The 70s are Back, But Not How You ThinkRoundup
tags: 1970s, music, popular culture, cultural history, LGBTQ history, Disco
Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff is professor of history at the University of South Carolina and author of Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights During the Roosevelt Era and Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker.
America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has naturally drawn comparisons to its military failure in Vietnam. And every mention of inflation has some people warning that we’re on the verge of the 1970s economy, too. Yet these aren’t the only things reminding Americans of the 1970s in 2021. Our culture is also conjuring up these memories for some.
If the disco era is most noted for American narcissism, this summer’s zeitgeist struck a familiar note, with “The White Lotus” reveling in the self-absorption of the 1 percent. HBO’s general roster, from the “Gossip Girl” reboot to “The Undoing” and “Succession,” mines wealthy New Yorkers whose indulgence drives story lines.
The appeal of these ’70s themes hasn’t escaped show business tastemakers either. Streaming services have recently featured a Halston biopic, a documentary on the Bee Gees and another focused solely on the music of 1971. Ryan Murphy’s new “American Crime Story” will center on Studio 54. These productions, and others like them on the docket, echo today’s cultural climate in critical ways.
Disco itself — a dominant driver of ’70s culture — was a product of the social and political upheavals of the 1960s. By the early 1970s, years of racial conflict, economic failure, Watergate and an admission to failure in Vietnam cast more than doubt on Age of Aquarius aspirations. Disco was the manifestation of failed utopian ideologies, but also a new form of political expression for marginalized groups. It is perhaps this energy we are reviving with all this cultural production touting and echoing the cultural touchstones of the ’70s.
Disco clubs began appearing in the United States in the mid- to late 1960s. Early institutions such as the Arthur in New York City became central to innovations in sound mixing that would define the genre. DJs mixed albums to create a continuous dance experience without breaks between records. Music, however, was only one component of the genre: Disco was originally an expression that manifested in exclusive clubs, experimental fashions and an uninhibited unification of bodies.
After the Stonewall uprising in 1969, disco really took off. After a long history of anti-gay legislation and sexual repression, Stonewall emboldened gay liberation as well as the chant, “Out of the closets and into the streets.” Gay men who had longed to dance with one another defined the essence of the disco scene, which by the early 1970s was in full force. New York City clubs like the Loft and the Sanctuary, alongside Fire Island institutions such as the Piper, were the refuge that gay men had long been seeking for sex, community and a collective lack of inhibition. The seamlessness of disco music — often pioneered by gay, male DJs — coupled with elaborate and imaginative interior spaces drew gay men in as something they could claim as their own.
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