Disco music, since its mainstream popularity in the late-1970s, generally gets unfairly criticized and misrepresented. If your only cultural reference points for disco are novelty tracks like Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck” or any of the endlessly parodied clichés, then you truly do not understand the significance of disco music.
Disco, in its earliest inception, was a countercultural response to the dominance or rock music on commercial radio. For members of marginalized community like African Americans, Hispanics, and the LGBT community, the hard and heavy, rhythm and blues elements of popular rock music did not reflect their values, heritage, or culture. Those groups did not see a place for themselves in the mainstream, so they carved out a niche where they would not be stigmatized for dance music. This was the birth of disco.
Disco and dance clubs became spaces for marginalized communities, especially the LGBT community in New York, to express themselves without ridicule or threat of violence from rock, fans, the general public, or the police. As the appeal of disco music began to broaden and bleed into the mainstream, with its up-tempo soul and heavy beats, disco quickly transitioned form being a unique, underground form of self-expression to a broad label that could be attached to any danceable, “four on the floor” style music and marketed at disco.
With the widening popularity of disco, it began to overtake space in the cultural arena that had been dominated by rock and roll. Seen as vapid, escapist, and, according to Mark Motherbaugh, “a product of the political apathy of the era,” disco was targeted for occupying a space that those in power, rock fans and musicians, felt entitled to. The vitriol that disco music experienced reflects larger systemic forces than just music. The admonishment of disco was a statement against minority groups and were subjected to homophobia and racism.
Amidst all the cultural backlash against disco music, the most significant event in the “Disco Sucks” movement was Disco Demolition Night. A black mark on the history of Chicago music, Disco Demolition Night was a promotion held at Comiskey Park on July 12th, 1979. Between the game of a doubleheader between Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers, a crate of disco records was to be ignited on the field in an explosive and violent display as a cultural statement about rock’s perceived dominance.
Steve Dahl, a local shock jock and a force behind the “Disco Sucks” movement, campaigned heavily for the event. While only about 20,000 people were expected, Dahl’s aggressive campaign brought in 50,000 ardent disco haters brought records to burn and to declare their musical supremacy. Vinyl not collected by stadium staffed were hurled like frisbees onto the field.
Fueled by adrenaline and their commitment to rock’s superiority, fans rushed the field after Dahl blew up the piled of records collected. Riots ensued and a few dozen people were injured during the mayhem with the same game of the doubleheader postponed and then eventually cancelled. Cited as the start of disco’s cultural decline, Disco Demolition Night became an embarrassment to Major League Baseball and Chicago. Disco was a space and genre that was coopted and appropriated from the underground and eventually popularized at such a rate that it became dangerous to enjoy and whose supporters experienced racism and homophobia from those who feared losing cultural dominance and power in music.
On June 13th, 2019, nearly 40 years after the riots of Disco Demolition Night, it was reported that the Chicago White Sox would give away 10,000 t-shirts commemorating the night Steve Dahl manifested his hate for disco in a violent act of white supremacy. It was also reported that Steve Dahl would throw an honorary pitch on the field where had had perpetrated a violent act four decades prior.
After much backlash, the Chicago White Sox issued a statement that they would review the event saying
This year’s Disco Demolition T-Shirt giveaway was intended to recognize the anniversary of a historic off-the-field moment that has been connected to the organization over the past 40 years. It is a recognizable part of Chicago baseball history. We recently were made aware of comments criticizing the T-Shirt giveaway and are in the process of reviewing feedback. We have been communicating with our community partners who have raised concerns to make it clear that the intent of this giveaway was only meant to mark the historical nature of the night 40 years later. We have reinforced that the White Sox organization is dedicated to advocating for a safe, welcoming ballpark experience for all people and communities, and will continue to engage in important, informative discussions with our fans and partners to build toward positive change through sports. We remain proud of our franchise’s longstanding record on advocating for inclusion and diversity.
As white nationalism, fascism, and white supremacy are emboldened under a Trump presidency, we must be aware of problematic events in history. Traditions are not always a good thing because of the dynamics that created and continue to support the tradition. Whether they be enforced because of outdated racial, gender, or other social factors of their time, modern society must move past those things, recognize the circumstances that allowed them to occur in the past, and not advocate for their relevance in a modern context. In this case, those who do not understand what Disco Demolition Night represented, they likely do not care or even support it.
Steve Dahl was, and still is, a hack. Not only is building a persona around one’s racism and homopbia problematic, but riding on that persona and its connection to a violent display forty years on is tasteless. Dahl’s only claim to fame is that he hated disco. And, oh man, did he hate disco.
A travesty, though not on the scale of Disco Demolition Night, is Dahl’s musical output. He hated disco so much that he decided to parody the genre for his own gain. Recording as Steve Dahl & Teenage Radiation, Dahl released the single “Do You Think I’m Disco?” in 1979. A parody of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” already a spoof on disco according to the song’s co-writer Duane Hitchings, Dahl proves that his appeal his very limited, his comedy banal, and his satire being anything but that.
If you all know about disco comes from the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was overplayed and commercialized beyond recognition from its origin, I encourage you to listen to the movement’s early days. You can feel the power of freedom and expression in the music. Listen to it, appreciate what it represented, and respect the modern movements that mirror disco’s initial purpose.