Credit: GG Illustrator AJ Duncan (@ajc.illustrates)

Movements That Shaped Us: Disco

By Olivia Marrins

In this disco instalment we admire the fleeting (drug-fuelled) fun had under the disco-ball of venues like Loft and Studio 54 and ask: is there any place for the genre today?

The origins of the disco scene remain somewhat uncertain; was it the discotheques of New York City in the 1960s (Le club, Regine’s and Arthur) or the Parisian club scene at the time? It wasn’t until the 1970s when disco began to be truly heard, when the subterranean gay clubs of New York created a culture of psychedelic strobes and sex which shaped the genre. When David Mancuso opened the doors one of New York City’s biggest gay clubs, the Loft, disco all of a sudden shaped the club scene of the late 1970s, inspiring social liberation in the New York City nightlife. With roots in R&B and Funk, this sub-genre of dance music grew from the sounds of Motown in the 1960s, the hippie and psychedelic aesthetic of the early 1970s and the 1969 Stonewall riots to create a cultural movement for the marginalised communities of America. 

Whilst there are sub-genres of disco, from Euro-disco to nu-disco, each fall into the same regimented framework: four-on-the-floor beats, repetitive bassline, and synthetisers. The sound of disco gained popularity through Philadelphia International label releases such as The Hustle by Van McCoy and Thelma Houston’s cover of Don’t Leave Me This Way – but it was the 1977 collaboration of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder which changed the dance music scene. I Feel Love played into the psychedelic feel of the movement, with an entirely synthesised sound; it shaped the production of disco music entirely but more importantly established Moroder’s place in disco production. 

So, what came first – disco or Studio 54? The uprising of New York’s most renowned club to date marked the birth of disco’s popularity in American culture and across the world. On 26 April 1977, 24 West 54th Street opened its doors to a hotspot within the disco scene. A cultural vision brought to life by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager turned into New York City’s beating socialite heart, teeming with actors, musicians’ models, and even prolific political figures. However, Studio 54 didn’t invent a new style of music; instead, it provided a stage for the artists leading the movement – Donna Summer, Grace Jones and Gloria Gaynor – amongst the upcoming DJ styles of Studio 54. Not only did Studio 54 hold the exclusive floor for disco and dance but it implemented its own aesthetic of fashion, glitz, and sex; even disco music pioneer Nile Rodgers was denied entry from this legendary 33-month long party.

From everyday streets to nights at Studio 54, fashion paved the disco culture. Fashion was arguably as important as the music that was danced to. The disco era was not only a time of experimental sounds and strobe lighting but for formidable fashion. Models dressed in Halton, silver cosmic, and flares; these staples to the disco-culture and the revealing and seductive nature of each outfit embodied the music which followed. For many, disco is Saturday Night Fever. The image of Tony Manero (John Travolta) in a wacky shirt and flamboyant flares introduced a whole new wardrobe for men at this time. Conversely, women saw this 1970s fashion as a collaboration of dancing and bodywear to express sexuality. Lycra accentuated the female figure and bold makeup enhanced femininity. Designers and party guests saw a new exposure of feminism; alluring outfits redefined the modern-day woman and provided a method for women to express sexuality without the social pressures. As disco and its fashion was seen as an expression of sexuality, the opposition to gender structures and androgyny, saw men embracing femininity; consequently, turning disco into an entity of creativity and self-expression. 

Studio 54, a fleeting disco hallucination, was only open for 33 months altogether. The club was a mirage of cultural figures, cocaine, and alcohol, exceeding funky music and fashion. Indeed, the Club’s basement was more exclusive than the guestlist at the velvet-rope entry, under the disco ball stood celebrity royalty in a drug subculture.

So, does the cultural movement belong to the clubs of the 1970s, or can we have one Last Dance to Donna Summer? The invention of disco was experimental and culturally futuristic, however, we are left with the bitter taste of mainstream adaptation of disco. The popularity of Saturday Night Fever turned disco from a trendy, urban, dance culture to a version of disco which is just over-commercialised, electronic music. After the uproar of disco culture in the 1970s, various suburban discotheques were established but after the backlash of Studio 54’s behaviour – disco will never have the same effect as it did on those who partied in the 70s heyday. 

Can we really have a modern reincarnation of disco, or are destined to swoon over the lifestyle of those who frequented Studio 54?


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