Monday, November 28, 2016

Burn, Baby, Burn

Rob and I have often said we've been putting off and putting off the "rock vs. disco" discussion until we finally came to the hour-long WKRP episode "Dr. Fever and Mr. Tide." Well, it's finally come around, and dare I say, its timing is somewhat fitting.

When "Dr. Fever and Mr. Tide" aired in February 1981, disco was allegedly "dead." Lots of our favorite media have made hay from people cluelessly clinging to disco far beyond its expiration date: take Joel Hodgson's mall disco DJ in Freaks and Geeks' classic episode "Discos and Dragons," The Simpsons' Disco Stu, or perhaps Whit Stillman's underrated The Last Days of Disco. Whatever the case, "Dr. Fever and Mr. Tide" did arrive a tiny bit late to take full advantage of the "Disco Sucks!" movement. Still, the scars and wounds from that late-1970s war were still fresh, and if anything were more evident as America entered the Reagan era in earnest.

Disco's death spiral either started or culminated, depending on who you ask, at Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in July 1979. We talk about the event on this week's episode and about the "Disco Sucks!" movement's not-so-hidden undercurrents of race, class, and gender resentment. Our special return guest host this week, Jeff Wikstrom, made us aware of this intriguing piece written by Arthur Chu a couple of years ago: "Of Gamers, Gates, and Disco Demolition: The Roots of Reactionary Rage." In it, Chu makes some direct comparisons between the inchoate rage of white males during the height of Gamergate in 2014 and the dark, phobic urges channeled by local Chicago DJ Steve Dahl in his promotional event destroying hundreds of disco LPs at Comiskey Park in 1979.

What I find interesting about Chu's now-obviously prophetic piece is how Gamergate preceded the election of 2016 by very close to the same amount of time as Disco Demolition preceded the 1980 election.

Was Gamergate the canary in the coal mine for Trumpism the same way Disco Demolition presaged the Reagan Revolution? As historians are fond of saying, history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Sure, the malaise of Carter's America triggered a white working-class rage in the same way that the economic upheaval of the postindustrial 2010s pushed traditionally Democratic strongholds like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin into the Republican column this time around... but let's be clear: so did sexism. So did racism. So did homophobia. The same stew of impulses behind seemingly harmless pop culture phenomena like "Disco Sucks!" and Gamergate led to an electoral upheaval a handful of months later.

Pop culture and mass media are battlefields upon which the culture wars and indeed politics are always fought. The artifacts of culture that emerge from a point in history are both reflection of and roadmap for where that society is going. Issues of authenticity, anti-commercialism, and even a form of populist anti-capitalism were at the roots of the 1979 rock fan's impulses to defame disco, as we discuss in Wednesday's episode. Is it too outrageous to posit that Reagan's cowboy rebellion (against perceived liberal power structures in post-Watergate Washington and among the mainstream press) received its startling support in the 1980 election as an outgrowth of this sort of worldview?

I'd argue these same exact impulses of distrust of authority, the same urges for rebellion against nebulous powers-that-be, were at the center of Gamergate. Defamation and distrust of the major sources for video game journalism echo and presage the Trumpist distrust of neoliberal elites in the press, globalist corporations, and pop culture. And once again, that angry, young white male rebellion is co-opted, twisted, and compromised to further entrench and support the true elites: right-wing politicians who support a capitalist status quo.

The push and pull of history, the desperate struggle for rights on the part of the oppressed is always invariably met by the forces of reaction. The openness and joy of disco's seeming decadence, its implicit appeal for sexual and racial unity on the dance floor, and its association with the burgeoning gay rights movement was as much a slap in the face to the 1980 reactionary as gay marriage, trans rights, and yes, women making video games (and their associated prominence in pop culture) are to the 2016 reactionary.

In the minds of these near-identical young white male reactionaries separated by more than a generation, when all around you is changing, speeding out of all perceived control, all that you can do to save yourself and preserve your personal symbols of identity and psychological security is to grab the emergency brake... no matter how exaggerated the perceived emergency is, or how many people will be thrown around and hurt by that lever being pulled.

While politics are obviously on our mind lately, Wednesday's episode is also full of the usual crackpot pop culture analysis you've come to expect from Hold My Order, especially when Jeff Wikstrom is in the guest chair. Also, forcing Rob to be a disco DJ for a whole episode proved an unexpected delight. So join us on Wednesday for the very funny (as well as timely) HMOTD 033: Gotta Dance!

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