How Disco Saved Me This Summer
T he first slump came in April.
The “this is going to last quite some time, isn’t it?” slump. The “I’m so sorry you have to hear this from me, but ____ has died” slump. The “it’s all just quite shit and that’s how it’s going to be for a while” slump.
These heavy-hearted episodes were not foreign to me; I know grief in many forms, and undiagnosed seasonal affective disorder always curls up in bed with me come January. What was different this time was that there was nowhere to go. My usual therapy of a sticky dance floor bursting with friends was nowhere to be found. When I am lost, nine times out of ten, I find myself on the dance floor. It just so happened that this year was the one time out of ten where there was no dance floor to find myself on.
What I wasn’t to know was that I wouldn’t have to go anywhere. The discotheque was hurtling its way towards me with each oncoming album release from pop’s reigning royalty.
Dua was the first to storm the barricades. Future Nostalgia followed through on the promise of its title. A love letter to Pop Disco, with its heavy helping of cowbell, laser-like pew-pews, and glittering synths, the album nods to the past without carbon copying something that has come before. Stomping along the Brooklyn waterfront late at night (the only time I felt safe leaving the house, and dared let my mask slip below my nose) I strutted away the stress of the day with Dua in my ears. Icy gusts from the East River functioned as my very own wind machine. It was glorious and campy and when the tears fell from my eyes I let them fall.
As the weeks passed, New York became scarier and louder and quieter. A deep set heartache for Blighty began to fester. Summer days spent plunging into the murky waters of Hampstead Heath, melting into muggy nights out, felt like lifetimes away.
This wasn’t helped by Jessie Ware’s, What’s Your Pleasure?; a heady mix of house and electronica that would be welcomed as joyfully at Studio 54 as it would be in an East London warehouse party. In my second lockdown slump, lyrics like ‘Tell me when can I get more than a dream of you’, well and truly hit differently. These songs were no longer filled exclusively with carnal desires, but rather a much deeper sense of longing. Of loss. But, like all good disco, longing is transformed into something that you can dance through, or at least dance to. Upon first listen, my hips were gyrating and head moving like a pendulum before my brain even had a chance to catch up. Like riding a bike, our bodies just know what to do when good music comes on.
”When I am lost, nine times out of ten, I find myself on the dance floor but my usual therapy of a sticky dance floor bursting with friends was nowhere to be found.
Next came the full-on space warp to a planet far far away…Lady Gaga’s, Chromatica. On Chromatica, dance and joy and love and crying and dancing again and crying again are melted down into 00s inspired house music. On Chromatica, love trumps all. On Chromatica, soaring orchestras seamlessly drop into heavy house beats, in one of the most impressive musical relay-baton handoffs of all time. On Chromatica, you dance until you drop. This utopian world that Mother Monster created was undeniably more appealing than the cosmic realities of life on Earth. On Earth, Black people were killed by police. On Earth, we all learned the names Ahmaud Aubery, Tony McDade, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor for all the wrong reasons. On Earth, people didn’t shine. They screamed out for air. For justice. For peace.
That was when the third slump came. Not when the videos of George were to be found on every screen and device imaginable. (Somehow I managed to avoid watching anything past an accidental first 3 seconds). Not when the police station, a stone’s throw away from my apartment, began to barricade its doors and position officers in riot gear at both ends of the block. Nor when a mandatory curfew was imposed. It was when black squares began to populate Instagram feeds. When visually #aesthetic carousels of anti-racist reading material was all one could see. When white people started to talk. Actually, no. It was when white people started to talk at me.
How are you?
No, I mean how are you…actually?
This was the classic double punch of my first answer not satisfying their desire for racial absolution, or racial proximity, or performative grief, or countless other possibilities. The zoological fascination with the grief of Black people was what truly sent me into the third slump. We have always been grieving, it is as generational as a last name. Yet, the obsession with our grief is a recent phenomenon. My response to this uninvited white inquisition? Disco.
This time I had to double down and double down hard. This was different from the effervescent tonic of Dua, or the hazy smoke screen of Jessie. The only thing capable of drowning out the well-intentioned but oft-disingenuous sighs and pouts and ooohs and ahhs was to return to where it all started for me. I needed Black femme queer excellence, and I needed it now. The incessant self-affirming whine of Sylvester on You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), catapulted me back into my body. With every echoing cackle of Donna Summer bemoaning the loss of her cake recipe in MacArthur Park, I too felt permission to laugh in the face of loss. Every inch of my skin tingled as I minced around in a towel, fashioned into a dress, to pull up the bumper of my shower and wash away the invisible grime of the days and weeks spent grieving.
The Black queer femmes of the 70s and 80s flocked to disco as creative and sexual solace from their own isolated experiences. And we are doing the same now. Even if fleeting, disco is a connection, and on the dance floor, real or imagined, that is all that matters.
Disco is closeness. Disco knows hyper connection, but it also knows hyper isolation.
What is true of these tracks is also true of life; the highs can only soar so high because the lows are so devastatingly low.
A vaccine is on the horizon, but it will be some time before discotheques can reopen their floors. So, when the next slump comes, and it will come, rather than squirming through the crowd for one more drink at 2 am, I will pad through to the kitchen for another square of chocolate and a glug of milk from the carton. I will return to my room, turn off the lights, put on my headphones, and get lost in the sugary, the somber, the new, and the old. I will drift off with the gloss of disco circling in my ears, as I hope to dream of the dance floor where I will see my friends once again.