The "disco sucks" movement and the cycle of white grievance that is still churning
A new Bee Gees documentary highlights the time thousands of white people gathered in a stadium to blow up records by Black and gay artists -- and then rioted.
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A new documentary about The Bee Gees on HBO Max, “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend a Broken Heart,” takes a broad look at a group that spanned decades, beginning in the 1960s, and had a deep influence on American pop culture. It’s fascinating and entertaining, with a lot of cool archival footage and current and past interviews.
One part that focused on the late 1970s stirred me in particular, because so many of the same dynamics are playing out today in politics and culture. It’s been written about many times over the years, but it’s worth revisiting as we close the Trump era — though will live with the lingering effect.
It was the backlash to disco — the dance music movement of which The Bee Gees had become the mainstream face, after the blockbuster soundtrack album (which included five of their songs) to the blockbuster film, Saturday Night Fever, in 1977. The Bee Gees — a group of white Australian brothers who’d seen their careers go up and down — were not a “disco” group. But their expansive journey through pop music brought them into the heart of the disco era, as they were working with and influenced by Black musicians and vocalists in the ‘70s.
At that time, disco, emerging out of R&B, had been throbbing through urban Black, Latino and gay communities for nearly a decade in nightclubs, and was rising to the surface of American culture.
The Bee Gees helped catapult it dramatically. Disco exploded on radio, often dominated the top 40 lists, launched a slew of exercise videos and made the Village People — a group of gay men of various races who wore sexualized, fetishized costumes, and whose lyrics reflected queer culture — into household names.
Of course, rock & roll was in no danger of dying, and some of the greatest bands and singer/songwriters of the century, from Fleetwood Mac and Queen to Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, created brilliant mega-hit albums during the ‘70s. But a lot of white, heterosexual, predominantly male Americans — and let’s stress it was by far not all, but a lot — were immensely threatened by the rise of disco.
That was clear from the backlash, manifested by an irrational fear that Black, brown and/or gay culture — which in the ‘70s was then just becoming visible — would dominate the world and, as they articulated, somehow diminish what they viewed as their rock music culture. (Never mind that rock itself was profoundly influenced by Black and Latin music and artists, as well as by many who were queer, from the get go).
It’s one thing not to like a music genre — and plenty of people found disco uninteresting and repetitive, and just didn’t connect with the dance groove culture. But it’s quite another to organize behind leaders whose intent was to “demolish” that genre under the banner of “Disco Sucks.”
As happens when something becomes very hot, big business and corporate media jumped on the bandwagon of disco. Radio stations with lackluster performance, seeing the immense success of New York’s WKTU — which became the number 1 station in the country after switching to an all dance music format — tried to get aboard. In Chicago, WDAI switched from a rock station to disco, and fired 24-year-old DJ Steve Dahl on Christmas Eve in 1978. He was hired by another rock-oriented station, WLUP, and soon continually mocked WDAI as “Disco DIE.”
Dahl created a group, Insane Coho Lips, made up of listeners who virulently despised disco. Dahl and his partner in the group’s leadership promoted the theme, “Disco Sucks,” which took off nationally. They even organized events meant to intimidate disco fans, one of which led to a dangerous car chase. When musician Van McCoy — creator of the iconic disco anthem, “The Hustle” — died in July of 1979, Dahl celebrated by destroying one of his records. Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh in 1979 noted how the “Disco Sucks” movement was a front for fear and bigotry:
[W]hite males, eighteen to thirty-four are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks, and Latins, and therefore they're the most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security. It goes almost without saying that such appeals are racist and sexist, but broadcasting has never been an especially civil-libertarian medium.
Dahl’s efforts culminated in a horrifying event that is like so many we’ve seen in the Trump era, in which some white men who are threatened express their grievance via menacing actions, feeling emboldened to do it by a movement and leaders who spur them on.
The Chicago White Sox organization worked with Dahl to create a “Disco Demolition Night” during a doubleheader in July of 1979 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, in which they would use explosives to blow up disco records. Dahl urged listeners for weeks to attend and to bring a disco record. Historians note many people brought albums by Black artists who weren’t even part of the disco trend, such as Isaac Hayes or Marvin Gaye. The event sold out, at a stadium with a capacity of 45,000, but reports were that 50,000 to 55,000 fans attended, with about 20,000 fans who couldn’t get in waiting outside; many were jumping turnstiles and hopping fences to get in.
Fans dumped the records upon entry into a large bin, which quickly overflowed; it was later brought onto the field to be blown up. Many, however, smashed records while in the stands, where some fans held “Disco Sucks” banners aloft. After the first game ended, Dahl and members of his group came onto the field. Dahl told the crowd:
This is now officially the world's largest anti-disco rally! Now listen—we took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got 'em in a giant box, and we're gonna blow 'em up reeeeeeal goooood
The crowd broke out in chants of “Disco sucks!” Dahl ignited the explosives, sending shards of records everywhere and ripping a huge hole in the outfield. Thousands of fans — estimated at 5000 to 8000 — then ran onto the field, breaking through security. They destroyed the field, rioting and tearing down fixtures. Bases were ripped up and stolen, the batting cage was destroyed and a bonfire was created in center field. Outside the stadium, fans who couldn’t get in smashed records and created bonfires as well. Chicago police in riot gear eventually arrived to disperse the crowd on the field and around the stadium.
Vince Lawrence, a Black house music pioneer who, at that time, worked at Comiskey Park as an usher and witnessed what happened, says in the Bees Gees documentary that it was equivalent to “a racist, homophobic book-burning.”
Disco experienced a drop in popularity beginning that year into the following years. Professor Gillian Frank, writing in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, notes, "the Disco Demolition triggered a nationwide expression of anger against disco that caused disco to recede quickly from the American cultural landscape.”
One man who was at the stadium when he was 15 reflected on it 35 years later in 2014, admitting it was very much about racism, about a fear of Black people moving into white neighborhoods:
The chance to yell "disco sucks" meant more than simply a musical style choice….More importantly, it was a chance for a whole lot of people to say they didn't like the way the world was changing around them, or who they saw as the potential victors in a cultural and demographic war.
Other scholars have written on the backlash as well. It was a cultural backlash within pop music not unlike the political and cultural backlash all these years later to the first Black president, Barack Obama, and the rise of Donald Trump, who tapped into racial fears and triggered racist and violent responses by those who felt emboldened and given permission.
The corporate media of the ‘70s, which had hyper-promoted disco only to later help tear it down, highlighting performers who spoke against it — and organizers like Dahl — acted in the same way it has in recent years with Trump: Amplifying his message of hate with wall-to-wall coverage in 2016, after they’d previously heralded the election of the first Black president and had pushed the idea that we’d become a “post-racial society.”
Even now, some in the media are somewhat dismissive of what went on back then. Music critic Jon Pareles of The New York Times, for example, noted in a review of “The Bee Gees: How Do You Mend a Broken Heart” that “the documentary takes pains to point out” that “disco had emerged from Black music and Black and gay clubs,” as if that isn’t a very significant aspect to emphasize.
While “Disco Demolition Night” and the movement it exemplified were just a moment in time among many such moments of racist and homophobic backlash in American history, the way it is captured in the Bee Gees documentary resonates with today’s menacing behavior and violence among Trump cultists.
It illuminates the perpetual cycle of white grievance that, at any time, fed by a movement or a person, erupts above the surface after having been pushed below. Unless we truly tackle bigotry — and bring real and lasting equality — rather than continually merely shoving it underground, it will come up again and again, long after Trump is gone.
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