On behalf of, I guess, cultural criticism, I spent last night reviewing old Grammy Awards footage, just like Sontag used to. Although the history of this particular industry spectacle (happening for the 56th time on Sunday) suggests that world events are secretly guided by some dads who’ve really gotten into the Mumfords lately, it’s still an illustrative archive, however skewed. The 1979 ceremony I watched was enlivened by some of the usual surreal juxtapositions: Ragtime pianist Eubie Blake (born in 1887) presented Best New Artist, and, as the official site puts it, “the Grammys managed to do what it always does best—highlight all kinds of music, including Chuck Mangione’s flugelhorn hit ‘Feels So Good.’”
What dominated the night, however, was disco, drawing awards for Donna Summer, A Taste of Honey, Earth, Wind & Fire, and the Bee Gees, whose Album of the Year Saturday Night Fever sat atop the album charts for half of the previous calendar year. Commerce has always been one way to impress unadventurous Grammy voters: a year later, whether to recognize or quarantine, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences introduced a dedicated Best Disco Recording category. Then it never handed out the award again, the sea of potential winners supposedly drying up into hard rock. What happened to American dance music in between two trophies?
That lone group of nominees for Best Disco Recording was shockingly well-chosen, given the typical Grammy approach to emerging genres, which reminds me of early European navigation around Australia: they knew something vast was there, but blundered obliviously in exploring it. (The first rapper who ever contended for Album of the Year? MC Hammer.) Alongside the inexhaustible “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” there was Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” and (here the author glances to one side for several moments) Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” You know MJ’s single, vocal abandon amidst the tightest horn charts, the saviour of any wedding dancefloor. “Boogie Wonderland” is a song about clubbing out of forlorn anguish, and validates that so beautifully that I never even realized it until glancing at a lyric sheet. The other nominees don’t untangle so easy.
“Bad Girls” belies the notion that disco was funk’s lesser sister or plasticized clone, snapping to attention with each round of whistle outbursts. Why shouldn’t militancy sound this jubilant? Summer’s vocal is just as nuanced, observing the sex workers of the title from afar and then identifying a common cause: “Now, you and me, we’re both the same / But you call yourself by different names.” They certainly shared enemies; she wrote the song after cops hassled her secretary, thinking the woman was a prostitute. And although “I Will Survive” lurches with inevitability now—a cultural signifier so clichéd it would seem too obvious even in parodies—it escaped the bounds of tastefulness under its own steam. As Tim Lawrence’s disco history Love Saves the Day records, “I Will Survive” was one of the first hits that got over thanks to smitten club DJs, and a rare chart-topping B-side. Grit your teeth and listen to Gloria Gaynor’s performance again. It became flagrant emotional shorthand for a reason.
I can’t muster that kind of charity for “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Like the British music writer Tom Ewing once noted, Stewart is singing a character study, not smirking serenely about his own monumental fuckability. But aside from the keyboard riff’s airy bravado, he renders his theme of halting come-ons as witless caricature, making the lyrical conceit seem more like a pretext. That being the case, I don’t want to hear Rod Stewart offering up his body to the deprived masses of the world. I don’t want to hear Rod Stewart obliquely invoking sex through a system of Joycean literary allusions. The worst thing about having psychic abilities would be any day Rod Stewart felt especially sensual. Biblical apocrypha suggests the serpent came to Eden wearing a crinkly blond perm. “You bring a lady to your place put this song on and Rod has set the table for you!” writes YouTube user “Field Marshal,” also a big fan of Holocaust denial videos.
“I Will Survive” ended up winning the unique keepsake called a Best Disco Recording Grammy, but the presence of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” revealed something too often ignored by people like me, who might prefer to remember disco as a subcultural phenomenon, all sexual liberation, feminist anthems and black pride, briefly encompassing Travolta et al. Rod Stewart had other target markets than the Paradise Garage. The great majority of dancers weren’t found in underground clubs like the Loft or the Gallery, nor the aristocratic hedonism of Studio 54, but in less mythologized places far away from Manhattan, whether that means Bay Ridge or Michigan.
And they were hardly the awkward, uncle-shaped, Reagan-awaiting monolith of stereotype. In Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, Alice Echols recounts her DJing apprenticeship at Ann Arbor’s Rubaiyat: “On those occasions when [the owner] ventured upstairs, he would search the club hopefully for stray heterosexuals or for any sign that the club was tilting straight … The club did have some pretensions to classiness, but the mismatched, sagging booths and bordello red carpets defeated occasional efforts at upmarket sophistication. What the Rubaiyat did have were better-than-average speakers, a heterogenous clientele, and a weekend cover of three dollars.”
At that 1979 Grammys where disco broke through to music’s ultimate taste centrists, even the host John Denver made a horrifying/endearing attempt to emulate “Stayin’ Alive.” Compare its relatively rapid acceptance to rap: no hip-hop records won Album of the Year until 1999, a tally since expanded by one. (Paul Simon has four of them.) The club scene as vanguard seems partly to be retrospective mediation—disco is always already queer. But its oppositional charge was more diffused than rap, its formal departures subtler, its roots in existing black pop easier to trace. After a reactionary backlash helped decimate it anyway, the Grammys didn’t hand out another trophy for dance music until 1998 (Donna Summer, revivified), which just demonstrates how limited awards shows are as histories. Disco shattered into a hundred glinting shards, but certain disparate people retrieved them. So when Daft Punk appear at the Staples Center this weekend, performing a song that could’ve been nominated 35 years ago, I will look for Nile Rodgers, who knows how fragile utopianism can be, and how elastic, too.