Most right-thinking people agree that the pinnacle of American artistic achievement involved racially integrated, heavily African-American groups of musicians playing tunes written by people who were usually at least one, and sometimes two, of the following things: gay, black, Jewish (I mean Billy Strayhorn and Lorenz Hart, not Sammy Davis Jr.). And throwing some Italian-American singers into the mix didn’t hurt either.
A musician friend once told me that he thought American popular music started to go all wrong when record companies got heavily into market segmentation: music for young people, music for old people, music for black people, music for white, music for urban people, music for rural people. And of course, the last forty years of American politics is the story of how Republicans followed the Buchanan-Nixon playbook of using post-civil rights racial backlash to create an almost entirely white Republican majority or near majority. I realize that to some extent it’s like that everywhere, that the British played on religious difference in India to divide and conquer, for example. But it still makes me sad.
So I think Steve M is completely correct about Disco Demolition Night (on its 34th anniversary):
But at the risk of going all Slate-pitchy, I’d like to make the case that Disco Demolition Night was an early harbinger of the right-wing backlash that had become obvious a year earlier with the passage of the anti-tax Proposition 13 in California, and fully took root a year later with the election of Ronald Reagan.
Even if you loathe disco, think about what it was. It was music that was black and white, gay and straight — you could argue that the disco coalition looked like the Obama coalition thirty years later. It was, in part, the music of groups that had had second-class status in America and didn’t want to take that anymore.
Now think about rock in 1979: what had once been a multiracial form of music, with Buddy Holly sharing the spotlight with Little Richard and Richie Valens (ne Valenzuela), had become virtually a whites-only club by the late 1970s. On album-rock radio stations, the only black performer you were likely to hear was Jimi Hendrix, and he’d been dead nearly a decade. Prince put out his first record in 1979, but you didn’t hear it on rock radio.
To some extent, the disco backlash was understandable — disco dominated top 40 radio, and a lot of it was schlock with a monotonous beat. But what seemed to piss a lot of rock fans off was the sense that it was an injustice for radio to play music that wasn’t by white guys with guitars. Remind you of anything? The sense that whatever white people prefer should be what we get, with no one else allowed to express a preference?