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Disco as Operating System, Part One

From: Criticism
Volume 50, Number 1, Winter 2008
pp. 83-100 | 10.1353/crt.0.0052

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When exactly did the era of the medium dissolve? Like most cultural phenomena, the dissolution of the medium and its attendant auras—painting, film, music, photography, the novel—is hard to pinpoint. So it’s useful to turn from the PowerPoint lectures of art history, with their virtual-poetic implications, and look for sensory clues on the dance floor of the seventies, regarded as an operating system with a mirror ball, two turntables, Quaaludes, and a mixing board. The ad-hoc setup known as “seventies dance culture” or the “Disco Era”—beginning roughly in 1973 and ending in 1979—ushered in a post-medium era for the masses. In disco’s particular case, it led to a host of media formats and musics in the eighties and beyond: house, ambient, electronica, hip-hop, snap, trip-hop, dub, crunk, garage, hyphy, and techno. These mutations suggest how varied and unspecific disco as a genre became and how complicated its evolution and mainstreaming ultimately was. But then genre or medium was never the right way to think about disco. Asking what disco is is no less difficult than asking, What is music? But the question might be better rendered as, What sounds like music in an age of the dissolving medium? And one of the answers to this is “disco,” or, to use a more ambient search parameter, “the disco sound.”

The post-medium era had numerous precursors both visual and aural.1 In his notes to the 1914 Box, Marcel Duchamp proposed bypassing the outmodedchannelofretinalprocessingbymakinga“paintingoffrequency,”2 a project followed up by Duchamp’s program for “large sculptures in which the listener would be at the center. For example, an immense Venus de Milo made of sounds around the listener.”3 And Andy Warhol regarded his Shadows, a sequence of 102 paintings the artist completed in 1978, as disco décor. At any rate, disco’s influence as a post-medium format transcended dance culture at the Loft, the Paradise Garage, or Studio 54. By the early years of the century, the disco sound had morphed into not only house music but into production and distribution practices associated with “social media.” With its divergent music-making techniques (beat-matching, slip-cuing), social venues (dance clubs), low-cost or free distribution models (record-lending pools, nominal club admission), social practices, and changing technologies (mixing board, twelve-inch single, amyl nitrate), disco is not principally a commodity pressed on vinyl and consumed in a rec room, but a cultural format accessed in a communal setting where the line between singing and acting, listening and participating, between a celebrity and what Warhol called a “nobody,” and between an individual and a network were being dissolved in an era marked by flexible accumulation and the transformation of culture into a fluid species of capital.4 It was also a technologically specific medium whose production and mode of accessing can be linked to the development of magnetic core memory systems. But you didn’t have to be an economist or a computer expert to note how changes in the market affected stardom in a network where human actions resembled machine-based protocols enabling data to copy itself. As an ambient environment or operating system in which varied practices transpire, disco is the (sound of) data entering (input) and leaving (output) a system, where multiple sources are accessed in a time that is simulated to feel like a real-time operation. Or as Donna Summer remarked: “That was Marilyn Monroe singing, not me. I’m an actress. That’s why my songs are diverse.”5

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Image capture of Google search for “disco.”

To paraphrase McLuhan, an era is defined not so much by the mediums it gains as by the mediums it gives up. Summer, a new species of a studio-engineered vocal celebrity, understood the conditions of her fame in relation to métier: anonymity, short shelf life, fungible social network/civilization, and copyright violations. The so-called authenticity of the rock ’n’ roll voice, heretofore rendered on a forty-five and given play on Top 40 radio, poses the problem the twelve-inch, five-minute-plus single solves with mixing board...

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