18 June 2007

stay after (donna) summer

from disco to disco

Summer, the sole bartender at the M Room (formerly Manhattan Room) late on this post-concert Wednesday night, saunters over and introduces herself... "Welcome to my bar!" she smiles. She's around my age, probably a few years older (but I tend to think that about everybody), and her bright yellow T-shirt is emblazoned with the words "DISCO STILL SUCKS."

The touch-screen cash register behind her has been running a screensaver consisting of feebly witty faux-aphorisms. Summer's iPod, plugged into her bar's sound system, has been playing an unobtrusive mix of mostly classic rock and soul, pitched at roughly 20% hipster-irony, %80 earnest borrowed-nostalgia goodvibes: "I Put a Spell On You" (Screamin' Jay Hawkins, not CCR - though we'd been hearing them earlier in the evening at Johnny Brenda's) and Al Green, but also here and there the likes of I want to say Journey. Finally I engage her in conversation about the slogan on her shirt: "Do you really think so?" I ask. "I'm pretty sure disco doesn't suck anymore."

She demurs. It turns out she's wearing the shirt not so much to broadcast her opinion as to pay homage to a dude, back when she was growing up in New Jersey, at a gas station, who used to sell them smokes even though they were underage, and wore the same DISCO SUCKS T-shirt every day, so she says. Well okay. Summer does admit that she likes some ABBA songs and occasionally puts them on at the bar when she feels like dancing.

well anyway. this post has been in the works for well over five months now, and it just gets more and more relevant by the day, as i've finally removed the shrinkwrap from the copy of donna summer's bad girls album [deluxe edition] that i'd been sitting on for while... for some reason, this is the continuation of the genrephilia series stemming from my valentine's podcast. it's supposed to be about disco but the song in question is actually
3 i'm gonna stay after summer margaret berger
[and since that link is gonna be annoying, here's an actual mp3 of the song for your delectation]

which isn't exactly a disco song, really, unless you consider all dance-pop to be disco - more on which later. it's not actually a summer love song either - in fact it's the perfect post-summer lovesong ("the winter is cold and cruel/i want to be warm with you") so it really ought to have been on this mix, nevermind that marble is already hogging the most featured track.

marble - which i just figured out is what she's saying her name is on the intro, mostly thanks to these stylish 'spacers (nice subtle "robot song" remix too) - has however been crowned the "new queen of disco" by none other than wm. b. swygart. that's mostly on the basis of
"samantha" and "will you remember me tomorrow", the latter of which is in the running for my favorite track on the album. those are definitely disco - they have not only the four-on-the-floor drum pulse, but also those woozy upbeat swells betwixt - but, especially in the context of the eclectish album, you'd hardly notice, since that's just one of many flavor lectropop flavors these days.

whoa, is this interview for real?

and now i have nearly exhausted all of the margaret berger-related links i can muster, except! that i may have finally found a way to order her album
, which if i can do it will mean finally owning my top whatever favorite records of last year. i'll try to puzzle my way through the japanese later and let you know.

but... i didn't really come here to talk about margaret berger, love her to bits though i do. this is about disco. and whether, or not, it still sucks. still, i say, because i have to admit that it definitely used to pretty much suck. before poptimism and conscientious generalism and political-correctness and the disavowal of guilty pleasures and even before guilty pleasures (and guilty whitestraightmaleness?) themselves, there was "celebration" and "we are family" and especially fricking "Y.M.C.A." - and its fricking idiotic dance - and i heard them all the time (mostly, i want to say, at bar mitzvah parties and summer camp dances) and i really rather despised them. and it wasn't even (consciously) because i'd encountered received wisdom about disco's suckitude; i'd just heard them way too many times and was bored and annoyed.

and i pretty much still feel that way about those songs (kylie's cover of "celebration" has redeemed it to some extent, but jordan pruitt's has not done same for "we are family," and i still have nothing particularly kind to say about the village people. or "i will survive.") which is pretty unusual, because there really aren't that many songs i feel very strongly negative about. i feel like those songs (and a small handful of others) serve almost as shorthand for the whole notion of 'disco' in the minds of many people (americans, anyway) (including mine) - which is also pretty unusual; i'm struggling to think of other entire genres that are so simply and widely represented (albeit imprecisely) by a few standard tracks. now, i don't really remember specifically proclaiming a distaste for disco (as i certainly did for hip-hop and - for a good while longer - country), but i've also had pretty much no interest, until fairly recently, in attempting to actually listen to or learn something about the genre outside of the standard tunes featured on a zillion disco compilation cds - just for instance, i don't think i've ever really heard the saturday night fever soundtrack. i just...never really thought about it as music worth caring about.

which is kind of funny considering my torrid love affair with unabashedly disco-indebted late '90s french house - and, particularly, dimitri from paris' 2000 disco mix album a night at the playboy mansion [which draws equally from '78-'80 and '98-'00, and nobody would never notice the difference.] it has of course become blindingly obvious that disco is and was incredibly important and is in fact well worth checking out for historical reasons of nothing else, but also that it is the genesis of most or maybe all electronica and dance-pop and possibly every other kind of dance music as we know it, including contemporary r&b and hip-hop. disco never really died, though certain people did a very good job of making it seem like it had - and very likely it never really sucked.
Why...did "funkateers and feminists, progressives and puritans, rockers and reactionaries" band together in an "unholy alliance" against disco, destroying "the last remaining musical scene that was in any sense racially mixed" ...a scene that made crossover stars of women, African-Americans and gay men?
that question - which is paraphrased in a publisher's weekly review reprinted on amazon of a book i think i might like to read, and whose author i just might like to study with, as banal as his book titles may be - is essentially another way of asking "why did disco suck," and it contains its own implicit and unappetizing answer, which is a pretty damn pertinent one that i'm kind of amazed i never really thought consciously about before (not that werner is the first person to have suggested it.) but there are several other answers which might be equally or perhaps even more apt - which mostly involve the behavior of money-hungry record companies - on the one hand, capitalizing on a quickly overexposed trend and running it into the ground; on the other, protecting their interests (as purveyors of rock music) by hastening the death of music they saw as "dipping into their pockets" (as gloria gaynor puts it in this awesome video)

none of these answers, i might point out, has very much to do with music.

as i typically understand it, punk was pretty disparaging of most of the music going on around and just before it, in the mid-late 70s - arena rock, prog, california songwritery stuff, most certainly disco - as excessive, bloated, artificial, sentimentalized, inauthentic, etc.; and since punk was effectively the originary moment for the prevailing ethos of self-professed "serious music fans" up into the indieocracy of the almost-present and recent past, those perspectives and prejudices have been passed down and perpetuated - which, as nate patrin discussed in his emp paper from last year - has meant ignoring and dismissing a lot of quite interesting things that were going on at that point. disco in particular feels in a lot of ways like the antithesis of punk, and its status as anathema has taken a long time to wear down. (probably because - as werner points out - disco was hated equally by many different sectors of society.)

it may be having the last laugh though. that disco never really died - something that i already knew on some levels - clicked for me in a new way recently, when i did a dj set stringing together, among other things, songs by justin timberlake, chic, paris hilton (the "grease"-sampling "i want you"), and one of morgan geist's canuck-italo 'unclassics.' [you can hear something like it towards the end of my published-in-progress "love is the dancer" mix.]

in the world as a whole, it might have never even sort of died - it's just in america, the site of the backlash, that "disco" [the name] became a dirty word, and disco [the style] was forced to go (back) underground, or at least in disguise, at least for a little while. (though even in punk circles that didn't last long; consider the recently celebrated forebears of the "disco-punk revival.") just in terminological terms i wonder whether, if not for the backlash, we would now understand the category "disco" to be as broad and stylistically varied as "rock," and accordingly conceive of it as an entire genus in its own right, as opposed to the motley assortment of styles we now call "dance" and scurry to imprecisely classify under the umbrellas of rock, pop, electronica, r&b, and so forth. it seems to me that the dance club music originating in the mid-70s, bred from elements of funk, soul, pop, rock, and early electronic music, but with a new and streamlined attitude and intent, constitutes a substantially new idea, in its own right, much as the birth of rock [and roll] in the late fifties, out of a similar stew of styles, is so readily discussed as a watershed event.

and that idea's still with us, obviously - probably in a more meaningful and evident way than rock itself - but (because of the backlash, i'm proposing) we just call it dance music, or pop/r&b, or we don't really know what to call it; and "disco" mostly means kool & the gang, instead of meaning most of the kinds of music that are most popular all over the world. (except hip-hop, which is certainly its own thing, and a new idea, as well, though probably one with less stylistic breadth.) there's something to be said for limiting the musical concept of disco to stuff with (the genre's most defining feature) a pronounced 4/4 thump - but even allowing for that you've still got an incredible amount of widely varied music.

indeed, i have the sense that there's a whole vast unexplored world of funk and disco music from the '70s and '80s which, in the wake of "disco sucks," were probably ignored by most people (especially, perhaps, white people?), and which i have (therefore) been almost entirely ignorant for my entire voracious-music-devouring life. consider, for instance, these two mp3s, which are songs that were sampled by daft punk. i felt funny about discovering these samples, and more generally the rather heavy dependence of daft punk and fellow french touch folks on samples from this era. (looking through the liners notes of my copy of crydamoure's waves compilation, for instance, almost every cut features a seemingly vintage sample.)

it's not so much that i have a problem with the sampling per se, or that it calls daft punk's musical genius and artistic integrity into question for me, but there's something a little backhanded about sampling these tracks and serving them up to an audience that, by and large, are probably not going to realize they're samples, because they're probably not going to recognize the originals. not that samples should necessarily be self-evident as samples (though it's cool when they are - when, even if you don't know the source, you can recognize some element of a tracks as clearly sampled, but it still works in the context of a track), but if it's being presented sonically as of a piece with the track as a whole, i'd feel better about it if i thought that most listeners wouldn't just assume it was original work. of course that's making an assumption about the audience - i'm sure there are some dedicated and older club music fans who enjoy picking out their favorites as reworked and interpolated by the french house folks. and you could certainly argue that drawing on these older tracks helps to establish and celebrate a lineage of disco/dance music which many listeners (though increasingly fewer, i think) might try to deny or ignore.

well. there are many different directions to go with this, and i've started to outline a couple of them. along the lines of the above, there's the mystery of italo, which like "disco" itself seems to have a range of varyingly specific definitions. i recently picked up two cerrone albums and giorgio's from here to eternity and am enjoying them all a good deal - further comment at some point perhaps.

so there you go: let's talk about disco. i've know for a while now that i would need to investigate disco, if only because it's the obvious connecting middle point between soul and dance-pop, two of my current strongest reference points and the two genres i have often declared it my musicographical goal to situate on a common continuum. that that continuum is disco seems so completely obvious in retrospect that i'm not really sure what i was doing wondering about it for so long. i think i've had enough residual distrust that it took some whittling away at both ends [following the later careers of several soul singers into the disco era, plotting the steps of the slippery slope where soul gave way to something slicker - and occasionally falling over the edge myself, and not entirely minding; on the other end, tracing swedish and teenish synthpop back through the '90s and '80s through a spotty, pointillist tour of eurobosh, pet shop boys, freestyle, synthpop mk. 1, and assorted new wave oddities. meanwhile, the present climate of microhouse, dancepunk, robocrunk, electro-touch, etc. keeps on hammering away and away, in 4/4 time, at the disco foundations of it all, and everything's increasingly harder to ignore, even as i'm for the moment losing some of my grip on the two-way cutting edge.]

basically most of what i've done so far with all this stuff (disco, proto-disco, post-backlash confusion, and the diasporic profusion) is attempt to get myself roughly situated. i have a lot of getting acquainted to do, and it's gonna take a long time to really feel like i have a handle on it - assuming i don't lose interest first. it really does feel like a whole new world to explore. major gaps in my dance-music knowledge between 1969-1996 that i either didn't recognize or didn't care about before. so that's what's up.

p.s.: h/t to my friend david (not that friend david, a different friend david) for pointing out that my other friend david, who did some 'research' into this stuff a couple years ago, expressed a similar sentiment about the underlying reasons for the disco backlash:
"These self-proclaimed music critics often stated that what bothered them was that these songs were made by machines (they often were, and proudly so) and therefore lacked sincerity or realness. I think what they were really afraid of was the fact that many of these songs emanated from a mostly Black and often gay subculture — a combination which was so unimaginably scary that its musical representation simply had to be fought off at all costs.
well said, and i also really like his list of tunes - i should check out most of them; i like the ones that i know (a bunch of them are on the the pure funk compilation, which is interesting.)

No comments: