As news of the deaths of Disco Queen Donna Summer and the Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb circulated the entertainment world, the passing of the two disco icons carried a particular and personal sting for Miamians.
Their connection with the city went beyond Gibb being a resident of South Florida for many years and having both he and Summer frequently perform here over the years. Disco, as dance music of the 1970s and ’80s was labeled and took root in Miami. It greatly remains the soundtrack of this city.
Nationally, the era was also defined by the syncopated rhythms of disco. The music radicalized many aspects of American life, particularly the way we socialized. Discos had become the place to be. The scene was certainly superficial, though not any more or less shallow than previous “it” spots.
A significant difference in the disco culture was the truer representation of America’s diversity. The face of America had changed. These new Americans were not really new to the American social fabric, but rather minorities that had been marginalized by the mainstream and never had the opportunity to unabashedly express themselves. Disco was a patchwork quilt of the disenfranchised — it was “blacker,” “gayer,” more Latino and more Jewish than any other American pop culture movement.
For many Americans, disco was more than upbeat dance tunes with catchy hooks, it became a symbol of their cultural presence. This is not to say that disco — like most other pop genres — wasn’t musically, artistically and culturally flawed; however, it was undeniably more representative of the country’s distinct flavors.
And yet sadly, by the late 1970s after revolutionizing the popular landscape and dominating the music charts for the latter half of the decade, disco was being scorned and assailed. I am hard pressed to remember any other musical or cultural movement that suffered the virulent backlash that was thrust upon the genre.
The pinnacle of intolerance occurred in Chicago in the summer of ’79 during the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, where a local disc jockey invited listeners to bring their disco albums and burn them during the intermission of a White Sox double-header. This bonfire of diversity signaled there was a hatred for disco music that went beyond a disdain for its sound — it was simply a hate rally aimed at the disco community, code word at that time for minorities.
In Miami, where the cultural divide was being negotiated every day — given the constant influx of foreign refugees and New Yorkers, disco and freestyle music became synonymous with the growth and empowerment of the Cuban-American, gay and Jewish communities in South Florida. The music and its culture earned the wrath of many who had and continue to have a difficult time coping with the political, social and cultural plate tectonics that redefined Miami. Interestingly enough, the hatred for the “disco crowd” made for some strange bedfellows.
Incredibly, many flip-flop-wearing, long-haired, rock-n-rollers who had been at the epicenter of the cultural rebellion in the 1960s and early 1970s were now agreeing with the squares and moralists who criticized them. I guess they never truly ingested or believed in the “free love” and “live and let live” mantras many of these disco haters professed during the hippie era.
Unfortunately, the culture war persists. It is baffling to me how purveyors of pop culture such as Rolling Stone magazine and MTV and all of its derivatives continue to irresponsibly ignore the disco era.
This week, Jon Landau, chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s nominating committee, admitted that not having inducted Donna Summer into the Hall of Fame was an “error.”
This erroneous omission of Summer, as well as other “disco” performers such as Barry White or our hometown’s KC and the Sunshine Band, stand as nothing more than a veiled (yet perfectly transparent) bigoted attack on multiple generations of hyphenated Americans whose cultural contributions demand recognition.