Disco is a musical style originating in the early 1970s that remained urban and largely underground until the middle of the decade when it began to emerge from America’s urban nightlife scene, where it had been curtailed to house parties and makeshift discotheques, and began making regular appearances mainstream, gaining popularity and increasing airplay on radio. It achieved popularity during the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. Its initial audiences in the U.S. were club-goers from the gay, African American, Italian American, Latino, and psychedelic communities in Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York City during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Disco can be seen as a reaction against both the domination of rock music and the stigmatization of dance music by the counterculture during this period. Disco was popular with both men and women from many different backgrounds, with dances including the Bump and the Hustle.
The disco sound often has several components, a “four-on-the-floor” beat, an eighth note (quaver) or 16th note (semi-quaver) hi-hat pattern with an open hi-hat on the off-beat, and a prominent, syncopated electric bass line. In most disco tracks, string sections, horns, electric piano, and electric rhythm guitars create a lush background sound. Orchestral instruments such as the flute are often used for solo melodies, and lead guitar is less frequently used in disco than in rock. Many disco songs use electronic synthesizers, particularly in the late 1970s.
Well-known 1970s and 1980s disco performers included: Vicki Sue Robinson, Yvonne Elliman, Grace Jones, Divine, Lime, Thelma Houston, Diana Ross, Cher, Cheryl Lynn, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, Boney M., Claudja Barry, Billy Ocean, Cerrone, Dan Hartman, Madonna, Miquel Brown, Chaka Khan, KC and the Sunshine Band, the Trammps, Marlena Shaw, Sylvester, Village People, Gloria Gaynor, Amii Stewart, and Chic. While performers and singers garnered much public attention, record producers working behind the scenes played an important role in developing the “disco sound”. Many non-disco artists recorded disco songs at the height of disco’s popularity, and films such as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Thank God It’s Friday (1978) contributed to disco’s rise in mainstream popularity. Disco was the last mass popular music movement that was driven by the baby boom generation. Disco was a worldwide phenomenon, but its popularity drastically declined in the United States in 1980, and by 1982 it had lost most of its mainstream popularity in the states. Disco Demolition Night, an anti-disco protest held in Chicago on July 12, 1979, remains the most well-known of several “backlash” incidents across the country that symbolized disco’s declining fortune.
By the late 1970s, most major U.S. cities had thriving disco club scenes, where DJs would mix a seamless sequence of dance records. Studio 54, a venue popular among celebrities, is a well-known example of a disco club. Popular dances included the Hustle, a sexually suggestive dance. Discotheque-goers often wore expensive, extravagant and sexy fashions. There was also a thriving drug subculture in the disco scene, particularly for drugs that would enhance the experience of dancing to the loud music and the flashing lights, such as cocaine and Quaaludes, a drug that was so common in disco subculture that it was nicknamed “disco biscuits”. Disco clubs were also sometimes associated with promiscuity.
Disco was a key influence in the later development of electronic dance music and house music. Disco has had several revivals, including in 2005 with Madonna‘s highly successful album Confessions on a Dance Floor, and again in 2013 and 2014, as disco-styled songs by artists like Daft Punk (with Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers), Justin Timberlake, Breakbot, and Bruno Mars—notably Mars’ “Uptown Funk“—filled the pop charts in the UK and the US.