Writing About Dancing: Disco Critics Survey

5. What are the biggest assumptions and misconceptions about dance music that a person writing about it must challenge or at least consider?

That it's not real music. That it takes no skill. That the musicians are untalented. That it is somehow worth less than other forms of music. That you have to be high to like it. That it's just drug music. That's it's going to be over and dead within a few years. That it's gay music. That it's shallow. That it's just disco for the year 2001 (and we all know "disco sucks").

That dance music is mindless, that dance fans are not listening closely--a dancer is "listening" with every sinew and muscle and nerve ending in his/her body.

That crowd responses are essentially de-invidualizing--well, they are, but what's wrong with that? What's so great about being an individual? That sort of dis is like saying I don't like cheese 'cos it tastes cheesy...the whole point is to get lost in the crowd, merge with something bigger than your paltry self.

You know very well which assumptions impede writing dance music criticism: that it is an inferior genre. Ever since the 1970s the view of the rockcrit clique has been that "disco" is a lesser genre, an imperfect, diseased, even illegitimate form of pop music.

Most editors still hold to this view. Editors of the coated-paper magazines (the ones whose paper has a slick, cloying odor to it) generally know nothing about music but do know a lot about "trends" and "trendiness," and they look only for what is most obvious ...Dance Music is less than obvious, because (in the U.S.A. at least) it cannot be heard on the radio and employs far less numbers of publicists and gives out almost no free records. Thus there are no inducements to editors to assigning articles about it, and no interest generated among editors in assigning writers to cover it. Knowing that, writers do not ask to write about it.

Fortunately I do not have that problem at the Phoenix, nor from Chuck Eddy, the only establishment rockcrit/editor who understands and even likes "disco." Outside the U.S. it is a bit different. In Montreal, Milan, Barcelona, and Paris, dance music is pop, and it gets some coverage (though not, of course, from the U.S./U.K.-influenced magazines--the ones who think the Chemical Brothers, Moby, and Carl Cox are dance music...).

Um...the idea that "dance music" is a genre, maybe? The fact that idiots at deejay magazines think Stone Roses were a dance band, and Guns N Roses weren't? Or that they think calling Aqua or Toy Box "cheesy and gauche" is some kind of insult? (I mean, wasn't one of the great things about disco that lots of it was gauche?) In general, I get the feeling that a lot of artsy techno subcultures (especially drum'n'bass and Intelligent Whatever It Is, maybe, but don't quote me on that) are afraid of hooks. Which means they're afraid of the pleasure without which parties wouldn't be parties. Which is such a fucking stupid thing to think that I won't dignify it with an argument.

Assumptions to challenge: that dancing is visceral rather than intellectual, that technology is "cold," that "dance music" is only for dancing, that disco was just fluff and fun for the pop marketplace, that disco and rock have nothing to do with each other, that disco and hip-hop have nothing to do with each other, that other musics (e.g., rock, teen pop) are less scene-oriented than rave is, that techno and house are better than Europop, that techno and house are more innovative than pop is, that techno and house are more disco than teen pop is, that disco lyrics don't matter, that disco lyrics are no good, that Kraftwerk is more important than Boney M, that you can't understand the music if you don't get high. To expand on a few of these points, here are some thoughts I had after reading Jon Pareles a couple years ago comment on the 20th anniversary of Saturday Night Fever. I was noting in general the tendency of professional intellectuals (though not necessarily Pareles, who's normally pretty smart) to get it all wrong, to project the wrong grid, not to mention the most schoolmarmy one. I'm thinking here of their need to debunk a supposed "rockism" and "essentialism" and ________ (fill in the buzz word) and to celebrate disco as a trivial, "inauthentic," celebration of artificiality. Which portrays disco as simply a photonegative of rockism.

(a) There is too much emphasis on the "simplicity" of the disco beat--I don't think disco's one-two-three-four was necessarily any simpler than swing's one-two-three-four or the Velvet Underground's one-two-three-four. It would have been simple only if the one-two-three-four were the only rhythm going on.

(b) There is too much emphasis on the rock vs. disco divide and hence on disco's supposedly being artificial or synthetic in relation to rock. I have all sorts of problems with this emphasis. First, I don't know if anyone who isn't a critic or an academic sees it like this. Was a rock fan's antagonism towards disco based on his perception of the music's being artificial? Did he really think in such terms? (By the way, as a rock fan myself at the time, I didn't see disco as any kind of a threat; I saw "soft rock" as a threat.) Second, no matter how the rock fan saw it, the disco-goer most likely did not see disco as synthetic in relation to rock. I wouldn't say that disco never saw itself in some sort of relation to rock, but I don't think it particularly saw itself through the eyes of rock. So to overemphasize "artificiality" is to not see disco on its own terms. I think that the disco synth (other than for comedians like Kraftwerk) was more about mastery and creativity than artificiality. And then there's the whole gospel aspect of disco, which had nothing to do with artificiality. And the sex aspect, which for some people was absolutely meant to be as spiritual as the gospel (and for others was meant to be as spiritual as pudding).

I saw disco's gaudiness and glitz not as "artificiality" but as reach, something similar to Dolls glitter or the Warhol superstars: three-chord glamour that anyone could play, if you say you're a star, you are. And then for some it just plain is glamour. I think commentators would be more comfortable if it were merely about glamour.

(c) In discussing the differences between disco and rock, there is usually a misinterpretation of the meaning of "live performance." Which is to say, there's talk both of rock musicians constructing the music in the studio to make it sound live, to cover their tracks, to not emphasize the studio (is this even true? think of Electric Ladyland), and of rock musicians really playing their instruments in live performance (vs. disco divas singing to backing tracks or simply lip synching). Whereas, in fact, it's disco that assumes a live setting--a dance--a public space. Disco is much more the live music, and disco records are raw material for this live show.

On To Question 6