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WATCH: Was the “war on disco” fueled by homophobia? New doc unpacks the explosive culture clash

Image Credit: Getty Images

Back in the 1970s, disco emerged from the underground and found its way into mainstream culture, topping charts and making global stars out of artists like Donna Summer, ABBA, and The Village People.

But with the rise of disco came the inevitable backlash, as some folks dismissed the genre as all flash and glamor, offering little substance.

This long-simmering culture clash symbolically came to a head one hot summer night in Chicago, 1979—fittingly, near the end of the decade that will forever be associated with disco’s dominance.

Known as Disco Demolition Night, the event saw thousands of the genre’s detractors ascend on the White Sox stadium where a crate filled with disco records was detonated, leading to a riot on the field.

One of the main organizers was local DJ Steve Dahl, who lost his radio job when his rock station converted to all-disco to cater to the music’s growing popularity. His call-to-arms inspired plenty of listeners to turn up to the event—the overwhelming majority of whom were straight and white.

Image Credit: Getty Images

Given disco’s roots in Black and queer spaces, it’s not hard to read the event as one fueled by thinly veiled racism and homophobia. This wasn’t just pushback to a genre of music, but pushback to social movements over the past few decades that finally brought marginalized voices to the forefront.

But it’s also worth noting that not everything at Disco Demolition Night was that deliberate—at that point in time, many of attendees weren’t even aware of disco’s origins. So what could’ve compelled them to be part of such a violent display of personal taste? And what does it have to say about our modern understanding of “culture wars”?

A new PBS documentary The War On Disco delves into the forces, implicit and explicit, that led to that (literally) explosive night in Chicago, and explores its connection to the ideological battles our society is fighting today.

“It was one of those events that was an early skirmish in the now-familiar ‘culture wars,’ even if we weren’t calling it that at the time,” says the documentary’s executive producer Cameo George.

“What seemed like a simple grudge between those who loved disco and those who loved rock was in many ways a larger, more pointed response to the rapid shift in cultural, demographic and economic patterns that were coming to a head in the 1970s and are still causing friction in America today.”  

The latest chapter of the “American Experience” history series, The War On Disco premieres Monday, October 30 on PBS, and will be available via Amazon Prime Video the following day.

You can preview the first 10 minutes of the documentary below:

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