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Mark Coleman

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Disco 2.0

Posted: 03/02/2011 11:34 am

The Jimmy Carter comparisons began on the campaign trail, before Barack Obama won the election in 2008. As candidates both men were relatively inexperienced. Both offered a fresh alternative to a departing administration that had grown profoundly unpopular. As presidents, Carter and Obama both struggled against a slumping, stubborn economy. We know how things turned out for Jimmy Carter. Just last month, former Vice President Cheney confidently predicted that Barack Obama would also be a one-term president.

Whether or not that holds true in two years, the parallels between the Carter era and the Obama years run deep, extending far beyond politics. Listen to the lyrics of pop songs today and you'll be transported back to the days of Saturday Night Fever -- the Boogie epoch. Every other hit song on the radio over the last year or so cites evenings spent at "the club," ceaselessly regaling us with steamy tales of the dance floor and paeans to the heroic DJ.

What actually survives of disco in today's hip-hop and R&B dominated Top 40 is not so much its actual sounds -- beats, bells, whistles, handclaps, woo-woo chants -- as its audacious hedonism and rhythmic thrust.

Underneath its veneer of elegance and celebrity, before Studio 54 and Saturday Night Fever, disco was a grass-roots phenomenon. On November 8, 1976, Newsweek estimated that "10,000 discos" existed in the United States, "up from 1500 two years ago." Six months later, on June 27 1977, Time reported that "there are some 15,000 discos... up from 3000 only two years ago." (The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack spent the first half of 1978 at the top of Billboard's album chart, selling 30 million copies by year's end -- figures that seem almost surreal by the standards of today's besieged music industry.)

Thanks in part to disco, the Carter era is remembered as libertine. But another hugely significant legacy of the late seventies is the rise of the religious right. The union of conservative politics and religion began as a grass roots movement, just like disco. Before the late Jerry Falwell founded The Moral Majority in 1979, the seeds were sown by well-publicized efforts such as Phyllis Schlafly's organized opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and Anita Bryant's anti-gay "Save Our Children" campaign.

The first time around, disco and the religious right represented a conscious turning-away from the revolutionary sixties. Fueled by the recession and spiraling energy costs, the country's post-Watergate paranoia gave way to apocalyptic anxiety by the seventies' end. Disco bacchanalia and religious conservatism were two ways of confronting, or ignoring, the end of the world.

This paradox survives -- and thrives -- today, in the times of the Tea Party insurrection and nightlife odes like Taio Cruz's "Dynamite." We gon rock this club/we gon go all night/ we gon light it up like it's Dy-no-mite. Lady Gaga's recent "Born This Way" pays open -- some might say brazen -- homage to Madonna and her heritage: the sounds and sexual freedom of disco.

As we stumble forward in 2011, with Lady Gaga seductively cooing in one ear and secular televangelists like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin preaching doom in the other, Americans clearly have not resolved this cultural contradiction. Perhaps it says something fundamental about our national character, that America is not a divided nation but rather Americans are divided people, split between the voice of their inner Puritan and the call of the wild.

Apparently we are a nation comfortable with paradox: our increasingly conservative politics coexist with a popular culture more uninhibited than ever. Or are we? Can the center hold? "[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote those oft-quoted lines, it's worth remembering, in a story called "The Crack-Up."

 
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