Or: how a DJ blew up a box of disco records and got Ronald Reagan elected.
author’s note: I have a lot of angst these days about my peer group. We, straight white men, between 55-65, are the problem. I have written about these guys before. All you millennials and Xennials know because we’re your dads and you are forever embarrassed by us. As well you should be. We have been aggrieved since we put Grandpa Ronnie over the top in the 1980 presidential election. Over this next year, I will have a series of posts exploring the phenomenon of angry men that ended in an assault on our democracy on 1/6/2021. I was embedded with these people, and while I grew out of it, the rest of my cohort has dug in. Much to my chagrin and shame.J 02/22
The music of my teenage wasteland
It was 1979. I was fifteen and pretty sure I knew everything. My brain was full of the philosophy of a fifteen-year-old weaned on arena rock and the attendant music magazines. I had gleaned my world view in rural Ellensburg from the music I was fed from distant radio stations from as far away as Yakima.
That was good old arena rock, the pinnacle of white man hedonism. My nights were spent listening to AOR FM radio and days spent reading about said rock heroes.
What I didn’t know was that even then, an early version of the algorithm (white marketing dudes armed with demographics and paper spreadsheets) fed me music piped directly into my impressionable head. I won’t say it was all pap, but no small amount of it was.
The white maleness of, say, Led Zeppelin, the weird quasi libertarianism of RUSH, or even the sad boy rock vibes of The Who, was designed and marketed to bone-headed fifteen-year-old white boys.
The music was our own, and we were special. Pot smoking, album purchasing, radio listening profit centers. It was a whole cash-cow enterprise, from vinyl to magazines to concerts to merchandise. They had it all for sale and we were buying it!
Many girls listened, too, but they had broader musical tastes and fewer base intentions. It just so happened it corresponded with, DISCO!
Girls wanted to dance and dancing meant disco. Where Rock N Roll once ruled supreme, disco was suddenly cooler. Much more than any 15 year old in Hicktown, USA. In this sudden hormone-driven sense of inadequacy and new battle cry was born. Disco Sucks.
It was July 1979 and disco sucked. It sucked so much, we even had t-shirts made. A movement was born, sweeping the nation much like disco before. I would argue it was the first mass uprising of aggrieved white dudes.
And we hated disco! Dammit.
DJs and radio stations fed the outrage. We listened to The Who and thought, ‘That’s right, nobody knows what it’s like behind blue eyes’.
Another phenomenon was growing with the ‘Disco Sucks’ movement. It was really just a whisper, but other people were encroaching on our white people’s territory.
A year later, an actor from California would merge these together and start the downfall of a venerable democracy. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
Not wanting to be caught dead at one of those discos (we did go to the high school dances. I mean, disco sucked, but we weren’t monks), we watched from afar as Brooke Shields danced at Studio 54 and other paragons of US Male affection and lust as well.
Disco sucks became about black men having sex with Brooke Shields (oh no, not Brooke), whether conscious or not. Take teenage hormones and add a dose of inferiority. You see where I am going with this, right.
On a July night on the Southside of Chicago, a DJ had an idea. Want to strike a blow against disco? Bring a record to Comiskey Park and we will blow it up.
Like people today burning their $100 Nikes in protest, white guys by the hundreds bought a disco album, paid ninety-nine cents to watch a ballgame, and then blow up a box full of disco records. BECAUSE DISCO SUCKED!
It went about as well you think it would have.
Grandpa Ronnie told us it would be okay
Disco died. Careers died with it. Rock rolled on. Dance music became dance music again. Something those ‘other’ people were listening to. Yet, many of the people who cheered loudest when those records blew up, didn’t feel better.
It was a recession, the first of many, to be sure, but when you were coming of age, well it generated no small of amount agita.
Into this moral abyss of sex, drugs, rock & roll, and anger came Ron. Ron was willing to say anything but mostly wanted us to know, it wasn’t our fault.
It was those foreigners in the Middle East, taking our people and holding us hostage. It was people withholding our oil. It was young bucks buying steaks with food stamps. It was black men wanting to have sex with Brooke Shields (oh no, not Brooke).
Ron told us it was going to be okay. It wasn’t our fault. We were just anxious about the future. And Grandpa Ronnie was going to fix it.
The Echo Of Victimhood
We poor, put upon white boys who came of age in 1979 and into the 80s, were being taught what would be a foundational lesson. It resonates amongst my peers even now. And it is this:
Every ‘other’ person who complains just wants to be a victim.
Being a victim is bad.
We are the real victims.
While Grandpa Ronnie wasn’t the first president to grant us dispensation from our sins, he did give us new permission to lash out. Of course, we blew up that box. They made us! Welcome to the politics of abuse and we get to be the abusers!
I know, not all white men. If that is your sole thought, maybe you are missing the point. Of course, it was all of us. Some of us remained silent, and thus, we remained complicit.
In a world where our power felt like it was waning, we made sure our presence was noted. Even today, we are screaming that ‘it isn’t fair’ like a bunch of nine-year-olds.
Ronald Reagan and every president after that reaffirmed the suspicion of our fragility and victimhood. The ’80s were just a trial run.
After the defeat of disco on a humid Chicago night, music became even more segregated. Those ‘other’ people and ‘their music’ barely bled through. Rap and R&B weren’t disco, but we held the same opinions about it.
You know what we said about ‘that music’. It was even worse than the words we had for disco. We hated it.
If we could have found another DJ with another box we would have blown it up, too. After all, if it wasn’t Rock, it sucked.
To this day, we don’t put a word to this reaction, though we all know what that word is. Maybe we should admit it. It wasn’t disco we hated.