Harper Collins, 2001, 195 pages,C$19.95 tp, ISBN 0-380-80907-9
Given that I spent most of the month reading non-fiction about Very Important Subjects such as declassified national secrets, the tension between contemporary science and business, the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the exploitation of third-world workers, it seemed perfectly acceptable to kick back for a while and relax with a book entirely dedicated to a frivolous subject. Something like disco, for instance.
Disco never gets any respect. Rising and crashing over a period of a few short years at the end of the 1970s, disco music is today best remembered as a temporary embarrassment (by those who embraced it at the time) or harmless retro kitsch fit for self-consciously ironic role-playing (by those who didn’t). Disco precisely sets any party back to 1978, seems inherently campy and still (thirty years later) has produced some of the best dance music on planet Earth. If disco doesn’t get any respect, it’s partly because it has never wanted any: It’s out-and-out fun, hedonism, play and release wrapped in one hot package.
John Manuel Andriote’s Hot Stuff: A Brief History of Disco isn’t meant to be a scholarly or encyclopaedic discussion of the subject: Experienced non-fiction readers will recognize the kind of workmanlike craft through which the book was assembled from interviews, personal recollections and a huge number of newspaper clippings. But even if the book sometimes feels like a contractual obligation by a writer looking to pay the bills in-between weightier projects, it reaches its essential objective: Provide a brief, entertaining, cogent and even insightful history of disco through its origins, beginnings, full-blown craze, rapid decline and periodic revivals.
Much of this is due to the book’s breezy and accessible style: Andriote’s no-nonsense approach covers disco’s rise and fall chronologically, broadly dividing the book’s six chapters and illustrating his examples with a variety of historical sources. The frequent mentions of important songs makes the book’s reading experience curiously synesthesiac, as readers won’t help but replay excerpts in their head as they are mentioned in the text. (The more technically adept will know to read the book with their disco-drenched iPod at their fingertips.)
For those of us who were far too young during disco’s original run to remember anything but TV re-runs of Xanadu and a few suspicious vinyl records in our parents’ collection, Hot Stuff does well in telling us about disco-as-a-lifestyle. For many Americans at the tail end of the baby-boom, disco was their coming-of-age ritual: The self-conscious dressing-up, the mindless dancing, the creation of the discotheque concept… disco’s distinct visual aesthetic ensured its abrupt popularity as much as its rapid downfall: it was something new, something unique and something that people wouldn’t fail to remember fondly despite the backlash. It was, after all, a music made to have fun –and people did.
But there’s a bit more to disco than booty-shaking beats, and Andriote (best known for Victory Deferred, a book about AIDS and the gay community) never neglects the link between disco and the gay community: How disco started out marginally and had to be made safe for mainstream consumption, how even clear links between disco and the gay community were denied by many “average fans” (with hilarious anecdotes of denial about the Village People) and how homophobia fed into the disco backlash. The Seventies, we are reminded, were not a good decade in America, and disco happened in part due to a complex interaction between a downbeat decade and people looking for something else. Left unspoken is whether the wild nights of disco eventually led to Reagan’s “morning in America”.
Are there better books out there about Disco? Probably. Even a cursory look at the book’s Amazon reviews brings up Saturday Night Forever as a recommended alternative. But as a book found in the bargain bin, Hot Stuff remains a great stepping-stone introduction to the subject, and a literary break equivalent to a fun disco tune in-between heavier pieces. It’s not as if I can deny my own fascination for the music: Disco all happened during my first half-dozen years, but when I picked up the music bug during the early nineties, Time Magazine assured me that my dance music was “The Revenge of the Disco Babies”. There are only a few more degrees of separation between that, the Big Beat of the late-nineties and the Drum-and-bass of now: Disco’s echo continues even today.