Fandom part 2: Burn, baby, burn
Disco demolition and getting stuck at the Hotel California
Last week, I wrote about the deep personal connections we establish when we become fans of something and how this can inform the representation of our identities. Don’t worry if you didn’t catch it, but it’s here in case you want to circle back.
I hinted at a darker side to that personal bond of fanhood, which is the subject of this - part 2 of the series on fandom. I’ll take a look at how my feelings about electronic music were shaped by a reactionary backlash against disco that turned very very ugly.
When we last left our heroes…
Last time, I wrote about my complicated relationship with New Order and how my affinity towards its previous incarnation as Joy Division led me to oppose their successor reflexively.
I also can’t deny my ambivalence towards New Order was also fueled about the prevailing attitudes of rock music in Central Ohio where I grew up in the 80’s. If I were to single out one way in which that band stood out, it’s how they were able to translate the music they heard in pioneering NYC dance clubs such as the Paradise Garage and Danceteria into something that a rock ’n roll band would play. Something suitable to live “performance,” as compared to a DJ mixing pre-recorded vinyl. It was electronic, yes, but played live on stage.
To oversimplify things, New Order developed an indisputable crossover appeal while still being respected by the community that inspired them. Because of this, they felt electronic to me in a way that raised my suspicions. As I mentioned, I grew up on classic rock. In the mid to late 80’s, the only kind of electronic music on our radar was disco - specifically the highly commercialized disco that followed the success of the film, Saturday Night Fever.
I’d like to say that teenage me would have been able to appreciate the great disco music I’ve since discovered, but that would be incredibly far-fetched. I was still really attached to the ideas of what good music should sound like, ideas that were being provided through local classic rock radio and my peers. I grew up in an era of anodyne teen pop such as New Kids on the Block, Tiffany, and Debbie Gibson and craved grit and attitude. Electronic music (meaning disco) did not match those ideals for me. And it turns out I was far from alone.
If I’m being honest, part of my attitudes towards disco must have stemmed from an anti-disco movement - which reached national infamy elsewhere in the Midwest at Disco Demolition Night, a baseball promotion by the Chicago White Sox at their ballpark in July of 1979. It was the brainchild of the Sox director of promotions, Mike Veeck along with local rock radio station WLUP (known as “The Loop”). The station enlisted one of their DJs, Steve Dahl, to encourage his fans to participate.
For Dahl, it was personal - he was a rock radio DJ who was abruptly fired from WDAI on Christmas Eve (!) when it switched formats from rock to disco in 1978. He was then hired by the Loop to be part of their programming stable - joining in their own recent switch to AOR, a rock-oriented format known for its reliance on a limited playlist of rock with a focus on the late 60’s and 70’s. Such was his resentment that he would start his shows by playing a disco record, only to interrupt it by knocking it off its groove and playing an explosion sound. To tie in with this theme, the participants of Disco Demolition Night were specifically instructed to bring disco records to violently destroy on the field between the two games of a doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers.
I bet you can see where this is going - with his exhortations, his fanbase turned Disco Demolition Night into a near-riot, with tens of thousands of unruly fans crowding the stands and an estimated 7,000 that overwhelmed an inadequate security presence and stormed the field after Dahl denoted a box of disco records in the outfield - a sequence of events that ultimately forced the cancelation and forfeiture (by the White Sox) of the second game.
Video of the event can be found online, and it’s striking to watch, even without including the invasion of the field that was shortly to come. Dahl in his military get-up (because why?). When he leads a chant of “disco sucks,” the ballpark’s organist plays along. A fanbase promised the spectacle of violence would soon become violent. It was a dark day.
You’d think that an event like this would lead to some kind of repudiation of this kind of antics, but it more consequentially led to disco’s star falling - it seemed like the country was getting tired of what it perceived to be a fad. Disco, like many dance music genres, was very much of a time and a place. But looking back now, it feels like the reaction against disco was also a reaction against who gets to make music in America. Disco was a music that emanated from coastal cities, and had long ties to BIPOC and LBGTQ communities.
And that feeling was there for those who were around at the time, too - DJ Lady D, a Black house music DJ in Chicago who was ten on Demolition Night, put it this way:
I think part of what Steve [Dahl] tapped into was a little bit of this unspoken transcript, that, ‘This is the music of black people, of gay people, of Latino people — and we should not accept it. We should not try to be a part of it…’ And so that's why people perceive it as a homophobic and a racist event. The unspoken transcript, a lot of us heard it.
Disco may have disappeared from our local airwaves, but it feels like anti-disco lingered in the air. How could it not? That’s how a culture of embattlement works - once you put up your defenses, it’s hard to let them down.
Life after disco; the ossification of rock
I took my rockist attitude to college and thankfully became educated by email listservs that opened my ears to so many new sounds. It was the 90’s, when the economics of CDs launched a golden age of independent music for a wide range of styles - including indie rock, rap, and some electronic music subgenres. My tastes got more experimental and I ended up appreciating electronic music through the side door - through a subgenre oriented towards home listening that was loosely called IDM (an abbreviation for the super cringey “Intelligent Dance Music”).
As I walked the complicated tree of electronic music both forwards and backwards, I learned about Detroit Techno, Chicago House, UK Rave, Drum ’n Bass, and so much more - a myriad of genres that succeeded disco in one way or another, all rooted to a time and a place but transcending them. The walls started to come down for me and it seems that trend has continued for successive generations. At this point, I don’t think anyone under the age of 40 even sees a meaningful distinction between electronic and amplified music the way I did - they’re all just different tools to be used in artistic pursuit.
Even though Dahl could claim victory against disco, classic rock was already on its way down. In fact, the same acts whose work formed the canon of the format were incorporating disco into their own music - notably the Rolling Stones with “Miss You,” which was directly inspired by Mick Jagger spending time partying at Studio 54 to a disco soundtrack. The big 80’s hair metal acts like Def Leppard and Guns ’n Roses became the last gasp of classic rock, until grunge made them seem suddenly, irrevocably irrelevant.
On a recent road trip, I saw a billboard for a classic rock radio station in Connecticut and decided to tune in - to find that little had changed since I used to listen religiously to Q96 in Columbus. I hit the end of Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” and after an interminable commercial break (did I mention little had changed?), there was a succession of familiar hits - Led Zeppelin (“Rock ’n Roll”), Neil Young (“Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World,” The Clash (“Rock the Casbah”). It was seven songs before I heard anything remotely surprising - a Van Halen deep cut called “I’ll Wait” that ended the DJ’s shift.
It might seem that the Steve Dahls of the world got their way, preserving a view of music that somehow still survives today. But the whole thing reminds me of another classic rock mainstay - “Hotel California” by the Eagles. Ostensibly about the insular, partying ways of a Hollywood elite, it’s a precautionary tale about being trapped in a faded glamour - the party’s over but you can’t bring yourself to leave.
The song was released in 1976 when hard rock was becoming soft - the rebellious edges of rock ’n roll having been smoothed down. Which is the irony of Dahl’s defense of rock music - it was already dying from within.
“Hotel California” isn’t just a critique of clinging to the past - it would come to embody it as well, an anthem of a radio format that would effectively stop changing while all the world around it moved on. It’s like one of those movies where you follow the protagonist only to find out he’s been dead the whole time.
To me, this is the danger of defining yourself in opposition to something - especially one you have no control over. It can have real world consequences that are staggering to see.
More on that next time.
The podcast You’re Wrong About devoted a movie-length episode to Disco Demolition Night. It’s an engrossing listen f you want to dive deeply into the culture of disco, what transpired that day, and what it might mean.
Your musical moment of zen:
Giorgio Moroder, “From Here To Eternity” (1977) - some very, very good disco