NINTENDO IS BURNING

Of Gamers, Gates, and Disco Demolition: The Roots of Reactionary Rage

How are YouTube videos criticizing sexist video games important enough to threaten a school shooting? Read the #GamerGate tag and realize that underneath the anger is fear.

10.16.14 9:55 AM ET

I grew up in the evangelical Christian subculture, among the people on whom Ned Flanders and the Veals on Arrested Development were patterned. So the infamous bonfires where conservative Christian teenagers would gather up their “sinful” media, throw it in a pile, and burn it while singing hymns were a part of my childhood lore.

And, of course, I condemn the right-wing cultural paranoia that leads to people supporting such nonsense (even if all the kids re-buying their sinful albums two years later when they went to college probably boosted net profits). I condemn them for burning heavy metal albums in the 1970s, for burning Harry Potter books in the 2000s, and for supporting Jack Thompson’s moral crusade to get all game designers thrown in jail for “causing school shootings” before he got disbarred in 2008.

I’m against all of that crap. But it doesn’t particularly worry me. The Maude Flanderses were never going to win. The idea that religious conservatives could take down Black Sabbath or take down J.K. Rowling or that Jack Thompson could take down EA and Take Two Interactive was always ridiculous.

Because they knew even as they succeeded in hogging the spotlight people were snickering at them. They knew that as much as they tried to make up for it with brute force, their cultural power was nil. They knew that preachy “Think of the children” types weren’t cool, and the more they attacked Ozzy Osbourne the cooler Ozzy got and the less cool they became.

You know what kind of thing does worry me?

The biggest 1970s music bonfire was not done by a church, and the records they destroyed weren’t metal records. And they didn’t use kerosene and a match, they used explosives. And rather than singing hymns and being quietly self-righteous, the event erupted into an orgy of violent rage.

I’m talking, of course, about the ill-fated promotion the Chicago White Sox ran on July 12, 1979, known as “Disco Demolition Night.” (Most notably written about by Dr. Gillian Frank in this scholarly retrospective.)

Yes, in an era where Christians literally believed rock bands were Satanic cults who used backward masking to hypnotize people, the worst violence against music was wrought by guys who just didn’t like disco.

“Anti-disco” sentiment was powerful enough to pack 50,000 people into Comiskey Park, to get them riled up enough to storm the field and start tearing it up, and to force police to be called and force the White Sox to forfeit the second game in their doubleheader. “Anti-disco” was a powerful enough force to make the White Sox think blowing up a box of disco records was a winning idea for a promotion in the first place, as much as they ended up regretting it.

How the hell did that happen? How on God’s green Earth could not liking a kind of music raise emotion to such a fever pitch? How could anyone think that their dislike of the Bee Gees made anything about Disco Demolition Night acceptable? Were people just that messed up in 1979?

Well, you might ask the same question about how YouTube videos criticizing sexist video games could be important enough to threaten a school shooting.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter has heard more than enough about the “#GamerGate phenomenon.” I know I have. I’m not rehashing the story here—there are better sources for that. I’ve said my piece about angry video game fans’ endless abuse of people in games journalism and the games industry elsewhere.

I’m just interested in how history repeats itself.

***

What exactly made so many people—let’s not be coy here, so many young white men—hate disco so much? An aversion to a steady dance backbeat? A dislike of orchestral instrumentation? What?

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Did it really have nothing to do with the fact that disco was popularized as “black” music? (Rock music was originally “black” music too, of course, but in a post-Elvis era it sure didn’t look that way, Jimi Hendrix aside. And Hendrix was nine years dead in 1979.)

Did it have nothing to do with the embrace of disco by the gay community? Was it a coincidence that whenever anyone wanted to make disco artists the butt of a nasty joke their go-to example was The Village People and “YMCA”?

Did it have nothing to do with the fact that disco icons were frequently black women like Gloria Gaynor and Diana Ross, who sang anthems of empowerment like “I Will Survive” and “I’m Coming Out” and seemed like the polar opposite of the aggressively macho white frontmen rock fans idolized?

Is it a coincidence that Disco Demolition Night happened almost exactly 10 years after the Stonewall Riots, nine years after the first issue of Ms. Magazine, six years after the election of the first black mayor of Los Angeles, three years after Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month?

I have a certain fondness for That ’70s Show, but as historical fiction it’s one of the worst shows in history. The 1970s were not a party. They were a decade of rapid change and conflict—a decade of gay pride parades, Take Back the Night rallies, and the Black Panther Party vs. an explosive backlash of “normal” people who wanted their country back.

If you want to get a good idea of the “mood” of middle-class white people in the ’70s, rewatch Network and pay attention to Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” monologue. Some of his grievances are legitimate. Some of them are incoherent, even bigoted. But all of them add up to a coiled-up rage, ready to lash out at the nearest target.

For young white men at Comiskey Park, that target was disco music.

Just look at the rhetoric used by angry 1970s rock fans to bash disco. It goes beyond just finding the music unpleasant, it invokes the rhetoric of legitimacy. Disco artists aren’t “real” musicians. They don’t play their instruments live, like rock guitar gods; it’s too “produced,” it’s too “studio,” it’s fake.

Moreover, guys who listen to disco are fake. They dress in expensive leisure suits and hang out at fancy clubs. They don’t get down in the dirt and tear it up like us hard-core, genuine, masculine fans. They’re not real men, and women like them for not being real men, which is unacceptable. The face of the New American Man under the disco reign of terror is John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever. You don’t want your sons growing up like that, do you?

And there’s the aggrieved underdog stance, calling disco artists and producers “elitists,” spinning a narrative that rock was authentic music made by blue-collar kids in garages while disco was being “pushed on” America by corporate labels. (Are you kidding me? Led Zeppelin the hardscrabble underdogs vs. the Bee Gees? That’s as ridiculous as saying Call of Duty fans are oppressed compared to people who like indie text games about what it’s like to have depression.)

And then the paranoia. The straight-up fear of a world in which disco singles consistently topping the charts was the new normal. The narrative of “disco influence” as infection, of freaking out any time a rock act “went disco” with a single track, like KISS and “I Was Made for Lovin’ You.” (Almost like examining every game developer and game publication for signs of being “corrupted by the feminist agenda.”)

But most of all, let’s not forget the opportunists. The MC of Disco Demolition Night and the ringleader of the Chicago-area anti-disco “protest organization” the Insane Coho Lips was radio shock jock Steve Dahl, who was fired from a station that decided to switch from a rock to disco format and decided to make his own economic interests into a cultural holy war. Dahl went on to attain nationwide fame and his own syndicated broadcast as a result of Disco Demolition Night. (That’s almost as effective a business model as crying out that your shady game project was “destroyed” by feminists and raising $50,000 from 4chan as a result.)

But aside from making a professional troll a rich man, the Cohos did achieve their political goals. Post-Disco Demolition Night, record companies started quietly relabeling disco records as “dance” records, disco faded from the cultural scene, and the doors were opened for the resurgence of rock in the 1980s in the form of ’80s glam and hair bands, which I’m sure we can all agree was the best time for music ever.

In the wake of this victory, the anti-disco campaigners stopped buying tickets to disco concerts to throw things at the performers or vandalizing discotheques and went on with their lives, pausing briefly to vote in Ronald Reagan in a landslide in the 1980 election. Some property was damaged, some industry professionals spent a few years being terrified, and we moved on.

Does any of this ancient history of the bellbottom era sound familiar to you, fellow millennial geeks? Same song, different lyrics. Different battlefield, but the same “culture war,” the same sides.

***

I’m not scared of desperately uncool cultural reactionaries like Jack Thompson or anti-witchcraft Harry Potter burners. I’m scared of the people who do hold cultural power, who have the loud voice, who are, in fact, the cool kids, but think they’re embattled underdogs. I’m scared of the people who think that because disco was “taking over music” they had the right to “fight back” bullying and attacking disco performers and fans.

I’m scared of people who look at someone like Zoe Quinn, an individual who makes free indie games, or Anita Sarkeesian, an individual who makes free YouTube videos, and honestly think that these women are a powerful “corrupt” force taking away the freedom of the vast mob of angry young male gamers and the billion-dollar industry that endlessly caters to them, and that working to shut them up and drive them out somehow constitutes justice. The dominant demographic voice in some given fandom or scene feeling attacked by an influx of new, different fans and rallying the troops against “oppression” in reaction is not at all unique. It happens everywhere, all the time.

But let’s be honest: It’s usually guys doing it. Our various “culture wars” tend to boil down to one specific culture war, the one about men wanting to feel like Real Men and lashing out at the women who won’t let them. Whenever men feel like masculinity is under attack, men get dangerous. Because that’s exactly what masculinity teaches you to do, what masculinity is about. Defending yourself with disproportionate force against any loss of power? That’s what masculinity is.

And the myriad permutations this takes when it percolates down to the level of pop culture are fascinating.

One generation after the explosive backlash against disco for being for its swishy effeminacy, you had the late 1990s Lilith Fair backlash, when music’s cool kids decided it was OK to use nasty slurs like “Breastfest” and “Lesbopalooza” against female performers as long as what you were really against was their “pretentious” indie-folk sound. And if you tried to link critics hating on Lilith Fair to the angry mob that drove Meredith Brooks off the stage in Argentina for daring to open for The Rolling Stones, you were being unfair. And if you mentioned that alt-rock stations literally told Poe she had to put a male voice on “Hey Pretty” to get it airplay because of the “Lilith Fair backlash” you’re overreacting to an isolated incident.

Or there’s the recent unpleasantness with Lena Dunham’s Girls where it was a popular Internet sport to find new ways to mock the show, mock Dunham for making the show, and mock every critic who ever supported the show, right down to accusing critics of “colluding” to make the show a success when it didn’t really deserve to be. (That one sound familiar, gamers?)

I personally plead guilty to jumping on that bandwagon without thinking fully about what I was doing. And for not thinking about how the legitimate criticisms of problematic treatment of race and class in Girls, criticisms of the storytelling and comedic tone of the show, etc. were being actively used as a shield by the much larger wave of Internet scum demanding the freedom to call Lena Dunham a fat, ugly, spoiled bitch for daring to show up on their TV screen without their approval. I didn’t think how “legitimate criticisms”—like the legitimate criticisms of the materialism in the “disco lifestyle,” like legitimate criticisms of the cliquishness of the tiny indie video game scene—get used as fuel by reactionary hate mobs.

Just like, to delve into the weird side of geekdom for a moment, “legitimate” debates about whether older or newer versions of the Dungeons & Dragons rules are better turn into an excuse for the Manly Men of Role-Playing Games (or, as we say in D&D jargon, “grognards”) to rear their ugly heads and rile up a mob against the “politically correct hipsters” infesting their hobby. Just like actual concerns about the commercial exploitation of fringe subcultures get buried in a gender-based backlash against “fake geek girls” that ensure the purity of fan conventions by making female fans afraid to attend them lest they be tested on their authenticity. Just like, reaching dizzying heights of absurdity, the incredibly nerdy Star Wars fan debate over exactly how many clone troopers there were in the Clone Wars became a reason to send threats, abuse, and screaming ranting videos to the one woman writing Star Wars books, eventually leading to her quitting the franchise. (Five years later, all that’s left of the shitshow is a brief but nonetheless surreal paragraph in her entry on the Star Wars fan wiki. But yes, trust me, it really was that bad.)

So much of the fear the media tries to stoke in me is fear of the oppressed underdog lashing out. Fear of criminals from the “inner city,” fear of terrorists from the “third world,” fear of cults and gangs and fanatical splinter groups. Even on the political left, there’s a tendency to pick on the Other, the “crazy fundies,” the white supremacists in their compounds, the scary tattooed skinheads.

But I’m not afraid of underdogs.

Underdogs, make no mistake, can be vicious and cruel and evil, all the more so because they have a grievance to justify their viciousness. But to be an underdog is to lack power. It means, by definition, that you’re weak, where the overdog is strong.

And to be an overdog who thinks he’s an underdog is, therefore, worst of all.

So no, I’m not afraid of the bogeyman they try to sell me, of the angry black criminal or the angry brown religious zealot or the angry radical queer activist, using violence to take what they don’t have. I’m afraid of the angry privileged white man protecting what he does have. The guy who thinks of himself as “normal” and speaking up for all the “normal” people like him, the guy who’s fighting to defend his “way of life” from the different and strange.

I’m afraid of masculinity, and privilege, of the male sense of “honor” they combine to create, and the incredible reservoir of madness that “honor” can unleash when it’s threatened. Of how incredibly petty the offense can be and how insanely disproportionate the retaliation can be.

Of people who’d threaten to shoot up a school in defense of the honor of guys who like violent video games with hot girls in them and refuse to be criticized for it. Of people who will throw rocks at a woman on stage to defend the honor of “real” rock music. Of a man whose honor, his entitlement, his sense of what he is due is so besmirched because he can’t hook up with girls as a “perfect gentleman” that he will go on a shooting spree.

***

Enough of what I fear. Let me tell you what gives me hope.

What gives me hope is that despite what I’ve been saying, the #GamerGate zealots, the Disco Demolition zealots, the Lena Dunham stalkers—they aren’t that different from the “moral guardians” they hate after all.

Right-wing Christian moral guardians aren’t cool, but they used to be. It used to be their values were unquestioned truth in our society. They used to run things. And then at some point—maybe after the Scopes trial, maybe after the repeal of Prohibition, maybe after Engel v. Vitale banned school prayer—they realized they were losing.

No one goes down without a fight. They didn’t lose gracefully. They kicked and fought and spat and succeeded in repeatedly filling their opponents with fear.

But it’s 2014, and marriage equality is rapidly becoming the law of the land, The God Delusion is a bestseller, and every college has a Wiccan club. They’ve lost—not all the way yet, there’s still political muscle they can flex come election year—but when it comes to the nation’s hearts and minds, they know they’ve lost.

And what about those rock music fans who were fundamentally cooler, more in tune with the zeitgeist, more legitimate voices in the world of music culture than those “squares” at the church bonfires?

In 2013, the  No. 1 and  No. 2 charting songs were both disco-inspired—Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” “Get Lucky,” which is in fact quite possibly the most disco song ever written, won Record of the Year at the 2014 Grammys. That was the Grammy Awards ceremony whose centerpiece was Macklemore, a “socially conscious hip-hop” artist, singing “Same Love” while Queen Latifah presided over a wedding of gay couples. Every single fact in that previous sentence would, if you’d told it to one of the angry rock purists of 1979, given him a stroke.

Check the current Billboard Top 100. See how much of the “mainstream” pop music scene now is R&B, EDM, hip-hop. See how much snark was unleashed against “dad rock” by the recent U2 iTunes Songs of Innocence fiasco. See how it’s never been less cool to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, not because “classic rock” is a bad genre but because our generation is so much more aware of how much great music the rock fundamentalists who built that hall left out.

Diversity has won in music. Diversity always wins. Diversity isn’t going to leave music, or TV, or film no matter how many backlashes and reversals there are.

The “fake geek girls” aren’t going to leave your subculture; the “PC police” aren’t going to stop criticizing it. “Angry black women” aren’t getting off your TV and neither are angry Asian men. The “PC diversity brigade” of science-fiction writers is going to keep winning Hugo and Nebula awards, and someday my wife’s going to be one of them.

Critics like Anita Sarkeesian will keep on pointing out what’s bad in games so we can start looking for ways to make games better. Indie designers like Zoe Quinn and Kellee Santiago will keep pushing the boundaries of gaming at the fringes so that people like Manveer Heir and Rhianna Pratchett have breathing room to explore what mainstream “AAA” games can be.

Reactionaries know they can’t win. Their anger stems from their desperation. Read the #GamerGate tag for a while and realize the obsessive fixation on the “corrupt agenda in the gaming press” is, underneath the anger, fear. For all the damage they do, for all the people they hurt, they’re going to lose. Indeed, to react as they have is to prove that they’ve already lost.

After all, #GamerGate, did you think we’d crumble? Did you think we’d lay down and die?

No, not us. We will survive.