Sex at the Disco

They say disco’s dead, but they’d be wrong. I could vouch on its behalf, with the evidence of its ongoing legacy lying in the output of labels like the eminent DFA, or the more obscure imprints like Italians Do It Better and Permanent Vacation, though perhaps right now it’s more of a quasi-underground phenomenon than it was in its heyday. Regardless, the genre still has relative cultural- or rather subcultural- relevance even today. Though I never understood why exactly it fell out of favor with the mainstream in a seeming blink of an eye. To me, what disco offered seemed simple, harmless and accessible enough that it could have had a more enduring lifespan. Instead, disco lasted less than a decade and today enjoys being identified by most as an ugly fad in bad fashion and silly dancing. What exactly was it about this music that turned people off to it so violently? What could it have threatened so profoundly that it needed to be destroyed by mainstream culture?

It was about a year ago that I was listening to Walter Jones’s new single “I’ll Keep On Lovin’ You,” an ace example of some richly analog, soul-disco sleaze, when I truly dropped myself in the heavy shit of this musical dilemma. Jones, a relatively quiet producer of electronic dance music, has put out a scant handful of singles over the past couple years, but his few productions have consistently and brilliantly teetered somewhere indistinct between house and disco music. This particular track though had a slower, more lethargic pace; too languid to be a proper disco number, yet it still possessed a distinct ’79 disco gloss, invoking in me these never-experienced reminiscences of what it was like to be in Studio 54 or something. At first, I couldn’t understand why such a distinct vision danced inside me, why I unequivocally thought to myself disco when I heard this song. I began to break it down into pieces- the percussion, the bass line, the synth melody- and then it struck me, like finally remembering the face of an old, forgotten friend. It was that voice, what sounded like a lonely diva lost in a 4-track time warp somewhere between 1978 and 1981, singing “I’ll keep on loving you, all night.” That voice, to me, was just so disco, breathing the very essence of the genre in its soulful, sensitively effeminate delivery.

After deciding to research the single more in depth, I discovered that the vocalist was, in fact, not a woman at all, but Jones himself. I was initially embarrassed with myself for having made the mistake, but then I began to think about the defining character of the idea of the disco vocalist itself, particularly the template for the male disco vocalist as having this high-pitched, jarringly androgynous singing voice. It wasn’t uncommon for men to sound like women in the world of disco. Take one of the better-known examples from the era, the Bee Gees, and forget that everyone knew they were men. Detach Barry Gibb’s face and heartthrob mane from the voice behind the iconic “Stayin’ Alive,” and listen again, this time pretending that he and his brothers were actually women instead. With a decently capable imagination, it’s uncomfortably easy to replace this all male trio with a band of women. The same goes for Donald Byrd’s 1979 dance-floor burner, “Love Has Come Around,” whose heavily reverbed male vocalist sounds uncannily like a smooth, Afro-sporting granny under the disco ball’s nauseous shimmer and stutter.

Throughout disco, male vocalists strained to pitch up their voices to sound more and more what we think sounded like a woman. It finally became oppressively clear what disco actually threatened. In the pursuit of sounding like a woman, whether or not this was the acknowledged goal, these singers threw into question so fundamentally the concept of gender identity. If disco depended in large part on this brand of vocals, essentially an emasculated one, then perhaps society saw the genre as a potential destabilizing force, one capable of undermining the security of the established gender roles. Beneath all the jokes about disco’s camp and corny glitz, maybe there brewed an unconscious anxiety about something more seemingly malevolent, something more upsetting to today’s culture norms, something acutely connected to the sexually ambiguous voice.

For a time, this theory of disco and cultural revulsion calcified in me, dormant and only partially resolved. Then I was introduced to the tradition of the castrato. The castrati were a class of male vocalists who sang in what sounded to be an unnaturally high soprano, like that of a woman. This effect was achieved by castrating a pre-pubescent boy, thus preventing normal adolescent development. Ridiculously enough, aside from the obvious anatomical discrepancy, this practice drew upon similar philosophical implications that I encountered when musing on the voices of Walter Jones, the Bee Gees, and Donald Byrd. Whatever the castrato and his voice symbolized in 18th century society, a culture that Thomas Laqueur illustrates as quintessentially different from our own, then the disco vocalist must necessarily be of the same breed.

Laqueur’s examination of pre-Victorian social order zeroes in on the perception of a sexual hierarchy, particularly the scientific understanding of the male and female anatomies, claiming people “interpreted the female body as merely an inferior and inverted version of the male body, all of the woman’s reproductive organs simply underdeveloped homologues of male organs” (viii). The implication here is that sex then was not divided discretely by the male and female anatomies like it is today, but was something demonstrated on different levels of perfection. Roger Freitas, influenced by Laqueur’s social discourse, effectively places the castrato within the 18th century context. According to the one sex model, “castrating a boy before puberty, then, did not throw his sex, in the modern sense, into question. It merely froze him within the middle ground of the hierarchy of sex,” located somewhere linearly between the different degrees of male and female (204).

The tradition died out in the 19th century when Victorian principles transformed society’s general notions of gender into the binary system we’ve adopted today, outlining the rigid roles and expectations for men and women. This left no place at all for the sexually ambiguous castrati, as “both castrati and young boys were described as effeminate,” which “nowadays… might imply homosexual leanings” (205). So the castrato and his voice, as an inextricable marker of his vague gender identity, were, in a sense, historical relics of a different sexual code, one deeply contradictory to our modern version.

As I thought about the legacy of the castrati, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to disco music and its surrounding scene. Quite frankly, disco was way fruity. It had bright percussion and bouncy bass lines. It attracted a large homosexual following and, most importantly, many of the male singers possessed voices that sounded almost like a contemporary castrato- womanly and delicate. As being such, it failed to fit definitively into the role of one of the two opposing sexes.

On July 12, 1979, a few Chicago-based Rock Radio DJs organized an event at Comiskey Park where tens of thousands gathered to collectively burn their disco records, an event which came to be known as “the day disco died” The audience raged in the stadium, ultimately becoming violent and riotous. The fervor for which the public wanted disco dead was intimidating. Famed rock critic Robert Christgau called it a “homophobic rebuttal” in a 1979 article for the Village Voice, but in fact the “disco sucks” movement was rooted in some of our most sensitive insecurities about gender and identity. It was extinguished by the mainstream for the same reason that the castrati fell from grace in Victorian society. These men that sounded like women, whether they knew it or not, eschewed the cultural safety of a distinct sexual character. The voice, in many ways, is the most intimate expression of the self and all that comprises it, gender included. So for Jones, Gibb, Byrd, and any other girly sounding man, their distinct androgyny battered at the social foundations of sexual definition, where many of us still forge our sense of selfhood and security. In short, this made the mainstream very uncomfortable. Who knew disco was so subversive?

Works Cited

Christgau, Robert. "New Wave Hegemony and the Bebop Question." Village Voice New York 22 Jan. 1979. Print.

Freitas, Roger. "The Eroticism of Emasculation: Confronting the Baroque Body of the Castrato." The Journal of Musicology 20.2 (2003): 196-249. JSTOR. Web. 26 Mar. 2010. .

Gallagher, Catherine, and Thomas Walter. Laqueur. The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California, 1987. Print.

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