1970s dance culture—i.e., disco—persistently occupies the summit of what’s considered tacky, false and elitist, the slickly gleaming antithesis of punk and rap. Despite eloquent defenses from writers as skilled as Vince Aletti and Dave Marsh, it can be a hard genre to take seriously; to some, a respectful history of disco may seem as perverse as a paean to strip malls. Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day boldly overturns that story. He focuses not on “the better known celebrity version of disco” (represented by the glittering excesses of Studio 54) but on “an alternative web of house parties and discotheques,” a “clandestine party network” that was the understructure for the preppier uptown clubs.
The hero of Lawrence’s narrative is one David Mancuso, a well-traveled music fan whose rent parties gave birth to modern DJ-ing. Mancuso’s parties, in Lawrence’s telling, were the site of almost mystical interactions: “There was neither the DJ nor the dancer. Someone would approach me to play a record and I would already have it in my hand or it would already be on the turntable. We would look at each other in recognition. … It reflected what I thought the world was supposed to be about,” he quotes Mancuso. Though predictably gossipy, the book’s underlying tone is serious—Lawrence writes out of a conviction that what happened at Mancuso’s Loft parties mattered more than who wore what and who slept with whom. A new kind of music, he suggests—“collective, improvised, and participatory,” like the postmodern self—was born.
Love Saves has its limits. One admires Lawrence’s research skills, but a mass of undigested quotes obscures his storyline. The players in his history are introduced with the undifferentiating rapidity of a Russian novel. His analysis frequently verges on New Age dippiness (he writes seriously at one point about an experience that “raised Mancuso’s life energy”), and he shares with all culture-studies professors an attachment to stupid puns. But I, for one, won’t again be able to dismiss dance culture so quickly, and his book should become a fixture in the libraries of serious students of American pop.