EDM, Disco Share Cultural Niche

Kyle Seasly

I know I can recall the silly outfit that John Travolta wore on the cover of “Saturday Night Fever.” His outfit, which represented the peak of disco’s popularity, made it seem like he emerged from a different, sillier reality. Discothèques, or discos, emerged in the 1970s and peaked in the latter part of the decade. They represented a place where urban bourgeoisie people could dance, snort cocaine and socialize. It offered an alternative music to the domination of rock music. Discos were also notorious for sexual promiscuity –– on and off the dance floor. These various elements drew criticisms from right-wingers, intellectuals and rock musicians. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo noted that disco was “like a beautiful woman with a great body and no brains.” Indeed, from a historical standpoint, disco seemed to offer nothing but hedonism, and fostered apathy and a lack of creativity among its fans. Disco is indeed catchy at some times, and it’s certainly danceable, but disco does seem to lack punch, as well as soul. Currently, EDM (electronic dance music) shares in many of these same qualities. Does this mean EDM will “die” just like disco did? Who knows? But culturally they occupy a similar niche.

I can’t think of a person I’ve ever met who, when I’ve asked what type of music they like, immediately listed disco. That being said, I’ve heard just about everything else. According to pop culture commentator Chuck Klosterman, we all went to high school with the kid who always wore Led Zeppelin shirts and had long hair (and I know I certainly did). We all have seen metalheads, Deadheads, Phishheads, punks, hip-hop fans, emos, goths, rastas and the like. I don’t mean to stereotype anyone here, but these styles of music and dress are apparent. So why no more disco, if it was such a cultural sensation? We see no one dressed like John Travolta unless it’s ’70s dress-up night somewhere, and even there the person wearing the outfit doesn’t take it seriously. Is it because of the backlash of people who wore “disco sucks” t-shirts? Or one of the most famous baseball games in history where over 50,000 Chicagoans burned disco records and had to be put down by riot police?

No one listens to disco because it was a mostly hedonistic pursuit that only the privileged could pursue. Disco wasn’t exactly an intellectual or artistic pursuit, which is perhaps why musical history has frowned upon it. Only those with upper-class standing could afford to go to the expensive discos such as Studio 54 in New York. I would argue that EDM is also in this vein. They don’t have the silliest outfits, but the rave gloves are equally as silly. MDMA is as equally popular as cocaine was (or more so) at EDM events. No EDM fan will argue that their music is purely an artistic statement and not any fun. Indeed, it seems EDM is following the same trend as discos. Instead of discos, however, there are clubs that host raves or music festivals. Will EDM crash and burn like disco and be dismissed? Only time will tell.