single?); Bryan Ferry (musical equivalent of a passion for fashionable male clothes); Flying Lizards (Cage is alive today); James White (a touch of racism); Spandau Ballet (giving disco a face lift by taking dance out of disco and discarding the rest; Visage (turning one's lifestyle into a visual dance); etc.

0f course, this must not be misread as "... X = Artist." Though it could conceivably follow that "Disco = X Artist". This use of mathematics is more to point to disco as an area of music that can be made applicable and functional both to and for such a diverse range of artists in pop music as cited above. The sum of X factors in this list (which is arbitrary in choice and amount, and thereby exhaustive in that light) would start to form a shape that could be used as a probable explanation of what constitutes disco music in this area. Notions or accusations of contrivance and pretension here are made redundant by the fact that the artist is actually distancing him or herself from his or her work to let us know or rather to actually tell us "this is disco music and I am performing it". This type of perspective on making art product involves the execution of a deliberate gesture that of a sticking a disco label on oneself and playing disco music.

Wild Cherry; Barry White & Love Unlimited

But there is another and more major area of disco music which includes all the other artists who would appear to be, by comparison to the already cited list of artists, more validly acceptable to or faithful to the banner of "disco music". It is here that things get tacky: splitting the disco form into two distinct areas. The problem is in trying to reason and justify the difference as sharp as it may appear between the previous list (A) and this list (B):

Silver Convention; Boney M; Bee Gees; Issac Hayes; Barry White; Abba; Amanda Lear; Gibson Brothers; Ami Stewart; Christie Allen; Average White Band; Hot Chocolate; Radyo; Wild Cherry; Eruption; Sugar Hill Gang; Michael Jackson; Brothers Johnson; Village People; Jacksons; Commodores; Chic; Sisters Sledge; Sylvers; Sylvester; Sly Stone; Ritchie Family; etc.

The dilemma of this writing, is that I should not speak from either side. However, I must attempt to hold the two sides against each other to find and clarify their differences and pinpoint where those differences are related (i.e. what constitutes these two lists as "sides"?). One obvious difference between the two is superstar status and commercial success, as list B, on the whole, appeals to a much wider and larger market than list A. (But it is also obvious that Blondie isn't exactly underground and that Grace Jones isn't a world wide smash).

One can sub divide list B into 3 basic areas:

(i) Artists who have actually made an image change solely for the purpose of updating their market potential (Bee Gees and Abba being prime examples, changing from Middle-of-the-Road to disco);

(ii) Artists who seemed to imperceptibly merge from funk and soul into disco almost, its it were, through being able to survive in the music industry for nearly a decade (eg. Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Jacksons etc.); and

(iii) Artists who started off as disco and who are still disco now, and for all it matters will never be anything other than disco (eg. Village People etc.).

Heaven 17; Roxy Music

It still seems, though, that the more we try to differentiate these two contrasting (by general consensus) areas of music, the more alike they begin to be. Thus, we have to dig even deeper. It is basically style that forms the basis for the gesturing (and posturing) of list A, and primarily function that determines the basic nature of list B. Furthermore, list B does not have the level of self conscious distancing that list A has. List B has to work within the context of disco: List A merely has to step into the arena of popular culture and exhibit itself.

Of course, this type of generalisation is only as valid as the substantiality of the actual lists, but such generalizing can point out the differences in critical worth between these two areas of disco music. For example, what do we do with 'Wild Cherry, once we remove them from the dance floor; or, will artistic meaning behind the 'Pop Group' be damaged if no one dances to it. Even though there is as much "pressure" for artists in both lists to succeed (commercial in list B artistic in list A), failure in list B is more easily marked, because whereas the value of list A artists is essentially determined by the nebulous and mysterious history of art itself (measurable by critics), the value of list B artists is totalized by the facts and figures of a readily accessible history of the music and recording industry, as well as how well it works in discotheques.

The most striking thing about disco is its beat structure, as it is the major element that typifies the style, as well as being the base element for the performance of its function: "dance to the disco beat".

The Pop Group; Blondie

In terms of musical technique, such a constant heavy down beat is generally considered to be moronic (to the experienced drummer) and lacking in finesse (to the experienced composer). However, we must constantly remember that disco music is above all functional music. List A would not exist if it were not for the establishment of disco music as a style by the list B artists and the genesis of list A could only stem from a perverse artistic curiosity attracted to an essentially alien culture (i.e. the mass market).

The construction of Disco music has mostly always stemmed from its rhythmic framework, on top of which we have a decade of conventions and cliches related to how to combine other musical instruments on top of this relentless, thudding down beat, such as the bass of Sly and the Family Stone; The hi hat of Barry White; the synthesizers of Giorgio Moroder; the electronic percussion of Kraftwerk; the guitars of Chic; etc. etc. etc. All these innovations and their permutations give us a history of variations on the disco theme and style. Anyone, or any number, of such elements can be used in any other context or musical style to give birth to mutated forms, such as heavy metal disco, disco pop and country disco. What is noticeably the same though, is the hierarchy of musical construction where the bass drum beat governs all, as can be easily realized by standing outside a disco where the only thing that can he heard is the bass drum heat.

Over the past five or six years, record production has probably established itself even above the aesthetic of the beat itself where highly sophisticated production techniques have taken the functionalism of disco music to extreme levels. It is in this context that we can perceive and appreciate the well made (i.e. economically effective) disco song that thumps all through your body, charging you with boogie fever. Physical music for physical situations.

Let us initiate a comparison and place disco on one side, and "music" on the other. Is there a difference? From where I stand, I'm positive that I hear an overwhelming majority declare vociferously that there is indeed, like a difference between "bad" and "good".

James White & The Blacks; Sparks

A major assumption does exist in differentiating disco away from music, almost to the degree that if you like music then it follows that you hate disco or conversely if you like disco you don't know what music is. These types of assumptions even take the form of organized stances culminating in slogans like "Disco Sucks" and campaigns like "Death to Disco". Never before in the history of popular music has such a complacent music style met with such rebellion and disgust. If disco music is at all reaction against anything it could be against sitting down. So why the bell the big fuss? What we have to find out is (a) what is it that disco music has or lacks that segregates it, by an assumed criterion, from other types of music?, and (b) what is this assumed criterion? This means finding out the perspectives that disco music leaves itself open to, which further means distinguishing between the intention of disco music (what disco artists think they are doing) and the usage of disco music (how disco product is marketed and employed in social, political and economical contexts). People's hatred of Disco generally falls under these two areas: the intention of disco music, where the criteria are based on aesthetic quality, artistic validity and entertainment pleasure; and the usage of disco music, where the criteria are based on political beliefs in how the recording industry should operate and what social recreation should entail. This is all to say that there is something very different in the nature of disco, as a form of artistic music, as well as there being something very different in the political useability of disco as a form of commercial music.

What is this difference between disco and music? As we have just found, disco has a primacy of function in that there are no real problems in categorizing it as dance music, or at the least, danceable music. One could almost call it 'honest' in terms of the message that it stylistically conveys, ("get down and boogie" etc.). One could also call it shallow, cheap and crass, but of course, to call one music style these things, one must be able to justify supposedly contrary styles as deep, subtle and of high quality. But, disco music is by any standards quite possibly "shallow". Indeed, all things point towards disco being ultimately "meaningless". Disco music does not have a history of meaning. It has a history of style, and marketability, but none of the manoeuvres or procedures that fall under the name of disco have direct ideological implications in terms of intentional meaning.

This doesn't mean though that disco has no meaning, as to perform any act or gesture implies a mythological background to the act, thus giving "meaning" to the act, regardless of the conventional, fashionable assumption of what its worth should be. Disco does not have a history of meaning i.e. there are no general assumptions or valid documentations of the value of disco in terms of its meaningfullness. Mystical notions of meaning help differentiate musical styles from one another, as well as determine the value and worth of any one product of a particular style. To perform jazz, blues, rockabilly, soul, power pop, Middle of the Road etc, is to evoke a specific type of consciousness related to a specific set of meanings inherent to the act of performing the particular music style. There, a notion of 'truthful' performers and 'false' performers exists, establishing a productive difference between 'artists' and 'charlatans' and, it is interesting to note that in the realm of popular culture, the institutions that we call the recording industry can profit from both the "artist" and the "charlatan". But who is "truthful" in disco, who is "fake"? Through lacking a history of meaning (remembering that it is the past that consolidates and qualifies the present) disco music is deemed unable to carry meaning. It would therefore be, in this light, meaningless. Researchers, explorers, pioneers and crusaders of meaning consequently find disco "unattractive". Disco is functional music, and "Function" has always been a sore word in the realm of art, just as "disco" is a sore word in the realm of music.

Spandau Ballet; Telex

Art (in the traditional sense) is not the only thing that uses seduction and mystification as prime weapons for defining its context. Entertainment, in dealing with audience communication and critical value systems, qualifies itself as art when we discuss its mythology, because the mythology of Art and Entertainment (and all the space in between) is a history of meaning that disguises its own production. The only difference is whereas the meaning of Art is generally aligned with philosophical notions of truth and life, the meaning of Entertainment is generally aligned with realistic modes of theatricality. The artist states; the entertainer performs. The artist performs; the entertainer states. Message and performance are both disguised in their very production. We perceive and receive the meaning in the finished product not the production of that meaning. In this sense, disco music is demystified art, mainly because of its primacy of function, as it does not display meaning it performs a function. There is no great mystery or wonder in the construction of disco music; it is not shrouded by myths of technical expertise and laborious professionalism; its lyrical content is not a conventional breeding ground for profound observations on life and truth; it lacks the strength to carry intellectual and philosophical backgrounds on its shoulders; and it is devoid of the energy that happens in the traditional (i.e. "rock") audience/performer feedback situation. The disco form en masse does not thrive on the recognition of these types of conventional meanings that occupy that transparent space in between Art and Entertainment. This accounts both for the dispensability of disco music, leaving it open for non specific application and utilisation by anyone, as well as the absence of a recognition and general acceptance of a mystic norm of purity in disco music. Summing up, this means using three words: 'shallow', 'cheap' and 'crass'.

It would follow that notions of music being "deep, subtle, and of high-quality" are the result of the luxury of a history of meaning. The question that must be posed now is the very one we started out with "What is the difference between disco and music?" But this time around we place the burden of justification on "music", i.e. music styles that do have a history of meaning, and ask what is the difference between meaning and a history of meaning. It is very possible that "music" is meaningless, in a purist sense, whilst retaining a history of meaning in the form of conventional acceptances, widely held beliefs, general assumptions, and specious, dogmatic concepts that have accumulated historically into a thick wall of imposing validity.

Finally, we have to look at the ways in which disco music is employed in varying social, political and economic contexts. Disco as a functional form is and is able to be applied to these contexts with frightening implications, overtones and results.

At the beginning of this article it was stated that disco is everywhere and also in many areas "outside of itself". What this means is that disco has taken on a variety of types of meaning symbolic, representational, and mythological through being used as a means to an end for implementing peculiar and specific ideologies. All these types of meanings, too, are totally divorced from the realm of intentional, artistic meaning of disco as a musical style. In any form of mass communication and media advertising, disco music, disco dancing, disco fashion, and discotheques are ideal (immediate and direct) signifiers of a whole series of concepts based upon what is "current/fashionable/active/fresh/modern/stylish/classy/etc." Place any advertised product (toothpaste, shoes, make up, bank accounts, cars, alcohol, holiday resorts, etc.) or recorded component (Ethel Merman, Franki Valli, Johnny Mathis, Glen Miller, Pink Floyd, Movie Themes, M.O.R. standards, Classics, nostalgic music styles or songs, etc.) in the context of disco and a very definite set of ideas and images concerning the product is born. In fact we can reintroduce our mathematical equation as "Product + Disco = X". Both commercial/domestic advertising agencies and record companies and managements are free to use disco as a prime element in their profit strategy, because in as much as disco has proved itself to be primarily concerned with functions, it is the saleability and marketability of function that such capitalist institutions thrive on. Disco is found so often "outside of itself" (outside of the immediate realm of its music) because of the incessant usage of its image in all forms of media, which is furthermore because of the ease and simplicity in which disco can be used and then dispensed with. Thus, the world of advertising has imbedded disco music with an overall image of modernism, derived from a vast range of consumer products.

Issac Hayes; Chic

Outside of advertising, the image of modernism becomes one of normality especially when a fictional scenario of any art or medium calls for a picture of social conventionality. Usage here portrays disco music as being part of the most unquestionable form of social recreation and escapist entertainment. It is here, also that one can easily (or perhaps not so easily) see political diversion tactics at work.

There are a number of ideologies hiding behind the lyrical/sexual content of the music, and the basic nature of the style of the music. For example, what at first appears to be cultural barbarism verging on the destruction of socialized sexual taboos in fact works more realistically as a promotion of conventional heterosexuality. Safe formulas easily hold as truthful validity, like "love = Man + Woman " etc. Of course, we're all cool and hip to know about gay discos, but their existence or their proliferation does not alter the basic image of disco music being available to heterosexuals. After all, what are the Village People but "heterosexual fags?" Times aren't yet that hip as to be able to mass market homosexuality under its own terms.

In conclusion it is worth asking why this analysis of Disco was taken up at all. Its proliferation in our culture is doubly enigmatic: what constitutes disco as such a widespread phenomenon and why has it been appropriated by avant gardism while being condemned by the commonsensicality? To confront this enigma one has to look further than the actual music. One must start to distinguish between disco and the name of 'disco', and view popular music in terms of difference between meaning and history of meaning. No matter which way you look at it, "you can't stop the music".

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.