What if the popular wisdom about disco — namely, that it sucks — were rooted not in glitter-ball music but in an intolerant society that won’t let minorities take center-stage? That’s the sort of provocative notion at the core of “Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco,” music journalist Peter Shapiro’s effort to revise glam culture’s place in American history. Even the kindest disco nostalgia consigns the music to wedding receptions or VH1 specials, but Shapiro wants to reclaim “the unrepentant, orgiastic stink that made disco so subversive in the first place.”
For the most part, he succeeds. A thorough historian with a slangy, accessible voice, Shapiro delivers an engrossing account of our platform-shoed past. His subject is as much 1970s America as disco in particular, and one provides context for the other. The first chapter, for example, offers a vivid account of Gotham’s social and economic freefall during the Vietnam War.
There are pages of compelling history with no mention of music, but with them Shapiro draws clear lines between “the remains of New York’s infrastructure” and the artists who “aimed to reclaim the city.”
Those artists, he says, were mostly gay, and the book’s heart is its chronicle of oppressed gay men rising from a collapsing city to craft a music and culture of liberation. In Shapiro’s vision, disco’s androgynous sexuality and robotically similar beats give the “pariahs of straight society” the power to create a world of their own.
It’s sad language, therefore, that describes disco’s wildly popular peak. The book argues that when mainstream heterosexuals absorbed it, disco ejected “the most visible flowering of gay liberation … from the church of American popular culture.”
Shapiro convincingly makes his case with vibrant language and deep research. But sometimes he just listens to the music. His take on particular singles can reveal both fanboy allegiances and a sense of humor. Take this comment on Van McCoy’s “The Hustle”: “(It is) the kind of record that crawls under your skin … to the point where you find yourself whistling it while masturbating.”
The racy record reviews gel with the book’s more probing analysis, which is testament to its well-edited tone. Sometimes, though, Shapiro digs so deeply into disco minutiae that he risks losing his primary audience. Surely any reader who’s eager to learn the sampling techniques of semi-important DJs won’t need convincing of disco’s cultural importance.
Despite these out-of-place detours, though, the book makes a strong case for dusting off those 12-inch singles and hearing what they’ve really got to say.