The impact on pop culture and the music scene from Saturday Night Fever is still sending shockwaves out to this day. Released on this day in 1977, Saturday Night Fever tells the tale of Tony Manero battling his parents who didn’t understand his desire to dance. The music he wanted to dance to, disco, quickly became the mightiest force on the music and movie charts. But like any obsession, what starts out of love can easily turn to the dark side.
Saturday Night Fever follows Manero through his search for money, a dance partner who could keep up with him and, of course, a little fun with the ladies on the side. It portrayed the iconic disco-goer as a ladies man with all the right moves and a confidence that was hard not to admire. It was a star-making turn for John Travolta, who abandoned TV for a far more lucrative career on the big screen.
In the days before the Internet, it was easier for things to become national obsessions. Fewer media sources meant a far higher concentration of eyeballs on the products. The seventies was a time of fads, from pet rocks to lava lamps. In fact, the white three-piece suit and black shirt combo worn by Travolta for the climactic dance competition became a fashion statement of its own.
Another movie released that same year had a similar cultural impact. That film was Star Wars, and it too saw legions of crazed fans adopt and consume every bit of it of its lore and imagery. The movie’s dashing rogue wore an inverse of the outfit, but there was no noticeable spike in the black-vest industry during the era. Star Wars also followed a character, Han Solo, in his quest for money, friends who could keep up with him, and a little love on the side. But it also gave him a ray gun, a spaceship, and a wookie for a best friend, which, of course, made him infinitely cooler.
While dance music had always been popular with shows like American Bandstand and Soul Train leading the way, Saturday Night Fever brought an awareness of the smokey scene inside major metropolitan dance clubs. The look inside the disco scene was inspiring to a segment of the nation who was searching for something different than the hard rock and soft pop dominating the radio airwaves. The driving, poppy beats and bass of the disco sound was a clarion call to the dance floor. There was a return of songs dedicated to certain dances, with “The Hustle” being the new “Twist”.
The falsetto-voiced Bee Gees were the heart and soul of the movie’s soundtrack, which won multiple Grammys, including Album Of The Year. It was the highest selling soundtrack album of all time by a very wide margin and remains in the top ten albums sold, with an estimated 38 million copies sold worldwide. Think about that for a moment. A double record of dance music sold more copies than the population of than many small countries. The charts were filled with slick-sounding, fat-grooved dance songs as acts around the country quickly moved to cash in on the craze.
There was literally no man of a certain age that didn’t hear “Stayin’ Alive” in his head whenever he walked down the street. Every car radio blared the tunes. Every show on television worked an episode into their storylines to draw fans. Copycat films rushed into production were all part of the craze. And every musician, no matter their personal preference, found themselves playing punchy dance tunes at clubs, dance halls, birthday parties, and weddings across the country. Disco fever was an apt name, for that’s what it truly way—a virus that infected everyone and everything it touched.
Disco was everywhere, disco was everything. Disco balls hung in clubs, roller rinks, and basement rec rooms across the nation. There was no escape from its power. Even the Grateful Dead, champions of the acid-soaked psychedelic rock of the sixties succame to the power of the dark side and released their own boogie tune.
Star Wars had managed the same reach in power, itself becoming an obsession we are still feeling to this very day. The similarities stop at cultural presence, however, as disco’s shelf life would prove to be far more tenuous. The public soon started to turn on the disco movement and the film that had spread awareness of it to the world at large. Fans started to pick apart the plot of the self-centered narcissist and the paper-thin plot of Saturday Night Fever—the backlash began. Critics of the music found eager agreement to the sermons they had been spreading and ratcheted up their rhetoric. A wave of musicians spoke out against the fluffy music that had been dominating the charts, calling for a return to rock.
Growing tired of the highly produced sound that typified most disco, the punk rock aesthetic was born. From every corner of pop culture, the attacks on disco came in with full force. Annoyance turned to resentment and then quickly blossomed into full-blown hatred. Across the countries, radio stations dropped the dance format, and the DJ’s who had been forced to play music were overjoyed.
As a publicity stunt, the Chicago White Sox announced that on July 12, 1979, they would host “Disco Destruction Night,” and explode a case of disco albums in-between games of a doubleheader. A rowdy crowd, after a full first game of stadium beers, rushed the field immediately after the fireworks, causing massive destruction and the cancellation of the second game. It seems they hated the music so much, they wanted to make completely sure it was wiped from the face of the Earth. The point was clearly and scarily made that night—disco was dead.
Like all fads, it became a quirky cultural touchstone, an easy source of humor for lazy writers and a source of embarrassment for its previously most vocal defenders. Endless amounts of polyester suits, platform shoes, and the rest of the trapping were cleaned out of closets and donated to charities, though there were reports that even the homeless and needy were rejecting having anything to do with even appearing to enjoy disco. Countless parodies and characters were inspired from movies like Airplane…
…all the way up to good old “Disco Stu” from The Simpsons.
Regardless, the iconography of the film still holds a place in our hearts. However, there’s another parallel that is more relevant to the current music scene, particularly in the surge in the popularity of the DJ culture. These days, DJ culture and the bass-heavy dance music produced has become just as powerful a force as disco was in its hey day. Radio stations, YouTube viewers, and more are keeping the spirit of dance music alive and well. Is there a disturbance building in the music scene one again? Will the popularity of dropping the beat drive up and coming musicians to reject the imac music making scene and head back out to their garages and reinvent the wheel once again?
In the end, it’s all about cycles. As its compatriot from the top of the box office charts from 1977, Star Wars, the other biggest film from that year, is receiving a massively anticipated sequel this week, which begs the question will Saturday Night Fever seen its musical soul reborn as well? Will the spike in the EDM scene continue to grow thanks to a new diversity in the far wider new world of media, helping keep disdain for the genre from reaching the boiling point? No one knows what path we’ll travel in the days to come, but one thing is certain: when we walk that road, we’ll all be secretly strutting to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive”.