Thursday, September 18, 2014

1970s Identity on the Disco Floor (and 1980s Identity on the Sitcom)

I want to start by offering an apology to our dedicated readers.  My apology is not for my recent hiatus, which has been necessary due to numerous recent changes in my life.  But I do want to apologize for not posting this gem sooner because it is things like this that make us fully appreciate the potential that the internet has to enhance our daily lives:

If you're curious, here is the original Stevie Wonder performance from 1973.

Why is this such a gem?  First, because the editing could not be better.  In fact, the first time I saw this video, my immediate reaction was to declare Daft Punk to be genii of the nth degree for making this happen--for a split second, I thought that they had somehow recreated a near-perfect replica of an episode of Soul Train for the official video (nope).  Second, because this song belongs without question to the aesthetics of 70s music while maintaining a contemporary sound, as a quick comparison to Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition' performance makes clear.  Both songs rely heavily on repetition.  In 'Superstition,' this can be heard in the opening line, which comes back frequently in the song.  Overall, though, 'Superstition' still adheres to the basic form of pop music, including a refrain, verses, and even a bridge.  Daft Punk has moved away from these conventions, taking instead what can best be summarized as a minimalist approach (which is to say very little musical material that is repeated many times) while integrating a pop aesthetic of layering a variety of different ideas together.  You hear the exact same thing in the BeeGee's 'Night Fever,' for instance (WARNING: Travolta is in his undies in that clip); you just need to follow that fantastic opening scratchy bit that comes back at times, then think about how many layers are in the 'Night Fever' chorus.

It's worth watching that clip even if you skip the Travolta underwear part because you should see the scene where they are dancing on the world's most amazing lit-up disco dance floor.  What strikes me here is how little individuality is conveyed.  Indeed, that is part of the function of this scene within Saturday Night Fever: the local disco is a place where Tony [Travolta] and his gang have carved out their very small world, one where they can get away from nagging parents and dead-end jobs.  Our first introduction in the movie to the disco is in the 'Night Fever' scene, where we see how carefully Tony has prepared for this night, but also how he fits into the place, as represented by the group all dancing together (yet alone!).  It is their version of losing themselves to dance, but it is a place where they primarily want to feel that they fit in.  Certainly Tony is the most talented of the dancers there--and therefore often stands out--but we also see that he has a lot he tries to escape from.  The importance of this territory is attested to later in the movie, when this space will be threatened by Puerto Rican dancers during a contest.  While Tony is declared victorious by the home-disco crowd, he believes that they were the better dancers and starts to see his world as limited.  As any good 1970s New York movie character does, ultimately Tony seeks the glitz and glamor of Manhattan over Brooklyn, even after he prevails at the disco in his famous white suit:

Escaping Brooklyn via seriously graffiti-laden subway car
If you compare the dance that introduces the viewer to Tony's disco with the Soul Train clip, you will see a remarkable contrast.  In Soul Train, each of the featured dancers is doing his or her own thing, particularly during the walk down the line.  But there is very little here that is uniform.  The fashion is strikingly different from person to person.  The plaid is found in unexpected places, mostly as pants.  The hair is also notable.  In fact, the hair is really notable because--with the exception of topknots--there is a lack of obvious attempts to conceal natural hair (unless, of course, people have very fancy wigs).  This is 1973, people.  And these are black people looking like black people and delineating themselves as individuals through their dancing.

Soul Train was extremely popular, airing in markets across the country and--even more significantly--in both black and white households.  So it is hard not to make a connection between it and a show that had the same kind of impact a decade later: The Cosby Show.  Take the season 2 introduction, for instance:

A few things here: we see each member of the family dance along to the theme song.  Having two people in the frame is somewhat reminiscent of the Soul Train Line, particularly as each person does his or her own thing.  However, there is no question of the individuality of each family member in question.  The one that stands out the most, of course, is Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby), who seems less able to dance than the rest of his family.  Undoubtedly, part of this is simply Cosby hamming it up, as he is prone to do (in the best possible way).  But could this be a statement about the image of black people projected by Soul Train?  Perhaps Cosby is covertly saying that some black people can't dance, a point that might be missed by white audience members accustomed to seeing African-Americans in limited roles on television.  Unlike on Soul Train though, they are not limited to demonstrating their dancing prowess; indeed, they have a voice.

It's entirely possible that I am reading too much into this and that I need to take a break from Daft Punk/Soul Train mashups, but then again, it is more fun sometimes to lose yourself to dance.


  1. I'd love to see you and Kira comment on how these notions of race and identity compare to those portrayed in the new ABC comedy "Black-ish," which launched a 25 minute discussion in my History of Jazz class last week. I dont know how much they dance in the new show, but...

  2. Thanks for that suggestion! Half of SGS is woefully ignorant of what is happening on TV these days, but we will definitely look into this topic! I have heard good things about the show via NPR, because I am more into meta-TV watching these days than TV watching.