Disco Paradiso

Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture BY Alice Echols. New York: Norton. 338 pages. $26.

The cover of Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture

ORGASMIC MOANS, cowbells, silky strings, four-on-the-floor beats: Disco is the soundtrack of the 1970s, that paradisiacal, prelapsarian, and loosely defined decade bookended by Stonewall and AIDS. The music has produced a small but vital corpus of writing. Among disco’s first responders, Andrew Holleran, with Dancer from the Dance (1978), gave us the great disco novel, immortalizing Patti Jo’s “Make Me Believe in You.” Vince Aletti—whose weekly dispatches for Record World “on the state of the dance floor” and other funky miscellany were collected in The Disco Files 1973–78 (reissued in 2018)—ranks as the music’s premier contemporaneous chronicler. Of the nonfiction that looks back on the scene, whether in first or third person, Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–1979 (2003) provides a macroscopic, deeply researched overview. More laser-focused, Douglas Crimp’s superb memoir Before Pictures (2016) includes a spirited chapter titled “Disss-co (A Fragment),” a detail-rich remembrance of the customs and clientele of the Manhattan boogie emporia (most of them “grungy little gay bars that had dance floors” south of 14th Street) where the art historian and critic was a regular.

The disco dossier I return to the most, though, is Alice Echols’s Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (2010). A history and gender studies professor at USC and the author of earlier books on radical feminism and Janis Joplin, Echols is disco’s formidable democratizer, its most ecstatic ecumenist. She takes to task disco purists and “revisionists,” like Lawrence, who distinguish “‘good’ gay disco versus ‘bad’ mainstream disco,” arguing that the former (played in such legendary NYC dance shrines as the Paradise Garage, the Loft, and the Tenth Floor) has no monopoly on transgressive, erotic anarchy while the latter is more than just cheap, commercial product. (An ineradicable, incongruous memory: As a ten-year-old in 1978, I often laced up my quad skates to Musique’s “In the Bush,” an X-rated track in heavy rotation at my local roller rink.)

Hot Stuff is written with a scholar’s acumen but a fan’s ardor. While a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the late ’70s, Echols was a part-time DJ at a club in Ann Arbor that attracted a wildly heterogeneous crowd of different genders, races, and sexualities, a mix that bears out her belief that disco integrated American nightlife to an unprecedented extent. Echols also makes a solid case for reconsidering Saturday Night Fever, reviled by other disco doctrinaires not only for bringing their beloved music to the masses but also, as Lawrence stated in a 2011 essay, for “enact[ing] the reappropriation of the dance floor by straight male culture inasmuch as it became a space for straight men to display their prowess and hunt for a partner of the opposite sex.” Echols, on the contrary, argues that the film tries “to expand, not constrict, the parameters of masculinity,” and she scrutinizes the homoerotic voltage of the scenes in which John Travolta’s Tony Manero is filmed in nothing but tight black briefs.

While Tony’s solo hustling and grapevining at the 2001 Odyssey contrasts wildly with the enraptured “oneness” promised by disco—as throngs of gay guys move to the rhythm en masse, a scenario unforgettably described by Holleran—the Bay Ridge stud’s gyrating isn’t too far removed from what Crimp recalls: “With disco at its best, dancing is both individual and collective. You might connect with the stranger dancing next to you at a given moment, but it’s not a couples thing; it’s boogie intimacy, which can be very intense and sexy, but it’s usually limited to dancing together for a while before you each dissolve back into the crowd or return to your ‘partner.’” And yet whether you’re alone, with someone, or in a crowd, the music, as Echols notes, delivers a singular, transporting sensation: “the experience of being blasted inside of one’s body.”

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns.