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'Hot Stuff' puts a strobe light on disco in the '70s

HOT STUFF: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, by Alice Echols. W.W. Norton & Co., 338 pp., $26.95.

Tuning into PBS one recent Saturday evening, I came across a program called "Get Down Tonight: The Disco Explosion," a cringe-worthy concert featuring K.C. and the Sunshine Band, The Trammps and other '70s hitmakers dusting off the tracks that made them famous more than 30 years ago. How was it possible that this explosive, ecstatic music - music that fueled not only throngs of gay men manifesting their liberation on the dance floor, but also many a Saturday during my Pennsylvania childhood, as I laced up my quad skates at the roller rink to Chic's "Good Times" - was now being used for the squarest of purposes, the public-television pledge drive?

In her exhilarating, perceptive new book, "Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture," Alice Echols notes the bizarre transformation: "Pop music is full of unlikely turnabouts, but surely disco's history - its shift from hot to safe music - is among the strangest." Not that Echols, a professor of American studies and history at Rutgers and the author of books on radical feminism and Janis Joplin, necessarily laments "that disco has become the music of choice at weddings, bar mitzvahs, church dances and fundraisers." If anything, she sees the music's resurgence as signaling the end of "discophobia," the snide belief that disco is just empty, plastic sound.

But Echols' greater task is to rehabilitate disco as the crucial soundtrack of the '70s - an era, all too frequently dismissed as the "Me Decade," when "some of the most significant movements of the '60s - feminism, gay rights and the struggles of racial and ethnic minorities - had their greatest impact." Disco, as Echols astutely points out, integrated American nightlife, fostered gay men's new relationship to public space (they were no longer prohibited from dancing together) and featured not just the hypnotic, orgasmic proclamations of divas like Donna Summer, but also the bolder, funkier experiments within the genre from all-female groups like Labelle.

Enhancing her insightful cultural analysis is Echols' pure love of the music. A part-time DJ at an Ann Arbor, Mich., club while a graduate student in the late '70s, Echols recalls, "Something about this collective yielding to the rhythmic was thrilling to me." She's happy to share the thrills, taking to task disco snobs and revisionists who distinguish " 'good' gay disco versus 'bad' mainstream disco," arguing that the former (played in such legendary Manhattan dance shrines as the Paradise Garage, the Saint and the Tenth Floor) has no monopoly on transgressive, erotic anarchy while the latter (the kind I roller-skated to) is more than just cheap, commercial product.

Although she's quick to point out disco disasters - the Village People receive particular scorn - Echols also reconsiders artifacts from the era, like "Saturday Night Fever," widely reviled by disco purists for mainstreaming their beloved music. In her close reading of the film, Echols praises its desire "to expand, not constrict, the parameters of masculinity," paying close attention to the homoerotic charge of the scenes in which John Travolta is filmed in nothing but his black briefs.

Two years after the phenomenal success of "Fever," however, disco was nearly dead: "Attacked for being both too gay and too straight, too black and too white, oversexed and asexual, leisure-class as well as leisure-suited (loser) class, disco represented anything but a stable signifier. Its ability to arouse such disparate responses meant that disco was fair game for all manner of scapegoating." Thus the bizarre spectacle known as "Disco Demolition Night," held July 12, 1979, at Chicago's Comiskey Park, where 7,000 baseball fans rioted on the field after 50,000 records were detonated by a "fireworks bomb."

Although the 45s and LPs were blown up, the music still had a heartbeat, never really going away. If the term was all but abolished by the mid-'80s, disco continued to show up in many different guises, notably techno and house music. (At a dance party, I once saw a T-shirt that read "Disco Didn't Die - House Murdered It.") Echols' book is an important work of cultural and musical resuscitation, written with a scholar's acumen but a fan's ardor - and concluding with a knockout playlist that will have you pillaging YouTube for hours.

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