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Disco: From Parody to Homage

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The line between parody and homage is razor thin and is completely dependent upon attitude. It is difficult to maintain the ironic attitude necessary for parody. Without irony, parody becomes homage.

Pop music is full of misunderstood parodies. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” is a bleak commentary upon the values that led to the Vietnam War and the ill treatment of veterans, yet it was trumpeted as a celebration of those values.

Parody of rock ‘n’ roll is very difficult to achieve, because rock ‘n’ roll is so extreme, shameless and ludicrous to begin with (I mean that in a good way. Spike Jones failed miserably at rock and roll parody when his fecund ironic voice was struck mute by the excesses of real rock ‘n’ roll – he couldn’t conceive of musical presentations more outrageous than the originals.

Consider the Diamonds, a white vocal group from Canada who meant to parody what they believed to be the nonsensical excesses of black doo-wop music with “Little Darlin'” in 1957. “Little Darlin'” became the biggest selling doo-wop single of all time. Even more fittingly (or absurdly), it wound up Number 1 on the R&B chart. The parody became the paradigm.

Everyone must hold up his end of the attitude bargain to prevent parody from sliding into homage. It is almost always too much effort. The Collegiate Disco Revival of the late ’80s (which has carried on to this day) illustrates this point.

Winter term, 1988: First one, then another, then virtually every fraternity at USC throws a Disco Disaster party. Every odious musical and apparel excess from the disco era is ruthlessly exaggerated. These people take their parodies seriously. They learn the Hustle. They learn the John Travolta moves from Saturday Night Fever. It is all a big joke: “We are so amazingly clever and superior.”

The parties are huge successes, but even from the beginning there are multiple levels at work: irony alone can’t explain how much fun they have doing the dances that they have learned. Irony alone doesn’t explain why they want to hear “YMCA” (with the de rigueur spelling out of the letters with the body) three times.

Within the attitude necessary to perpetuate parody there is room for exaggerated behavior. One doesn’t have to play it cool when one parodies: one zeros in on fundamental attributes and exaggerates those attributes. Also, one participates unself-consciously because the attention is focused upon the object of the parody, not upon the participants themselves.

In other words, the reason everyone has so much fun is that they participate more, and are less self-consciously than they are at a typical party. In addition, they get to wear costumes. People love costume parties because they can be someone else for awhile.

So everyone throws disco parties, gradually reducing the costume element, gradually working in more of the regular dance music – until suddenly, people are coming up to request “YMCA” with a straight face, without a shred of irony, and spelling out the Y-M-C-A as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

A 30-ish alumnus of the fraternity (and the “Disco Sucks” era) wanders into a party in the frenzied midst of “YMCA”-mania. He is flummoxed into a pre-verbal state. He has met the enemy and it is us. He wanders back out, glassy-eyed, shaking his head and muttering,

“What’s next, the Bee Gees?”

“No, he already played them, ‘The Hustle’s’ next!” chirps a perky co-ed. “Where have you been?”

“In a different universe.”

What begins as parody evolves into irony-less enthusiasm. Irony is too much effort to sustain. As new recruits come along, they don’t even know that the music is supposed to be ironic. Even the original ironists don’t bother any more. Why bother when no one gets the joke?

Another factor in the transformation is the structural way in which music affects feelings. According to philosopher Suzanne Langer in her Philosophy In a New Key, musical structures are analagous to the structure of feelings. Music expresses, “just what is unspeakable in verbal language … music can reveal the nature of feelings with a detail and truth that language cannot approach … music is an abstraction of feelings as is algebra to arithmetic … music sounds the way moods feel.”

Therefore, when we make fun of music, we make fun of the structure of our emotions. This makes us uneasy. The ironic stance crumbles from within, and this leaves the song and the listeners free to respond to each other afresh. We become advocates of something that we had sought to ridicule because through the parody process we have become intimate with the object of the parody and have ultimately come to respect it.

If you can find it, “Y.M.C.A.” is available on the outstanding vinyl double-album disco collection A Night at Studio 54 (1979). Even better than the killer tracks is the fact that the songs are mixed into one another on each side, and the sound quality is hot – unlike many disco collections.

If you are doing a disco party, or just a disco segment at a club, throw on Side One and go take a dump, or dance or something. “Le Freak” by Chic, “Let’s All Chant” by the Michael Zager Band, “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People, and “Disco Nights” by G.Q.

Also on the collection are Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Night Life,” “Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real” (the single funkiest disco song of all time), Karen Young’s “Hot Shot,” Musique’s “In the Bush,” Dan Hartman’s “Instant Replay” (yes, the hard rock Dan Hartman of the Edgar Winter Band, and the nostalgic R&B Dan Hartman of “I Can Dream About You”) and Peaches and Herb’s “Shake Your Groove Thing.”

Check out this Studio 54 tribute site for a great story about a parody gone awry that applies to this collection:

    The Studio also had it own door policy, they wanted to get a perfect mix of people which actually ment that even celebrities was stopped at the door and didn’t get in. This young guy, Marc Benecke ruled the door and was instructed by Steve to mix a perfect sallad every night. That way it didn’t really matter if you was famous or not – you just had to fit it at this time.

    ….This was what happened to Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, when the guys were contacted by Grace Jones who wanted to work with them for her next album. She invited them as her guests to her gig down at the Studio 54. It was New Years Eve in 1977, the guys were all dressed up, it was snowing and freezing cold . . . When Nile and Bernard got to the club the doormen couldn’t find their names on the guest list. Nile and Bernard explained that they “were” Chic and that Grace was expecting them. But the doormen just wouldn’t let them in . . .

    In anger they went back home to Nile and in just 25-30 minutes they wrote a whole song they called “Fuck off”. It went like this… “aaahh Fuck off”. They just know this was a hit song and they [of course] had to change the title to be able to release it. So they changed the text and that line to “aaahh Freak out” and their biggest hit was a fact – “Le Freak”. The song topped the US charts for 6 weeks and “Le Freak” became Atlantic Records biggest selling single ever. It also became the 3’rd biggest single in the music history.

    It’s still the most sold record ever in Canada and the single sold over 6 million copies only in the US. But after 6 million copies sold of the single, Nile and Bernard choose to stop the single to not have it cut down the album sales. Who knows how big it would have become if they hadn’t stopped it!?

    But Nile and Bernard got their revanche… About one year later to this episode at Studio 54, everything releated to the club and its name was a big industry and at this time Ian & Steve were credited as Executive Producers of this Casablanca Records double LP called A night at Studio 54. The top tune and first song out of this album was no less than – “Le Freak”. Ian & Steve thanked their guests like this in the album; “To all our guests at Studio 54, whose energy made this record possible . . . Our sincere Thanks !”

If you don’t dig vinyl, the Pure Disco collection below rocks its own bad self.

And memories of a disco party gone REAL bad are here.

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About Eric Olsen

  • HW Saxton Jr.

    While I’m not a Disco fan in any way,Mr.
    Lionel Hampton did a strange but still
    cool LP of all Bee Gees!!! disco songs
    that’s worth checking out if’n you can
    find it. Substitute Vibes for all those
    testosterone free voices and you get the
    picture.

  • Eric Olsen

    hmm, very interesting!

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    that studio54 gif is pretty cool.

    almost makes me weepy flashing lights embedded in the floor.

    and for the record, i’ve never owned a leisure suit.

  • lorien

    http://www.studio54disco.com

    see you soon

    lorien