There’s no consensus about what was behind the violence at the Disco Demolition Night at the Chicago White Sox field in 1979. Were the thousands of people—mostly White—who stormed the field after reveling in the fiery destruction of disco records expressing naïve teenage excitement or homophobia and racism?
The War on Disco, which premieres on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on October 30, explores that question, the cultural forces that gave rise to disco and the fierce backlash that emerged against a backdrop of race, culture and socioeconomic hardship.
The immensely popular, catchy dance music, which originated in Black and gay urban nightclubs, topped the charts in the 1970s. As the craze saturated the culture, detractors pushed back, ridiculing disco’s kitschy emphasis on glamor and lack of musical gravitas. A key player was Chicago DJ Steve Dahl, who had lost his job when his rock radio station changed to an all-disco format.
The Disco Demolition, one of Dahl’s many publicity stunts, took the protest to another level.
“It was one of those events that was an early skirmish in the now-familiar ‘culture wars,’ even if we weren’t calling it that at the time,” said Cameo George, executive producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. “What seemed like a simple grudge between those who loved disco and those who loved rock was in many ways a larger, more pointed response to the rapid shift in cultural, demographic and economic patterns that were coming to a head in the 1970s and are still causing friction in America today.”
Historians, radio industry veterans and Chicago residents who went to the event have starkly opposing perspectives on that night. “Initially, the story of the Disco Demolition seemed clear-cut—that it was a very obviously racist, homophobic display right out in the open,” said Rushmore DeNooyer, who produced and wrote the film, along with Lisa Quijano Wolfinger, producer and director. “But that doesn’t explain the fact that the vast majority of people who were there had no idea that disco music had originated in Black and gay underground clubs. This story is more complex and nuanced than it might seem.”
Several historians interviewed in the film point out that the social movements that emerged in the 1960s raised, but did not resolve, very tough questions about race, sexuality and women’s rights. By the 1970s, those simmering issues were boiling over.
“Serious television documentaries haven't explored the seventies and eighties as deeply as other periods in American history,” said DeNooyer. “Pop culture sometimes gets dismissed as not worthy of deep thought or analysis, but I think it can reveal a lot.”
Reflecting on that period can “help explain how we got where we are,” said Jefferson Cowie, professor of American History at Vanderbilt University. “The 1970s are the foundation of our own time. We’re still battling over these same questions.”
DeNooyer hopes viewers have the same experience he had as he created the film. “I learned a lot about things that I thought I understood.”
Learn more and watch a preview here. The War on Disco airs Monday, October 30 at 9pm on GBH 2.