My aches and chills started on the same day that I’d planned on mingling with strangers to the music of Donna Summer. On March 11, the Brooklyn Museum held an opening party for an exhibit on Studio 54, the iconic ’70s nightclub where Bianca Jagger once rode around on a horse led by a naked model. But headlines about the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. got worse over the course of the day, as did the feelings of physical ickiness that I now know was the onset of a mild case of the virus. I stayed home, and both museums and dance floors soon shut down citywide. Cooped up over the past nine months, the closest I’ve gotten to the Studio 54 experience has been watching videos about it online. “The music, the sound system, was so calibrated that it would just blow through your body,” the veteran party photographer Rose Hartman reminisces in a clip promoting the exhibit. “You just had to start moving.”
The notion of such a sound system—and the concerts, clubs, and parties it could power—has come to feel almost mythological this year. On the long list of things thwarted by the pandemic, the freedom to move our bodies together has not been an insignificant one. You can, in fact, tell its significance because 2020 was not the year that dancing died. It was actually the year of a desperate, passionate, and at times unsettling disco revival. (Listen to our playlist here.)
That revival had been brewing in popular music pre-pandemic. Last winter, Dua Lipa’s hit “Don’t Start Now” brought the Anita Ward-style laser zap to the Billboard Hot 100. Justin Timberlake and SZA were dancing inside of a mirror ball in the video for the thump-thumping single “The Other Side.” The Chic-style guitars of Doja Cat’s “Say So” were inspiring groovy moves on TikTok. The strobing synths of Lady Gaga’s “Stupid Love” recalled Giorgio Moroder’s pioneering production on Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” as did Sam Smith’s late-2019 cover of that very song. “It's Studio 54 all over again,” a radio programmer marveled to Billboard in early March.
Disco, of course, had never fully died. Its musical tropes—the rhythmic heartbeat, the octave-jumping bass, the swooping violins—continually suffuse pop, though they do tend to make themselves more overt every few years. (Remember the summer of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”?) More important, disco’s DNA is essential to all sorts of thriving modern scenes: hip-hop, house, EDM, even country. Probably its biggest legacy was to turn ecstatic public dancing to prerecorded music into a worldwide pastime and megabusiness. Warehouse raves, bottle-service clubs, and Jazzercise classes all embody the disco sensibility. But if 2020 was shaping up to be a year in which this often-mocked genre’s influence was honored, the pandemic seemed sure to stop the party. COVID-19 thrives when crowds press together and freak out.
Yet as dance clubs locked their doors and Americans spent their Saturday nights fevered with thoughts of Tiger King, the new-new-disco sound stuck around. Doja Cat’s single hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 in the pandemic spring. Later, that spot was taken by BTS’s “Dynamite,” which featured funky horns and a music video prominently featuring the word disco. Take a look at music critics’ year-end album lists, and you see the trend everywhere. Dua Lipa’s and Lady Gaga’s decidedly retro dance albums, Future Nostalgia and Chromatica, garnered tons of praise. So did Jessie Ware’s fantastic What’s Your Pleasure?, on which the U.K. singer, known for lush ballads, turned to Paradise Garage–style pulsation. The Irish indie-pop singer Róisín Murphy’s new epic, Róisín Machine, twitched with kick drum and electric piano. The Australian standby Kylie Minogue rolled out a glittery album titled—get this—Disco.
Though some of these albums were recorded before the pandemic, each seemed to cater to listeners’ stir-craziness. “We all got wanderlust in the darkest place,” Minogue sang in a single with a chorus that pleaded, “Can we all be as one again?” Live-streams and TV appearances did their best to evoke the feeling of doing the hustle with a sequined crowd. In November, Dua Lipa staged an elaborate online concert called “Studio 2054” in which she, a handful of dancers, and some star guests (including Minogue) sang and shimmied for more than an hour on a tricked-out soundstage. Tickets to watch the stream went for $18.50 apiece; Lipa’s team reported that she garnered more than 5 million views worldwide.
But for the fuller picture of disco’s enduring significance, look to all the ways that people used the music in 2020. Wherever people broke with social distancing, four-on-the-floor beats seemed to surface. The thumping music of Black Lives Matter protests included disco. So did the rallies of President Donald Trump, which were energized by The Village People. There was also the global trend of “plague raves”: illicit dance parties held in underpasses, apartments, and fields. Video of one gathering in the U.K. shows throngs of maskless young people singing along to “Make Luv,” a 2003 disco-house single by Room 5—disturbing footage once you learn of the reported stabbings and rapes British police investigated at such events this year. Here, too, was the story of disco in 2020: willful defiance that did not, try as it might, turn bad times into good times. The genre’s history is one of carefree dancing somehow encapsulating broader tensions—and this year, disco often highlighted the complexity of the mess we’re in.
It’s telling that the campy, polyester aesthetics of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever have been baked into the marketing of 2020’s disco pop. The movie is much darker than such aesthetics suggest, with scenes of sexual assault, violence, and racism that seem to indict disco culture as nihilistic. The film is also a famous example of musical whitewashing and straightwashing in action. Disco largely arose from Black, Latino, and queer spaces and sounds in the late ’60s and early ’70s, yet before long, Hollywood could hold up John Travolta and the Bee Gees as the scene’s mascots. An underground urban phenomenon had blossomed into mass escapism during a decade of economic crisis and political burnout. But even as straight, white Americans partook of disco’s pleasures, the genre still represented diversity, cosmopolitanism, and queerness to many people—and backlash began to brew.
At the infamous 1979 Disco Demolition Night, a white Chicago rock DJ orchestrated the mass destruction of disco records at a baseball stadium. “The message was, If you’re black or you’re gay, then you’re not one of us,” the music producer Vince Lawrence, who was working at the stadium that night, recalled in a 2018 documentary. Soon after that, some members of the disco scene went back underground to engage in the experimentation that would lead to house, techno, and hip-hop. But it wasn’t just the “Disco sucks” movement that caused cultural tides to turn. The music industry had begun pumping out generic disco singles of low quality. The nightlife circuits of the late ’70s really did encompass unsustainable excess, as seen in the saga of Studio 54, a temple of sex and drugs that eventually got busted for (of all things) tax evasion. HIV/AIDS also began to rip through disco’s original constituencies and tamp down the feeling of sexual freedom that pulsed through nightlife.
In a strange way, the 2020 disco wave both echoes and inverts some of the social dynamics that fueled the mid-to-late-’70s craze: Pop’s current obsession may well be a backlash to surging Black music. As rap and R&B became the most popular American genres in the 2010s, some of the most titanic figures in pop, mostly white ones, were left without a clear playbook for world domination. The ever more bombastic, EDM-influenced trajectory of Lady Gaga types in the early 2010s certainly stalled out. Reaching for disco—and its descendant rave-inspiring subgenres—may appear to be a safe bet for a sonic reset. Its 2020 form is a rhythmically steady and widely appealing sound that suits both workouts and chillouts, which is to say it fits in the flow of many different playlists. It is a close enough relative of hip-hop that it doesn’t seem out of touch, but it is also a refuge for listeners unenthused by modern rap. Throw in the way that the pantomime dances of TikTok resemble the hammiest disco moves, and the logic of a revival feels inevitable.
To be sure, a diverse set of performers has landed disco hits in 2020. But glaringly, the stars who went all in on disco albums this year were white women (Lipa, Gaga, Ware, Minogue, Murphy), many of them working with white production and songwriting teams. In February, a Dua Lipa fan caused a mini controversy on Twitter by thanking his diva for “reviving disco music in an era where white artists try to move to trap and hip hop in the hope of being more successful.” The presumption in the tweet—that disco is a purer, whiter music—was both ahistorical and racist, yet it also seemed to articulate a subtext of the 2020 disco wave. When Black Lives Matter protests flared up across the country this year, they led to soul searching within the music industry over the ways that white artists have so often profited from Black innovation. A clear example, to anyone paying attention, seemed to be unfolding in pop’s latest fad.
The artists involved seemed to recognize this as an issue—but only after they’d recorded their albums. Gaga’s house-and-techno-indebted Chromatica was released days after the death of George Floyd; recognizing that it wasn’t the time for her to grab the spotlight, Gaga temporarily suspended her promotional efforts. Ware also pushed her June release date back a bit. Both women, when they did return to advertising their albums, acknowledged the historical lineages and racial hierarchies they benefited from. “All music is Black music,” Gaga said in a Billboard article. Ware told Gay Times, “Everyone knew disco, but I didn’t fully understand the significance of it as a genre for the queer community and the Black community as much.” Remixes, music videos, and social-media activity by these artists did end up giving a platform to Black voices—but those efforts could not change the fact that the albums they promoted were, in the first place, not very inclusive documents.
This context complicates the easy narrative being marketed with 2020 disco: the notion that “disco has that sense of joy that people need when things are really going to shit at the moment,” as Ware put it. She’s surely right, but the quest for pleasure that denies the reality of its moment can sometimes amount to moral or social disengagement. Note how rhetoric about struggle and escape has been common in the justifications of people attending potential super-spreader parties. PERSEVERANCE read a banner waving at a large rave beneath a New York City bridge in August; one of the event’s unapologetic organizer told Gothamist, “People need a release.” Populations of all stripes have violated social-distancing guidelines over the course of the year, but certain demographics are more likely to pay the cost for recklessness. As the DJ Harold Heath wrote in Attack magazine, “Let’s not forget that while these DJs play music of Black origin, this is a pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black people.”
None of this is to say that the disco pop of 2020 endorsed irresponsibility or sounded cynical. Really, the songs didn’t so much distract from the state of the world as cast a new light on it; with introspective lyrics, they honored the disco tradition of simple choruses that hit like an epiphany. Listen closely to Chromatica and you’ll hear Gaga reckoning with panic and trauma on a surprisingly vulnerable level. One Róisín Murphy mantra about life’s monotony that almost made me sob during a masked run this summer: “Keep waking up at 6 a.m. / Getting up, doing it allllll again.” I also became obsessed with Club Future Nostalgia, a remix album in which the DJ The Blessed Madonna brought in a cast of dance-music producers to rework Lipa’s songs into a chaotic, nonstop groove. On the closing track, the Detroit techno mainstay Moodymann turns one of Lipa’s hit choruses—“I would have stayed at home”—into a poignant, swirling, pandemic-appropriate wisp of a thought.
Such close listening was invited by the music itself. In most cases of 2020 disco pop, artists prized richness and intricacy as they fit vintage signifiers into sleek modern templates. The production team for Future Nostalgia repurposed some of the corniest tropes from dance music throughout the decades—fusing Studio 54 gimmicks with macho ’80s guitars and 2000s melodic math—for a radically sincere head rush. This was also the approach of Gaga’s crew with Chromatica, though they were more focused on ’90s rave culture. The most transporting album of the bunch was Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, whose keyboard sizzles and drum thwacks seemed coated in a mix of glitter and cobwebs. Ware’s music immediately transforms any room into a more elegant place.
But possibly the best disco-pop track to come out of this moment is “Experience,” a single from the EP Jaguar by the rising R&B singer Victoria Monét. Amid a thicket of rippling keyboards, Monét sighs, “I’m hoping experience will get you to change.” A wish for mishaps to lead to better times: That’s a nice New Year’s thought. Moreover, the song sounds so confident, modern, and enveloping that it’s easy to forget how retro its influences are. In the video, three friends skate around a purple-lit roller rink that’s otherwise empty. They look like they’re having fun, but not too much fun, and as you watch you might get a very 2020 feeling: the desire to enjoy this song in a crowd, and the awareness that the time to do so has still not arrived.