The Last Days of Gay Disco

The current disco revival conceals its homo soul

Not only did gay men confer instant cachet on straights, but the very ethos of the disco era--the quest for perpetual pleasure--seemed to have pansexual applications. Albert Goldman, a chronicler of disco during the '70s, observed that "what differentiates discomania from most of its predecessors is its overt tendency to spill over into orgy, as it has done already in the gay world. All disco is implicitly orgy." In the course of this overlap, disco became the vector by which gay liberation's sexual mores penetrated the straight world.

Within a decade of Stonewall, then, straights were compelled to navigate in an inverted cultural order whose terms were set by gays. One writer in a 1977 Harper's piece expressed confusion at the presence of heterosexuals in primarily gay discos: "While they might say theywere there only as watchers, only as voyeurs, they were also becoming participants..., outlaws in what had always been an outlaw world."

The rise of disco had brought with it the mainstreaming of gay, possibly the opening salvo in the queering of America. Yet it wasn't homosexuality per se that disco ushered in but a sustained exploration of the sexual self, including the femme side of the male persona. With its fluid structure of crests and flows, disco music allowed men to imagine the wavelike and recurrent quality of the female orgasm, and to enter a world of psychic plenitude where the spartan injunctions of machismo had been overthrown. Needless to say, this world turned upside down made another, discophobic America very nervous.

A similar experiment had taken place in the mascaraed masculinity of the rock scene known as glam. But by 1975, only David Bowie could get away with rhapsodizing "all the young dudes," and even he would eventually retreat to an approximation of butch in a business suit. The demise of glam made the polarization of rock and disco an inevitability, and for a while it looked as if disco would erode the willingness of young Americans to stand in stationary phalanxes at arena concerts, saluting bloated, burned-out superstars with lit matches. The kinetic ambiguity of disco demolished the boundary between performer and audience, and made the dancers the stars.

But the real animosity between rock and disco lay in the position of the straight white male. In the rock world, he was the undisputed top, while in disco, he was subject to a radical decentering. Disco was an extended conversation between black female divas and gay men.Straight men were welcome to join the party, but only if they learned the lingo. Some did, but for many, this new demand aroused a kind of "castration anxiety," as Alice Echols put it in a 1994 essay. Disco symbolized a world where straight men were not only expected to engender the female orgasm, but to incorporate it.

Only by killing disco could rock affirm its threatened masculinity and restore the holy dyad of cold brew and undemanding sex partners. Disco bashing became a major preoccupation in 1977. At the moment when Saturday Night Fever and Studio 54 achieved zeitgeist status, rock rediscovered a rage it had been lacking since the '60s, but this time the enemy was a culture with "plastic" and "mindless" (read effeminate) musical tastes. Examined in light of the ensuing political backlash, it's clear that the slogan of this movement--"Disco Sucks!"--was the first cry of the angry white male.

The rock/disco wars might seem silly in retrospect if it weren't for the deadly seriousness with which they were waged at the time. In a 1979 end-of-year summation, Rolling Stone,the index of cultural regression, surveyed the field of battle like military strategists: "You can say that the first six months [of 1979] belonged to disco... and that the last six months belonged to the brave young rockers." The turning point was the July "Disco Demolition" rally in Chicago's Comiskey Park. The event's original gimmick involved blowing up disco records between games of a doubleheader, but the charged-up crowd lost control and began tearing up the stadium. Comiskey turned into a giant coded gay bashing, a frightening harbinger of an enraged, homophobic America, given sanction in the mock-patriotic venue of a baseball stadium.

By 1980, disco had become a dirty word. The term was banished from the language as an added security measure, but the music was exported to England, where it was de-gayed and re-exported to the States under a new name: "new wave dance music." The rock majority was satisfied by the replacement of explicitly gay Sylvester with flamboyantly closeted Boy George. As the playlist segued from "I'm Coming Out" into "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me," the pulverization of the liberal imagination became a political fact. Ronald Reagan was elected president, and the following June, a mysterious new "gay cancer" appeared.

The '90s looks back at its alter ego the '70s across the chasm of AIDS, and all it can see is a coked-up Adam, Eve, and Steve having unprotected sex just before their expulsion from Eden. While AIDS phobia in the '80s was certainly more acute, cultural lag delayed until the '90s the sense that our sexual lives are permanently circumscribed. Which explains our currentimpulse to demonize the '70s, and our reflexive use of "excess" to describe that era.

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