Disco Fever

In light of the Library of Congress’s Bibliodiscotheque, disco celebration, let’s consider the essential disco songs. Want to hear the songs themselves? Check out the “Robin’s Disco Delights” Spotify playlist, which includes all of the songs mentioned here.

If I had to pick a single soundtrack for the disco era, I think I’d have to go with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Though it is incomplete, so many of those songs are what immediately come to mind when I hear the word disco: yes, the obvious Bee Gees songs like “Night Fever,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “More Than a Woman,” and “You Should Be Dancing,” but also songs like “Disco Inferno” by the Trammps, “Boogie Shoes” by KC and the Sunshine Band, and “If I Can’t Have You” by Yvonne Elliman. Plus, the movie just brings to mind exactly what we think of the disco era.

While Saturday Night Fever was a film about disco made during the era, Netflix’s The Get Down is a modern production that looks at the end of the disco era as it gave way to hip-hop in the late 1970s. The tension between booming disco and burgeoning hip-hop plays out in many ways, including the main character’s conflict between helping his (kinda sorta) girlfriend, who dreams of becoming a disco star and his friends as they seek to become DJ stars in their own right. The clothes, the club, and the soundtrack of The Get Down bring the Bronx of the late Seventies right into your living room.

Holding Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees, and John Travolta up as the voices and face of disco, however, erases much of who and what disco was for and about. In the article I Feel Love: Disco and it’s Discontents by cultural critic Tavia Nyong’o (Criticism 50 no1, 101-12 Wint 2008) he articulates it this way: “The unhappy hybridity of disco is still evinced in the uneasy status of its foremost cultural avatars—The Bee Gees and John Travolta, playing Tony Manero—white men occupying vocal registers and striking choreographic poses that usurp the disco diva and the gay man while at the same time infringing upon, even denaturing the very white masculinity that such a colonizing move is supposed to secure.”

If I had to name the most iconic disco artists, I think I would go with Donna Summer. Oddly enough, she’s one of the few people not on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but I can’t think of disco without either of them. When I was trying to pick “a few” songs for this list, I kept thinking that the next one couldn’t be left out. We can’t talk about “Hot Stuff” and not talk about “Bad Girls.” We can’t talk about “Love To Love You” and not talk about “Heaven Knows.” “Dim All the Lights” is probably my favorite Donna Summer song, but everybody knows “Last Dance.”

The Essential Donna Summer Collection
  • “I Feel Love”
  • “Hot Stuff”
  • “Last Dance”
  • “Bad Girls”
  • “Love To Love You”
  • “Heaven Knows”
  • “Dim All the Lights”
  • “On the Radio”
  • “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”a duet with Barbra Streisand and a much better girl power song than Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (yeah, I said it.) And, probably the sassiest Streisand has ever been.

But, it’s also worth noting that much of what we think of as disco is coming from a past perspective. My thoughts on the era are a weird mix of nostalgia for an era I barely remember, and are completely different from those of someone who had a different experience of the time.

That said, I love disco. I love almost every glittery-disco-ball-wacky-pantsuit-platform-shoes moment of it, though the music world got sick of disco pretty quickly. So quickly, in fact, that there was exactly one year where it was specifically in contention at the Grammys. In 1980, Best Disco Song was a category at the Grammys; before the 1981 awards ceremony rolled around, the Academy had gotten rid of it. Disco had fallen out of favor and they preferred to  pretend it had never happened. A shame, really, because so many of those songs we know and love to this day deserve to be recognized.

So, what’s on my disco playlist and why? First and foremost, it needs to be danceable. This is, literally, the definition of disco. You can argue about many other things (do you need a singer? Do you need a horn section? Are those gimmicky songs and acts like the Village People their own subgenre of disco? What are the exact dates of the disco “era?”) but you can’t argue about the fact that you have to be able to dance to it.

Essential Disco Playlist
  • “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel“—Tavares.  The band also did a bunch of the songs we associate with the Bee Gees and, while I prefer their version of “More Than a Woman” to the Bee Gees version, I can’t say that about the others.
  • “Love Sensation”Loleatta Holloway. A mostly throwaway song, but echoes back to the Nineties, when Mark Wahlberg sampled it for “Good Vibrations,” during his two-minute rap career.
  • “He’s the Greatest Dancer”Sister Sledge. Reincarnated in Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy wit It,” the original still makes you want to get up and dance.
  • “Le Freak”Chic.  I just saw Chic a few years ago in concert, and it’s like they haven’t changed a bit over the years.
  • “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”Sylvester. Sylvester was one of the artists who was new to me because these songs don’t even get nostalgic airplay. But, when I mentioned disco to someone who was there during the height of the party scene, this was the first person he mentioned. And now, it’s one of the songs that define the era for me.
  • Diana Ross, queen of the Motown era, had a couple pretty fantastic disco hits: “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down.”
  • “It’s Raining Men”Weather Girls. Good luck going to any kind of gathering with a DJ, and not hearing this song. If that isn’t withstanding the test of time, I don’t know what is.
  • “Knock on Wood”Amii Stewart. It’s okay to be a one-hit wonder if that one hit is really good.
  • “Ring My Bell”Anita Ward
  • “I Love the Nightlife” —Alicia Bridges
  • “Don’t Leave Me This Way”Thelma Houston
  • “I Will Survive”—Gloria Gaynor. The song that won the one and only disco Grammy in 1980. You can’t have a disco list without this song, I guess.
  • “Turn the Beat Around”Vicki Sue Robinson. The 1994 remake by Gloria Estefan was good, but the original has yet to be topped.
  • “Best of My Love”—Emotions. This song was produced by Earth, Wind, & Fire’s Maurice White.
  • “Boogie Wonderland”Earth, Wind, & Fire. Yeah…is it disco? This is one of those songs that may be classified as disco because of its release date. Okay, and maybe because of the clothes in the video. But, the sound, like most of EWF, refuses to be siloed into a particular genre or era. This one also features The Emotions, who were solidly disco.
  • I wouldn’t call Michael Jackson disco, but…well, there was Off the Wall which, in my opinion, was his best album. And on that album, there was disco. Strangely enough, the song that was nominated for best disco song in 1980, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” is not one of them. (sorry, Academy! I disagree with your choice.) That song is a mix of a lot of different styles, but there are other clear disco hits on that CD: “Off the Wall,” “Get On the Floor,” and my favorite, “Rock with You.”

Robin Bradford is a Collection Development Librarian at Timberland Regional Library, WA, where she orders adult fiction, feature films (and TV!), and music CDs. She was chosen the Romance Writers of America 2016 Librarian of the Year.

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Stephanie Klose (sklose@mediasourceinc.com, @sklose on Twitter) is Media Editor, Library Journal.

Comments

  1. Rico Suave says:

    Robin,
    You had me at Loleatta Holloway!
    .

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