Here’s another example of how viewing historical events through a contemporary lens can lead to distortions about how things actually happened.
Steve Dahl, a DJ at WLUP, a local rock station, was sick of the disco wave sweeping North America. The ubiquity of the Bee Gees, Saturday Night Fever, and all the related dance music had become too much. He and the station struck a deal with the Chicago White Sox to stage a “disco demolition” event between games of a doubleheader.
The Sox were suffering that year and were only too happy to sign on to something that might increase game attendance from 20,000 to maybe 25,000.
Instead, more than 50,000 showed up to Comiskey Park. Many heeded the call to bring disco records, which were then stacked in the outfield after the first game was over. That’s when Dahl road onto the field and blew up the pile.
People went nuts, storming the field. Riot police were called in. The second half of the doubleheader was canceled. Rock fans claimed victory over the scourge of disco.
In the forty years since Disco Demolition Night has undergone an interesting reevaluation. Instead of being a riot by drunken rock fans, it’s now viewed by many through the lens of race and LGBTQ discrimination.
Over the last few years, July 12, 1979, has been portrayed as the act of racist homophobes who were out to suppress (if not completely destroy) the music of people of colour and non-heterosexual persuasions.
But back then, it seemed to be something much, much more innocuous.
Trust me, kids, when I tell you that disco was everywhere in the late 70s and we were just sick of it. Our complaints were that it was vacuous, repetitive, boring, superficial, and far too ubiquitous. We were annoyed that live music venues were we went to see bands were being converted to dance clubs. We were tired of the constant thump-thump-thump coming from the radio. And, if I’m honest, we were jealous of the guys who could fit in with the disco crowd–which, of course, was a great place to meet girls.
And that was it. Speaking for me and my friends, a bunch of dumb teenagers, we just hated the music. Nothing more, nothing less.
We weren’t alone, either. Brother Jake Edwards, the morning man for local rock station 92 CITI-FM, released a single. It summed up exactly how a lot of us felt.
Believe me when I say that it never even occurred to us that there might be something racist and homophobic about our attitude towards disco. Never.
Now, though, a certain type of revisionist history has taken hold, painting us dumb kids with much more sinister intentions. In America, Disco Demolition is now portrayed as an assault by straight white males on the music of oppressed minorities.
This is from a recent article in The Guardian.
“Dahl remains defiant. He didn’t respond to a request for an interview for this feature but made his position clear in the 2016 book Disco Demolition: The Night Disco Died. ‘I’m worn out from defending myself as a racist homophobe,’ he wrote. ‘The event was not anti-racist, not anti-gay … we were just kids pissing on a musical genre.”
“Moreover, he was defending ‘the Chicago rock’n’roll lifestyle’ from an unwanted musical invasion. The rise of disco to mainstream success on the back of Saturday Night Fever’s unexpected success was ‘a repudiation of all things rough – like rock’n’roll and bar nights’ and ‘demean[ed] the ordinary life that kids inhabited.”
But if we’re going to be honest, of course there was a racist or homophobic aspect to the fight against disco. Those people certainly existed. And we’ve heard from the people who were targets of actual racist and homophobic actions and attitudes that were somehow related to this music. Were people hurt by some of these idiots? Absolutely.
But don’t believe for a second that all disco haters were racist and homophobic. We. Just. Were. Not.
Disco eventually burned out as the 80s began. People tired of the sound and moved on to other scenes. Part of the death of disco was due to a terrible recession from 1980-82. Dancing the night away when the economy was in tatters seemed like the wrong thing to do. Then in 1981, MTV came along, completely changing the musical landscape. In other words, disco died over over exposure, over saturation, and overkill.
Since then, we’ve evolved in our attitude towards music. Rap and hip-hop are the genres of the American zeitgeist, pushing culture forward. Latino music has exploded. The LGBTQ community is (finally!) thriving in ways never seen before in human history. EDM, the spiritual descendant of disco, is a global phenomenon. Disco also influenced the rise of other forms of beat-heavy music, including post-New Wave technopop and industrial.
And disco itself has undergone its own reevaluation and is now appreciated in an entirely different and even nostalgic light.
Heck, I’ll even admit this: I turn up some disco songs when they come on the radio.
In other words, the original forces and groups behind disco have won.
Would something like Disco Demolition happen today? Not a chance. Our attitudes towards music are far more ecumenical that in 1979. We’re more respectful of the music of other cultures and communities. We’re more sensitive to the plights of others. An event like this staged today would be roundly and rightly condemned.
But for many of us back in 1979, it was just a musical goof not any different from the tribal relationship between Mods and Rockers, punks and prog-rockers, and rock and country. This was just rock vs. disco in a battle for which music would dominate the world.
On behalf of my friends and fellow rock fans from the late 70s, we were not racist or homophobic. To use today’s standards to judge our attitude towards disco back then is not only highly inaccurate but also just plain wrong.
This has turned into another case change and update the rules. When you do that, you end up stigmatizing/penalizing/hurting people who followed the old rules that were in place back in the day. When you start pulling on that thread, you end up in some weird places.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m in the mood for some Chic records.