The desire to “make America great again” is obviously not a new one, particularly when couched in the fear of a black (and brown and woman and gay) planet. We could find plenty of instances across recent history, but the most visual analog to the current bonfire that Trump supporters have metaphorically wrought is an actual bonfire that occurred on July 12, 1979, at a White Sox-Tigers doubleheader in Chicago.
The outsized culmination of the “disco sucks” movement, this date is now known as Disco Demolition Night, in which thousands of angry rock fans publicly rebelled against the rise of disco music by taking to the field at Comiskey Park and publicly burning disco albums.
This wasn’t a random act of protest; it was sparked by their leader, an inflammatory rock radio DJ by the name of Steve Dahl, who used his position on WLUP-FM to fuel the swelling anti-disco sentiment of the late ‘70s. For the night of the 12th, Dahl worked with Chicago White Sox management—including then-owner Bill Veeck and his son, Mike—to allow anti-disco baseball fans to attend the game for just 98 cents if they brought a disco record to torch in the field.
As the news clip above notes, after police closed off the gates, attendees still managed to stream in, and the park filled with an estimated 50,000 people when all was said and done; in addition to burning the records, they pelted them onto the field, also hitting players with golf balls and other ephemera. They were not, as the segment posits, baseball fans, but agitated, riotous, rockist thugs protesting a rhythmic dance music that was explicitly black, brown, gay and woman-centric.
Sylvester on American Bandstand performing “Dance Disco Heat,” a top 20 hit in 1978.
The mess on the baseball field was such that the second game in the double header was cancelled. Dahl, no doubt buoyed by this display, attempted to parlay his newfound fame with an energized and somewhat ferocious base to curry national favor. A month after Disco Demolition Night, Dahl cut a (pretty bad) parody of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” entitled “Do Ya Think I’m Disco,” which seemed meant to appeal to his perceived working class audience, stereotyping the post-Saturday Night Fever disco fan as an elite without “a realistic set of values,” as Dahl put it in the lyrics.
As Billboard explained in its August 11, 1979 issue, Dahl’s anti-disco crusade began when he was ousted from his original station after it transitioned from rock to a disco format, and credits his “visibility and crazy antics” with elevating WLUP’s profile. (Ten years later, Billboard commemorated his 20th anniversary on the station with a profile about his “poison tongue,” and cited instances of him using it. Figure skater Nicole Bobek, after a fall, “looked hot”; he held a segment called “All My Interns” with cheeky nicknames for Monica (“Harmonica”) Lewinsky and Hillary (“Chillary”) Clinton.)
Since Dahl’s “Disco Sucks” movement—a national campaign, of sorts—critics, scholars and historians have pinpointed how it stemmed from a white, male, working-class impulse to return to a presumed radio dominance it saw itself losing as station formats turned increasingly “rhythmic,” accommodating music created by a wider and more diverse range of people. As the historian and Vanderbilt University professor Jefferson Cowie brilliantly described these anti-disco underpinnings in his book Stayin’ Alive: the 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class:
The “Disco Sucks” rallies and the various burnings, steamrollings, and smashing of disco records (by the “Saturday Night Cleaver,” no less) seemed like the last stand of white blue-collar Midwestern males against all that was cosmopolitan, urbane, racially integrated and, most of all, gay. Disco’s challenge to both segregation and straight identity created an open forum for the celebration of the different, the outcast, and the wild, while simultaneously creating a focal point for young, white, male, blue-collar kids who fetishized the phallic guitar solos of rock, despised the producer-driven mechanized format of disco, and felt secure in the increasingly white envelope of seventies rock. The guys in the “Shoot the BeeGees,” “Kiss Army” and “Disco Sucks” t-shirts were ingredients in a larger rage of Midwestern males against the system, but like Dewey Burton’s commitments to the anti-busing cause, it was more complicated than just race or just sexuality—it tipped into economic power, class, and cultural authority. It was also a raised middle finger to the decadence of those who would party through double digit unemployment and the deindustrialization of America.
The anti-disco movement was less about the materiality of working-class identity than what white, male, blue-collar identity had morphed into: a populist grab bag of resentments based on region, race, economics and sexuality. White guys, already insecure about their employment future, now faced threats to everything else they thought they could rely upon: racial identity, masculinity and, what by then had become a safely white genre, rock ‘n’ roll. The protest was not simply about racism or deviance; it was about something far more threatening, explains Shapiro: “impotence.”
It’s astonishing, reading this now, the parallels between this group of anti-dance activists and the perceived motivations behind many Trump supporters—in both cases, the self-proclaimed disenfranchisement of white men results in a reactionary extreme, though obviously what we’re seeing now is this extreme on a much vaster and more dangerous scale.
For what it’s worth, the disco sucks movement helped the genre dissipate to a slight point, though many critics would also argue that it was reaching its natural conclusion in a trend cycle. In 1980, the top five songs on the Billboard 100 Charts were, in order, Blondie’s “Call Me,” Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, part II,” Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic,” Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” and Captain & Tenille’s “Do That to Me One More Time”—three of which, while not explicitly disco, had some disco levels of influence. (Lipps Inc’s “Funkytown” was number eight.)
But even with various crescendos in the ‘80s and ‘90s, rock has been gradually sliding down the Billboard charts ever since, overtaken in popularity by music that is blacker and gayer and womanier and ever more digital, sometimes all at the same time. The point, though, is not that this music has usurped white men on the pop charts—it’s just that the pop charts have become generally more equitable, at least on their surface.
Dahl, still broadcasting, will release a book of interviews about the Disco Demolition in July. In 2013, Mike Veeck held another Disco Demolition, this time much smaller and sadder, involving Justin Bieber posters. In August of 2015, a little over 36 years after the fire at Comiskey Park, Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” became his first number one debut on the Billboard Hot 100.