Punk, Disco, Porn—The Deuce ’77—Part 2
Matthew Tchepikova-Treon / University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
Disco. The sound of a revved engine opens season two of The Deuce, followed by a car horn and scattered voices in the distance, along with a mid-tempo hi-hat over distressed white text against a black screen that reads 1977. These sounds all belong to Barry White’s classic “Let the Music Play,” but the show supplements sonic detail with additional street noise before we see its establishing shot: well-worn concrete. Then a lovelorn White delivers his peripatetic exegesis on loneliness, music, and the redemptive power of a discotheque at night.
With sonic verisimilitude representing a hallmark of David Simon & Co.’s audiovisual world-building techniques,[ (( Outside opening titles and season-closing montages, music is always diegetically sourced. See: Linda Williams, On The Wire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 111-114, for the narrative effects of this steadfast aesthetic choice. ))] this moment stands out as a rare instance of extradiegetic music in The Deuce. What’s more, through this song’s transformation into diegetic sound in this opening scene, we hear the historical conditions of disco’s transmogrification from physical space to musical form and back again. The camera tilts up to Candy—former streetwalker turned pornographic film director—walking down 42nd Street, draped in style, embodying the song’s strengthening groove. She opens an inconspicuous door marked 366 and we hear the song’s monologist enter a nightclub. Candy waves at a security camera for admittance, then the music tumefies, while also taking on new acoustic properties, as her strut picks up the driving four-on-the-floor beat. Barry White’s voiceover suddenly soars—“Let the music play / I just want to dance the night away”—as the music folds back on itself, filling the room, while also fulfilling its gimmicky premise, and the sonic space of the song and this opening sequence fully collapse.[ ((Following this moment is the second season’s get-the-gang-back-together scene, with intricate tracking, sound design, and choreography that immediately calls up the iconic opening of P.T. Anderson’s porno-chic Boogie Nights, also set in 1977.))]
As with punk, The Deuce engages disco music as a means of both historiography and immanent critique, and this sequence makes legible the coterminous relationship between its genre-fication and the gentrification of downtown New York City through the 1970s.
From Empire to Underground
Rewind to 1971 (Season 1, Ep. 5). Paul attends the invite-only party Love Saves the Day in a warehouse at 645-647 Broadway. Known as “the Loft,” David Mancuso established this preeminent dance space in NYC’s former manufacturing district where the city had utilized the low-wage workforce of its immigrant population after WWII before both work and half a million laborers relocated a quarter-century later.[ ((For precise employment numbers in particular manufacturing sectors, see: “New York City’s Decline in Manufacturing Gained Momentum in 1980,” New York Times, March 22, 1981. And for a fine history of NYC’s urban decay and renewal programs during the global political drama of the Cold War leading up to the 1970s, when Manhattan became a symbol of American power, see: Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).))] Out of these post-industrial ruins, Mancuso’s indie-discotheque emerged as underground dance music’s bleeding edge.
Tim Lawrence’s study of the Loft—a sociologically rich text with a slight hagiographic slant—demonstrates how Mancuso’s audiophilic approach to music prioritized electric sound amplification as a means of producing social space—and altered subjectivities therein—by treating listening as a full-bodied haptic experience.[ ((Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 88.))] Drawing on Jamaican dance hall culture, emergent turntable techniques, and state-of-the-art technologies, Mancuso worked with sound specialist Alex Rosner to customize the Loft’s system, adding an array of tweeters that hung chandelier-like from the ceiling, and additional subwoofers for intense bass propagation, which Mancuso considered the new beating heart of his perception-altering playlists.
However, sound amplification also served as a threat. Throughout the 1970s, Kai Fikentscher tells us, “many city agencies sought to limit nightclubs, or at least subject them to a higher level of scrutiny,” [ ((Kai Fikentscher, “You Better Work!”: Underground Dance Music in New York City (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 70.))] and NYPD often did so under the guise of regulating the sale of liquor or illegal dancing. At this time, New York state law still prohibited all-male dancing and mandated a ratio of at least one woman for every three men in a public venue.[ (( Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 31. The relationship between Seventies New York’s underground dance scene and gay culture, as well as the historical links to the Harlem Renaissance, are well documented. In addition to Fikentscher and Lawrence, see: Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), Vince Aletti, The Disco Files 1973-78: New York’s Underground, Week by Week (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2018), and Richard Dyer’s classic essay, “In Defense of Disco,” published by the socialist journal Gay Left, 1979, 20-23: “Both in how it is produced and in what it expresses, disco is held to be irredeemably capitalistic [but] this mode of cultural production has produced a commodity [that] has subversive potential as well as reactionary impulses.” ))] But noise control offered NYPD yet another means of surveillance and suppression. Plainclothes police raided the Loft for the first time in 1972.[ ((Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 83. NYPD arrested Mancuso and charged him with running an unlicensed cabaret, but a judge threw the case out on account of Mancuso not selling liquor on the premises.))]
That same year, following extensive politically-charged acoustical research, Mayor John Lindsay put into effect comprehensive noise-control legislation aimed at abatement throughout the city.[ ((“The New York City Noise Control Code: Not with a Bang, but a Whisper,” Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3, Article 4 (1973).))] Largely a revamping of laws from 1936, the updated ordinances—part of Lindsay’s ongoing, multifaceted efforts to “clean up” Manhattan, but also in anticipation of running for president—coincided with large-scale focus on noise pollution in urban areas.[ ((Including Nixon’s federal Noise Control Act of 1972.))] Electronically reproduced music and discos were of interest. One trade article published that year details potential health risks associated with excessive noise with a list of decibel readings from various street construction instruments (96 dB), subway trains (98 dB), and other “unpleasant—even inhuman” sounds, citing a particular discotheque that created “a sound level as astonishingly high as the dancers’ hemlines” as the loudest source of noise in the city. The disco measured 103-105 decibels. The following year, commercial music in excess of 103 dB was deemed illegal.[ ((“Noise Code,” New York City Department of Environmental Protection.))]
Mayor Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign during the 1990s was based on many of these same ordinances, though enforced with increased vigor. And if disco’s quietus in The Deuce heralded the death knell of Times Square’s gentrification in the 1970s, Giuliani orchestrated its coda.
The Deuce & Disco’s Aesthetic Economy
As an extension of the Loft’s post-industrial origins, when disco began flowing through the circuits of late-capitalism’s culture industries, many anxieties surrounding the postindustrial obsolescence of labor[ ((I’m borrowing this term from Joel Burges’ Out of Sync & Out of Work: History and the Obsolescence of Labor in Contemporary Culture, wherein Burges explores automation, labor, and obsolescence through complex representations of historical time.))] in the U.S. and other global cities were mapped onto the music and its attendant amalgam of styles and aesthetic sensibilities. Comparing disco music and the repetitive marketing techniques found everywhere in post-1950s mass-mediated consumer society, Robert Fink identifies a relentless rhythm that underlies what he calls “the ‘Empire of the Beat,’ where communal consumption and solipsistic desire, rigid control and apocalyptic excess are simultaneously, dialectically in tension.”[ ((Robert Fink, Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) 30. Fink further compares disco and Seventies “pulse-pattern” minimalism (distinct from drone and microtonal minimalism à la La Monte Young et al.), the decade’s other paradigmatic musical shift epitomized by the music of Philip Glass.))] We hear this in the sequenced rhythms, synthesized sounds, and vocoder-fused voices employed in the machine music of Germany’s Kraftwerk and especially Italo disco’s Giorgio Moroder (whose “From Here to Eternity” plays when The Deuce S2 finds Paul now operating his own bar).[ ((Both Kraftwerk and Moroder released iconic electro-dance albums in 1977.))] Critics heard in this sound and its assembly-line production an analog to machine automation and the deskilling of labor responsible for emptying NYC’s factories. As the work of Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld shows, these critiques were well rehearsed—from player pianos and analog synths, mechanical instrument innovations have long been linked to anxieties over work displacement.[ ((Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, “Instruments and Innovation,” eds. John Shepherd and Kyle Devine, The Routledge Reader on the Sociology of Music (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015), 301-308.))] Nonetheless, disco’s aesthetic economy shored the music industry’s financial success against global economic decline.
Then the levees broke. Disco collapsed and between 1977 and 1980 the city lost another 40,000 manufacturing jobs while seeing steady gains in finance and real estate.
However, recalling The Deuce’s rendering of Love Saves the Day, we see Paul dance to Booker T. & the M.G.’s “Melting Pot,” showcasing underground dance music’s roots in 1960s soul as much as the synth-heavy “jet-propelled paganism of disco,” as critic Kristine McKenna put it.[ ((McKenna’s inspired description comes from an interview she conducted with Philip Glass originally published in Rolling Stone (March 8, 1979: 19) comparing the sounds and musical techniques shared between disco, “technorock,” and Seventies minimalism.))] Likewise, the secular spiritualism of Dorothy Morrison’s gospel-tinged “Rain” points to even deeper musical traditions while also invoking early Loft regular Frankie Knuckles’ eventual description of the Warehouse (est. 1977, Chicago) “as a church for the children fallen from grace.”[ ((Richard Smith, “The House that Frankie Built,” Seduced and Abandoned: Essays on Gay Men and Popular Music (London: Cassell, 1995), 92-99, originally published in Gay Times, August 1992. For more on the vernacular use of “children” as a common term for gay black men and “the discotheque as church,” see: William G. Hawkeswood, One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1996, and Kai Fikentscher, “You Better Work!” 93-106.))] Yet 1977 also saw the musical innovations put on offer by underground dance music’s subcultural base further reified in the Brooklyn-strut machismo of Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero and the libidinal glitz-economy of Studio 54’s Midtown glitterati. And in typical postlapsarian fashion, The Deuce’s second season finale closes by mirroring its opening scene, with Vincent gazing out over the electric glamour of the 366 with a What hath god wrought? look on his face, his club’s posing and pulsing bodies now dancing to the reified sounds of a different politics of ephemerality—one night amidst one-thousand just like it with a custom soundtrack on repeat.
On the eve of disco’s funeral rites leading into 1979, Paul’s LSD-gaze of transformative potential almost a decade prior is rendered mute through Vincent’s eyes. Such is the sum and substance of The Deuce and the cultural work it performs.
1. The Deuce Season Two Poster Art (color altered by author).
2-4. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre” (transferred to GIF format by author).
5-7. Scene from The Deuce, Season One, Episode 5, “What Kind of Bad?” (transferred to GIF format by author).
8-10. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend” (transferred to GIF format by author).
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