The Mediapolis Q&A: Tim Lawrence on Dance Music Culture in New York City (Part Two)

Jean-Michel Basquiat DJ-ing in the lounge at Area, 1986. Photograph by and courtesy of Johnny Dynell.
In part two of the Mediapolis Q+A, Lawrence Webb continues his conversation with Tim Lawrence about the history of dance music culture in New York City.
[Ed. note: In part two of this Mediapolis Q&A, Tim Lawrence discusses the rapid changes to New York’s music scene in the neoliberal 1980s and the importance of reclaiming the legacy of disco as radical counterculture. For part one, click here.]

Tim Lawrence is author of three groundbreaking books on the history of dance music culture in New York City: Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 (Duke University Press, 2004); Hold On To Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992 (2009); and Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983 (2016).

Lawrence Webb: Your most recent book focuses on the extraordinary productivity of a four-year period between 1980-83. Could you talk about this kind of micro-periodization in your work, and how the early 1980s contrasts with the later part of the decade? 

Tim Lawrence: I didn’t set out to write a 500-page book about four years in the musical life of one city. That would have been absurd. The idea was to indeed cover the whole of the 1980s, just as Love Saves the Day had covered the 1970s, and that was what many people expected me to write and several people told me to write, with the closing of the Paradise Garage in 1987 and the Saint in 1988 two obvious endpoints. But whereas it was reasonably straightforward to devote Love Saves the Day to the story of the rise of DJ culture, the emergence of disco and the backlash against disco, because the level of interaction between disco, punk and rap was minimal for much of the 1970s, by the early 1980s the post-disco, art-punk and nascent hip hop scenes were, I came to understand, interacting with one another heavily. So there seemed to be a compulsion to write about all three. It would have been hard to follow the history through for the whole of the 1980s. It would have also been problematic to do that because from 1984 onwards the scenes became increasingly divergent and antagonistic. My year-by-year chronological and syncretic approach confirmed that the first four years of the decade presented themselves as a distinctive era marked by convergence. It meant that I couldn’t finish the story of, say, the Paradise Garage in one go, but then it also appears that the Garage became quite a different entity during the last four years of its run, and so that along with other developments between 1984-87 are deserving of a different book—a book that focuses on the changes that started to manifest themselves in the city during 1983 (property price inflation, increasing inequality, intensifying regulation, etc) and became dominant for the rest of the decade.

Early disco was a grassroots culture, but how did the New York City government shape its later development? Ed Koch saw that disco could be exploited as a cultural asset, for example, but his pro-business policies also accelerated the decline of the scene.

I’m not sure if Ed Koch really understood disco’s value. At one point he announced that a week in June 1978 that was due to coincide with a Billboard Disco Forum would be an official disco week and added some complimentary words about disco as an integrationist culture, but there was no conscious attempt to turn New York City into a hospitable setting for party spaces in the same way as, for example, the city introduced policies that aimed to regenerate SoHo through artist settlement. In a way it didn’t matter because the city was both cheap and liberal. But as property prices inflated and as new established residents sought to establish neighbours as party-free spaces, sometimes in order to enjoy the same kind of sleep as they did in the suburbs and sometimes in order to protect rising real estate values, the city started to regulate nightlife much more heavily. This started in 1983 and culminated with Giuliani’s Zero Tolerance strategy of the 1990s. Koch also sought to bring in extra tax revenue by giving corporations tax breaks—breaks that should properly be known as corporate welfare. It marked a shift from giving money to the poor to giving money to the rich. One wonders what kind of city New York would be today if the money diverted to the corporations—and Trump was an early beneficiary, with Trump Tower opening in 1983, much of it paid for by the tax payer—had instead been invested in transport infrastructure, green energy programmes or small and medium size business investment opportunities. It’s easy to imagine a more vibrant and community oriented city rather than the one that is often described as a playground for the rich, with Times Square dominated by banks and chain stores, and downtown a sprawling shopping centre.

I’m fascinated by the connections you make in the epilogue of your book between disco, post-Fordism, and autonomist theory. How do these theories help us to understand what happened to New York and its music culture in the 1980s?

New York City of the 1970s and early 1980s is regularly portrayed as a failing city in need of repair, with the failure heavily associated with postwar social democracy, or the idea that government and the wider public sector should play a central role in the organisation of society and that market forces, while integral to an economy, must be regulated in order to support social justice. The cure to this supposed failure came in the form of neoliberalism. But I want to argue four things.

First, the 1970s have been misrepresented, and that life during the at decade was much more pleasurable than the stories of crime and uncollected waste will ever reveal. I must have spoken to some 500 people who lived in the city during that era and none of them have told me they wanted to leave. If anything the opposite was true; they wouldn’t even want to live the city for a weekend for fear of missing some essential party. It was a period defined by, yes, a degree of hardship, but also deep community bonding and perhaps unprecedented cultural inventiveness. Second, that the economic difficulties experienced during that period were arguably inevitable given that the US economy was going through a major structural change, and that that transition could have been eased in a city such as New York if the central government had explicitly supported the city during its transition, because that’s what governments are supposed to do during times of capitalist crisis. Third, I argue that instead of amounting to a failure 1970s New York already contained the basic elements of a post-Fordist economy inasmuch as the artist and music scenes were rooted in notions of creativity, flexibility and knowledge. And fourth, rather than establishing the basic elements that would go on to become more pervasive as neoliberalism took root, the post-Fordist articulations of the 1970s and early 1980s were governed not by a narrow, selfish, accumulative individualism but instead were rooted in powerful notions of collaboration and the collective.

So, yes, many of the people who participated in the scenes I’ve written about wanted to break with the rigid, hierarchical and often socially conservative elements of postwar social democracy, but they did so because they wanted to live freer, more expressive, more spontaneous lives, and not because they rejected notions of the collective. They wanted to be able to live a nine-to-five life that involved them going out at 9:00pm and returning at 5:00am. This argument draws on the autonomist analysis developed by theorists such as Hardt and Negri, who maintain that social democracy didn’t fall because capital decided that it needed to embrace deregulation if it was to boost profitability but instead because workers rebelled against the restrictions of the dominant system. Unfortunately the conception of the 1970s has been effectively fixed by not only neoliberal but also much of the liberal left. But the fact that we now have a much clearer understanding of the failures of the neoliberal era enables a reassessment of what came before neoliberalism and how some of the energies it has ransacked can be reclaimed in progressive ways. My extended analysis of New York City music culture has turned out to be one way of understanding this transformational period and its potential. I anticipate the 1984-87 book will spend a good amount of time analysing how neoliberal ideology set about establishing its dominance in the run-up to victory parade that followed the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe during 1989.

You’ve talked about disco as ‘radical counterculture’. In the current political climate, reclaiming something of disco’s radical legacy seems especially important. To what extent do you see echoes of disco’s political potential in contemporary music culture? How might we recapture the spirit of disco while avoiding the pitfalls of what Simon Reynolds calls ‘retromania’?

Yes, reclaiming the radical legacy of disco is important. After all, it’s easy to draw parallels between the backlash against disco in 1979, which in many respects shaped a disillusioned and disenfranchised working-class constituency that went on to become a core part of Reagan’s electoral coalition, and the anti-migrant, anti-diversity, anti-feminist Middle American backlash against cosmopolitan urban culture that propelled Trump into office. But the potential of disco as an integrationist sound and culture is one that is easy to lose if we relate to disco as a fixed genre—as is usually the case—rather than a democratic culture that involved not only specific recordings but also DJs and dance crowds and the physical space of dance floors where a wide range of sounds could be integrated. Disco lost its power when it became repetitive, narrow and exclusive. So in some respects I see the greatest sonic and social potential in the pre-disco period and the period that followed the backlash against disco, because these were periods that were definitely open and that engaged audiences in a powerful way. The culture was participatory rather than hierarchical. I don’t want to imagine that there’s a magical musical wand that can be waived at the world to solve the problem of rampant nationalism, bigotry and authoritarianism, but it’s also clear that many of the people who are drawn to this kind of political articulation feel as though they have been ignored or excluded. Cities are full of people like me who believe that we’re enjoying a highly developed form of culture. It’s possible that London, even though ridiculously expensive, has never been more multicultural and left-wing in orientation. The same might be true for other cities in the UK and perhaps also the US. But the truth of the matter is urban votes are losing the elections right now—they lost on Brexit and they lost on Trump.

As for the question of Retromania, I’ve long been drawn to music scenes that are neither knowingly retro nor avant-garde. I’m drawn to scenes that attempt to form alliances across time and space and most importantly across diverse populations, and one effective way of achieving this is for music to do the same—to cut across time and space and articulate a form of explicit diversity (including a diversity that engages with multiple sounds in a manner that is not exploitative). A good party will present music that cuts across not only genre but also continents as well as points in time. David Mancuso always did this at the Loft and I remember sometimes having a “little chat” with people who would come to the London parties and complain that David wasn’t playing enough disco. I would mention that David started his parties before disco existed, that when he played disco it was new music, and that even though David continued to play disco after its formal demise he was always searching for new music to play at his parties. He didn’t want the Loft to become a museum. It was a living musical community that necessarily changed with the times, adapting itself in order to remain relevant, yet also sticking to its core principles about social and sonic diversity.

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