The Last Days of Disco

The 1970s emerged as a distinctly sexual decade in reaction to the extreme militantism of the 1960s. Will the same happen in the 2020s?

Decadence and glamour at the Studio 54 1978 New Year’s Eve party, Credit: Robin Platzer:Twin Images — The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

Maria Bastos-Stanek

We are advancing on a new sexual frontier. Like on any uncharted terrain, we face a different set of dilemmas than our predecessors. This is not a controversial statement. The Western legacy of sexual guilt has been receding for some time. A new, more expressive system for governing sexual behavior has replaced our puritanical prudishness. Once outlawed behavior is now celebrated. Self-congratulatory media on topics from sex positivity to queer politics has convinced us of our own liberation. Yet, we who feel differently know that chronology is not the same as progress. The loosening of social convention is more duplicitous than liberating and threatens to undermine our own radical potential. As artist Daniel Buren, champion of institutional critique, told the Times, “today everything is nice, everything is accepted . . . and nothing makes any sense.”

With the birth of social acceptance comes the death of culture. Now freed from the burden of historical consciousness (the crushing weight of history) we face a fiercer foe—our own collective self-consciousness. Despite feminist struggles and gay liberation, self-expression is our primary casualty. We’ve learned to represent ourselves as something apart from ourselves (because of the internet)—as signifier without referent. We learn to spin the smallest tufts of recognition into long lines of prized wool. This new system of governance breeds alienation, anxiety, and a self-awareness caught between self-aggrandizement and belittlement. The crisis of self-consciousness reveals just how little we’ve progressed. Lest we ignore the incels, our civilized society risks relapsing into the barbarism of sexual guilt.

Kate Julian, a journalist at The Atlantic, penned a cover story asking “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” Julian delivers a series of startling claims about what she calls the “sex recession.” Among them, young people are having less sex than previous generations, they’re waiting until later in their lives to start having sex, and once they do they often abstain for long periods of time. Julian blames a decline in couplehood (in favor of casual hookups), the advent of the internet (and its ability to gratify basic social and sexual needs), and to the rising agency in women who feel emboldened to refuse the piggish sexual entitlement of predatory men. The article reads like a blameless exposé, hopelessly trying to dissuade the typical boomer reaction of millennial-bashing, but naively also trying to pull the wool back over the babe’s eyes. Perhaps inadvertently, this approach proves cannily erudite about the bleakness of millennial life. Sex, which was once used as an endlessly generative resource for coming-of-age rebellion, is revealed as just another casualty in the broader reorganization of social, political, and economic life following the 2008 financial crisis. 

Has the sexual revolution taken a new form or has it simply broken down in the digital age? Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “knowledge is fatal. It is the unpredictability of human emotion that charms us.” The internet thrives on skepticism, cynical irony, wild conspiracy theories, and dramatic narrative—all of which can be generously understood as attempts to temper the tides of provocations that regularly flood the online reading environment (which regrettably includes Twitter) into manageable crystallizations of knowledge. It takes a shrewd reader to filter respected writers of authority from the purveyors of click-service journalism when they deliver the same opinions. All of which is to say: online optimism has never seemed more irresponsible. Yet, authenticity and transparency are championed as the greatest value in the digital world. Is the same true in real life? It may be too obvious to say, but online life only resembles reality, not the real thing. What happens on analog time is infinitely more compelling and more unpredictable. The more the digital world encroaches into everyday life, the more fraught the topic of sex gets. 

The integration of personality with viral marketability diminishes our capacity for real, impassioned self-expression. It does, however, make it easier to turn ourselves into brands. The personal matters we seek to streamline through the convenience of digital technology are always secondary to the prerogatives of the advertising economy. Today it seems that no one can go online without risking a part of themselves. As those feelings of unease multiply, dating websites and apps that favor the photogenic encourage strangers to find commonality in the straightforward matter of appearance. No longer just a novelty, these apps promise freedom from uncertainty. We are still in the early days of the internet and its tidal wave of consequences are just starting to reach our shores (goodbye, democracy!). Take away the risk of rejection and you also diminish the excitement of the pursuit. These concerns don’t stay within the tidy parameters of a phone screen; they spill out into reality. As dating services become more ubiquitous, once common in-person seduction or on-the-street cruising feel unthinkable today or downright predatory.

The dissatisfaction that many of us seem to feel about sex forces us to confront issues that once seemed behind us. If we have long since eradicated sexual guilt and stigma, why is sex still such a fraught topic? If dating is hard work now, where is the pleasure? Pleasure is the feeling of possibility. It’s the feeling of having a future. That future is not in technology, new devices, or startups. It’s in public life. It’s going out and meeting people. It’s the prospect of gratification that pulls us into the covert world of the night. Past our apartments, down the block, the steely shriek of the subway deliver us to the unmarked doors of bars and clubs in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, promising intimate pleasures far away from our humdrum lives and the prying eyes of instagram. I don’t mean to say we should abandon social media (participation on the internet has, ironically, allowed us to feel more human). However, there are other avenues for sex and dating. An entirely different social landscape once existed. The old model offers new ways for connection unencumbered by the social rules dictated by Silicon Valley. 

John Baldessari, Hands Framing New York Harbor, 1971, Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

What makes the achievements of the past so endearing in the present is the shared now-ness of the events. The success of the young and of each new generation is their ability to break the stronghold of conservatism that grips the eternal past. What each generation shares is the pushing away of what came before them. The rebellious cultural norms of youth combined with the particularly American lack of historical memory makes the past an eager site for continual rediscovery. No better example of rule-breaking and pleasure-seeking exists than in the period following the social expansion of the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s. The changes of that era were most enthusiastically welcomed in dense urban areas with already established cultures of tolerance. Chief among them was dark and decadent New York City.

The liberation decade has its roots in the 1960s. Not since our current period has the world felt so many profound cultural, social, and economic changes than in the anti-establishment youth-oriented counterculture of the 1960s. During a time when nearly every aspect of American culture was exploding in some way, young people rallied around the most damaged zones of human activity: war, civil rights, free speech, women’s rights, and sex. On the precipice of great change, grassroots social movements advocated for the protection of all people; equality for the benefit of all populations; non-discrimination for the betterment of all communities. The fraught topic of sex and sexuality made fertile ground for a social revolution. When all sex outside of marriage was considered taboo, nearly everyone was culpable or presumed culpable. A larger range of populations risked the danger of sexuality for its immense power. 

The 1970s also represented the first decade of full-scale women’s sexual liberation. Women enjoyed gains garnered in laws and governance of the previous decade starting when the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960. The Supreme Court granted married women the legal right to use birth control in 1965 and later legalized birth control for all citizens in 1972. One year later, Roe v. Wade gave women the legal right to abortion. The pill and abortion did more than allow women to easily and safely manage their reproductive lives. Reproductive autonomy gave married and unmarried women alike the freedom to participate in all aspects of society. Legal access to birth control remains the single most influential factor in enabling women to enroll and matriculate from college to this day.

The wanton, sometimes depraved edge of the 1970s came only after the totalizing violation of the idealism that came at the end of the 1960’s. An especially sinister end came to the political protests that galvanized American youth. On May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a group of unarmed students protesting the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War at Kent State University, killing four students and injuring nine others. The United States Armed Forces’ shocking indifference to human life both at home and abroad did little to unclench fists and forced many to question the ability of American leaders to steward the nation into a new era of lost innocence. Watergate would soon begin in 1972, making visible the corrupt stain of American governance and marking the beginning of a long deterioration of propriety in American politics.

The 1970s emerged as a distantly sexual decade in part because it occupied a brief window of time between the invention of the pill and the advent of HIV/AIDS. The “pill” separated sex from reproduction, and thus rendered heterosexuality obsolete, or at least, obsolete as a tool of social control that organized nearly all aspects life as in the past. The gay liberation movement that followed wrought dramatic changes to the availability of sex and in the creation of institutions for the protection and appreciation of sexual minorities. Unlike today, no one could satisfy their most basic need for connection on the internet; they were compelled to live a public life. Then, more than ever before, one felt the possibility of casual self-indulgence. A new culture of promiscuity became possible, one that involved non-monogamy, experimentation, and encouraged men and women to value being both the sexual agent and object; being desired and desirable.

Much of the decadence and glamour associated with the era stemmed from a reaction against the counter-cultural militantism of the 1960s, which in time had come to represent the youth culture itself. Activists felt freer to loosen the grip of their radicalism just as their groups were starting to fall apart. The broad-based social movements of the 1960s fractured into the narrow identity-based formations that still persist today, ushering in a partly reactionary nostalgia for the high-gloss glamour of 1930s and the golden age of Hollywood. Likewise, the city of New York fared poorly during a decades-long economic disenfranchisement in the post-war era and almost went bankrupt in the middle of the decade. What resulted for a brief period of time in the 1970s was more discerning culture, greater promiscuity, and wide-open (and affordable!) city to enjoy. 

Leon Levinstein, Street Scene- Woman in Shorts Leaning into Window of Parked Car, New York City, 1970s, Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

What would you risk for freedom? In another era when an entrenched sexual hierarchy seemed less likely to budge but was nevertheless slowly beginning to crack open, sexual subcultures tolerated higher rates of the kinds of abuses that have fanned the flames of #MeToo. This sense of danger can give sexual encounters an erotic thrill. The more extreme the prohibitions are, the greater the pull. Sexual intent thrives in exactly this type of environment, yet there is a tendency in the #MeToo era to dismiss sexual advances as predatory if those advances involve even mild forms of inequalities. Unequal sexual contact is not all equally or necessarily horrible, unimaginable, shameful. In a culture of sexual openness, one may encourage handsiness, invite touching, groping, and initiate frank sexual approaches. This is sex for the sake of sex. Sexual freedom does not always align with a sense of shared security.

Any yet, what is good for a culture may be bad for its people. Sex does not burden men the way it does women. Sex, we say, is imposed on women. When it involves a man, it can never be sex for the sake of sex. It’s either a declaration of power or biological, and as such is too serious to be made casual. It can seldom be enjoyed, not while it clings to a puritan morality. An invitation for sex must be carefully negotiated. Otherwise a woman’s refusal invites retribution. While most people may not actually think in this maladroit way, the public debates sparked by the #MeToo movement disallow nuance. The sex-positive movement may enjoy over-representation in the media, but the same media tells us the risks have not abated. They say women are turning to desperate measures. Some have taken to wearing Apple AirPods at all hours, which go for upwards of $199, in an effort to curb the attention of street harassers (because predators are so deterred by the status symbols of the upwardly mobile). There may be legal protections, but the cultural scaffolding that allows women to enjoy sexual autonomy is still stuck in a pre-liberation mindset, leaving sex today in a contrarian position. 

The #MeToo movement breaks down the debate about progress and circumscribes the limits of organizing around sex. We’re still stuck on the most basic question: have things gotten better or worse for women? How much better? No one can decide, yet we still alternate between two extremes of oppression and liberation. The reality is more complicated. These days it may be easier to ruin a man’s career, but abuses go on as before. Powerful men continue to exploit, demoralize, and dehumanize others, especially women, in profoundly damaging ways that have nothing to do with sex and go unchecked because their crimes do not involve deeply perverse sexual habits. The infamy of a sexual degenerate has as much to do with public fascination as it does the crimes themselves. In the workplace as on the street, the roles of the abuser and the victim are contextual. The power changes the person.

In the 1970s, loose-livered libertines of all stripes were fighting the same war in a different theater—the public theater of the night. The Nixon administration’s full-frontal assault on the political idealism of the 1960s had people longing for relief. Disco promised deliverance from the suffering of political concerns in the form of a good night out. In the early days of movement, considered by esteemed ambassadors like David Mancuso and Vince Aletti to be just that, the music retained the peace and love ethos of the 1960s. Early DJs envisioned themselves as a unifying force. They played records as elements of a continuous whole rather than as discrete stand-ins for a live performance. They understood their audience and catered to the dynamics of the dance floor. Clubs like the Loft, 12 West, and Paradise Garage placed a high priority on freedom and were naturally attended by majority black and gay audiences. Not until the mid-1970s did Disco cross over into its short-lived era of hyper-commerciality, bringing attention to sex, decadence, and, later, the ire of white men. 

It was more than music. DJs crafted an environment impossible to experience anywhere else. Writing in his memoir Before Pictures, critic and curator Douglas Crimp writes about going to clubs in the 1970s, “what all of these places had in common are traits of pariah culture: they were located in out-of-the-way neighborhoods in quickly refurbished spaces with the palpable feeling of being susceptible to a bust at any moment.” Here again, the erotic pull of extreme prohibitions enables a culture of promiscuity. Extreme inequalities metamorphosize into life-affirming qualities vis-a-vis the democracy of the dance floor. In the novel Dancer from the Dance, writer Andrew Holleran writes of these possibilities for communion wrought by dramatic imbalances: “the boy passed out on the sofa from an overdose of Tuinols was a Puerto Rican who washed dishes in the employee’s cafeteria at CBS, but the doctor bending over him had treated presidents.”

Bill Bernstein, GG’s Barnum Room, Ava #2, 1979, Credit: Aperture Foundation

Andrew Holleran’s epochal novel, Dancer from the Dance, published in 1978, chronicles gay life in 1970s New York and the decade of disco. The book charts the life of handsome Malone, a mid-Western lawyer who makes a break in his life, moves to New York, and embarks on a decade-long journey into the suddenly not-so-underground gay culture. As Malone sheds his former self and descends into gay life, he experiences more in a single decade than most do in a lifetime. Burned by a love gone wrong, he vows “to sleep with everyone just once” and eventually turns to hustling, pimped by the distinguished Sutherland, a drag queen and face about town, who arranges to “marry” Malone off to a wealthy and reserved Princeton graduate. The plan dissolves one summer night on Fire Island when Sutherland dies of a drug overdose and Malone mysteriously vanishes. Who better to chronicle his life than an unnamed narrator who frequents the same bars, clubs, and parks as Malone, seduced by his handsome features and disarming charm, rebuffed by an aura of inscrutability, and forced into the role of a spectator—the perspective from which legends are made.

Holleran claims the book to be a satire on gay life in the 1970s. The exaggerated emotions and extreme lifestyles all lend to a melodramatic form. He describes a group of men ruled by aesthetic values whose goals include getting laid, dancing, summering on Fire Island, and not much else. Malone flies head-long into drug-fueled encounters on the dance floor. Malone and Sutherland move deftly between New York high society and a delinquent underground—rubbing shoulders with Halston and his model muses at the opening of a new club and provoking a gun wielding lunatic in a seedy East Village cinema in the same night.

Satire is perhaps one of the few literary genres which is written for an intended audience. This poses a problem for Dancer from the Dance in the post-AIDS era. The substance of the character’s lives and the places Holleran writes about are nearly unrecognizable to a young reader. Writer Fran Lebowitz has spoken on the devastation of AIDS on the arts culture in an interview with Francesco Clemente, saying “the first people who died of AIDS were artists . . . It decimated not just artists but knowledge. Knowledge of a culture. There’s a huge gap in what people know, and there’s no context for it anymore.” Holleran may have written the book as satire, but the quality of life the novel speaks to has been so thoroughly wiped out that, at least at first reading, the novel appears as something more like a historical document. 

This lack of context cannot extinguish what Walter Benjamin calls the “poetic significance” of a work of art, which is less about the meaning of a work and more about the idea or feelings that the words invoke. Lives lived on the margins often escape the confines of convention. Combined with the high stakes of surviving everyday life, those lives start to appear more like melodrama. But at a time when living a gay life meant being thrown out of your existing life, or of having to make a break with the familiar world it’s no surprise that upon landing in New York some might live their lives with such an intense singular focus that it radiates from the novel to this day. Gay lives were not easy-going lives. Disco disseminates the potential of gay life lived off the grid, so to speak. Holleran writes of men who, at great economic sacrifice, leave their former lives behind and disappear into economically and culturally dead zones of lower Manhattan that harbor a secret vitality for those in the know. Only once they abandoned their reputations did a secret world of opportunity begin to blossom, chiefly in bars, clubs, and parks. Holleran invites us to step into this perspective. When we do so, we do so without the risk, but stand to gain the energy. Illuminating the fervor for the dance floor, Holleran discloses in an interview:

Everybody who got to New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s was coming out of a really, really repressive, witch hunting cultural climate . . . So it’s understandable that everybody went a little crazy. They just were suddenly free and New York was kind of empty then; nobody cared what was going on.

Gay people in America enjoyed an expansive downtown that existed in both literal space and in the collective imaginary. Downtown was, of course, downtown New York City, which during the 1970s barely registered culturally as a deindustrialized, pre-gentrified wasteland with an exacerbated criminal element. The city in crisis cast the anonymity, invisibility, and indifference needed for a gay subculture to flourish. I don’t want to downplay the risk or the danger that gay people faced in the 1970s. But there comes a certain energy with the boldness of putting your own body and sometimes life on the line. It also speaks to the fun of going against the grain; of a love for the illicit and forbidden.

Cover of Dancer from the Dance

What’s at stake regarding the future of Dancer from the Dance is the issue of representation. As told by Craig Owens in his essay “Representation, Appropriation, and Power,” post-structuralism emerged in France in the aftermath of the 1968 student riots and grew out of a growing distrust of humanist discourse, which proposed a “universal” Western European man as the center of culture (to the marginalization of other cultures, races, and women). In the 1970s and 1980s post-structuralism emerged as a framework to speak of the ways in which representation could be used as a weapon of domination and control. Owens writes that, unlike humanist Erwin Panofsky, who proposed the purpose of the humanities is to reconstruct and reanimate the past, post-structuralists are less interested in subject matter than they are with truth content. This constant state of asking questions, of critical self-reflection, is the hallmark of post-structuralism. 

Holleran’s account of gay life in the 1970s goes far beyond a literary stand-in for lives that have already been lived. Perhaps Dancer has an allegorical structure. Unlike, say, metaphor, which requires no or very little interpretation, an allegory must be explained. One is reminded of Lebowitz’s words. Holleran’s world needs context in order for it to be meaningful for an audience beyond the people it satirizes. What’s more, the allegorical structure conceals as much as it tries to represent. 

The unique structure of Dancer—that it is bookended by a series of first-person letters, while the narrative story is told in the third-person—engages in two distinct modes of representation. Craig Owens writes about these two modes. First is the artist as the viewer—one who stands before the pictured or written world. In this “window” view, the artist represents things as he seems them. The window is authoritative; it establishes truth. Second is the artist who describes the world as he sees it, known as the “mirrored view.” This intertwined view reveals the representation apparatus by confusing the subject from the scene of representation.

A post-structuralist critique of representation contests the epistemological value or truth value of art. It’s subject matter exposes reality as fiction but lays claim to the history. Dancer fits within a post-structuralist mode even with a coherent narrative structure precisely to bring attention to its own illegitimacy. Post-modernists exploit the value of truth telling. Images come to mind. In the works of Cindy Sherman, for example, she exploits the cinematic modes of photography to expose their apparatus for creating an idealized image of femininity. 

The letters which introduce and conclude the novel occur between two friends reflecting on the decade, one of whom retreats to the South to pursue honest work among the dirt and dogwood. But few can so easily break with the sexual liberalism of the 1970s and he goes on to write the very novel contained within the pages of Dancer. Private letters sent between two friends can be otherwise interpreted through a literal mode, if we are to take what the two write to each other as having truth content. Holleran exploits the truth value of the letter format to compete with the other dominant mode of representation in his novel, the narrative structure. The story is told as a fiction, an unwritten manuscript, set within the pages of a literary work of fiction. The novel secures a rarefied position in literature, mainly that it is impossible to forget the novel is a novel.

The letters also render visible invisible mechanisms that control the legend making apparatus of Malone’s life. Holleran merges specular images of homosexuality and their symbolic meaning with the literal. For example, Malone’s virtue comes from, at least in part, his incredible success in the downtown scene, his dazzling dancing abilities, and his excessive handsomeness. Dancing may be a ripe activity for satirization, and yet to do so would diminish the poetic significance of Malone. Holleran positions Malone as new to the gay scene, though in time he becomes an indispensable figure. Malone functions much like the “dancer from the dance,” indistinguishable from the other dancers, and in his anonymity he lays outside the point of reference. He remains outside of reference because he literally disposes with identification with his former life. When he arrives into gay life, he has nothing to identify himself with besides his own beauty. The life Malone is reluctant to claim is a trope, an image, an aesthetic. That he eventually does claim it forces him into the role of a sand-in for many gay men of the decade. But Malone is not happy in this position. He mimics a subculture he can never fully commit to in part because of his outsider status, as reference in his notorious reputation for being hard to get and even harder to know on an elemental level. 

The only pitfall of this strategy, as Owens remarks, is the complicity of mimicry. The strategy in which the denunciation is made necessarily means that one must participate in the culture in order to denounce it. But in order for deconstruction to work, one must come from inside the frame, so to speak. Malone frequently expresses disappointment in what he sees as a gay tendency to value asethetic over substance. Yet, he commits to the subculture for over a decade before vanishing. 

If it seems strange that a gay author might denounce his own people, especially one he spent some time living in, Holleran is less interested in what representation says than in what it does. Malone rarely speaks for himself. An unnamed narrator tells his story in a supposed manuscript whose author is quickly identified as of the same social circles, but is no longer within it, having decamped to the South. Malone is as neutral as a person can be. It is frequently the feeling while reading that we cannot generally come to know Malone in his subjective, unique voice. Perhaps because his life is documented through the eyes of an anonymous viewer. But also because of an undercurrent of melancholy that always threatens to reach the surface until the tension evaporates just as he does. We cannot know that he is truly happy in his life, even though we know what he has sacrificed for participation in that subculture. 

Just as Malone never feels exactly at home in his life or happy with his choices, we may never feel satisfied with the progress of sexual liberation. Better it should be this way, so the power of sexuality can continue to propel us into new directions. The culture of promiscuity that rode a crest in the second-half of the last century may have landed in muddy waters just as the tides of the new millennium begin to rise. To remember and to learn from the underground gay culture of the 1970s is to understand that even in the ruins, a great vitality runs just below the surface.

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. 1955. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. Reprint, Boston: Mariner Books, 2019.

Brewster, Bill, and Frank Broughton. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: the History of the Disc Jockey. London: Headline, 1999.

Colacello, Bob. Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up. 1990. Reprint, New York: Vintage, 2014.

Crimp, Douglas. Before Pictures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Holleran, Andrew. Dancer from the Dance. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1978.

Holleran, Andrew. “Interview: Dancer from the Dance Author Andrew Holleran.” Interview by Ali Gitlow. Red Bull Music Academy Daily, November 9, 2015.

Julian, Kate. “The Sex Recession.” The Atlantic, December 2018

Lebowitz, Fran. “The Voice: Fran Lebowitz.” Interview by Francesco Clemente. Interview Magazine, March 11, 2016.

Owens, Craig. Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. 

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1890. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

Yablonsky, Linda. “The Guggenheim Outcast Who Laughed Last.” The New York Times, 20 March 2005.

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