The year the Grammys honored disco

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“Rock is dead, I tell you. Kids want something different and that’s it. It was in 1975 when Billy Smith, a promoter of 20th Century Records shouted these words at a melody maker journalist. He must have screamed. The couple were at Le Jardin, a New York club that was just one of many places capitalizing on a popular new fad: disco music. “It’s the next big thing, the next Beatles if you will,” Smith continued. And he was right. In 1979, there were “over twenty-five thousand nightclubs in the United States generating six billion dollars,” writes gender and sexuality historian Gillian Frank. Add to that “over two hundred all-disco radio stations” and the more than four billion dollars a year that disco records brought in, and it looks like Smith had his finger on the pulse. With such popularity, of course the genre was going to be in the spotlight. The Grammy Awards stepped up, introducing their disco category for the 1980 awards. The music that launched a thousand discotheques was to be honored with the industry’s highest honor. Nobody knew that 1980 would be the first and last disco Grammy winner.

Prior to the launch of the specialty category, disco records were featured in the other categories. Previous awards, Frank explains, have pitted disco against rock: Donna Summer opposed Bonnie Raitt; the Bee Gees won four awards, beating the Rolling Stones; and Taste of Honey won out over Elvis Costello and The Cars for Best New Artist. Disco “seemed to take over and threaten the existence of rock”, Frank writes. There were calls for disco to have its own category.

Unfortunately, the category emerged just as disco was experiencing a backlash.

While music was at its peak throughout the 70s, the end of the decade saw it fall apart. As Frank points out, it had a lot to do with the sheer volume of it, “Many commentators agreed that the entertainment market was oversaturated with disco and audiences were simply getting tired of the fashion.” And they expressed that weariness through a series of incidents, including Chicago’s infamous Disco Demolition Night. But there was also another aspect that permeated the Chicago incident, and the others that followed it: homophobia and racism. Disco haters felt that “disco threatened rock music and heterosexuality,” Frank wrote. And one rolling stone The writer interpreted Disco Demolition as “antigay, racist and sexist” due to the overwhelming white and male anti-disco side, and largely gay, black and Latino disco fans and performers. By early 1980, from radio to print, it was as if disco had never existed. As historians Barbara Keys, Jack Davies and Elliott Bannan write, “disco music did not simply fall into disuse to be replaced by new trends, but almost immediately became a source of ridicule and embarrassment”.

Gloria Gaynor ended up winning the Grammy for Best Disco Recording at the ceremony, beating Earth, Wind, and Fire, Donna Summer, Michael Jackson and Rod Stewart (for “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”, a song that saw the rock singer has his own personal anti-disco reaction). The category of disco may have disappeared, but music never disappeared; it has just been renamed. It “was increasingly marketed as ‘dance music’,” Frank explains. Not so different from the now past disco, “but didn’t have the same gay overtones”.


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From: Gillian Frank

Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 16, no. 2 (May 2007), p. 276-306

University of Texas Press

By: BARBARA KEYS, JACK DAVIES and ELLIOTT BANNAN

Australasian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 33, n° 1, special issue: America in the 1970s (July 2014), pp. 1-17

Australia New Zealand American Studies Association

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