Contrary to the accepted historical narrative, “Disco Demolition Night” did not bring about the end of the Glitterball Dynasty.
It’s easy to see how that notion would weave itself into the cultural tapestry, especially among folks inclined to interpret the 1970 disco scene as inclusive and diverse socio-musical utopia — a grand and glittering era done in by a Hesher Hitler and a a jean-jacketed legion of rockist Brownshirts. Yet while reactionary shifts in the social landscape did play significant role in disco’s demise, their exaggeration provided a handy scapegoat upon which to pin the effects of other, more important trends.
Read enough post-mortems of the scene and you’ll soon pick up the standard mantra. “We were going to be superstars before the conservative rockist backlash stalled our careers.” It’s comforting. It’s mythic. It ignores a host of other unpleasant truths.
If one were to credit the death of disco to a single cause, the success of Saturday Night Fever is a more convincing culprit.
During the infancy of the scene, “disco” was simply a synonym for “dance music,” the type of tracks spun in discothèques. The music was a mix of European freakbeat, Latin jams, funk, and late-period Northern soul which would eventually cross-pollinate and coalesce into a an amorphously recognizable sound. “Rock the Boat,” “The Hustle,” and “Love’s Theme” are individually identifiable as disco tracks, though the stylistic threads which unite them — apart from dancebility — were tenuous as best.
The disco scene was a product of The City, bubbling up from the underground club cultures (most prominently gay, black, and Latino) of various urban hubs. It was diverse and cosmopolitan, and dressed in an exotic exclusivity which dovetailed nicely with the wider cultural-generational shift from introspection to full-on narcissism. Between the elaborate light shows, velvet ropes, starfucking, and copious drug consumption, disco was tailor-made for hedonistic souls seeking escape from the cultural malaise of diminished expectations.
As the disco grew and began encroaching upon the mainstream cultural consciousness, record labels and venue owners latched onto the phenomenon, seeing a potential for profit in a time of economic uncertainty. Radio, undergoing its own sea change of consolidation and standardized programming, was a tougher nut to crack. Though a number of stations experimented with “all disco” format changes, the results were mixed and tied to local market conditions. (New York? Easy sell. Tulsa? Not so much.) Even in markets where the disco format proved viable, programmers struggled to reconcile “what folks will dance to” with “what folks will listen to.”
By the time 1977 rolled around, disco had managed to carve out a respectable slice of market share for itself while sustaining a surprisingly robust assortment of support industries pitching everything from DJ training to fog machines. Growth was steady, profits were anticipated to rise, and the scene was expected to make further inroads into the mainstream.
And then the film/soundtrack double whammy that was Saturday Night Fever dropped. Its runaway success kicked disco mania into overdrive. Disco was no longer a “big thing.” It became THE thing.
Disco ceased being a scene and transformed into a full blown fad. The image of John Travolta as polyester-clad king of the electronic dance floor became as associated with the visuals of disco as the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” became inexorably bound to the musical aspect. Both soon became utterly inescapable.
Having stuck platinum, the various beneficiaries of the disco scene attempted double down on the winning streak with all the semi-imaginative fervor consumer capitalism could muster — franchises, crossover recordings, novelty acts, and other expansion efforts as wide as they were unsustainable over the long term. The problematic “facelessness” of disco acts was only made worse by a flood of producer-driven cuts competing for limited spin-time.
As disco’s sound had been pinned to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in the collective subconscious, so did the music begin to devolve into a rote formula which discouraged innovation and pushed its advocates back into the underground of the dance music scene. While John Saxon may have radiated sexiness in a leisure suit, the same did not apply to one’s potbellied alcoholic uncle. Similarly, as disco took hold in suburban hotel lounges and Middle American wedding receptions, its aura of exoticism passed into the realm of tawdry sleaze.
Post-Fever disco was a fad, and fads are born to dissolve into the stuff of punchlines even as their die hard champions press further into the realm of self-parody. Disco was rooted in a sense of effervescent frivolity (i.e. “dance music”) driven to ludicrous excess. An ugly surge of reactionary populism may have spurred disco’s demise, but the scene was already in a state of terminal decay and drastically diminishing returns which would not have been reversed by Jimmy Carter’s re-election.