Alice Echols

 

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

Cover Interview of March 29, 2010

The wide angle

Like my biography of Janis Joplin, Hot Stuff is meant to engage both scholars and interested readers outside the academy.  This is my second book to wrestle with the popular music and the social change movements of the sixties and seventies.  Although I draw on my experiences as a disco/funk deejay, Hot Stuff is very much in dialogue with work in cultural studies, gay studies and musicology.

One of the book’s signal achievements is that it demonstrates something that scholars of popular music such as Susan McClary and Simon Frith have been saying for a while now: music is a social process.  Through it we learn how to experience our own feelings, desires, and bodies.  Indeed, we can say that music socializes us.  This argument is often advanced in a rather abstract fashion.  But Hot Stuff’s discussion of gay sociability, sexuality, and masculinity is a case study of the way that music shapes us.

The book describes how as disco took hold, gay style shifted. The ironed chinos, cashmere sweaters, and penny loafers that had been favored by many gay men gave way to 501 button-fly Levis, flannel shirts, aviator fight jackets, work boots, and belt-dangling key chains.  Short hair, mustaches, and muscles became the style.  At the time, gay writer and activist Douglas Crimp tried to make sense of what he was seeing on the dance-floors of gay New York.  It looked to him as though gay men were developing nearly identical bodies fashioned for a specific activity.  And it dawned on him: “These bodies have been made into dancing machines.”

You could say that this emphatic move towards gay macho was merely a shift in style, but that would miss its larger social significance.  Here it’s important to note the importance of 1969’s Stonewall riot, which many argue marked the beginning of gay liberation.  Some writers believe that disco and gay liberation were on parallel trajectories rather than overlapping.  I think it’s impossible to disaggregate disco from politics when dancing constituted a kind of protest.

For a while disco and gay liberation enjoyed a synergistic relationship.  In the years after Stonewall, gay clubs, which had been sites of repression and surveillance, became something akin to liberated zones.  Through disco, gay men charted a course that permitted them to feel sexually legible (that is, real) to each other.  And it facilitated their rejection of gay masculinity as failed masculinity. It was on the disco dance floor surging with the energy of “so many bodies becoming one” that gay men created a different sexual subjectivity and a powerful feeling of one-ness.

How did this happen? The ear-shattering volume and bass-driven sonics of disco encouraged physical intimacy and sexual straightforwardness. After all, the volume was set so high that patrons had to dispense with the usual formalities and chit-chat.  Moreover, a good disco sound system, which emphasized the music’s thunderous bass and its bass drum kick (the disco thump) was like an “audio orgasmatron,” as journalist Frank Owen put it, and it worked on “erogenous zones you never knew you had.”

The sweatbox conditions at many gay discos also encouraged stripping to the waist, which in turn made working-out pretty much obligatory.  The buff body was about style, but it also was critical to the reconfiguring of gay identity and desire.  Before, gay men had often been “hunters after the same prey,” recalls gay clubber and record executive Mel Cheren, “rather than allies or prospective partners.”  Now, gay rather than heterosexual men became the embodiment of masculinity and the fantasized object of desire for each other.  “We’re brothers,” was the feeling, recalled novelist Edmund White.  “We’re the men we’ve been looking for.”