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'Disco Demolition Night' Was a Disgrace, and Celebrating it Is Worse

The Chicago White Sox are commemorating an infamous 1979 near-riot in which a primarily white crowd destroyed records made by Black and gay artists. It's shameful.

by Josh Terry
Jun 12 2019, 12:00pm

Paul Natkin / Getty Images

In 1979, Steve Dahl, a Chicago shock jock who was then a new host at local station The Loop after his last employer rebranded as a disco channel, was bitter about the past decade’s changing musical landscape. A rock’n’roll diehard, his morning show regularly featured him “blowing up” disco LPs complete with goofy sound effects. The bit caught the attention of Mike Veeck, whose father Bill was the owner of the Chicago White Sox. On July 12 they turned a double-header at Comiskey Field into the “Disco Demolition Night” as a ticket sales promotion. For 99 cents, fans would get a ticket and bring a record to blow up between games. It was a total disaster.

At least 50,000 people showed up, double what the stadium was prepared for, the explosion from the blast ruined the field, there was a near-riot with 39 arrests, and the team had to forfeit the game. A bonkers oral history of the night recounted an influx of riot police, people climbing the ballpark's foul poles, fans trying to break into the players' clubhouse, and countless other terrifying instances. But these aren’t the only reasons why it’s bizarre 40 years later the White Sox are commemorating the anniversary of that fiasco with another promotional event. On Thursday, Dahl is set to throw out the first pitch and and the Sox will give out 10,000 free "Disco Demolition" t-shirts. It's strange for a professional sports team to lovingly remember one of its biggest non-baseball mistakes in its history. But really, it’s wrong because the whole premise of the original promotion shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

Disco was a genre mostly created by and made for Black, Latino, and gay people, and other marginalized groups. While Dahl has vehemently denied it as merely a harmless stunt, its execution was racist and homophobic. Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh who attended the promotion wrote at the time, “Your most paranoid fantasy about where the ethnic cleansing of the rock radio could ultimately lead… White males, eighteen to thirty-four are the most likely to see Disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks and Latins, and therefore they’re the most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security.” Pictures from photographer Diane Alexander White documenting scores of uniformly white south side teenagers do little to dispel its toxicity.

Vince Lawrence, a then-teenaged usher at the event told NPR he was uncomfortable being one of the only Black people at the stadium, and remembered that fans were just bringing LPs by black artists: “[There were] Tyrone Davis records, friggin' Curtis Mayfield records and Otis Clay records. Records that were clearly not disco.” All those artists are black artists. Whatever the the intent, this was obviously not just about disco but also about simmering racial resentment. Funk legend and disco dabbler Nile Rodgers of Chic later said of the event, "It felt to us like Nazi book-burning. This is America, the home of jazz and rock and people were now afraid even to say the word 'disco'. I remember thinking—we're not even a disco group."

Dahl, for his part, will tell you that there was nothing racist or homophobic about a bunch of white people burning records by artists from marginalized communities, no sir. In a rambling 2014 defense of the night, he wrote, "We were a bunch of disenfranchised 20-something rockers having some laughs at the expense of older brothers who had the capital and the clothing to hang with the trendy social elite. We were letting off a little steam. Any statement to the contrary is just plain wrong.”

But even if you take that with a grain of salt, Dahl's own writing in the book Disco Demolition: The Night Disco Died with co-writer David Hoekstra suggests there’s some more underlying resentment here. He wrote, "I wouldn't have known how to go to a club and wear a suit. There was a lot of intimidation and disenfranchisement, especially if you were a male." Come on. This was the 1970s, which was an extremely solid and comfortable time to be a white male who lived in the Chicago suburbs. While there’s certainly an argument to be made about class, where blue-collar south side youth felt locked out of elite, fancy clubs in the city, it doesn’t negate the cloud of homophobia and racism surrounding it. That toxic sentiment Dahl describes also evokes the rhetoric of the alt-right and men's rights activists. It's the kind of misplaced animosity you're used to seeing from Twitter trolls with a MAGA hat avatar.

This isn’t just harmless fun. It’s hard to play off literally burning art as not having a distinctly oppressive and resentful intention, let alone celebrate that after decades of progress. During Pride Month and in the year 2019, the team would be better suited celebrating its diverse fanbase rather than commemorating angry white teens tearing something down that paved the way for hip-hop, house music, and so many other important movements. Plus, disco just rules.

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