Alice Echols


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

Cover Interview of March 28, 2010


Obviously I would like to see Hot Stuff spark further discussion about disco—which is all over today’s charts, even if it isn’t called disco.

The book challenges the stereotypical view of disco as the encapsulation of the Me Decade—hedonistic, narcissistic, and forgettable.  But it also questions the depiction of disco emerging in what I call “disco studies.”  Too much disco revisionism is driven by an effort to debunk the pervasive view of disco as crassly commercial, exclusionary, and politically regressive.  The result is work that overemphasizes disco’s subcultural purity, democratic beginnings, and transgressive practices.

Mind you, I agree with parts of this analysis. But it follows too faithfully the usual narrative whereby an inventive underground (it could be rap, punk, or disco) is eclipsed by its debased commercial version. The result is a two-tier schema of “good” versus “bad” disco that creates all sorts of distortions, including the by-now routine disparagement of Saturday Night Fever, a movie I discuss at some length.

Just as importantly I want Hot Stuff to build on the work of other historians who have been chipping away at the usual view of the seventies as a time when nothing happened, or nothing good happened.  According to this view the Disco Years are an era memorable for America’s hapless presidents, declining prestige, bad fashions, ludicrous music, and over-the-top narcissism.  However, in these years small but growing numbers of African-Americans entered the ranks of the middle class, women moved into the workplace and nightlife, and gays vacated the shadowy margins of American life.

Disco’s One Nation Under a Thump impulse succeeded in integrating American nightlife to an extent unthinkable just a decade earlier.  Pornography began moving out of seedy red-light districts and into respectable businesses—and into American homes—as a result of video technology.  The explosion of pornography, the resurgence of feminism, the ready availability of the birth-control pill, the legalization of abortion, and disco itself re-made America’s sexual landscape in ways that created unprecedented (and sometimes risky) possibilities of sexual pleasure for women.  Meanwhile the feminist assault on masculine privilege, defeat in Vietnam, de-industrialization, and affirmative action posed challenges for American men.  As I hope Hot Stuff demonstrates, the 1970s were, in fact, the combustible years.

© 2010 Alice Echols