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Burn, baby, burn: Disco inferno at the library

NEW YORK -- Gay. Glitter. Glam. Disco. Camp. Trash. Travolta. Disco! Pop. Pap. Polyester. Innocuous. Immoral. Enervating.

Perhaps never have so many adjectives been expended to describe a single cultural phenomenon that was disco. And since words alone don't nearly do it justice, there's now ''Disco: A Decade of Saturday Nights."

The multimedia spectacle at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center indeed celebrates a decade -- one that began in 1970 and ended in 1979. Or didn't end, depending on whom you believe.

''The music you hear today is the product of what many people in this room invented 30 years ago," curator Eric Weisbard told a gathering at a preview. Weisbard's trickle-down theory has its merits: Disco became dance music; dance music begat house, rap, hip-hop, techno, and electronica. And if you buy the proposal that soul and funk melded into disco, it's all a circle, more or less.

Whether it's fact that the four-on-the-floor beat and bounce of disco was born in New York or in clubs such as Chez Regine and Whiskey a Go-Go in Paris, the exhibit feels at home at Lincoln Center, where it will reside until mid-May. The public library is somewhat more sterile than the Palladium, but it's New York.

Name-dropping is raised to an exquisite art by ''Disco," as it should be. The beautiful people of the culture are well served here: the angular, mannequinesque androgyny of Grace Jones is a featured photo montage; the ''playboy" loafers John Travolta wore tripping through Brooklyn are secured under glass.

On the wall is Donna Summer's suggestive promo poster for ''Love to Love You Baby," and you can listen to her over-the-top 17-minute rendition of the tune. There's the rather ordinary trophy won by the rather extraordinary Gloria Gaynor when she was crowned ''Queen of All the Discos" by the American National Association of Discotheque DJs. Gaynor would go on to win the one and only Grammy for best disco recording, in 1979, for ''I Will Survive."

Disco, as represented by curators Ben London, Weisbard, and Ann Powers (a former pop writer for The New York Times), was as much about narcissism, groupies, parties, and poseurs as it was about the rhythm. So, along with the video clips and sound bites, there's got to be the portrait of Bianca Jagger ascending into a club on horseback, or the Andy Warhol photo gallery, shot by the eccentric one, a fixture at Studio 54, where he snapped Liz, Sammy, Liza, Steve Rubell, and Arnold.

Even though the overall tone of the exhibit is more clinical than down-and-dirty -- disco, after all, was about sweat and sex and excess, and this is a library -- hedonism explodes all over the place.

The gallery space is crammed with color and, thankfully, only a couple of mirror balls (one notable artifact is the moon-and-spoon decoration that hung at Studio 54), as well as costumes and posters and an interactive DJ booth, where plaques honor disco fixtures such as David Mancuso, who presided at the Loft in New York, and Nicky Siano, the doyen and resident DJ of the invitation-only Gallery club. (Siano pioneered the practice of speeding up and slowing down records to segue from one track to the next.)

In fact, the organizers -- who created and first presented ''Disco" in Seattle -- maintain that the self-absorbed art form evolved in the clubs of New York City before exploding into commercial frenzy nationwide, pumped up by the fantastic reception to the movie ''Saturday Night Fever."

Music historian Jim Miller, who edited ''The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll," wrote that in 1973, a steamy single called ''Soul Makossa," propelled by a pounding rhythm section and a frenzied sax, reinvented the club scene (which had been fallow since the end of the Twist), and in the process transformed the selling of singles to popular radio.

The tentacles and tangents of disco were legion, especially post-''Fever," the 1977 film that cemented the craze and white-suit mania worldwide. One of the more remarkable career spinoffs of that film was the resurrection of the Bee Gees, who had three of the soundtrack songs simultaneously in the Top 10, something not seen since the Beatles in 1964.

The exhibit also poses a few questions that haven't been answered yet and may never be: Was disco a gay culture thing? Were its real heroes the record producers, not the singers? Was ''Saturday Night Fever" the beginning of the end? Without disco, would hip-hop have evolved? And, most tellingly, was disco bad?

The crowd that roared into Chicago's Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979, had plenty to say on that issue. A display at the exhibit tells of the ''disco demolition" called by radio DJ Steve Dahl, where antidisco fans set fire to about 10,000 disco records. About 50,000 rioters stormed the field and stayed put, precipitating the forfeiture by the White Sox of the second game of their doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers.

The campaign, which many saw as racist and homophobic as well as antidisco, fueled the demise of what had become a mass-market movement. Ironically, even before the ''disco demolition," its original fans, for whom disco was a lifestyle as well as entertainment, claimed it had become homogenized and soulless.

''Our goal here has been to tell the story of gay culture, dance culture, pop culture," Weisbard said. And even though this observer could find no reference to Rick Dees' hit song ''Disco Duck" in the show, it's a goal ambitiously pursued.

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