Disco was developed in the 1970s to meet the demand for danceable music that could be played in nightclubs. People wanted to go out dancing, but the prevailing tides of popular music had shifted in directions like heavy metal, hard rock, and progressive rock that weren't particularly danceable. Disco was born primarily to provide rhythmic dance music for the club scene, similar to the later House Music and Techno music that followed. As a genre, the music itself was a fusion of Funk and pop styles with simple melodic hooks and lots of rhythm tracks layered over a driving beat emphasizing sixteenth-note hi-hat cymbal patterns and a hypnotic, throbbing bassline. Disco took advantage of the newly-popular synthesizer’s ability to produce sustained chords. Some disco songs included lush string section arrangements and orchestral instruments (including the flute, parodied in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy). For a brief time in the late 1970s, disco was the biggest thing ever, spurred on by the blockbuster success of the film Saturday Night Fever and its soundtrack.
Discotheques did more than just play records. The top DJs were renowned for their extensive collection of LPs, 12-inches, and 45s and their skill at creating mixes using two turntables and a mixer to make smooth transitions from one song to another and respond to the dancers' mood. Clubs like New York's famous Studio 54 became the places for the hip and trendy people to hang out and be seen. Disco was more than just music and dancing; it also had a subculture of drugs (cocaine, Quaaludes, nicknamed "disco biscuits," and amyl nitrate "poppers") and promiscuous sexual encounters in the dark corners, fire exit stairs and balconies of dance clubs. Disco is associated with the LGBT scene, as some of the early clubs were private parties where LGBT people could hang out without getting arrested by police acting as Moral Guardians.
Then, even before The '80s officially started, a backlash emerged. Disco's hip and urban image had little appeal to people who were neither, while many fans of white pop and black funk hated disco's fusion of their preferred styles. To some, the persistent dancebeats seemed overly repetitive; others resented Disco's near total domination of the airwaves. Radio stations started advertising "Bee Gees free weekends." The Chicago White Sox hosted a "Disco Demolition Night" promotion that got so out of hand that it turned into a riot. It got so bad that even rock artists who were influenced by disco, like Rod Stewart, were attacked and parodied.
Attacked on all sides and with a powerful image against it, disco was fading fast and completely dead by early 1981, and with it the fashions and styles related to or heavily associated with it (such as flared trousers, open necked dress shirts, platform shoes). For the rest of 1980s, admitting that you liked disco may as well have been admitting to cannibalism. While dance artists like Madonna and Janet Jackson continued to take influence from it and it also had an influence on early Hip-Hop (which used disco samples) and on House Music (also a club-based, DJ-focused dance music), whatever remaining fandom the genre itself still had was restricted to gay clubs, which marginalized it even further. Disco would start to reemerge (or at least, come to the surface for fresh air) during 1990s' wave of nostalgia for the 1970s and its backlash against all things 1980s, mainly in the form of sampling for rap and dance songs (it didn't hurt that most popular dance music, particularly House and its offshoots, can trace its lineage straight back to disco, with some of the same DJs and producers being involved). Still, during this same time, The Simpsons had a character named Disco Stu who was used almost purely for comic relief, showing that the genre was still a ways away from returning to public acceptance.
The backstory to the practice of dancing to recorded music at clubs goes all the way back to the 1940s in France ("disco" is short for "discotheque") in the years during and after World War II, discotheques were a response to the straitened times that made it difficult (and even dangerous, during the Nazi occupation) to offer live bands and floor shows. Similar in concept to the "Juke Joints" of the 1930s only using disk jockeys instead of jukeboxes, discos were a new form of night club based around recorded music and a dance floor that turned their patrons into the floor show in a form of kinetic karaoke. While eliminating bands and floor shows greatly simplified the logistics of operating a nightclub, discos also offered the added advantage that one could simply ditch the turntable and run if the cops raided. Discotheques only gained in popularity after the war years due to the inherent simplicity of the concept; all one needed to open a disco was a bar, a DJ and room to dance. So over the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s discos gradually spread from France to the world’s urban centers as local entrepreneurs caught on to the economic virtues of the idea. Then Disco blazed through music history in its short, but influential run as the hippest fad. At the peak of disco, even non-disco bands added disco tracks, and TV and movie soundtracks all had that ubiquitous sixteenth-note hi-hat pattern and funky basslines.
In the 2020s, it seems as though the former Trope Namer for Condemned by History (originally "Deader than Disco") is becoming a subversion of its own trope. The newest generation of teenagers has grown up with no memory of disco or their parents' hatred of it; to them, it's simply a style of music that they will like or dislike on their own merits. The SiriusXM Disco station probably introduced more than a few new fans, as seen by the surprisingly large reaction to its removal, which forced it to be Un-Canceled. Similarly, the advent of the internet allowed some people to discover disco for the first time after terrestrial radio stations stopped playing it. Finally, music historians who have investigated why disco became so fiercely hated agree that much of the backlash was due not to overexposure but to homophobia and, to a lesser degree, sexism and racism (Disco having succeeded, if only for a brief time, in uniting Americans across color and sexual lines: being an African American music genre that had heavy female participation). In 2020, Disco finally experienced something of a revival in the US, with the emergence of new artists like Dua Lipa and Doja Cat that made disco the core of their sound, while established artists like Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, and even Smashing Pumpkins put out new disco-tinged songs.
Of course, the above only describes the United States. If you ask a Brit or a European about any anti-disco backlash, you will likely get a series of puzzled looks. Across The Pond, post-disco stayed popular well into the '80s, heavily influencing New Wave Music, Synth-Pop and other styles of popular music such as Italo Disco. And in Russia, it lingered well into early 1990s. For much of The Eighties, the global pop charts were dominated by derivatives of Disco, post-disco and Punk Rock. Artists like Amanda Wilson and Laura White now carry its torch proudly into the present day. And this isn't even taking into account Disco's influence on underground music, especially Post-Punk bands like Public Image Ltd. and ex-No Wavers like Material, Contortions and Liquid Liquid, as well as New Wave acts like Talking Heads. All operated under the basic premise of "take a disco beat and pile weird stuff on top of it," often to great and innovative effect. PiL even had a hit with a song called "Death Disco"... although who was singing probably had some effect. There was also the Industrial fascination with synth-heavy Eurodisco, but that's another matter entirely. This marriage of Punk and Disco later evolved into the Alternative Dance genre of the late 1980s and early 1990s as exemplified by bands like Depeche Mode, New Order and Happy Mondays as well as the more overtly disco-influenced Dance-Punk genre of the early 2000s.
Things you're likely to see in a depiction of a disco include:
- A mirrored, rotating disco ball with a spotlight causing it to project shimmering spots on the dance floor is pretty much a given. Fun fact
- An awesome sound system with big subwoofer speakers for deep, throbbing bass that you can feel in your body. Disco clubs were the first venues to experiment with big subwoofers, paving the way for their key role in House music clubs.
- More modern takes will usually feature a DJ station or booth with multiple turntables and a DJ mixer with crossfader. A crossfader enabled DJs to smoothly transition from one song to the next, minimizing dead air.
- A stage, if a live band is performing.
- A central dance floor where the characters can bust some cool moves.
- A fancy light show, including some combination of the following: Lots of blinking colored lights; plain lights hung from the ceiling; floor panels that change color; UV, neon, and/or, in 2020s-era discos, LED lights and signs.
- Pyrotechnics and other cool effects, such as lasers, a smoke machine, bubbles, confetti, or fake snow
- A bar for exotic cocktails
- Frequent mass-organized dancing akin to line dancing or the flashmob, and stereotypically "Disco" moves and poses such as The "Staying Alive" dance.note
Tropes inspired by Disco:
- Coolest Club Ever: Studio 54 was the Trope Codifier with its exclusivity and celebrity appearances.
- Disco Dan
- Disco Sucks
- Gratuitous Disco Sequence
Groups and musicians associated with Disco:
- 1979 - Voulez-Vous
- The Bee Gees
- Blondie's biggest hits "Heart of Glass" and "Call Me" were in this style, although both were a case of Black Sheep Hit
- Boney M.
- David Bowie: Was a vocal critic of the sound and subculture, regarding the former as formulaic (barring more experimental tracks like "I Feel Love") and the latter as perpetuating harmful gender norms, but was still associated with and adjacent to both, later working with disco alums in the early '80s.
- Tina Charles
- Daft Punk: Were hugely influenced by the genre and helped re-popularize it in the early 2010s.
- Claude François
- Leif Garrett
- Gloria Gaynor
- Earth, Wind & Fire
- Electric Light Orchestra (on Discovery and the soundtrack to Xanadu)
- Isaac Hayes (mid-1970s onward)
- The Jackson 5: They moved into this direction from the mid 1970s on.
- Michael Jackson
- 1979 - Off the Wall
- KC and the Sunshine Band
- 1979 - Dynasty
- Kool & the Gang
- Labelle (pre-dated Disco, but the music was influential to the genre)
- Lipps Inc.: Put out the last major hit of disco's first wave with "Funkytown" in 1980.
- Giorgio Moroder
- Klaus Nomi
- 1979 - Prince
- Queen: Infamously attempted a disco album well into the Disco Sucks movement.
- 1982 - Hot Space
- The Rolling Stones (Band)
- 1978 - Some Girls
- Diana Ross
- The soundtrack for]] Saturday Night Fever
- 1979 - No. 1 in Heaven
- Donna Summer
- Robin Thicke: His controversial Breakthrough Hit "Blurred Lines" contributed to the mainstream re-legitimization of disco in 2013.
- The Trammps
- Village People
- Pharrell Williams
- Yellow Magic Orchestra (weren't a straight example, but took major influences from the movement, especially on their first two albums, and were a brief hit on the R&B charts in the west)
Media representative of or depicting the Disco Era:
- Boogie Nights
- Love at First Bite
- Saturday Night Fever
- The Spy Who Loved Me: Features a heavily disco-inspired soundtrack by Marvin Hamlisch, most explicitly on "Bond '77" which scores the opening ski chase.
- On a side note, language textbooks frequently appear horrifically outdated because they always seem to have at least one reference to someone asking for the direction to the discotheque. However, note that "discothèque" is itself a French word imported into English. In Europe, some form of the word is generally used as the term for a nightclub with bright lights and music to dance to, what we in the states generally just call a club.
"¿Dónde está la discoteca?"