A manifestation of decadence
William Rees is a PhD student in history; his research is interested in studying American dance culture in the 1970s/early 1980s and whether this was a manifestation of decadence. His supervisors are Professor Kristofer Allerfeldt and Professor Kate Hext.
In this blog post, he answers answers questions about his research journey.
What is your background?
Academically, I became interested in 1970s dance culture, what the music industry dubbed ‘disco’, when it came to writing my undergraduate dissertation at Exeter. I had always enjoyed boogeying but had not appreciated just how important dance music has been, not only to people in the clubs, but to American and world culture in general. Memories of disco culture are sometimes reduced to flashpoints like the Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever. They were part of it, but the culture was much richer and more multi-layered than that. Discotheques were spaces of interracial gatherings, homosexual liberation, drug taking, business, crime, sex, and love. Meanwhile, disco changed the way the music industry functioned, with hardworking deejays, musicians, dancers, and discotheque technicians blazing a trail for dance cultures to follow.
My MPhil/PhD research is exploring 1970s and early 1980s American dance culture through a decadent lens. By ‘decadent’, I am referring to the late nineteenth-century literary movement, which included artists like Oscar Wilde. This forwarded excess and individual experimentation as a response to a perceived societal decline. Anything that respectable Victorian society approved, the decadent artists pretty much did the opposite – sex (sometimes homosexual), drugs, absinthe, and all that was generally perceived as immoral was to be experimented with, if it made one feel good. My research is interrogating whether this culturally links to the dancefloor expressiveness of disco.
What’s next for your research?
I am in the early stages of my research and have been interviewing musicians, deejays, dancers, and other people about their disco experiences. Hopefully, I can continue talking to people, listening to records, and learning new things. In the longer term, there are many aspects of dance culture I would like to have a closer look at, including criminal involvement in the management of discotheques and how disco transformed into other genres like house and techno in the 1980s.
What are the best and worst things about your field of work?
The best aspect of this work is that while doctoral research is sometimes viewed and experienced as being isolating, dance music is just the opposite. I can talk about, and experience disco records with my friends. The music itself, is so optimistically motivating, and I love collecting new records, telling myself, ‘they are primary historical sources for my research’, to justify the purchases. Meanwhile, I have been doing my research interviews, and these conversations are fascinating. It is one thing to read about disco culture in old newspapers and magazines, but talking to people, and hearing their incredible stories brings the research alive. Dance culture meant, and still does mean, so much to so many people.
The worst part of this project is also an emotional aspect, but at the other end of the spectrum. The AIDS pandemic devastated many dance communities in the US and across the world, particularly afflicting homosexual communities. It is upsetting to discover just how many wonderful and talented people died, and died too young. This part of dance music’s history is sad, but remembering these people is immensely important. It was also significant in spurring LGBTQ+ political activism in the 1980s.
William explores a range of historical topics in his blog and podcast: https://willdoeshistory.wordpress.com/