Discovering Identity: the Contribution of Disco to Experiences of Queerness
Subcultures: Music, Identity, Media
Moira de Kok
April 2, 2019
Since its inception, disco music has been connected to queer communities. It enjoyed its heyday during the mid- to late 1970s, yet it has seen a resurgence in popularity from the mid-1990s onwards. Its influence on songs such as Blur’s “Girls and Boys”, Madonna’s “Hung Up”, and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, co-written by disco guitarist Nile Rodgers, confirm its lasting relevance. It is also still popular with queer communities, as it is for example well represented in Radio 2’s Homo 100, broadcast in 2016. To examine disco’s contribution to the experience of queer identity, especially in the 1970s, I will analyse the anthemic “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” by Sylvester. Thereafter, I will trace the decline of disco music at the end of the 1970s and its replacement by house music, using this switch to uncover how music contributes to experiences of queer identity, belonging to a queer community and a sense of place in society.
Disco originated in the early 1970s in New York clubs with primarily queer, African-American and Latino audiences as a music specifically meant for dancing. It incorporated elements from many different (African-American) genres, including funk, soul and gospel. It is characterised rhythmically by a four-on-the-floor bass drum (where every beat in the 4/4 measure is accented by the bass drum) and syncopation, and instrumentally by its frequent use of Latin percussion, orchestral instruments, especially strings, and synthesisers. Typically, DJs would string together the long disco recordings (sometimes occupying an entire side of a record) in a continuous stream, providing an unrelenting beat for the dance floor.
Its origins in queer dance clubs clarifies disco’s connection to queer communities. In the music, the connection becomes clear through the presence of “residual signs of otherness”. Musicologist and gender-sexuality theorist Nadine Hubbs points out that these, once understood by the audience, “inspire identification on the basis of experienced marginalisation”. These signs are present in many disco classics, including Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. I chose this song because of Sylvester’s close connection to queer and African-American communities, which were central to the disco movement, as he was a gay black man who often dressed in drag. This specific song has many musical elements that signify otherness, which I will discuss later to discover how they provide a means of identification among queer communities.
However, it is important to decide which musical parameters are important for the analysis of disco music, as Robert Walser did in his analysis of heavy metal. Firstly, Walser explains how Western music has mostly been studied as a printed text, rather than sound or social practice. Walser feels that this focus has led to the ignoring of the musical meaning in pop songs, with disproportionate attention given to lyrics, and names several musical parameters important to heavy metal music. Several of these are also central to the analysis of disco music, especially vocal timbre, rhythm (connected to danceability) and mode and harmony. To these parameters I would like to add two more: structure (connected to song length) and lyrics.
Firstly, one of the most striking elements in “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” is Sylvester’s continuous falsetto voice. In her article “Fakin’ It/Makin’ It: Falsetto’s Bid for Transcendence in 1970s Disco Highs”, Anne-Lise François explains how the “artificial” falsetto transcends gender. She argues that the falsetto voice does not belong to any gender because of its supernatural register; it does not fit into most men’s tessitura, but also does not sound like a woman’s voice at the same pitch. Sylvester clearly uses falsetto as a “gender-bending device”, cutting his voice loose from gender and disembodying the falsetto. This disembodiment, then, removes markers of “race” and gender, creating an atmosphere where singers and audience dare to be vulnerable towards and intimate with one another, and forget their differences. Falsetto simultaneously signifies the rootlessness of many members of queer communities, cast out from their families, and “transforms this image of loneliness and imprisonment into one of refuge and freedom.” Like in many subcultures, the disco movement acknowledges the need for a home, but denies it (at least in its traditional shape) at the same time, pretending the subculture can independently sustain its members.
François notes in her text that the profoundly human and risky falsetto timbre is in direct opposition to disco’s metronomical beats. “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” indeed features a very steady four-on-the-floor beat at about 130 beats per minute, with a snare on every second and fourth beat of the measure, and a hi-hat on every second eighth of a beat. Additional Latin-flavoured percussion plays a relatively loose rhythm over this basis, but this rhythm repeats every measure, giving the overall rhythmic component of the song a rigid, repetitive and indeed metronomical character. However, while it is musically opposed to the freedom of the falsetto, the mechanical rhythm has a function of uniting the audience on the dance floor. Disco music is not just a musical text, but also a social practice, after all. Disco originated in dance clubs and thus danceability is one of its most important values. The steady, up-tempo rhythm which accents every beat, yet still has enough interest due to auxiliary percussion, excites the crowd and stimulates dance. Dancing together, feeling like everyone is on the same beat, creates a sense of unity, temporarily rooting (queer) audiences to the refuge of the dance floor.
Like its rhythm, the harmony of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” is composed of only a few, repeating elements. The introduction, pre-chorus and bridge are all largely comprised of a static harmony on F (which leans towards major, but is not clearly stated as such). The verses have their own chord progression, shown in figure 1 below, as do the choruses, whose chord progression in figure 2 is also used for the extended outro. The thick lines represent divisions between measures; the thin lines indicate the beats within a measure. Below the chords, I have indicated their functions in Roman numerals.
The verses are in d minor, quite obviously indicated by the V(+)-i movement after every two bars. The choruses, however, are more harmonically ambiguous. Neither d minor nor the relative major key of F provide satisfying answers to the chord progression of the chorus; rather, it seems like F is the tonal centre which uses chords from both its minor and major modes, namely the iv7 and VII from the minor and the I from major, which results in an interesting case of modal mixture. As Walser mentioned in his chapter, modes carry specific emotional meaning for the listener. The major (or Ionian) mode is generally perceived as joyful, while the minor (or Aeolian) mode has connotations of sorrow. Thus, the move from an f minor to F major harmony in the chorus can be read as an overcoming of hardship, an emotional release or a moment of transcendence.
However, most of the song is in the minor mode, despite its exuberant character. As Hubbs theorises in her article, this casting of upbeat songs in the minor mode is a way of differing disco from its musical “enemy” of 1970s album-oriented rock. Of course, it is always the question whether the songwriter consciously chose to do this. Nevertheless, it is quite plausible that these chords were chosen to simply sound new, exciting, and different (not necessarily from rock music, even), without attention to the chords’ function and the song’s modality. The harmony of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” thus undermines conventional expectations. This can be read as incongruity, one of the three elements of camp. Major and minor, joy and sorrow, are incongruent: they are not usually meant to go together. This juxtaposition in camp helps queer communities to manage their difficult identity and alienation. Consciously or unconsciously, the harmony symbolises the identity of queer communities: undermining conventions and living as a “minor-ity” (as Hubbs writes), though able to overcome these hardships, through camp, when the chorus defies all expectations and turns major.
The same undermining of pop music conventions takes place in the song’s structure; while it starts out with a traditional verse-chorus structure, like most disco songs its extended edition incorporates an exceptionally long bridge and outro section. This indicates the function of disco music as music for the dance club; the repetitive sections provide enough room for DJs to blend the song into the next one, creating a continuous beat that keeps the audience dancing. Together with the rhythmic aspects I described a few paragraphs earlier, this has a uniting function, never shocking the audience out of their ecstasy with silence or jagged transitions. Thus, it might also create a sort of utopia, where the dance floor is the only known reality and one never has to return to the outside world. Essentially, dancing to disco becomes an immersive experience, where the audience becomes lost in the music, resisting the call to conform to the real world. This escapism is characteristic of disco and exhibits Roland Barthes’ concept of jouissance, as Hubbs quotes from John Gill; “…that is, rapture, bliss, or transcendence.”
Finally, the lyrics of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” also carry significant meaning. While in the verses Sylvester sings about his passionate romance with a partner he met on the dance floor, the choruses are – like many other parameters – repetitive, reiterating the song’s title over and over. These lyrics show the underlying function of disco music:
It served not just to provide contact, safety and acceptance, but crucially to confirm queer persons’ very existence and intact survival in a world that would make of them, if not monsters, then walking ghosts, nonentities.
The concept of “feeling real” – physically, emotionally – transfers onto its audience a sense of validated existence and queer consciousness, especially since the line “you make me feel mighty real” is the song’s sing-along hook, providing an opportunity for actively performing that “feeling real”. This is perhaps the “theatricality” element of camp, exuberantly singing the lyrics to an incongruent harmony.
All of these musical parameters have shown that disco music provides a hold on queer identity; whether through symbolising the hardships of queer communities (rootlessness, marginalisation), overcoming these hardships, uniting the audience, or shaping queer identity. However, changes in disco also changed its relationship to queer communities. The release of Saturday Night Fever and the opening of Studio 54 in 1977 marked the increasing commercialisation, white-washing, heterosexualisation and association with celebrity culture and drug use of the genre. Thus, in the 1980s, disco was replaced by a similar music: house. House music has similar origins and functions as disco; many of its musical parameters, including tempo, metre and song length are also shared. The undergroundness of house music satisfied queer communities’ need for a more exclusive, persistent subcultural music, denying the more fluid entry of (white) heterosexual outsiders which had corrupted the disco movement, while also connecting to the communities’ history through its continuity with disco music.
The case study I have shown here is just one of countless examples of a subculture, in this case queer subcultures, transforming over time to fit its needs. This is often characterised by a mainstreaming of the music (or another aspect) of the subculture and the subsequent search for a new music. The subculture’s identity is a process, rather than a static concept. Processes of in- and exclusion and the insider/outsider divide are central to this: the subculture wants to protect itself from contamination by the mainstream in order to safeguard its identity, but paradoxically has to change its identity to accomplish this. Of course, I have not been able to examine all identity-shaping aspects of disco music specifically and queer music in general; the dimension of “race” and ethnicity and the impact of the AIDS crisis, to name but a few, require further investigation. However, I have shown through my analysis that not only disco’s musical parameters, but disco as a social phenomenon shape queer identity, laid bare – perhaps ironically – by its corruption and subsequent transformation into house music. This ultimately shows that for queer people, music is crucial in contributing to their identity, belonging to a community and claiming their place in society.
Brackett, David. “Disco.” In Grove Music Online, edited by Deane Root et al. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001-2019. Article published January 1, 2001. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000046627.
Currid, Brian. “‘We Are Family’: House Music and Queer Performativity.” In Cruising the Performative: Interventions into the Representation of Ethnicity, Nationality, and Sexuality, edited by Sue-Ellen Case, Philip Brett and Susan Leigh Foster, 165-196. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
François, Anne-Lise. “Fakin’ It/Makin’ It: Falsetto’s Bid for Transcendence in 1970s Disco Highs.” Perspectives of New Music 33, no. 1/2 (winter – summer 1995): 442-457.
Gelder, Ken. “Bar Scenes and Club Cultures.” Chap. 3 in Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Gelder, Ken. “Fans, Networks, Pirates.” Chap. 8 in Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Hubbs, Nadine. “‘I Will Survive’: Musical Mappings of Queer Social Space in a Disco Anthem.” Popular Music 26, no. 2 (May 2007): 231-244.
McDonald, Chris. “Exploring Modal Subversions in Alternative Music.” Popular Music 19, no. 3 (October 2000): 355-363.
NPO Radio 2. “De Homo 100 van 2016.” Published August 5, 2016. https://www.nporadio2.nl/nieuws/12539/de-homo-100-van-2016.
Walser, Robert. “Beyond the Vocals: Toward the Analysis of Popular Musical Discourses.” Chap. 2 in Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2013.
Blur. “Girls and Boys.” Parlophone Records, 2012, Spotify.
Madonna. “Hung Up.” Warner Bros. Records, 2005, Spotify.
Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams. “Get Lucky.” Columbia Records, 2013, Spotify.
Sylvester. “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Concord, 2009, Spotify.
Murray, Nick, dir. RuPaul’s Drag Race. Season 8, episode 8, “RuPaul Book Ball.” Broadcast on April 25, 2016, on Logo TV. https://www.netflix.com/browse?jbv=70187741&jbp=0&jbr=2.
 I will be referring to “queer communities” (plural) rather than “the gay/LGBT community” (singular) to prevent the exclusion of marginalised groups other than (white) gay men. This has been a longstanding problem in disco scholarship, and it is important that we acknowledge the involvement of other queer and ethnic or “racial” groups in disco’s success. See also: Nadine Hubbs, “‘I Will Survive’: Musical Mappings of Queer Social Space in a Disco Anthem,” Popular Music 26, no. 2 (May 2007): 232.
 “Girls and Boys – 2012 Remaster,” Spotify, track 1 on Blur, Parklife, Parlophone Records, 2012. The original album was released on Food Records in 1994.
 “Hung Up,” Spotify, track 1 on Madonna, Confessions on a Dance Floor, Warner Bros. Records, 2005.
 “Get Lucky,” featuring Pharrell Williams, Spotify, track 8 on Daft Punk, Random Access Memories, Columbia Records, 2013.
 “De Homo 100 van 2016,” NPO Radio 2, published August 5, 2016, https://www.nporadio2.nl/nieuws/12539/de-homo-100-van-2016.
 David Brackett, “Disco,” in Grove Music Online, ed. Deane Root et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001-2019), published January 1, 2001. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000046627.
 Hubbs, “‘I Will Survive’,” 233-234.
 “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” Spotify, track 1 on Sylvester, Step II, Concord, 2009. The original album was released on Fantasy Records in 1978.
 Anne-Lise François, “Fakin’ It/Makin’ It: Falsetto’s Bid for Transcendence in 1970s Disco Highs,” Perspectives of New Music 33, no. 1/2 (winter – summer 1995): 446.
 Robert Walser, “Beyond the Vocals: Toward the Analysis of Popular Musical Discourses,” chap. 2 in Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2013), 56-66.
 François, “Fakin’ It/Makin’ It,” 443.
 François, “Fakin’ It/Makin’ It,” 445-447.
 Ibid., 447.
 Ibid., 448.
 Ibid., 447.
 Brian Currid, “‘We Are Family’: House Music and Queer Performativity,” in Cruising the Performative: Interventions into the Representation of Ethnicity, Nationality, and Sexuality, ed. Sue-Ellen Case, Philip Brett and Susan Leigh Foster (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 183.
 All transcriptions are the author’s.
 Walser, “Beyond the Vocals,” 62-63.
 Hubbs, “’I Will Survive’,” 234-235.
 Chris McDonald, “Exploring Modal Subversions in Alternative Music,” Popular Music 19, no. 3 (October 2000): 361-362. Although McDonald applied this theory to alternative music in the 1990s, I feel that this sentiment applies to many analyses of popular music, including disco.
 “Ken Gelder, “Bar Scenes and Club Cultures,” chap. 3 in Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice (New York: Routledge, 2007), 56-57.
 Ken Gelder, “Fans, Networks, Pirates,” chap. 8 in Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice (New York: Routledge, 2007), 141-142.
 Hubbs, “’I Will Survive’,” 235.
 Ibid., 233. Italics have been added by the author.
 Gelder, “Bar Scenes and Club Cultures,” 56-57. While I have not detected camp’s third element, humour, in this particular recording of the song, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” can be performed humorously. A good example of this is shown in RuPaul’s Drag Race, season 8, episode 8, “RuPaul Book Ball,” directed by Nick Murray, broadcast on April 25, 2016, on Logo TV, https://www.netflix.com/browse?jbv=70187741&jbp=0&jbr=2. The sequence in the episode featuring the performance of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” starts at 54:22.
 Gelder, “Bar Scenes and Club Cultures,” 60-61.
 Currid, “‘We Are Family’,” 170-174.