- Exchange Theories in Disco, New Wave, and Album-Oriented Rock
Disco had a purpose: making you move on the dance floor. But it also sold millions of records, revived careers, provoked debates about the effects of music, got cross-marketed with congas, made songs go through people’s heads, pushed the record industry to introduce the twelve-inch single, gave rock artists the chance to write pop songs, threatened friendships, turned session musicians into auteurs, served as a platform for foreign singers trying to enter the North American market, and changed the way songs were constructed. So beyond fulfilling its primary function as dance music, what else did disco have to give? The answer lies partly in its multiple modes of address—its commitment to the dance floor, participation in the soul tradition, and success on the pop charts. Pursuit of these distinct ambitions meant that disco’s materials and conventions circulated widely, making them available to other genres. Indeed its conventions appeared in many contemporary genres that didn’t have dancing on the agenda. But, I’ll argue, disco’s legacy has also to do with the way it made its materials available, allowed them to circulate, and put them into a system of exchange.
The exchanges I’m discussing happened around the time of the record industry’s commercial peak, and sudden crash, at the end of 1979. The musical-historical context is important as well: talking about disco demands an acknowledgment of its precursors in African American music of the seventies, like funk, soul, Philadelphia soul, and the black-action-film soundtrack. When you study these genres you can’t entirely abandon the notion of a genre as a set of rules and constitutive features; but these and other genres of the seventies can often be better defined with reference to their internal variety and proliferation of subgenres, their modes of revision and transformation, and their movement toward other genres. They constantly remind us that genres are in works as much as works are in genres. This essay considers three late-seventies genres—disco, new wave, and album-oriented rock—that overlap in varying degrees with [End Page 43] respect to their historical moment, modes of dissemination, institutional frames (like record labels), musical materials, personnel, and audiences. Songs in each of these genres contain musical hooks and sometimes succeed on the pop charts. They also borrow from the same genres and from one another.
I will be particularly concerned with this kind of cross-borrowing in what follows. Marcel Mauss makes the crucial point that when different cultures engage in trade, they trade not only goods, but methods and concepts of exchange.1 To give a quick example of the sort I’ll discuss further: when a new-wave song borrows disco’s conventions like four-on-the-floor and processed percussion sounds, it often acquires at the same time disco’s tendency toward stratified textures that allow other types of material to ease into the mix. A new-wave song may thus incorporate material from some third genre—material, that is, that derives neither from disco nor new wave. Every party to an exchange operates within a set of understandings about what can and can’t, will or won’t be traded, and why. This greatly interested Mauss. Thinking about exchange as a metaphor for genre mixing, however, I’ll want to emphasize that each such exchange shows something about these concepts of exchange; I’m seeking to bring out the latent theory revealed in acts and channels of exchange.
My analysis will pay close attention to specific musical conventions, so let me quickly say why: (1) Conventions are sedimented with history. (2) They also possess a materiality on records that can’t be written off: four-on-the-floor is simply there regardless of authorial intent or audience response. (3) Expressive conventions remind us that when a musician communicates something, she does so in a language only partly her own. (4) I want to make a space for talking about metaconventions—conventions governing the use of other conventions—like irony in new wave, and the idea of rock as an art form...