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Get down, get funky: Disco gets its due

The polyester, the glitter, the lights. They're all there in a museum exhibit on the sounds of the '70s.

November 26, 2002|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — It's flashback time here in the land of Hendrix. Pulsating colored lights play over a parquet dance floor as disco's signature "four on the floor" drum beat propels lyrics of unbearable lightness:

"We're gonna boogie oogie oogie 'til you just can't boogie no more."

"That's the way -- uh huh, uh huh -- I like it."

"Play that funky music, white boy."

A thousand people mingle, cups of beer and wine in hand, as scores more dance in swirls of spaghetti straps and glitter, polyester and loud prints. Last dance, last chance, indeed.

The good news for disco haters -- and there are many -- is that this isn't a revival, some sort of hip retro embrace like the rockabilly cats and their '50s bowling shirts. Rather, this is a museum, and disco is getting its cultural due on the gala opening night of what is believed to be the first serious exhibit of a musical and social phenomenon that, for better or worse, largely defined the '70s.

"Disco: A Decade of Saturday Nights" runs through May 26 at Experience Music Project, a Gehry-rigged rock 'n' roll museum complex here in the thin shadow of Seattle's famous Space Needle. The exhibit, just across the hall from a permanent display on native son Jimi Hendrix, seeks to lend disco the dignity it failed to attain during its heyday, when it shimmied its way out of New York City's underground party scene and into the American mainstream.

Then, as now, the music oozed idiosyncrasy. Based on exuberant black funk, disco eventually reduced the rhythm section to an icily predictable beat. Its most successful artists were such divas as Donna Summer, with powerful voices that delivered lyrics of epic banality. And while disco was born on the fringes of black and gay urban culture, it quickly became as middle American as mayonnaise on white bread. Even Donny Osmond got into the act.

"Disco at its inception was an underground phenomenon, and it became more mainstream than any pop style before or since," said San Francisco music critic Barry Walter, an advisor to the exhibit, as Barry Manilow's "Copacabana (At the Copa)" blasted from the speakers at Saturday night's party. "At its peak, it was inescapable, and it was a music about escapism."

The exhibit attempts to offer an intelligent, rooted history of a music form that was -- and still is -- widely dismissed by critics as anti-intellectual drivel that existed solely to put feet on the dance floor. Curated by former music critics rather than musicians or music historians, the exhibit leaves disco's musical evolution largely unexplored.

Instead, the exhibit focuses on social connections as it traces disco from its prenatal stages in '60s "discotheques," with their vague sense of internationalism, into the gay subculture of New York City after the Stonewall Riot in 1969. After that, disco became a global sensation even as it seemed to lose, like its '70s cousin punk, its initial purpose.

"Like anything else that starts out as avant-garde, it gets assimilated and changes," said Brian Robinson, a Seattle photography dealer who wandered through the exhibit on opening night. "Pure punk lasted a shorter time than disco, and it was supposed to take over. Everything gets assimilated."

At its peak in the late '70s, more than 15,000 discos were open in the U.S., according to the exhibit. If true, that means disco was more pervasive than McDonalds, which to date has 13,000 domestic restaurants. Disco did seem to be everywhere, from televised dance shows to school lunchboxes and from mainstream magazines to movie theaters, where "Saturday Night Fever" helped launch the career of John Travolta (whose famous white suit is included in the exhibit).

Disco came crashing down as cocaine proved not to be the wonder drug many of its users believed it to be and fear of AIDS put the shackles back on lust. Morality was in and the disco lights gave way to another Travolta-related trend -- "Urban Cowboy"-inspired line dancing.

The hard-core went back underground and listened to house music until the dance-oriented counterculture of the '80s found house, hip-hop and techno music, giving rise to the rave as a new generation embraced many of the impulses unleashed by disco.

The exhibit touches on all the key aspects of disco, from its early insider exclusiveness to its apex as a mass-marketing phenomenon. Songs and oral histories on headsets dovetail with displays of disco diva dresses, short bios of influential DJs and even the "disco sucks" backlash -- including video footage of hundreds of baseball fans rioting at Chicago's Comiskey Park when a local rock DJ burned disco albums on the field in 1979.

Before the marketers got hold of it, before disco became the soundtrack in countless Holiday Inn lounges, the music was the physical expression of emotional freedom, says Ann Powers, a former music critic and one of three curators of the exhibit.

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