The Night Disco Died | The Racist & Homophobic “End” to Disco
Imagine: it’s the summer of 1979, the weather sticky and hot, the radio airwaves buzzing with the funky basslines and sultry voices of disco powerhouses like Donna Summer, the decided “Queen of Disco,” Earth Wind & Fire, Gloria Gaynor, and The Village People…The world seems to be consumed in a disco craze; my own mother, born in 1971, recalls skating at the roller rink to disco as a child wearing bedazzled bell bottoms.
Despite most of mainstream America finding itself in the midst of a disco obsession, an anti-disco riot, coined “Disco Demolition Night,” by primarily white Americans breaks out on the night of July 12, 1979 at a Chicago White Sox baseball game, causing the second-ever forfeit in MLB history and the decided death of disco.
The Birth of Disco
Disco found its roots in nightclubs that opened up in New York City and Philadelphia during the mid and late sixties. At the same time, the “Philly soul” sound soared in popularity following the release of Jerry Butler’s 1968 hit “Only the Strong Survive”; this exact Philly sound became the blueprint for disco music in the coming years. Philadelphia soul, Phillysound, or TSOP pulls from soul and funk, featuring lush musical arrangements, soaring strings, a strong backbeat, and a dream-like quality to the sound. For musical reference, listen to the entire discography of MFSB, “Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John, and “Ooh Child” by Dee Dee Sharp.
These early disco clubs attracted and welcomed those who did not fit in with mainstream American WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) culture: folks of color and LGBTQ+ folks who were often turned away from white clubs.
Liberated by the Stonewall demonstrations of 1969, LGBTQ+ folks flocked these clubs that allowed them to be their truest selves, embracing disco as not only a facet of Black culture, but as gay culture as well. And the singers and faces of disco music? Black and Brown folks in colorful, expressive, and flamboyant clothing, makeup, and hairstyles. Themes of joy, free love, passion, sex, lust, and admiration prominent in disco coupled with the Black and Brown faces of the genre provided young BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) with positive and liberating messages and people like them to look to.
In 1971, the iconic television show, Soul Train, aired on national TV for the first time (it had been a local favorite of Black Chicago natives starting in 1970), becoming an instant hit with Black folks around the country. Soul Train complimented disco’s morals and amplifying abilities, as it also depicted Black people in a positive light: all sleek styles and healthy Afros, talented amateur dancers, incredible performers, all lead by the smooth-talking host, Don Cornelius, who initially pitched the show as “the American Bandstand of color.” The popularity of the show also meant more white people being introduced to A. a more positive depiction of Black folks in mainstream media, and B. Disco music, fashion, and culture.
Even devout rock ‘n’ roll radio stations converted to being disco-only. In 1977, America’s love of disco culminated in the film Saturday Night Fever, based on an article written by British journalist Nik Cohn about New York City’s disco culture. The movie stars John Travolta as Tony Manero, a sexually promiscuous, hot-headed, and somewhat vain young Italian-American paint store clerk in Brooklyn who lives to be able to dance at disco clubs with his friends on the weekends. Numerous movie critics called the film the best movie of 1977, evident in its nomination for numerous Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture. Funnily enough, Fever’s cast of characters is the antithesis of the disco scene: they’re chauvinistic, homophobic, and racist. And, unsurprisingly, Cohn later admitted to fabricating the article about NYC’s disco culture and to knowing very little about the culture itself, meaning the celebrated film is based on a lie. Nevertheless, white folks ATE. IT. UP!
Journalists of the mid-to-late seventies had a hard time explaining the U.S.’ infatuation with disco music, according to Dr. Gillian Frank, Historian of Sexuality Princeton University, especially when considering the genre’s creation by the subculture of white America. Rock ‘n’ roll, for example, was created by Black songstress Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Why didn’t white folks have an issue with this genre? Well, it was stolen and popularized by white rock ‘n’ rollers like Elvis Presley and The Beatles.
Disco’s popularity marks one of the first instances in American history since jazz in which a music genre created and popularized by Black artists goes mainstream and still remains Black. Sure, The Beegees and ABBA created countless disco hits that folks continue to dance to today, but the genre was undeniably dominated by Black and Brown artists.
The Death of Disco
So, how did America go from disco-obsessed to disco-hating seemingly overnight?
Many point to Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl as the man behind disco’s demise. Dahl, then 24-years old, got fired from his job as a DJ for WDAI Chicago on December 24, 1978 after the station decided to make the switch from rock to disco and cut his morning show. Dahl was angry, but instead of turning his anger onto his former bosses or the radio station itself, Dahl was angry at disco.
Dahl would be rehired at The Loop radio station, a rival station to WDAI, and would lead an anti-disco crusade. He took to destroying disco records on his morning show: “Back in the day when we had turntables, I would drag the needle across the record and blow it up with a sound effect, and people liked that.” Dahl constantly mocked disco on-air, and even released a song parodying Rod Stewart’s hit “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” called “Do You Think I’m Disco” (for the sake of your ears, don’t look this song up). Dahl’s antics grabbed the attention of talk shows that invited him on.
Disco Demolition Night
Soon enough, Steve Dahl’s radio show caught the attention of Mike Veeck. Veeck’s father, Bill, owned the Chicago White Sox at the time and held all sorts of crazy promotions at the games to encourage ticket sales. Bill Veeck invited Dahl to host a “Disco Demolition Night” on July 12th during a double-header game to promote ticket sales—anyone who brought a disco record to be blown up by Dahl with them would only pay 98 cents for entry. Andy Lansing, a witness to Disco Demolition Night, remembers free haircuts and a shower installed in the outfield of Comiskey Park: “it couldn’t have been more outrageous, but it was really fun.”
Steve Dahl cleverly masked any anger towards disco culture behind a front of teasing and triviality, breaking brand-new records against his head to choruses of laughter: “Well, the first thing that I have against [disco] is that I can never find a white three-piece suit that fits me off the rack.” In his book Disco Demolition, Dahl says he saw disco as phony and inauthentic and abhorred having to “make room for the disco format” after being fired. Dahl’s wife Janet remembered her husband’s actions as wanting to be accepted and validated, echoed by his fans feeling “lost in a new culture of women’s liberation, Black rights, sexual liberation, and Studio 54-inspired androgyny and materialism.” Funnily enough, disco was created by and for folks who felt the same disregard by white rock ‘n’ roll culture.
Despite his claims that his anti-disco movement was a harmless stunt, Dahl’s dress in army fatigues and a military-style helmet and his proclaimed anti-disco army of followers, the Insane Coho Lips, lends some sort of seriousness to his hatred of disco. What may have been a funny joke between Dahl and his friend emboldened young white Americans to hate disco because of its popularity with and uplifting of LGBTQ+ folks and/or BIPOC. On the topic of the Insane Coho Lips and Dahl’s impact, Tom Joyner, a Black radio DJ, said “I’ve known some people that walk down the street with something on their shirts or on the back of their jackets that says ‘disco,’ and some of his, what do you call, “Dahl’s army” or whatever they are, they almost got jumped on. [Dahl] could very well be a dangerous person.” This is evidence to the ability of Dahl’s rhetoric to be taken as racist and homophobic by his followers.