WHAT’S IN A LABEL? (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #63)


I use genre definitions/designations as much as anybody (though I frequently add a word like “ethos” or “aesthetic” to, I hope, broaden the scope). Like a lot of shady compromises, they’re a useful shorthand.  For instance, I’m not over-fond of the term “girl group.” There’s a kernel of truth in the phrase, but it’s also limiting on a lot of levels and not even entirely honest as straight description. That’s probably why Arlene Smith, Mary Weiss and others have, shall we say, found the phrase a little lacking (i.e., they hate it and think it’s ridiculous).

Still, when I use it, most people know what I mean, especially most people inclined to read this blog.

So, until somebody think’s of something better, “girl group,” or Charlie Gillett’s modesly preferable, “girl talk,” will have to do for a certain range of vocal styles widely practiced by young women from the late fifties through the mid-sixties. You can’t continually play with accepted usage sans constant nagging explanation without risking either mass tedium (when one explains) or plain and simple confusion (when one does not).

Genre labels we have, then. Often they bleed into each other: Prog/Art; Bubblegum/Sunshine Pop; Frat/Garage; Acid/Psychedelia, frequently causing hot debates among cognoscenti, who then  use the line between those who “get” it and those who don’t to make purely social distinctions. Incidentally, this seems to be mostly a “male” thing, which almost always begins in youth but often outlasts it. The finer the distinctions–that is, the more such minor differences are blurred or outright invisible to those outside the charmed circle–the more intense the feeling inside the circle.

“That’s not bubblegum, that’s sunshine pop!” might be all that’s spoken aloud.

The “You moron,” part is sometimes repressed–think where civilization would be otherwise–but it’s generally implied.

For the most part, as you can note from the This/That labels above, this takes place on the fringes. None of those genres, however defined, would take up more than few short pages in any standard history of rock and roll. Some wouldn’t get a paragraph.

There’s at least one distinction, though, that can’t be entirely related to quibbling among the quibblers..

What is Funk? And what is Disco?

No matter how meticulously or academically anyone makes specific musical arguments for exactly what elements set one record off from another–the funk record from the disco record–there’s simply too much ground in the middle for me to ever be truly comfortable with the limits placed on either side of the divide.

What is Funk?

And what is Disco?

Here’s one possible definition:

Funk is music crit-illuminati types are bound to respect, even if their preferred listening is the Grateful Dead.

Disco is music no one is bound to respect, even if their preferred listening is Funk.

Now, what any one person actually respects, and what anyone and everyone are bound to respect aren’t necessarily the same things. I’m sure at least some Grateful Dead fans genuinely love and respect funk and I’m sure at least some hardcore funk fans genuinely love and respect disco.

But the narratives have come down from on high. If you read a history of rock and roll that has a funk chapter and a disco chapter, you’ll almost certainly encounter a very distinct difference in tone.

Funk is pure, man.

Disco is…well, it might not still be crap…Disco has earned some respect.

But it’s…well, it’s not funk, now is it?

Unless, of course, maybe it is. (That “Punk” about half as influential and way less than half as commercial, generally gets about as much ink as Funk and Disco combined, is another topic for another day.)

Much to ponder–why the funkster need not explain himself, but the disco-lover still sort of does–but meanwhile, here’s a weird little test.

Which of these records always…ALWAYS…shows up on funk collections? And which of them always…ALWAYS….shows up on disco collections.

For the record, “I Get LIfted” is a funk standard and “Rock Your Baby” is a disco standard but I’d love to know just how that distinction was made, because I certainly can’t make it.

Oh, I can hear lots of differences in the records, but not one that defines that particular line or remotely suggests why/how the line has been made so hard and fast. I mean, did Miami club-goers in 1974 make this distinction? (I’m guessing not, but it’s only a guess.)

Did George McCrae, the singer, make the distinction? (Ditto.)

Did Harry Wayne Casey, the man who, with his partner Rick Finch, wrote and produced both records, and whose own hardcore southern funk band, which he led as KC and the Sunshine Band, and which all but single-handedly shifted the main action in southern music from Memphis to Miami, would soon, of course, be labeled “disco,” make the distinction? (Double ditto.)

No, if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say the main drivers in deciding who was who were marketers and critics, though they probably used “insiders” (producers, street-level journalists in particular scenes, etc.) to educate themselves on how best to exploit and play off one set of opinions against another for the sake of maintaining profit margins and the control they represent

Hey, the political system and the economy run that way, why not the record industry?

The way all of that worked out for Casey, Finch and the Sunshine Band was that they sold a ton of records, got some fame and fortune out of it (I’m guessing the producer/writers got most of the latter)…and got shoved under the “disco sucks” truck that was careening through seventies’ culture, wrecking everything in sight, up to and including what was left of Martin Luther King’s dream.

I wonder what might have happened if, instead, they had been labeled the legitimate and self-conscious heirs to Stax–right down to the multi-racialism, which was also running rampant at the time, very much threatening to make the Dream come true–who took a new and exciting twist on southern funk to places it had never gone before commercially?

I mean, compared to what might have been tossed away by the marketing departments making up their phony rules (without resort to cross-corporate collaboration, I’m sure) and the crit-illuminati safely playing along (real shock, that!), KC and the boys getting back-handed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee every year (whereas, even their late-arriving, oh-so-New-York counterparts, Chic, at least get repeated shots at being backhanded by the actual voters), is small potatoes.

If we’d ever gotten past those labels, though, learned to recognize, for starters, that, say, funk and disco were two sides of a very tightly melded coin, and needed no distinction, then who knows?

Or what if we’d just kept right on calling all R&B-oriented dance music “funk” and kept considering all of it something that everybody was bound to respect, instead of neatly separating out the half that sold the most records and attaching it to the word “sucks?”

Who’s to say we wouldn’t be closer to living the Dream, instead of watching it drift further and further away?

Maybe it’s all trivial, what we do with language and race and deciding who matters.

I’m guessing–just guessing–not.


8 thoughts on “WHAT’S IN A LABEL? (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #63)

  1. In 1973, I worked in the first of the new era “discos” in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Cosmic Train. This is four years before SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER woke people up to the joys of overdressing in pretentious clothing, oversnorting cocaine, and dancing the night away.

    There was no “disco music” in 1973-74, so DJs played whatever (black) music that had a slightly sinuous feel and allowed (white) people to move rhythmically. Records like “Rock Your Baby” were simply picked because they were easy to shake your booty to and they were new.

    And then came Love Unlimited followed by Barry White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra.

    PS1: Anyone remember “the bumb”?

    PS2: Guys who admonish other guys with “That’s not bubblegum, that’s sunshine pop!” probably haven’t been laid. Ever.

  2. My sense is that black dance music started getting so popular (just around the time you mention) that it became sufficiently threatening to need new labeling. Don’t the overlords always seek to control the language first? Funk was almost inherently cool. Some new word was obviously needed!

    That’s an oversimplification, of course, but disco seems to have been the first “black” style that supposedly hip white people went out of their way to “hate” (as opposed to simply ignore or patronize). It would take a whole series of books to suss out the many and tangled reasons why this was so, but it would probably still all boil down to wondering why a few records are labeled as they are (and why there is so very little crossover between funk collections and disco collections when, really, there ought to be a lot).

    I do not remember “the bumb.” Feel free to expound!

    On PS2 you are probably right, but I wouldn’t really know as I generally ease myself out of the room whenever they are near.

  3. This was a lovely read. I had never thought about connecting Funk and Disco, but you make some great points. The only distinction my little ol’ brain can come up with is that maybe music that’s labelled “Disco” is a bit safer for mass (specifically white) consumption.

    Is there an actual difference in the two styles? The more I think about it now, probably not so much. But maybe, just maybe, the difference lies in the charts. If it was funky, one could call it Funk. If it got played on Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” radio countdown, it might be considered more accessible by a wider (again, whiter) audience, which would steer it towards the dreaded “Disco” category. The immediate payoff was great, with bigger sales and more exposure. As the term “Disco” became a dirty word, however, these poor souls found themselves ostracized for many years to come.

    I don’t think enough time has passed yet for this to happen, but hopefully one day the stigma of having been labelled as “Disco” will completely fall away, and these artists will be considered “Funk” or even just good old Soul music.

    Anyway, great post. Feel free to rip this argument to shreds. I don’t really have much faith in it holding any kind of water.

    • I think you’re on the right track. Some of the differences stressed by marketing, etc., were real. I just don’t think they were as significant as what most of the records had in common.

      I will say that plenty of the era’s commercial acts were considered “funk” even if they had hits (Ohio Players, Commodores, Kool and the Gang, etc.) When KC or Barry White or Donna Summer did a lot of the same things it was somehow anathema and made some people go crazy..

      Frankly, if what was happening in both “genres” had been considered the same thing, everybody would have to admit “black music” was even bigger than everybody thought and I think subconsciously at least, that probably scared a lot of people who weren’t particularly racist (just as the original rock and roll boom had done…though both eras scared a lot of actually racists as well!).

      And I do look forward to a day when the only meaningful distinction is good and bad, but for now the disco label seems to still carry a lot of negative weight. Funk acts are hardly over-represented in the RR Hall of Fame (James Brown, Sly, P-Funk and EWF). But, unless Chic get in this week, on their umpteenth nomination, Donna Summer is the only real disco act in there and she had to die first.

      BTW: Thanks to you and everybody here for the great discussion. This whole thing might need a followup post in a month or two!

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