Disco -- yes! -- gets another spin around the dance floor in the '90s Summer, White lead resurgence of the '70s sound

July 07, 1995|By Adam Sexton | Adam Sexton,New York Times News Service

It has been a decade and a half since the Village People had its last hit record. The 1979 bonfire of thousands of disco records after a baseball game at Comiskey Park in Chicago is now ancient history.

Yet disco songs have been turning up with striking regularity of ++ late in movie soundtracks and beer commercials. Gloria Estefan performs "Everlasting Love" and "Turn the Beat Around" on her current album of purported pop standards, and both songs have been big hits. Donna Summer and Barry White (yes, that Barry White) are touring the alfresco concert circuit this season, the latter in support of his comeback CD, "The Icon Is Love" (A&M).

Perhaps the vintage disco sound returned as long ago as 1990, when Lisa Stansfield and Soul II Soul released their debut albums. Certainly, disco never disappeared from the gay nightlife culture that helped nurture it in the first place. But in the mainstream, the music is truly reasserting itself only now.

But why disco? And why now?

The easy answer is nostalgia. As anyone who has channel-surfed past the VH1 show "Big 80's" knows only too well, each decade ripens for recycling the instant the illuminated sphere in Times Square drops and inaugurates the next one.

There's the camp factor, too.

Forget "La Traviata": you don't know camp until you've bumped under a revolving mirror-ball while Gloria Gaynor belts "I Will Survive."

Oh, and there's one more reason disco struts again among the living: the music. It's . . . well, it's good.

"Of course disco is good music," said Carolyn Krasnow, a doctoral student in American studies at the University of Minnesota, who is writing her dissertation on disco. "People focus on the beat, but if you just pay attention, there's an enormous amount in addition to that beat."

A close listen to "Mighty Real" (EMI), an anthology of dance classics compiled to benefit the music industry AIDS charity Lifebeat, seems to bear her out (the album was expected to hit stores this week). At the very least, after 15 years of industrial and gangsta rap and the like, the amount of sheer warmth to be found among the grooves of one of these supposedly robotic records can be astonishing. Sure, some disco was inane and disposable. But for every boneheaded "Fifth of Beethoven" there was a boogie-on-the-edge-of-breakdown "Stayin' Alive." For every cartoonish Village People, there was an ace Swat team like Chic.

If disco were a ship, Ms. Summer would be the noble figurehead carved into its bowsprit. In contrast to the one-hit wonders who crowded the '70s pop charts, she hung in there. Since the 1975 release of the sexually explicit "Love to Love You Baby," she scored a remarkable 14 Top 10 hits.

Ms. Summer now lives in Nashville. It is little known that she was a co-author of the Dolly Parton country hit "Starting Over Again." She has also branched out since the end of the first disco age, performing rock and roll, jazzy pop and non-disco dance music of various kinds.

Does she resent the way the disco label is still affixed to her? "I don't resent it, as long as it doesn't hold me back," she said by telephone last month from Baltimore, where she was preparing for her daughter's wedding. "I mean, disco's been very, very good to me. I'm just thankful to have been a superstar once in my life."

Regarding disco redux, she offered an analogy: "It's like, recently I took some Geritol. A younger friend of mine offered me some. And I went: 'Geritol! That's for old people.' But it's like a great vitamin! I took it, and I thought, 'This works!' "

Disco certainly did work: It pulled a generation onto the dance floor and kept it there for five years or so. And, contrary to its detractors, disco was never just about the beat, despite the 120 pulses-a-minute bass drums.

"It seems clear to me that it's a very complex, very well-put-together layering of sounds," Ms. Krasnow said. "That's a tremendously difficult engineering and production task. You get this extraordinary beat, and the horns, the classical strings and, of course, the vocals. And you get all kinds of intensities at once, too."

Anything from Beethoven to Barry Manilow, from gospel shouts to German avant-pop was grist for disco's mill, as long as it made people dance. The result, Ms. Krasnow says, was a major shift in the way popular music was made and one that has had a profound impact on rap music in particular, with its cacophonous collage of sampled sounds. "Disco reorganizes music in important ways into this kind of post-modern reconfiguration that is really quite brilliant," she added.

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