It’s not vanity / It’s my sanity

Sister SledgeWe Are Family

A bizarre time in American history which looks darker and darker with each passing year was the “Disco Sucks” movement. The 20th Century never saw such a violent backlash against a genre of music, culminating on July 12th 1979 when a pair of shock-jock-rock DJs staged “Disco Demolition Night”. Thousands gathered in a Chicago stadium to burn and blow up disco records with explosives – a riot broke out and the baseball game scheduled to follow was cancelled. This hatred was bafflingly mainstream. The classic movie ‘Airplane!’ features a triumphant destruction of a disco broadcasting tower, and baby-boomer caricature Homer Simpson is the proud owner of a “Disco Sucks” bumper sticker. The genre was seen as the emblem of stupidity, vapid prettiness and an ignorance towards more important issues. At the time, even Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh (an otherwise intelligent and admirable man who I once proudly dressed up as for a party) said “Disco is like a beautiful woman with a great body and no brains” – a statement that has aged like a prawn in a sauna. One might think “Hey, it’s only music”. If only it were. Disco was a safe space for gay people and black people. There’s a reason they chose the word “Sucks”. If it were about music being “stupid”, they would have nailed every member of Styx and Kiss to a cross. 

At its core, disco was an outsider genre that got popular. Its ethos was one of togetherness and positivity, and it was aimed at the people who really needed to hear that. No record sums that up than quite possibly the greatest non-compilation album in the genre. When Nile Rogers of Chic was asked how he wants to be remembered after he dies, he said “I want to be remembered as the guy who wrote We Are Family”. He and bandmate Bernard Edwards wrote and produced the entire LP and found a singing group with the talent to pull it off. Sister Sledge, as individuals and as an ensemble, explode with colour on these songs. They were used to rehearsing for months prior to recording an album, but Rogers and Edwards were writing lyrics in the studio minutes before they were due to step up to the microphone. This was a deliberate choice to induce a sense of spontaneity in the sisters and, baffled though they were by this process, they managed it. 

The result is utter magic. ‘We Are Family’ is a hug, it’s a party, it’s a talk in the dark, it’s a walk in the morning, it’s the feeling of being picked up after falling down. Only one little part of the record leaves a sour taste in the mouth. In the somersaulting opener ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’, in which the entire club clientele drop the jaws at the coolest hottest man they’ve ever seen, we find this verse: 

“He wears the finest clothes, the best designers heaven knows
Ooh, from his head down to his toes
Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci
He looks like a still, that man is dressed to kill.”

He’s The Greatest Dancer

Nile Rogers, who wrote these particular lines, even claims that he started one of the most prevalent trends in song lyrics – glamorous product placement. These days, when materialism feels more at odds with compassion than ever before, lyrics like these are jarring within an album so full of honest affection. Five years later, the one and only Mr T would release a motivational kids video called ‘Be Somebody, Or Be Somebody’s Fool!” (no, seriously). In one segment in this oft-laughable but thoroughly endearing after-school special, he spends a surprising amount of time emphasizing that you don’t have to be rich to have style: “Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt don’t wear clothes with your name on it, so why should you wear their name?”. Advantage: T. Wouldn’t it have been great if these lyrics about expensive famous designers could have been scratched in favour of something with a similar ideal (albeit without any fools being pitied)? Hell, even the punks could have got on board with that.

Now we’ve picked that nit, there really is nothing else to complain about here. The unabashed sentiment is glorious, whether it’s a celebration of music itself (‘Lost In Music’), giddy attraction (‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’), make-love-not-war declarations (‘Easier To Love’) or expressing feelings of comfort and sensuality (‘You’re a Friend To Me’). The latter’s opening lyric of “Hello, how have you been? It’s so nice to see you again” could have been written by Mr Rogers. One might wonder if this song had particular resonance with gay men, many of whom find promiscuous sex easier to handle than emotional intimacy, especially at a time when self-acceptance was even harder to come by. This might be seen as a generalization, but if there was any 70’s cultural scene where gay people could come together and feel good about themselves, it was disco. Sex most certainly exists in the world this album evokes, but it’s just one shade in a vivid spectrum of human connection. ‘We Are Family’ is a manifesto – a party everyone’s invited to. 

In retrospect, this album plays like a grab-bag of disco’s most enduring qualities. I’m not saying that Daft Punk took the title of their signature hit ‘One More Time’ from the closing track of this album – I’m just saying it’s a hard coincidence to ignore. When the world gets bigger and scarier and more out of control, the desire to stick around is propagated by the friends we make and the family we choose. The first verse of ‘Lost In Music’ begins: “Have you ever seen some people lose everything? First to go is their mind.” Stay safe and sane out there – we are family after all. 

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