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The Joy of Disco March 6, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Northern Soul, Popular Dance, Soul.
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This documentary history of the music genre of disco was broadcast in 2012 on the UK digital terrestrial channel BBC4 as part of a themed night of programmes featuring disco artists and music from the late 1970s. The corporation policy documents set the station the aspiration to “be the most culturally enriching channel in UK broadcasting” and “the channel of distinction for people who love to think” (BBC, 2011: 29). Such lofty ambitions are strongly within the BBC’s tradition as a public service broadcaster. There is an interesting question to be answered about the degree to which pop history documentaries like The Joy of Disco match the ambition.
In this context, this is a programme which seeks to take a much maligned musical genre seriously. The documentary is certainly far more than a string of pop videos of well-known disco numbers. There are interviews with key musicians, singers, producers, DJs and remixers from disco’s heyday, with music journalists, black cultural commentators, and gay and feminist analysts, and with participants who give personal testimony. The programme ranges over the role of gay liberation, feminism and race identity and the shifts in urban politics, and links them strongly to what the programme presents as a hedonistic, sex-driven, drug-influenced music culture. The programme also uses a considerable amount of archive footage, much of it capturing moments in the disco culture of the time, or revealing important insights into contemporaneous politics.
Many of the older viewers, especially those who were young in the days of disco will read the programme name as a pun on a 1970s best-selling book, the Joy of Sex. Even without that direct signification, the programme title suggests that disco is about pleasure, and the politics of pleasure becomes the totalising narrative through which the story of disco is told. The narrative also conforms to the three common tropes inviting the viewer to see the musical form as an under-regarded disruption, a truly revolutionary music, developed in the gay margins of American society, with its roots in black R&B, but moving effectively into the pop mainstream. Summing the programme up the BBC publicity called it a “documentary about how disco music soundtracked gay liberation, foregrounded female desire in the age of feminism and led to the birth of modern club culture as we know it today, before taking the world by storm.” In a swift segue of ideas the programme opens by countering the derision usually applied to disco as a music with personal testament to its joys, before asserting the hyperbolic claim that in the 1970s “it changed the world”, was revolutionary music, located outside mainstream radio and the music industry, based in oppressed gay, black and Porto Rican minority culture, soundtracked by “a never-ending orgasmic music”. A further ten-minute assemblage of archive news footage and personal testimony evidences the veracity of the claim. This is certainly a very different story to the oft held view that disco is a highly commercialised unsophisticated pop music.

In order to flesh this out the programme abruptly switches to the roles of individual party hosts, venues and DJs who are presented at the originators of disco as a culture. It is at this point that the logic of the story starts to spiral out of control, and so the rhetorical devices of the filmmaker are required to anchor the programme materials to the totalising narrative. Although the documentary’s emphasis on a few New York loft party characters is reflected in some of the key studies of the development of post-1970s US dance music culture (for instance Brewster & Broughton, 1999; Lawrence, 2003), these latter studies cover a vast range of examples of DJ-based entertainment. In fact, the Joy of Disco itself later spends nearly five minutes looking at the British Northern Soul subculture, which predates the New York events and did not involve gay or black liberation, but the fact that the section makes no sense within the totalising story is simply ignored. Instead the programmes use documentary clichés – a Brass Band version of Dvorak’s Largo to signal the North of England and jazz to introduce ‘70s down-at-heel New York – to engage us in the narrative, even though the story it tells makes little sense. Much of the material is fascinating. For instance the insight into the technique of one of the key soul drummers, Earl Young, is really informative, but as none of the music that is played from that point onwards uses Young’s approach, it does not really explain anything.

At about half way, The Joy of Disco introduces its second theme. By juxtaposing Donna Summer with a feminist culture critic, the programme proposes that disco was also about female sexual desire. The alternative reading, supported by a later flick through record cover art, that it such music was misogynistic porn chic is ignored. It is the first reading which is emphasised through a montage of interviews and performances from Labelle. When we are offered a nuanced reading of former porn star Andrea True, and the engineer’s unlikely claim that he would not have remixed the record if he knew it had sexual meaning, these points just hang there until anchored by an incomprehensible voiceover about womens’ sexuality, male dominance and 12 inch singles. These are complex political issues, but the programme closes them down, rather than opens them up.

Overall, the music we here hear, the things we see, and the points the interviewees make in the documentary all show that there is actually no coherent thing called disco music. At the simplest level it is just music that is played in a disco, and the issue that really needs answering is about why and how this assortment of dance music, dancers and musical artists was organised into a coherent whole. The answer is there in the sidelines of the documentary, of course. Record companies learnt that records played in discos led to sales, and that music could be effectively targeted at dancers. The last third of the documentary does deal with celebrity disco glamour and the chart success of records now marketed as disco. However, European dance music and Saturday Night Fever appear from nowhere in The Joy of Disco story, even though both have important and comprehensible stories of their own and the power to offer at least a partial explanation to the central question of disco. Instead the programme presents disco as simply the introduction of out gay culture into mainstream culture, even though all their examples were of disco joining other instances of out gay culture in mainstream culture.
If it is true that disco has not been taken seriously for 35 years, there is an interesting bigger question to be asked about the degree to which The Joy of Disco actually takes it seriously. The programme impressively connects the rise of the disco and DJ-based dance music to important liberation struggles, and in doing so challenges the clichés. It is easy to argue, though, that in seeking a simple and accessible story such documentaries about the history of popular music close down thinking about the importance of popular music in our culture and in doing so make culture less rich and less nuanced. Particularly in a programme on a public service station, we could expect a documentary which explores long-held assumptions about disco, rather than replacing them with another set of assumptions.

BBC. (2011). BBC Statements of Programme Policy. London: BBC.
Brewster, B., & Broughton, F. (1999). Last night a DJ saved my life : the history of a Disc Jockey. London: Headline.
Lawrence, T. (2003). Love saves the day : a history of American dance music culture, 1970-1979. Durham, N.C. ; London: Duke University Press.

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