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Disco music - what were we thinking?

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One of the more entertaining elements of a newly opened disco exhibition is a kiosk of recordings that highlight the genre at its worst. Listening to Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, and the Muppets try their hand at a style of music that originated in hip New York gay and minority nightclubs makes the backlash against disco a bit more understandable.

How society arrived at the moment in 1979 when a stadium full of people rioted and trashed their records is made clear by "Disco: A Decade of Saturday Nights," which opened at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts earlier this month. Even a casual visitor to the show will leave with a better sense of how disco evolved from its underground roots to a $4 billion industry, and how its spread to every corner of popular culture - thanks in part to "Saturday Night Fever" - ultimately did it in.

The multimedia show offers an overview of the disco movement, including membership cards for the early clubs, how-to guides for disco dancing, and costumes that would make David Bowie jealous. Its kitsch and upbeat music ("We Are Family," "I Will Survive") are tempered by discussions of the pioneering work in sound and style disco brought with it. Disco died when the 1980s arrived, but it paved the way for Madonna, hip-hop, and today's dance music.

The traveling exhibition is from the Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle, where curators used the recent acquisition of memorabilia and thousands of disco records to create an intriguing presentation. Their vision for the project was to move the genre beyond America's view of it as a joke and a cliché. The exhibition aims "to reclaim this much-maligned music," says Ann Powers, a curator, in a phone interview, "and ... to tell a story that had many different aspects, that visitors could enter in many different ways."


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