Disco Will Persevere and So Will We
In 1978, during the apex of disco, Gloria Gaynor proclaimed “I Will Survive,” and the world listened. A year later, disco was declared dead. Disco is one of the most resilient genres to ever exist. Hated from the beginning due to its social and political context in America, disco has fought to the death for its survival. Its many reincarnations still fight today for their rightful place in American popular music canon.
Disco was born on Valentine’s Day in 1970, and had its debut at The Loft nightclub in New York City. New York City’s marginalized youth fled to The Loft and discotheques of the like to escape the prejudice of Richard Nixon’s America. Disco-ers were unsatisfied with America. The Watergate scandal had just transpired; queer people, women, and people of color were still enduring extreme prejudice; a recession was unfolding as a new president, Jimmy Carter, was taking office. Discotheques were safe havens from the harsh reality of being a marginalized person in the 1970s, as the culture of disco was inclusive and inviting. Disco was stigmatized from the get-go because it represented what conservatives in the 1970s hated: sex, drugs, and gluttony. Disco’s audience and warm and tender embrace of dance counterculture made disco Public Enemy No. 1 to disco haters; as it represented vice and sin itself. Despite America’s fervent hate for all things disco, it and all its followers persisted until Disco Demolition Night on July 12,1979, when a crate filled with disco records was blown up on a Comiskey Park baseball field in Chicago—on this night disco was, temporarily, dead.
But after its untimely death, disco once again rose up, persevered, and survived—just in different forms. Disco’s devoted followers didn’t miss a beat and created post-disco, ranging from the stripped down, R&B tinged “boogie” music of Parliament Funkadelic, to the sugary and sarcastic “dance rock” of the Tom Tom Club. The scattering of the disco community made it safer to be a disco fan amidst the Reagan conservatism that dominated much of the 1980s. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Anti Disco-ers had stopped their hollering and disco became a little less taboo. As movies such as Boogie Nights and Forrest Gump popularized disco culture to demographics far removed from it, disco was thrust into the spotlight again, but this time it was a voyeuristic one. During this time, I fell in love with disco: my dad played the BeeGees in the car, I had a disco themed birthday party, I did more research than humanly possibly on the Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress. I enjoyed disco but I didn’t get disco, and I didn’t truly get it until recently, when I discovered vaporwave.
Vaporwave is a micro-genre of electronic music and an all-around internet culture phenomenon that emerged in the early 2010s. Although this style of music may not sound like good ol’ golden age disco, vaporwave champions the modern-day spirit of disco. Born out of millennials’ satirical take on consumer capitalism and popular culture, vaporwave tackles American youth’s dissatisfaction with the society they see and experience around them. At vaporwave’s core is an anti-capitalist sentiment and the idea of inclusion, as vaporware can truly be anything chill, sample-saturated, and nostalgic. Internet forums were the meeting places for vaporwave lovers and many met and discussed all things chillwave on online platforms such as Reddit and 4chan. Pioneers of vaporwave like Ramona Xavier, James Ferraro, and Blank Banshee were essential to creating vaporwave’s Muzak-from-Consumer-Hell sound, but with this consumer satire also came important messages. In Blank Banshee’s 2012 song “Teen Pregnancy,” a theme of desperation peaks through the song’s distorted vocals and overall silliness. “Teen Pregnancy” pokes fun at TV consumers’ fascination with teen pregnancy (16 and Pregnant was already in its 4th season in 2012), but it also discusses how much it sucks to be a kid. About 43 seconds into the track, the vocal samples say repeatedly “I’m just a kid;” somewhat showing empathy and compassion towards Millenials’ existence.
Vaporwave was so important to internet communities in the 2010s because it championed the outsider and uplifted the hopeless with sarcastic and sometimes dark humor. Vapor reached its peak in 2013 when the Swedish rapper Yung Lean burst onto the scene. Yung Lean combined hip-hop and the chill beats of traditional vaporwave. Yung Lean’s boyish and melancholy bars resonated with vaporwave and indie hip-hop fans alike. He was the Internet Prince and the King of the Sad Boys who united two completely separate genres that realized they were more alike than they once thought. However, when Yung Lean released his 2014 album Unknown Memory, vaporwave quietly passed away with its release, because the market became oversaturated and uninspired. Vaporwave, just like disco, was taken over by those who disparaged it in the first place. Alas, disco became white and suburban right before its death. Vaporwave faced a similar fate and became riddled with fascists before it kicked the bucket in 2014.
The story of the many lives of disco is an interesting one. Today you can find disco in the niche corners of Instagram artists’ accounts, and you can even hear the disco masterpiece that is More Disco Songs About Love, a 2018 album by the band De Lux. Disco isn’t just a genre of music or a style of dance, it’s a culture of perseverance and grit, for its supporters, the overwhelmingly marginalized, it is a calling to be persistent, to fight and carry on. Cue Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
Photography by: Jessica Monroe