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R.I.P. Donna Summer (1948-2012)

Disco may have started out its brief life as dance music promoted by DJs in gay NYC clubs, where it was difficult to find live bands who would actually show up and play. As it gained strength in the late ’70s, it slapped lingering hippie sensibilities right in the face; this was music for dancing, not for introspection. Let’s not sit around contemplating the greatness of artists. Let’s do a line, get up and shake our asses until we collapse, then do another one and keep going.

Like punk, disco’s popularity counteracted the inflated and self-serving 1970s rock scene; its steady, persistent beat and relative lack of formal and harmonic complexity pushed automation and homogeneity rather than spontaneity and individual virtuosity. Drum machines and recycled music de-emphasized the usual interaction between band members and studio aces, and it threatened most fans of traditional rock styles. There was always a palpable homophobia to all those “death to disco” rallies, until, that is, John Travolta’s strut made it acceptable for bros to wear leisure suits and do the hustle.

There’s not a suburban ’70s latch-key kid alive who wasn’t familiar with Donna Summer, disco’s undisputed queen, who passed away this morning after a battle with cancer. “On the Radio,” “Last Dance,” “Hot Stuff” -- these and other 45s revolved on Garrard turntables and blared through overgrown, fuzzy-surfaced speakers in suburban New Jersey in 1979. I remember flailing around in our basement, in total darkness, with my sister and all our crazy neighborhood friends, spinning “Bad Girls,” after which we’d throw on the Village People, the Bee Gees, the Grease soundtrack or Saturday Night Fever. Travolta was gold; so was Summer, who nobody suspected was sick. She’d managed to stay out of the spotlight in recent years. As disco developed into a cultural phenomenon marketed toward young, urban Caucasian dancing idiots, all the (sort-of) macho rock dudes -- the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, even Kiss -- succumbed to the craze.

40 years seems to be the accepted time-lapse for trends in pop culture to come back into vogue. (There was a recent New Yorker article about this.) I’m fully expecting in another year or so for shows to start hitting the disco thing hard; maybe Mad Men will jump the gun a little and find its way to the mid-’70s. In the meantime, I’ll be digging up those old 45s and seeing if they still work their magic. RIP, disco queen. 

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