Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" hit the top of Billboard's singles chart in early March 1979, displacing Rod Stewart's disco spoof "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy." After a decade dominated by disco, Gaynor's song (released the previous October on the album Love Tracks) provided a capstone and also served as one of the final mile markers in a cultural phenomenon that was dominant for much of the preceding decade.
One month before "I Will Survive" hit the peak of the chart, The New York Times ran a story by John Rockwell, "The Disco Drum-Beating in Perspective," which looked to cool the "rock is dead" movement (and its anti-disco counterpart) in popular culture. By approaching it with sensitivity, Rockwell touched on what is perhaps disco's most important legacy:
Disco is undeniably an ever‐more important part of today's pop music. It represents a vibrant part of late‐1970's life‐styles, both the homosexual/ black / Latin subculture and the broader white / suburban emulations thereof ... There is an enormous amount of amusing, danceable, interesting and sociologically significant disco music, and disco styles are having a striking effect on the country at large. And for all its silly escapism, disco represents one of the periodic and welcome infusions of black culture into the white mainstream.
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Nearly forty years after this inferno reached a fever pitch, the genre has been officially recognized in a series of events in Washington, D.C. Last Saturday, Gaynor performed her greatest hit in the gilded, grand Great Hall of the Library of Congress, just a year and two months after that institution had it added to the national recording registry. It was a full-circle moment and part of the Library's retrospective, "Bibliodiscotheque," which generated hours of discussions on the history of the genre, including a deep dive into its fashion by Tim Gunn.
The scene, you could argue, was a somewhat perpendicular way to celebrate a musical movement with such deeply transgressive roots — the thumbprint of disco is smudged indelibly into the darker throb of house music and the bounce of hip-hop, for starters — as Rockwell correctly surveyed in the midst of its heyday back in 1979.
Before the Library doors opened on Saturday, a block-long line of party hopefuls, dressed in their shimmering, tight-fitting '70s best — echoing the famous waits outside Mahattan clubs nearly 40 years ago — waited. Inside, themed cocktails were served. The congressional reading room served as a VIP area. The Library's central reading room, meanwhile, was turned into a survey of disco's place in its vast archives. Matthew Barton, curator of recorded sound at the Library of Congress, displayed news clippings — "Gay Dancers Add to Excitement of Disco Boom" — and records like the relatively obscure Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band and the Richard Nixon-featuring cover for Shirley And Company's "Shame, Shame, Shame." In an email to NPR, Barton says he sought out a selection that "told the story of disco from its early days as a club-based phenomenon to mass popularity, and which also reflected the many communities that contributed to it — gay, straight, black, white, Latino, European, rhythm & blues, jazz, pop and rock."The original patent for a "Lighted Disco Dance Floor" made an appearance.
That the Library threw this event — that it admitted "I Will Survive" into his registry at all — is proof positive of disco's permanence outside the cubed glass of its dance floors. In fact, it's the terminus of that influence; for a music that provided release and, to varying degrees, cultural primacy to the oppressed and marginalized, making a home just across the street from the Capitol of the United States is, literally, as accepted as is possible. Officially, at least.
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