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Stayin' Alive: Disco as a Form of Escapism

Article By: Lainee Kirk

A look into how people in the '70s used disco culture as a form of self-expression and escape from social/political turmoil of the time.

The '70s is an iconic era in the United States, known for its extravagant fashion and the public’s carefree attitudes. Underneath the vibrant '70s culture, however, was a country tormented by political and social disorder and inhabitants desperately in need of relief.

In a 1976 edition of New York magazine, journalist Tom Wolfe used the term ‘The Me Decade’ to describe the era. Wolfe observed a shift in priorities from political issues to individual needs. Although Wolfe comments on the narcissistic tendencies of people during this era, the shift to self-actualization was very much needed. The '70s was characterized by the tumultuous political climate with Watergate, Vietnam, the oil crisis, and the recession plaguing the American people.

On top of political turmoil, the counterculture movement of the ‘60s left people feeling restless. The movement encouraged free thinking and introduced the “hippie” lifestyle. Creative expression, protesting, and drug use were major components of the counterculture movement. Peace movements during the Vietnam War changed attitudes towards the government, allowing people the chance to form their own opinions on national affairs as opposed to blindly following the government and the majority. The '70s public did not want the progress made within this movement to slow down. They wanted change, but they didn’t know how or what that would entail. As the pressure of national issues rose, it makes sense that people wanted to begin focusing on individualistic goals, putting them back in charge of their lives.

Across America, people began to have greater interest in their wellbeing through yoga, meditation, and body-mind therapies. Advocates for clean food and environmental issues became outspoken and impactful. The feminist movement gained steam along with the sexual revolution. Both of these movements valued the freedom of choice for people to act and express themselves. As more people participated in activism that helped the world and others around them, they also started to ask what they could do to help themselves. Introspection provided people with an avenue to start examining themselves. They pushed away the need to conform and desired individuality. They began to question the idea of self - who am I? How can I express myself?

They found many ways to express their individuality, but one method has made a lasting impact: disco. Disco is a direct consequence of people’s desire to find themselves. The disco scene comprised a variety of people and served as a safe space for the queer community especially. Under intense discrimination in other aspects of their lives, disco was something that queer individuals could unite within. Although disco itself was short-lived, its influences can still be seen today in the fashion and music industries.

On Valentine’s Day in 1970, an underground dance party in New York City launched the disco wave. Hosted by David Mancuso, a disc jockey known for his “invitation only” events, at ‘The Loft’, this party was a small, private event containing people of all sexual orientations and races brought together by music. Following a period of anti-LGBTQ+ riots in the ‘60s, a safe space to unwind and celebrate their identity with other queer individuals was necessary. The queer community played a major role in disco spreading underground. These disco events would continue, rising in popularity but never becoming properly mainstream until years later with the premiere of the film Saturday Night Fever (1977).

Lorna Luft once said that “Studio 54 made Halloween in Hollywood look like a PTA meeting”, alluding to the fashion and extravagance of the club. Disco fashion went above and beyond what was normally accepted at the time; bell bottoms, slip dresses, miniskirts, wedges, and a lot of glitter dominated the scene. Flashy colors like orange, yellow, purple, and green made these clothes stand out further. Unisex clothes like jumpsuits also became popular and women were often seen in oversized suits and androgynous styles. Disco fashion allowed people to escape the blandness of everyday life and express themselves with lively styles.

In Studio 54 and other disco clubs, open drug use was normal. Drugs like quaaludes, psychedelics, and cocaine were believed to enhance the experience of disco. Alluding to the spiritual-esque experiences that people of the decade participated in and trend towards soul-searching, Wolfe also described the '70s as “The Third Great Awakening”. Though the term is not historically agreed upon, it is still relevant in describing an era focused on personal enlightenment and introspection. At the time, the psychedelic LSD was believed to reveal things about one’s true self and promoted introspection. In his essay, Wolfe compares the effects of LSD to “religious ecstasy”. Drug use was another way for people to trigger the soul searching they longed for.

Disco music was rapidly establishing itself as a genre, though its roots in soul and funk music are clear. Popular disco artists include Donna Summer (often called the Queen of Disco), KC & the Sunshine band, and The Bee Gees. The songs were upbeat and easy to dance to. New audio technology combined electronic elements with classical instruments to create a funky sound. Disco music was always played loudly along with flashy lights and trippy visuals at clubs to enhance the experience. This atmosphere truly allowed people to get lost in the music and dancing.

As disco became popularized, the demographic changed. More white, heterosexual, and middle class people became disco goers. The popularity of disco also brought critics. Often rooted in homophobia and racism, disco culture was critiqued for being too flashy and uninspired. They failed to realize that the purpose of disco was to serve as a form of escapism. Disco music was compared to rock which was very popular at the time. Artists like Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones used the lyricism and musical techniques these critics claimed disco lacked. In 1979, over 20,000 disco albums were burned in a bonfire in Chicago as people watched and celebrated. These critiques of disco hated what it represented - an accepting environment for everyone, especially the minoritized.

The cheesy, vapid image of disco that some people express comes from the popularization in the late '70s. Though disco made huge steps for minority expression, its earliest roots in the queer community and as a black music genre are often disregarded.

Today, the desire for soul searching and introspection is still very strong. As modern politics have become more and more polarized, a similar trend of individualism has grown. Rather than disco, people have taken to social media as a way to express themselves with different niches and subcultures all having a platform. The increasing interest in spirituality (crystals, tarot cards, etc.) reflects a want to make sense of oneself. With social media giving everyone an opportunity to manifest their image, the craving for individuality is stronger than ever.

Disco culture was the ultimate outlet for people of the '70s. In an era where social and political challenges constantly afflicted Americans, disco gave them a way to reclaim their lives. For minorities who were pushed out of most social scenes and told their presence was unwanted, disco not only wanted their presence, but encouraged them to be the boldest, liveliest version of themselves. Although disco was a fleeting trend of the decade, its impact for a generation who cherished individuality will live on.

Diana Ross, an American singer, dances at Studio 54 in New York City circa 1979. Photo credit: Bettmann Archive.


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