Roughly 45 years ago, it was everywhere. LED tessellations shifting and flickering beneath platform shoes, polyester-clad bodies pressed together in dim corners, the marriage of funk and Philadelphia soul … so many memories and colorful tropes encapsulated in one simple word: disco. Throughout the ’70s, the glossy genre dominated airplay and culture. Like a circadian rhythm (and blues), hard rock bands such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath thundered through radios by day, while soul-funk forces by the likes of Gloria Gaynor and Chic brought the boogie nights.
As the next decade approached, however, the disco ball began to dim, and the pantsuits lost their luster. Nationwide, clubs started to shutter their doors. A darker, edgier change of tune was coming—with Sex Pistols, The Clash and the Ramones, wearing weathered leather and grit on their sleeves—and declaring disco to be dead.
Though the combat rock assumed a threat to disco’s era of glitter and groove, the genre never totally died out. Disco elements found their way into club music of the ’80s and ’90s with DJs either spinning or sampling classics into their sets. In the last few years, disco has culminated in a comeback that offers a refresh to retro: silent disco. But before we explore this new phenomenon, let’s do the hustle through music history and find out how America came down with Saturday Night Fever.
There’s been debate over the decades as to where disco truly originated: Some camps will say it began in New York City on the fringe of the free-love movement in discotheques—a French word for “venues” that played recorded music. The French themselves also claim their stake from the ’60s when nightclubs in Paris brought fashion, sex and dancing together as a menage a trois that gave birth to disco. Despite this dispute, both cities played significant parts in creating the movement, but it’s the subcultures from these cities that made the most groundbreaking contributions, specifically, the Black and gay communities.
Disco was an offshoot of funk and soul music, genres created by Black musicians from the East Coast to the Midwest. Roughly 10 years before disco reigned king, soul and early forms of funk were popularized by various artists signed to Motown Records in Detroit and Stax Records in Memphis. Though funk and soul still remained popular into the ’70s, Americans were looking for something new and novel—that they could dance to. Artists such as Donna Summer, Earth Wind & Fire and Diana Ross regularly sat atop the charts. One could even argue disco was the catalyst of Michael Jackson’s solo debut Off the Wall. Released in 1979, it caught on like wildfire with clubs like Studio 54, Ice Palace and Paradise Garage in Manhattan. The latter was especially popular with the LGBTQ community, hence its nickname: “the Gay-rage.”
While most clubs covertly discriminated against gay and Black people, discos offered an environment where they could engage in nightlife in a safer environment that offered a form of reclamation. This accepting environment also paved the way for disco artists, including Sylvester, who was Black and openly gay, to become successful with mainstream audiences.
The modern silent disco serves as a similar safe space.
Silent disco started sometime in the 2000s. The difference between it and disco in general is people dance with wireless headphones through which a DJ transmits music. In other words, no one can hear the music people are dancing to unless they’re wearing the headphones.
Though this “silent dancing” may look silly to onlookers, the dancers’ boogie is unbothered. Typically, participants can enjoy several channels of different music. This freedom to explore different genres and more or less “be your own DJ” is unrivaled in the usual club setting.
Silent discos have become popular among intersectional spaces and venues, where all are welcome to show up and get down to a variety of tunes from the last 50 years. Currently, post-modern hotspot and bar Root Down in 5 Points hosts a silent disco every Friday and Saturday from 10 p.m.– 2 a.m. The mobile DJs, David and Courtney McCracken, whose mobile DJ set up is aptly called Hush Hush Headphones, have been sharing the groove for almost a decade. “I was booking live shows in Athens, Ga. at this bar and was kind of dissatisfied with the disconnect between the amount of people the events were bringing out and the amount of money they would give as compensation to the performers…,” says David. “Then, one night I had a dream where I was at a show I booked at my house and everyone was listening through headphones that were plugged into my ceiling.
I woke up…and started investigating into how to make that a reality. The only feasible tech was silent disco and I saved up to get an electric drum kit & 50 headphones with transmitters thinking I would be starting a movable, live performance venue. It wasn’t until I got the headphones that I thought about throwing dance parties. That was seven years ago.”
Hush Hush’s silent disco also offer perks: free headphones are given to the first 20 people who show up. For early birds looking to rise, shimmy and shine, Hush Hush recently started hosting a silent disco at Wildcrafters, the city’s first no-booze bar, on select Saturday mornings.
As this club trend continues to rise in Jacksonville, especially Riverside, so it does throughout the country in major cities like Atlanta and across social media. Though disco in its purest form may no longer be with us, its quiet cousin is getting noticed and stayin’ alive.