Alice Echols

 

On her book Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture

Cover Interview of March 29, 2010

In a nutshell

Hot Stuff is a cultural history of disco that is at once scholarly and popular.  The book charts disco’s trajectory—from its steamy beginnings in Manhattan’s gay clubs through its Blob-like takeover of pop music, to its apparent collapse—probing throughout what made disco so compelling to some and so troubling to others.  Rock once had its enemies, too, but they were reliably conservative.  By contrast, disco managed to offend people across the political spectrum.  Attacked for being both too gay and too straight, too black and too white, oversexed and asexual, leisure class and leisure-suited (loser) class, disco represented anything but a stable signifier.

My book probes disco’s “hotness,” which I locate largely in its upending of America’s racial rules and gender and sexual conventions.  Disco broadened the contours of blackness, femininity, and male homosexuality.  African-American musicians and producers experimented with lavish, sophisticated arrangements that didn’t always sound recognizably “black.”  Their lush new sounds became the foundation of disco.  With this sonic turn, black masculinity moved away from the “sex machine” model of James Brown towards the “love man” style of Barry White.  As for gay men, as they became newly visible, largely through the dissemination of disco culture, their self-presentation shifted as effeminacy gave way to a macho style recognizable to anyone who has ever glimpsed the Village People.  Feminism’s critique of three-minute sex found its voice in disco, and black female performers broke with representational strategies rooted in respectability.  There’s no way to make sense of how we got from Diana Ross to Lil’ Kim without exploring disco.

These changes, experienced as liberating by some, nonetheless provoked controversy.  Was disco a repudiation of pernicious racial profiling or was it turning R&B “beige,” transmogrifying it into a “mush of vacuous Muzak,” as one critic alleged? And what about the new gay masculinism?  Was it best understood as a parody or as a mimicking of conventional heterosexual masculinity? Was it liberating in its rejection of the age-old association of homosexuality with effeminacy, or was it regressive in its stigmatizing of sissiness?

Disco filled the air with what one singer called “women’s love rights.” But this happened in a context in which the social and legal policy that would ensure a more level playing field for women lagged behind the sexual revolution.  Indeed, disco’s promotion of greater sexual expressiveness seemed to some to run the risk of exacerbating women’s sexual vulnerability.