Music

The Brief And Wondrous Existence Of The ‘Best Disco Recording’ Grammy

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Thanks in large part to producers like Lindstrom, Todd Terje, Prins Thomas, and Daft Punk, disco has seen a strong and steady resurgence over the past twenty years. What was once thought of as a cheap, plastic, and superficial style of music finally has the respect it deserves. These talented disco revivalists forced a critical shift and reappraisal of disco’s originators. Performers like Donna Summer, Patrice Rushen, and Claudja Barry were finally being appreciated alongside producers like Giorgio Moroder, Cerrone, Leon Sylvers, Gino Soccio, and Nile Rodgers.

Though it hasn’t necessarily gone away in the forty years since its initial release, Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 hit “I Will Survive” hasn’t enjoyed the same revival that her peers have. Most of us know “I Will Survive” now for being a queer anthem, a wedding dance floor filler, and a perennial staple of FM radio — but also perhaps a bit banal in that ubiquity.

But Gaynor’s song managed something that no other disco track could: it nabbed the first — and only — Grammy award for Best Disco Recording in 1980.

The Grammys had given awards to disco songs and artists before that, but never for being disco, and never on the style’s own terms. The year prior, at the 21st Grammy Awards, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack took the Album Of The Year award, while A Taste Of Honey (known for bringing the “Boogie Oogie Oogie”) took home the Best New Artist title. The Bee Gees and Donna Summer also brought home awards that night, suggesting disco artists had no problem being recognized on their own.

This all happened a solid seven years after disco first appeared on the charts, and the belated move to include a disco category in 1980 made little sense. Why didn’t it happen sooner? Emerging from the underground, disco, and its popularity, snuck up on the world. Rooted in R&B, it built upon the momentum set in motion by Motown Records’ dominance of the pop charts in the late sixties and combined the sophisticated arrangements of Brill Building pop music with the endlessly repeatable rhythms of funk. Rather than an overnight success, disco gestated in clubs and as an emerging style was the first to really gain popularity thanks to the influence of DJs and not radio play, though that would come too, in time.

In Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams Of American Music, author Eric Weisbard suggests that disco was an alternative for artists like The Isley Brothers who weren’t getting plays on traditional rock or pop radio. Songs like The Isley’s “Fight The Power” and later, Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” reached popularity by getting play in discos. Those clubs offered an audience not catered to by popular radio: mostly queer people and people of color.

From 1973 onward, more and more R&B artists made this stylistic shift toward disco and Gaynor was there from the beginning. She was a huge part of that transition and soon earned herself the title,“Queen Of Disco.” In 1974 she released the massive single “Never Can Say Goodbye,” an up-tempo, whirlwind cover of the Jackson 5 original, where lush strings and brass blare and build, giving way to shuffling hi-hats, a compelling bass line with touches of funky guitar, and Gaynor’s own soulful and impassioned vocal performance.

The song became the title track of her debut album which came out a year later and was the centerpiece of the album’s first side. “Never Can Say Goodbye” appeared bookended by “Honey Bee” and “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” showcasing the style of mixing songs together in a continuous dance suite that was gaining popularity in disco clubs across the country.

Gaynor achieved minor success with subsequent singles “(If You Want It) Do It Yourself,” “How High The Moon,” and “This Love Affair,” but it wasn’t until “I Will Survive,” which would eventually appear on 1978’s Love Tracks, that she was able to match, and then exceed, the success she had with “Never Can Say Goodbye.”

In her autobiography, Gaynor recalls the song’s development came by chance. It wasn’t even supposed to be a single, but rather a B-side to “Substitute,” a cover that Polydor Records president Freddy Hayan was certain would be her next hit. When Dino Fekaris, “I Will Survive”’s co-writer along with Freddie Perren, showed up to the recording session, he’d actually forgotten to bring the lyrics with him. Gaynor explains that “he just tore open a brown paper bag and wrote the lyrics out on that.” After reading them, she says she knew right away that the song was something special and would be timeless.

The opening line, “At first I was afraid, I was petrified / Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side” are the only moments of doubt in the otherwise confident and resilient lyrics. The music reflects this shaky, uncertain ground with a wandering, unresolved guitar line and rustling percussion, while the strings linger in the background. The transformation into unflinching defiance is as much in Gaynor’s voice as it is in the instrumental itself as her delivery goes from being airy and worn to controlled and stern. It’s a powerful marriage of form and content.

In Gaynor’s autobiography, she reveals that “I know the song is about abusive relationships and women asserting their independence from men, and for most people that’s what they identify with. I have suffered that way myself, of course, but for some reason, I never think of that when I sing it.” Gaynor writes that the song took on a more specific meaning for her, as she’d recorded it just after having nearly lost out on her recording contract for being sidelined from performing by spinal surgery. The song’s message of perseverance echoed her own. The way the song’s lyrics were so easily relatable is, along with its catchy melody, what helped resonate with so many people, though Gaynor had the difficult task of getting people to hear the B-side she believed in.

As soon as it was pressed to wax, Gaynor and her team made sure everyone else knew about “I Will Survive.” She purposefully closed her live shows with it and had Polydor’s A&R department hand deliver the single to influential DJs with the messaging that the B-side is the song that they should be playing. Sure enough, Polydor would re-release the single in 1979, flipping the A and B sides and it immediately went to No. 1.

Had “I Will Survive” been released as the A-side originally in 1978, the song wouldn’t have been eligible for the Grammy that it eventually won. Being re-released in 1979 meant it was a contender alongside Earth Wind & Fire for “Boogie Wonderland,” Michael Jackson for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” Rod Stewart for “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” and Donna Summer for “Dim All The Lights.”

Gaynor’s win was a major push for the artist and for disco itself. It was the first time the Grammys would acknowledge dance music and by extension, club culture and the way dance clubs and DJs were becoming a force all their own in shaping tastes and popularizing art that was distinct from the mainstream. Surprisingly, Gaynor doesn’t spend much ink on the occasion in her book, fixating more on when she stumbled through presenting an award to the Bee Gees with the help of Isaac Hayes.

Even the Grammys highlight reel for the 22nd ceremony doesn’t commemorate her win in any way. Longtime broadcast producer Ken Ehrlich has written one of the few books that offer a behind-the-scenes look at the award show and his entry on the 22nd Grammys (his first ever) offers zero acknowledgment of Gaynor’s win. Indeed, the brief life of the prize makes it seem more like a mistake than a genuine milestone. Though disco and dance music are more accepted today, there are still institutional remnants of the strong resistance the style of music was up against.

So while the creation of the “Best Disco Recording” category was belated because it was long overdue, it also felt out of touch because 1979 saw some of the strongest resistance to disco ever. It’s hard to say whether that resistance was also part of what took the Grammys so long to officially recognize disco, but framed alongside the disco-backlash, it’s more likely that the introduction of the award was a last-ditch attempt to contain disco from further encroaching on pop and rock’s territory at the awards.

The style’s popularity was dwindling in large part to white audiences who believed that disco’s success in the industry and on the charts spelled the decline for rock music, therefore creating a sense that disco’s “death” would result in rock’s resurgence. It’s a theme we’re all too familiar with today: Embattled white males seeing the success of queer and POC artists as a kind of “silencing,” rather than an attempt at establishing some kind of equity in popular music.

Author Alice Echols writes in Hot Stuff: Disco And The Remaking Of American Culture that “the consensus among historians and discographers is that the backlash against disco reflected anger and frustration with America’s changing sexual and racial rules.” After all, it was “the music of outsiders — racial minorities and gays.” As a feminist anthem Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” was at the center of this cultural shift.

This resistance to disco is best represented by the “disco demolition night” held at Comiskey Park in Chicago in the summer of 1979, where some 50,000 people showed up to a radio promotion that offered fans a discount on their tickets if they brought a disco record to destroy to the baseball park with them. It’s hard to believe a single event like that could spell the end for a musical style, but soon enough, record labels stopped signing disco artists and cleaning out their disco-centered rosters. Radio stations who had since warmed up to the sound had an all-out ban on anything that could be described as “disco.”

To make matters worse, disco’s dimming lights weren’t only the result of opposition from outsiders. At the height of her career, Donna Summer converted to Christianity and refused to sing the sex-fueled songs that had made her famous — even renouncing her queer fanbase, with Gaynor also later following a similar path (although both would eventually reconcile their faiths with their adoring fans). Echols also notes that “some African-Americans objected to disco on the grounds that it bleached R&B to such an extent that the music became soulless. Likewise, some gay people loathed disco. By 1978, even some of the genre’s earliest enthusiasts had concluded that, “with the absolutely generic disco that record companies were cranking out, much of it did suck.”

So it was no real surprise when the Grammys announced they would not be continuing with the award the following year. That they didn’t go about replacing the disco category with a safer, broader “dance music” label speaks to just how ostracized that music had become. It wasn’t the music itself that was the problem, so much as the culture that came with it, since the sonic aspects of disco would live on through pop music long after disco’s demise. Even still, dance music wouldn’t be recognized formally by the awards again until 1998.

In retrospect, “I Will Survive” and its message of resilience were a rather portentous and apt choice for the only “Best Disco Recording” award, as it anticipated the next 20 years that dance music would operate outside of the mainstream. Disco didn’t die, but it did change its name and go underground, with Hi-NRG being its most obvious successor.

Gaynor’s career was never the same post-disco, though the song itself lived on. Outside Hi-NRG, disco also lived on through house music and hip-hop, with both using disco records as sample sources. Kurtis Blow, Method Man, and Bizarre Inc are just some of the artists who would all use “I Will Survive” as the foundation for their own creativity.

Gaynor had a large queer fan base thanks to the time she spent in discos, which might have played a part in “I Will Survive” being reborn as an anthem during the AIDS crisis in the ’80s. Its place in queer culture continued on into the ’90s when Terrence Stamp’s character Bernadette Bassenger lip syncs to the song in the camp classic The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. Unlike disco, Gaynor’s song endured.

As the first and only song to ever win a Grammy for “Best Disco Recording,” “I Will Survive” acts as a reminder of the brief moment when The Recording Academy got it right, when the compelling nature of disco itself was undeniable to almost everyone and a counterculture born in nightclubs with an increasing sway on American culture was finally acknowledged and celebrated.

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