‘I Feel Love: Disco and its Discontents’, Tavia Nyong'o

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Listen to 1525 Collective member Madison Fiorenza read an excerpt from performance studies scholar, Tavia Nyong'o's 'I Feel Love: Disco and its Discontents'. In this text, Nyong'o considers the anti-black and anti-gay backlash that forced the disco genre underground.

In the series Grace Jones: Musings, we listen out for contemporary literary and academic voices that rehearse, record, and resound Jones’ contributions to black and queer imaginaries, looking at the role of music and performance in creating communities of affect and resilience.


I Feel Love: Disco and Its Discontents

Tavia Nyong'o

‘But I shall avoid the temptation of entering upon a critique of American civilization; I do not wish to give an impression of wanting myself to employ American methods.’ — Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

Is there an intellectual history of disco? If there is or will one day be, such a history will surely not neglect Tim Lawrence's 2003 study, Loves Saves the Day. Nestled within what is broadly billed as "a history of American dance music culture" in the 1970s—a phrasing that cannily duplicates the music industry's own code-switching from "disco" to "dance music" at the end of the decade whose history Lawrence charts—is a story at once more generically precise and geographically diffuse. It is the story of a scene, style, and mode of self-fashioning whose suddenness of apogee and rapidity of fall has not been since repeated except, perhaps on a smaller scale, by the premillennial advent of "rave" culture. As with that latter nightlife movement (or was it a moment?), the backlash against disco was so immediate it felt premeditated. The fear and loathing of disco seemed to result from the music industry's determination to force an unwilling contact between the underground and mainstream in the name of a "crossover" that, it turned out, only succeeded in crossing out the flavors most valued by those in the know, while failing to rid itself entirely of that odor most noxious to outsiders: the pungency of gender, racial, and sexual difference. The unhappy hybridity of disco is still evinced in the uneasy status of its foremost cultural avatars—the Bee Gees and John Travolta, playing Tony Manero— white men occupying vocal registers and striking choreographic poses that usurp the disco diva and the gay man while at the same time infringing upon, even denaturing, the very white masculinity that such a colonizing move is supposed to secure.

Lawrence's contribution to the historiography of disco pays attention to both sides of this unease, revealing it to be in both cases less a straightforward rejection of disco than a queasy and partial recognition. Consider the icon to which disco is so often reduced: Tony Manero striking a pose in a white suit amid the glittering colors cascading off the mirror ball. Based on a magazine story about working-class discos in Brooklyn (one later revealed to be mostly invented), Saturday Night Fever encapsulated for many the drawbacks of crossover, granting as it did center stage to a racist, misogynist, and homophobic antihero, and passing the musical torch to the Bee Gees, admittedly great songwriters who nonetheless accented pop accessibility over faithfulness to the underground sound. But as Lawrence shows, skeptical reactions also surfaced among the ostensibly catered-to masses. While one insider told Lawrence flatly, "The dancing was ridiculous . . . nobody danced like Travolta," the film proved equally threatening to the uncoordinated multitude. Travolta's moves augured the potential capture of working-class white masculinity by its singing, dancing doppelganger. The stylized and preening white male subject—who needed to know, as Rod Stewart put it in a hit song, da' ya' think I'm sexy? —led to much acting out. On this score, at least, one is inclined to partly credit the denials of Steve Dahl—the Chicago radio DJ and instigator of the infamous 1979 "Disco Demolition Night"—that his motivations in that action were straight forwardly "antigay". The parody Dahl recorded—"Do You Think I'm Disco? (Am I Superficial)"—seemed primarily to target other straight male bodies who might be inviting a desirous gaze through their style, movement, and "superficiality." More than antigay, it evinced unease with the ritualized pursuits of heterosexual display, which were somehow being perverted from within. Such a prospect is of course enmeshed with the loathing of gay men and women. But it is also mobilized by the panicky fear that such gender and sexual distinctions might dissolve or prove porous in the ecstatic, amorphous ambience of the disco round.

So, it was the sex that straight white men wanted, and not merely that which they did not, that made disco and nightlife threatening.

Tavia Nyong’o is Chair and Professor of Theater & Performance Studies at Yale University. He is the author of The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (2009) and Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (2018), and of numerous articles in black and queer art, music, literature and performance. A long serving member of the Social Text collective, he co-edits the Sexual Cultures book series from NYU Press.

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