USC prof: disco era source of women empowerment

By Samantha Egan

While disco may represent feminism to modern-day artists like Madonna, the divas of the time were actually stifled by their sex kitten image, according to a recent lecture sponsored by the Women’s Studies Department.

University of South California professor, author and ex-disco funk DJ Alice Echols presented her research on the relationship between the disco era and feminism Thursday in the Behrakis Health Science Center.

The lecture, “What Can You Do For Me?: The Gender Politics of 1970’s Disco,” focused on the complex relationship between women and the disco era.

“Very few aspects of disco are as confusing as its relationship with women,” Echols said.

Using audio and sound clips to enhance her speech, she started her lecture with a clip of Madonna’s Confessions Tour from 2006. She showed Madonna using disco to display female empowerment by “out-dancing” John Travolta in her version of “Saturday Night Fever.”

“New revisionists use this as proof of disco as feminism,” Echols said. “But I believe the truth is more complicated.”

In her lecture, Echols also discussed the disapproval of female disco music by rock critics.

“No one was interested in what the disco divas were doing or what they thought about what they were producing,” she said.

The career of Donna Summer was a prime example, Echols said.

“There was something about Donna Summer that got under their skin,” she said.

Echols said although Summer was known for producing erotic songs, like “Love to Love You, Baby” and “Ring My Bell,” many people didn’t realize producing these X-rated songs took a mental toll on the singer.

Originally, Summer had no intention of releasing the song under her name and planned to sell the song to another artist, Echols said.

“She feared ‘Love to Love You, Baby’ would type-cast her as a sex kitten whose talent lie in the bedroom rather than the recording studio,” Echols said.

After Summer peaked with the hit “Bad Girls,” a song in which she compares herself to a prostitute, Echol’s said Summer “found Jesus” in 1979 and her producers “never could get her to do the X-rated stuff again.”

Kerry Cardoza, a senior English major and a member of the Feminist Student Organization, said she enjoyed Echols’ relation of the disco-era and feminism to Madonna and popular culture.

Junior criminal justice major Tom Ottaviano said he attended the lecture as a part of class assignment.

“I think it was pretty good,” he said. “It opened my eyes about a lot of different things I didn’t know about before.”

Lauren Perreault, a sophomore journalism major, said the lecture changed her perception of the disco era.

“Before going to her lecture, I personally viewed disco as pretty cheesy, but knowing that it was revolutionary in women’s liberation and sexual expression changed my entire view on the disco era,” Perreault said.

Echols further discusses her theories about the gender politics of disco in her upcoming book, “Upside Down Disco and the Remake of American Culture.”

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