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Case study: The Joy of Disco rewrite March 7, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Uncategorized.

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. For analysts of popular music culture a documentary like The Joy of Disco raises a series of questions about the position taken by the documentary, the degree to which it documents the historical events, and the way the narrative is constructed. For a documentary broadcast on a public service channel there is a further question about the degree to which pop history documentaries match the cultural and intellectual ambitions set out by the BBC.

This is certainly a programme which seeks to take a much maligned musical genre seriously and to set it in its cultural context. However, analysis reveals that from this alternative position it produces a totalising story, conforms to standardised tropes of pop history, and anchors potentially ambiguous or paradoxical meanings using standardised television rhetoric.

The documentary is far more than a string of pop videos of well-known disco numbers and it has been made with skill and at some expense. 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 features a considerable amount of archive footage, much of it capturing moments in the disco culture of the time, or revealing important insights into the politics which contextualises these moments.

The programme title suggests that disco is about pleasure, and many viewers 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. The politics of pleasure, even if not a fully thought through idea, is used as the totalising narrative through which the story of disco is told. In a succinct summary of the programmes narrative 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.” These ideas are established firmly at the outset. In the swift segue of ideas that open the programme the cultural derision that is often applied to disco as a music is countered with personal testament to its joys, before establishing the standard tropes in the hyperbolic claim that disco in the 1970s “changed the world”. The narration, and selected interviewees, explicitly assert that disco was revolutionary music, located outside mainstream radio and the music industry, developed in oppressed gay, black and Porto Rican minority culture, soundtracked by “a never-ending orgasmic music” rooted in black R&B, but moving effectively into the pop mainstream. A further ten-minute assemblage of archive news footage and personal testimony evidences the veracity of the claim, offering a very different story to the oft held view that disco is simply a highly commercialised unsophisticated pop music.

Once the totalising narrative is established the programme abruptly switches to the roles of individual New York-based party hosts, venues and DJs who are presented at the originators of disco as a culture. The evidence and testimony presented clearly points to the importance of these people and places, but the narrative reduces their activities to the singular origin of disco. Key studies of the development of post-1970s US dance music culture (for instance Brewster & Broughton, 1999; Lawrence, 2003) cover the same ground, but as single incidents in a longer, geographically divergent, and more complex history of cultural activity across North America and Europe.

The programme certainly tries to locate a British origin for disco in the Northern Soul subculture, but the logical connections between these cultural activities is unclear and the logic of the story starts to spiral out of control. The British events predate those highlighted in New York, and did not involve any explicit connection to gay black or women’s liberation. Northern Soul was a predominantly white, male working class culture (Wall, 2006), and the sub-story arc is built around the embrace of disco by one DJ. At this point the programme is not characterised by a thoughtful engagement with the complexity of the emergence of a record-based dance cultures, but the use of standardised documentary rhetorical devices to anchor the programme materials to the totalising narrative. It is only voice-over narration and editing that bring a spurious sense of coherence.
Music is more often used as cliché than for insight. A Brass Band rendition of Dvorak’s Largo signals the North of England, and jazz establishes ‘70s down-at-heel New York, but the few attempts to explain disco as music are left stranded within the narrative. For instance, the demonstration of 1970s dance beats by 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 tantalises but offers no sustained explanation.

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 that it such music was misogynistic porn chic is ignored even though it could be supported by the examples of record cover art we are later shown. The feminist empowerment reading is emphasised through a montage of interviews and performances from Labelle. The nuanced reading of former porn star Andrea True from one interviewee, and the engineer’s claim that he would not have remixed the record if he had known it had sexual meaning, just hang there until anchored by an incomprehensible voiceover about women’s sexuality, male dominance and 12-inch singles. These are complex issues about sexual politics, but the programme closes down debate about them, rather than using these events to ask some fundamental cultural questions.

Overall, the music we hear here, the things we see, and the points the interviewees make in the documentary actually all point to the fact that there was no coherent thing called disco music. At the simplest level disco 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 discos were a new promotional opportunity and dancers were a new market for record sales. The economics of disco is as important as its culture.

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. As both have important and comprehensible stories of their own, and offer a partial explanation of the why and how of disco, their abrupt introduction requires analysis. Of course, neither fit within the totalising story of disco as primarily a New York-based African American music through which gay men and feminist women change the world. 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 used by dance music’s detractors. It is easy to argue, though, that in seeking a simple and accessible story such documentaries 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 simply replaces 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.
Wall, T. (2006). Out on the floor: the politics of dancing on the Northern Soul scene. Popular Music, 25(3), 431-445.



1. Bob L. Sturm - August 10, 2012

I like you synopsis of the programme, but want to comment on what you say here:
“Overall, the music we here hear, the things we see, and the points the interviewees make in the documentary actually all point to the fact that there was no coherent thing called disco music. … Record companies learnt that discos were a new promotional opportunity and dancers were a new market for record sales. The economics of disco is as important as its culture.”

First, I think it a bit disingenuous to lump together all record companies. Should we treat Salsoul Records as one and the same as Warner Brothers?

Second, how can something lack coherence yet be so identifiable at the same time? I can play you some music created in Bulgaria in 1979, something you would never have heard before, and yet you would immediately recognize it as Disco. Also, many movies, TV programs and commercials in the US began featuring music that was nothing more than formulaic Disco.

2. wallofsound - August 25, 2012

Thanks for your comments, Bob. You are, of course, right that record companies responded to the success of records for dancing in different ways. Some, like Salsoul, focused on adapting previous genres (salsa and soul) into a fully rounded musical form which responded to the African American and Latin roots of much of the music played on late 70s dancefloors, while majors, like Warners, played catch-up by setting up boutique labels and developing dance divisions.

However, I meant my statement in a factual, rather than evaluative way, and I was talking about the formation, rather than the existence of the genre. Disco as a genre is the product of record company imperatives (“here’s a new market. let’s sell records to dancers through club DJs”) rather than in any simple way a product of dance culture or musical developments. People danced to soul or salsa before it was called disco. I think there’s a direct analogy here with rock and roll (a term and an idea developed within radio to re-order the meanings of black Rhythm and Blues for white audiences). Disco has coherence as a recognisable ‘sound’ now, but it didn’t when it started. It is not that the sound has changed, but our cultural ability to recognise it.

3. bigpoppa206 - May 6, 2014

My problem with the documentary as well as most of the ones about disco is they all say that The Loft and the Gallery started it all. Not to take anything away from those great institutions, but what about the clubs like Sanctuary and DJs like Francis Grasso who were the true originators? Read Last Night A DJ Saved My Life.

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