The dangers of looking at old music through today’s eyes: Alan Cross

After a couple of rough days (including having my parked car bashed while I was grocery shopping), I decided I needed some nostalgic laughs for relief. I searched around and finally decided on 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High because I remembered it being really, really funny.

Instead, I was kind of appalled at some of what I saw. Sure, Spicoli was still amusing and the relationship between Brad and his sister Stacy had its poignant moments, but there were a few scenes of teenage nudity that, had they been shot today, might be classified as kiddie porn in some jurisdictions. (To be fair, Jennifer Jason Leigh, the actress who played Stacy, was 19 when the movie was shot, but she was definitely playing someone much younger.)

This got me thinking about other classic movies that would cause outrage if they were made today. Would Mel Brooks have made Blazing Saddles (1974), a film loaded with racial stereotypes and N-bombs, in today’s environment? Think about the jokes made at the expense of Otis Day and The Knights in Animal House (1978), not to mention Pinto’s accidental statutory rape of the mayor’s 13-year-old daughter? Then there’s Airplane! (1980) which featured plenty of cracks about child molestation?

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We can flip the conversation to music. It’s hard to imagine a song like Alice Cooper’s School’s Out (1972) becoming a hit in the era of school shootings. Or what about Ted Nugent’s homicidal rough sex fantasy in 1975’s Stranglehold? And you gotta admit that it’s creepy hearing Gene Simmons sing about his crush on a high school girl in KISS’ “Christine Sixteen.” (1977) (I have more examples here.)

All very un-PC material, for sure.

The good news is that all these examples (and our reactions to them) prove that we continue to evolve in matters of race, gender issues, sexuality, and other issues of societal behavior.

This long preamble brings me to an infamous protest against disco music at Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 12, 1979, and its continuing dissection.

Steve Dahl, an announcer at WLUP, one of the city’s rock stations, convinced the owners of the White Sox to let him burn a bunch of disco records in the break between a doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers. The team agreed because frankly, they were hurting at the gate and could use a few extra bodies in the door.

Instead, 59,000 people showed up.

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Dahl, arriving on the field in a Jeep and wearing a pseudo-military uniform, detonated a pile of disco records stacked in center field with dynamite. Fans chanting “Disco sucks!” swarmed the field, forcing the Sox to forfeit the second game of the doubleheader. Dahl’s Disco Demolition Night has gone down as one of the best/worst radio promotions ever.

Analyses of what happened that July night keeps popping up from time to time, most recently in this article, which declares Disco Demolition Night to be racist and homophobic and completely reprehensible. Why? Because disco was born in the gay clubs of New York, a spin-off of black dance music and championed by Latinos. Therefore, any reaction against this music is inherently racist and homophobic.

Herein lies another example of trying to judge the past using today’s standards.

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Back in 1979, I was in the midst of my coming-of-age-musically years. My friends and I were ROCKERS, addicted to loud guitars, thundering drums, and over-the-top displays of power. To us, disco was a threat to GOOD MUSIC. It was mindless 4/4 dance music that all sounded the same and yet was threatening to eclipse our music when it came to the musical zeitgeist.

Because we lived on the Canadian prairies, connected to the rest of the world by only three TV channels, local radio, a few movie theatres, the occasional issue of Rolling Stone, Circus, or Creem (and, it goes without saying, no internet, let alone social media), we had no idea of disco’s roots or the struggles that went into its creation. “Gay” was still a synonym for “happy.” Black music was the funkier stuff we heard on AM radio. Latino music was mostly the stuff of cultural festivals and the Santana albums played on the city’s one FM rock station.

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To us, the enemy was the Bee Gees and their ilk. We despised the Tony Manero clones in their Saturday Night Live finest who had begun to line up outside Winnipeg’s pop-up discos. We were concerned when our favourite live music venues stopped booking in bands and started hiring DJs.

Our music was under siege.

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There was nothing racist or homophobic about this because we had no idea there was a racial or gay element to the object of our hate. It was the music we couldn’t stand.

And we weren’t alone. Rock fans in many other parts of North America rebelled against disco for the very same reasons. If you were around in the late 1970s, you’ll remember how reviled disco was, not just by regular fans but by critics, too.

We weren’t right-wing rednecks; certainly, no one in my group could be categorized as such because they were all NDP supporters. And we certainly weren’t “future Trump voters,” as the article I cited above says. To suggest that would give us far more credit when it came to our knowledge of the enthno-sexual roots of disco. In fact, we were completely ignorant of all that.

Since then, though, disco has undergone a re-evaluation. Its roots, its culture, and its importance to societal evolution have been acknowledged. The era is worthy of study from a multitude of angles, including deconstructing the music in terms of composition, production, performance, presentation, and consumption.

And let’s not forget the disco culture was an important precursor to the funk and hip-hop cultures that soon began to emerge in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

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In other words, it was a good and important thing that disco happened. Great things came of it. Eventually.

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I don’t dispute for a second that there were some pockets of rock fandom that saw the fight against disco as a chance to push back against the threat of homosexuals, black culture, and Latinos. But in my experience, to my recollection, and based on my research, they did not speak for the majority. Not even close. To suggest that smacks of revisionist thinking and an attempt to paint the actions of 1979 with the mores of 2018.

To accuse everyone who hated disco back in those days of being a racist or homophobe is just plain wrong. We cannot judge events of 40 years ago through modern (and evolved) standards created through the intervening decades. Context is everything when it comes to history. What was once acceptable grew to be unacceptable. What worked in one era would not work today — and, in some cases, vice-versa.

If disco were to be invented today, would we look at it differently? Would it be embraced in other ways? Absolutely. Would it result in widespread rebellion driven by white-hot hate? Most likely not. Like I said, we’ve evolved.

But back then, we were just rock music fans who didn’t like what we were hearing. Full stop.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

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