The disco population

There wasn’t one definitive disco demographic.  The seventies saw the emergence of today’s pluralism, where individual variety of interests and tastes surpasses mass trends and fads.  Thus several different populations were attracted to the disco scene.

One population was the generation of younger baby boomers who felt left out of the sixties counterculture revolution.  They were teens during the sixties, perhaps college students, but were bystanders watching the events from the sidelines.  Many were wistfully envious of the expanding freedoms which they saw the hippies create, from personal evolution and quests for enlightenment, to the sexual revolution.  Especially the sexual revolution.

As Bruce Pollack recalled in 1979, “We had been reminded once too often that we were just not with it.  Where they had long hair and Woodstock, we had nothing to clearly call our own.  We needed a kind of shared activity, scorned by our elders, which would bring us together as a group.  At the disco, we have forged a generational banner.  It’s great to feel special at last.”  For a significant population of boomers, the seventies were their turn.  With the price of admission to a disco, they could safely purchase a taste of the freedoms which they had only watched during the sixties. But they adopted a wholly different aesthetic from the counterculture, because an important part of feeling special is being different — in this case different from the hippies.  A core element of the new disco scene was sophistication.  This meant upscale and classy, but keeping the counterculture emphasis on becoming personally evolved.  Sophistication was also defined by what it wasn’t — it wasn’t rustic country life and dressing down.  So the sexual liberation pioneered in the sixties was embraced, but as a glamorous urban version.

There was another reason for the change in aesthetics (the disco look) beyond change for change’s sake, and this involved a second disco population:  the suburban middle class and blue collar working class.  Here we find the same upward mobility which has motivated the middle classes for two centuries. Disco was appealing because its sophistication was a step up for them, but within reach.  All they had to do was dress up and pay the admission and they could live in an elegant, futuristic world for a night.  And hopefully mingle with people a step higher on the social ladder.

Disco music mirrored this sophistication, featuring orchestras (the Philadelphia Sound) with large string and brass sections.  Quite the opposite of small hard-hitting rock bands.  Intentionally opposite. So for the middle and working class young Americans, the possibility of taking a step up in their lives was more compelling than dressing down.  That’s essentially the story of Saturday Night Fever — the working class Italian American who was a hardware clerk by day and a Disco King by night. Significantly, the discos also offered a taste of freedom and self actualization for three other subcultures during the seventies: Gays, Hispanics and African Americans.  After decades of marginalization for each of these minorities, they all found a supportive home in the discos. 

Disco lasted only a decade but it initiated several traditions that are still with us today, most notably in dance and dance music.

1)  While rock music in the 1970s was becoming a sit-down medium, with the stars up on the stage in the lights, and the audience listening in the dark below, Disco reversed this, putting the audience in the spotlight. 

2)  The music changed to support this figure/ground reversal.  Song lyrics became intentionally uninteresting, while the rhythm become more insistently driving.  Two decades later, both of these trends would be refined even further in the 1990s rave scene, when minimalist music was given a dance beat, becoming Psy Trance, while House music continued the disco diva tradition.

3)  Disco brought the return of partnered dancing, after the drought of the 1960s when the Twist and other solo steps mostly replaced couple dancing.  As former disco dancer Joan Walton phrased it, “In the counterculture 60s, the woman’s attitude was, You’re not going to lead me anywhere, buster!  Then people rediscovered that collaborating with a partner to make a neat move happen was fun!”  So this was not actually a new change, but rather a correction to the 1960s change.