The Martyrdom of Disco

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December 1, 2012 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

As most musical fads tend to be, disco was not only a genre but a way of life, look no further than Saturday Night Fever.  But while we’ve seen trends like grunge fade away or euro-pop wished away, for disco to end it had to die.  And that’s exactly what happened; disco was murdered.  Because disco is the only genre of music to have been murdered, it makes the case study all the more interesting.  The “why” is the most important aspect of the martyrdom of disco.  We all know how disco died, but no one has explicitly stated why it had to die for us to move away from it.[1]

Disco died for two reasons, one explicit and one implicit.  The explicit reason was that people grew tired with the meaninglessness of the genre.  To be honest all disco songs sounded the same and said the same thing.  They were all party songs that you could dance too.  They were good songs, they were just extremely superficial.  That still doesn’t answer the question of why disco had to die.  By that accord, does that mean that we should all blow up thousands of rap albums and cause the death of the genre just because the songs are vapid, superficial and derogatory?  It would never happen though, because as a culture we’re used to that being the mainstream message in songs.  The reason shy is because of disco.  Every pop song that you hear at a club or a party owes its existence to disco.  Fact.

Before disco, there really weren’t any mainstream club-dance songs of a hedonistic nature.  If you wanted to dance you had to wait for “Stairway to Heaven” to be played at your junior prom.  Once disco became popular you now had something to boogie to and get down to.  That’s why all the clubs in the mid-late 70s played disco music.  People wanted to groove to it in a sensual and energetic way that they hadn’t done before.

Think about it, in the 80s pointless pop songs were played at clubs, in the 90s shitty pop songs with absolutely no meaning were played in clubs, and now trite hip-hop songs are the party songs.  They’re all songs that make people want to get on the dance floor and dance.  In that regard all these songs are following the trend set by disco over thirty years ago.  Since this was really the first time that the music industry encountered something so commercially accessible, but at the same time so blatantly one dimensional, it created a backlash amongst other musicians.  The punk movement detested disco for its lack of intelligence and meaning, and perceived escapism.  The Who wrote the song “Sister Disco” celebrating the death of disco.  Dave Gilmour has gone on the record saying that he disapproves of “Another Brick in the Wall pt. II” because of the disco drum beat.  It seemed like rock musicians found the lack of integrity in disco music to be insulting to themselves.  Because something like disco hadn’t been done before, it was obviously going to be met with widespread criticism as well as the adulation it received from fans.  But because future generations grew up with it, club and dance music became more acceptable.  And that’s what happened, party music made a comeback in the mid-80s just not of the disco variety.

The death of disco on July 12, 1979 took place because a local Chicago DJ lost his job when his station shifted from rock to disco.  In retaliation he called for other rock fans who had grown sick of disco together to burn disco albums.  Two months later there were no disco records in the Billboard Top 10.  Fast work if you ask me.  And so after that it became ok to overtly oppose disco, and from then it on it was only a matter of months before disco was completely eradicated.

Now the implicit reason why disco died is the exact same reason why Rome fell.[2]  Simply put, it got too big for itself to the point where it was unsustainable.  By becoming so big, they made themselves an easy target for their detractors.  Disco as a genre of music swept the country by storm in a way comparable to Beatle-mania.  Except instead of it “being about the music man”, disco was about an attitude; an attitude of partying, drug abuse, and blatant hedonism.  While these are a part of rock culture, we could always fall back on the fact that with rock music, it was the music that actually mattered.  Oh and artistic credibility is a pretty big thing.  Disco, conversely tried to maintain that image of desire, boogieing and partying, and all the songs reflected that.  There was no progression to be something else.  Disco reached a plateau and was simply content with staying there, just as Rome was once the empire broke in two.  Disco swelled in popularity too quickly and as a result burnt itself out.

Instead of it being too big to fail, it was too big to thrive.  It occupied a specific niche which was all it had, and once that niche was no longer needed it simply died.  Unlike rock music which came back after the death of disco and the splintering of punk, disco music did not have the capacity to resuscitate itself.  It came under the most scrutiny because it was the first of its kind.  There was no template for it to follow and so it would inevitably fall, but it didn’t necessitate murder.  Disco died so that the ensuing genres of dance music could survive and propagate their pointless message of dancing and partying.  I’m not saying it’s good or bad, it just didn’t have to end the way it did: in a riot in between a White Sox doubleheader.  Even disco deserved a little dignity.


[1] Disco died on July 12, 1979 at Comiskey Park in Chicago where people fed up with disco burned and blowup disco records in anger.  A riot soon ensued and the White Sox had to forfeit the game later on in the evening due to property damage of the stadium.  Over 90,000 people partook in the murder of disco.

[2] I’m aware of the terrible cliché.

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