Cover image for Hot stuff : disco and the remaking of American culture
Hot stuff : disco and the remaking of American culture
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : W. W. Norton, c2010.
Physical Description:
xxvi, 338 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.
I hear a symphony : black masculinity and the disco turn -- More, more, more : one and oneness in gay disco -- Ladies' night : women and disco -- The homo superiors : disco and the rise of gay macho -- Saturday night fever : the little disco movie -- One nation under a thump? : disco and its discontents.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 781.64 ECH 1 1

On Order



In the 1970s, as the disco tsunami engulfed America, the once-innocent question, "Do you wanna dance?" became divisive, even explosive. What was it about this much-maligned music that made it such hot stuff? In this incisive history, Alice Echols captures the felt experience of the Disco Years--on dance floors both fabulous and tacky, at the movies, in the streets, and beneath the sheets.Disco may have presented itself as shallow and disposable--the platforms, polyester, and plastic vibe of it all--but Echols shows that it was inseparable from the emergence of "gay macho," a rising black middle class, and a growing, if equivocal, openness about female sexuality. The disco scene carved out a haven for gay men who reclaimed their sexuality on dance floors where they had once been surveilled and harassed; it thrust black women onto center stage as some of the genre's most prominent stars; and it paved the way for the opening of Studio 54 and the viral popularity of the shoestring-budget Saturday Night Fever, a movie that challenged traditional notions of masculinity, even for heterosexuals.As it provides a window onto the cultural milieu of the times, Hot Stuff never loses sight of the era's defining soundtrack, which propelled popular music into new sonic territory, influencing everything from rap and rock to techno and trance. Throughout, Echols spotlights the work of precursors James Brown and Isaac Hayes, dazzling divas Donna Summer and the women of Labelle, and some of disco's lesser known but no less illustrious performers such as Sylvester. After turning the final page of this fascinating account of the music you thought you hated but can't stop dancing to, you can rest assured that you'll never say "disco sucks" again.

Author Notes

Alice Echols is a professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University. A former disco deejay, she is the author of the acclaimed biography of Janis Joplin, Scars of Sweet Paradise. She lives in Highland Park, New Jersey.

Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

As American studies professor and Janis Joplin biographer (Scars of Sweet Paradise) Echols succinctly states, "Nothing seems to conjure up the seventies quite so effectively as disco." But while the decade's weltanschauung is often dismissed as merely polyester and platform heels, Echols aims for-and thoroughly achieves-a range of higher cultural insights. Using an encyclopedic knowledge of the eras' biggest stars, she shows how all sorts of musical disco styles played a "central role" in broadening the contours of "blackness, femininity, and male homosexuality" in America. She brilliantly explores the many ways that early disco clubs created new spaces "where gay men could safely come together in a large crowd," at the same time often masking an early strain of the racial and class exclusion that dominated disco's later years. She brings to light the influence of underground legends such as club deejay Tom Moulton, who first remixed popular records to make them longer for dancing and "created the model for the 12-inch, extended play disco single." Best of all is Echols's revelatory look at how the "critique of racism and sexism" in the film Saturday Night Fever offers "a richer portrait of the disco seventies" than its critics have granted. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

Only nominally about the watered-down funk music that was disco, Echols' history instead focuses on disco's social effects, particularly the rise of gay consciousness and the mainstreaming of the gay rights movement. Echols proclaims that she likes disco and thinks if others gave it half a chance, they would, too. Be that as it may, she knows her dancin'-fool stuff. She makes a convincing case for disco's far-reaching cultural legacies, and her discussion of the career arc of the Village People is an excellent vehicle for examining the phenomenon of much of mainstream America embracing disco while blithely ignoring the gay subtext of scads of disco songs. Her dissections of the trials and tribulations of disco artists in general and Donna Summer in particular are telling and well presented. All in all, if one feels the need to be knowledgeable about the rise and fall of the disco lifestyle and how elements of the once-reviled music genre still act upon American culture today this is the goods.--Tribby, Mike Copyright 2010 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

To many, disco was the sound of hard-earned freedom. MOST of the lingering images of the disco era aren't pretty: strobe-lit suburbanites doing the hustle, John Travolta's white polyester suit and campy preening in "Saturday Night Fever," mobs pushing and screaming to get into Studio 54. The music itself is easy to snicker at. Set to a clockwork thump, it ordered you to boogie-oogie-oogie or to shake, shake, shake your booty. Disco stormed the charts from 1973 through 1979, but many critics see it as the soundtrack of a vapid decade - a time in which self-indulgence replaced the lofty striving of the '60s. But for the thrill-seekers, especially gay ones, who packed the trendier nightspots, disco was the sound of hard-earned freedom. It meant dancing your heart out until dawn, often aided by drugs, in clubs where anybody could pair with anybody. Disco's beat took over your body and pounded away your inhibitions. At its headiest, the experience was a close simulation of sex, or a direct lead-in to it. Women were the main voices of lust. In "I Feel Love," Donna Summer's techno-backed moaning - "Oooooh, it's so good, it's so good, it's so good" - seemed like a six-minute glide on the runway to orgasm. Alice Echols, a professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University and a former disco D.J., knows that most of the music she spun is considered "mindless, repetitive, formulaic and banal." But in her engrossing new book, "Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture," she portrays that scene as a hotbed of social change - for gays, for women and their sexual rights, for blacks in the record industry. Other writers have done more to evoke the era's sleazy glamour and animal excitement. But Echols, the author of "Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin," has few peers among music sociologists. Scholarly but fun, "Hot Stuff" is not just about disco; it re-examines the '70s as a decade of revolution. Discos, of course, are almost as old as rock 'n' roll. But the story of "Hot Stuff" really begins in 1967, when the newly opened Stonewall Inn became the one gay bar in Manhattan that let customers dance together freely. "The only time the dancing came to a halt was when the police arrived," Echols writes. The Stonewall's open homoeroticism was "like an electric shock," one patron says. This early form of disco dancing helped galvanize the rebellion to come; it gave gays an exhilarating sense of strength in numbers. After the club's 1969 uprising, gay discos proliferated, and they needed music. The genre that a handful of producers developed was a hodgepodge of black styles: it borrowed Motown's insistent beat, the percussiveness of Philadelphia soul, the grandiose orchestration that backed Isaac Hayes. The disco sound emerged full blown in "The Love I Lost," a 1973 hit by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Echols quotes Peter Shapiro, the author of "Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco," who noted the track's "hissing high-hats, the thumping bass sound, the surging momentum, the uplifting horns, the strings taking flight." Almost any soulful grit was polished away; disco had big production budgets and bourgeois pretensions to match. The unisex band Chic wore Armani and Norma Kamali and toured with three violinists; Barry White waved a baton in front of his tuxedo-clad Love Unlimited Orchestra. Occasionally some substance crept in. The glam-funk trio Labelle called out for peace and female equality in many of their songs, particularly those of Nona Hendryx. Labelle, though, is best remembered for a song Hendryx didn't write, the saucy "Lady Marmalade." Labelle had a short heyday. Disco was escapism; dancers had little time for anything that pulled them down from the clouds. But the heart of this book is serious stuff: its tracing of how disco helped groom and commercialize a formidable new gay identity. For one thing, it helped make gym-going de rigueur in gay life. Echols explains: "The sweatbox quality of many gay discos made stripping to the waist all but necessary, which in turn made working out practically obligatory." The '70s "lumberjack masculinity" fooled a country that was still naïve about homosexuality. Many of disco's gayest anthems - Abba's "Dancing Queen," Diana Ross's "I'm Coming Out" - were coded enough to become huge hits. Echols amusingly charts the rise of the Village People, six men dressed as gay fantasy figures (including a cop, a cowboy and a biker). A mass public seemed to view them as the ultimate in hetero butchness; their international smash, "Y.M.C.A.," became a staple at wedding receptions. The members played it safe by staying coyly evasive about their sexuality. Sylvester did the opposite. That openly gay, black, gender-bending disco star scored only one major hit, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)"; he proved to be too out, too soon. But disco music had become a huge moneymaker, and the film industry stepped in to exploit it. Echols devotes one of her most vivid chapters to "Saturday Night Fever," the 1977 blockbuster about a Brooklyn paint salesman (played by Travolta) who rules the dance floor on weekends. The impact of that film - a heterosexualized, Hollywood vision of disco life - reached deep into mainstream America. No more was disco confined to urban gays or to the elite revelers at Studio 54. My fellow 13-year-old Catholic schoolboys in Yonkers began aping Travolta's blowdried hairdo and cocky strut. The megaselling two-LP soundtrack blared at the shopping mall, followed by a glut of hastily produced schlock disco. Merv Griffin cashed in too: in 1979 he created "Dance Fever," a TV series in which amateurs hustled and boogied for cash prizes. Disco had become a joke. Rock radio boycotted it, and "Disco Sucks" T-shirts were a common sight. The music, Echols writes, was "attacked for being both too gay and too straight, too black and too white, oversexed and asexual, leisure-class as well as leisure-suited (loser) class." The viciousness of the backlash, she reports, may have owed as much to homophobia and racism as it did to anything musical. The genre lived on in gay clubs, but by 1980 it had tumbled from the airwaves. Soon AIDS erupted, and the once playful gay meeting grounds, including dance floors, began to seem like minefields. Donna Summer and another disco diva, Gloria Gaynor, became born-again Christians; Gaynor spoke of wanting to lead her gay fans to Jesus. Thirty years after both women reigned, dance music has become so dependent on computer trickery that it makes '70s disco seem like a model of realism. But as Echols argues, disco's legacy lives on in such phenomena as the pop diva and the metrosexual. And the carnal aggressiveness of Summer and other disco queens helped pave the way for female pop predators like Madonna, Lil' Kim and Missy Elliott. From the beginning, a lot of the sniping over disco ignored the fact that it was never intended for close listening. The music was meant to make you dance and to stoke the libido, preferably in conjunction with drugs, flashing lights and a sea of hot bodies. But by the end of Echols's fond, insightful history, you may conclude that disco wasn't as trashy as people said it was. The 1970s disco scene was a hotbed of social change - for gays, for women and for blacks. James Gavin's most recent book is "Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne."

Choice Review

Echols (American studies and history, Rutgers Univ.) draws on a wide range of primary and secondary sources in telling the fascinating story of the rise and (almost) fall of disco music. The subtitles of the book's six chapters reveal the progression of the narrative: "Black Masculinity and the Disco Turn," "One and Oneness in Gay Disco," "Women and Disco," "Disco and the Rise of Gay Macho," "The Little Disco Movie" (Saturday Night Fever), and "Disco and Its Discontents." The author highlights the early connection between disco and the emerging gay male club subculture, and the role of African American performers in developing this dance style. The chapter on Saturday Night Fever is particularly informative, given the film's influence on the disco craze in the US's white suburbs. Thriving during the decade of the 1970s, disco seemed dead as a commercial musical force by 1980. Yet it still survives. This is not a complex musical exploration; rather, it is an imaginative discussion of the performers, the record companies, and disco's connection with the rise of gay, black, and female consciousness. A fitting companion to Tim Lawrence's Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 (CH, Oct'04, 42-0850). Includes helpful illustrations and notes. Summing Up: Recommended. All readers. R. D. Cohen emeritus, Indiana University Northwest

Kirkus Review

Through the lens of the music and its ethos, a former DJ examines what made the folly of the disco years so indelible. Echols (American Studies and History/Rutgers Univ.; Shaky Ground: The Sixties and Its Aftershocks, 2002, etc.) opens with the memory of one of the early zeniths of her music-programming career in the mid-1970s. She worked at the Rubaiyat discotheque in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the disco movement slowly began to influence her clientele, including "Madonna Ciccone, who is said to have danced there before dropping out of U of M and heading off to New York." Yet, the author notes, the epoch had its detractors; many dismissed the trend as a "lamentable and regrettable period in American history." That general consensus failed to thwart Barry White, whose "Love's Theme" went on to become the first disco track to crack the top spot on the Billboard pop charts. Distinguished with hints of traditional funk and soul, the "insistent and whomping" beat of the RB and Motown sound became the "incubator of disco." From a cultural standpoint, however, Echols points out that conversely, this particular harmonious amalgam "seemed a crazy reversal of all that the black freedom movement had fought for." The author attributes much of disco's success to the homosexual community's collective embrace, spurred by gay DJs like Tom Moulton (originator of the "remix"), who not only held prominent posts in nightclubs, but also within the music promotional industry. From disco's earliest incarnations, homosexual men celebrated the "gay glitterball culture" at respected New York nightclubs. But as their popularity increased, so did a propensity toward racial and gender exclusivity. The mid-'70s became all about "the music, mix, drugs, lights, sound systems, and an unmistakable uniformity of dress." A resurgence in male "macho" masculinity followed, though female (and male) "divas" like Donna Summer, Patti LaBelle and Sylvester dominated the charts. Echols concludes with contemporary commentary on disco's predictable resurgence since "pop music is full of unlikely turnabouts." A well-researched, culturally sensitive time capsule. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

Without a doubt, disco is the genre most associated with the music of the 1970s. The classic rock of the 1960s, the sounds of Motown and Phil Spector, and the soul of Stax and Atlantic made way to funkier sounds and throbbing beats. Beginning in the 1960s, Echols (American studies & history, Rutgers Univ.; Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin), who was once a disco deejay, analyzes the development of disco from the dance floor up and ends with disco's successors. Disco became a dominant force owing to the play time dance clubs gave the music rather than radio airplay. This growth through bars and clubs opened up relationships among disco and gay liberation, feminism, and African American rights. Verdict While this is not a comprehensive history of disco, it is an intriguing critical study of the complex relationships and the nontraditional development of the genre. A definite purchase for academic libraries and pop-music enthusiasts.-Brian Sherman, McNeese State Univ. Lib., Lake Charles, LA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.