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Disco and Communism

The Italian Communist Party saw culture as a key political battleground. But the arrival of disco challenged its assumptions about what music should be.

Stills from Saturday Night Fever.

In March 1978 Saturday Night Fever hit the screens around Italy. Audiences in the country had a particular interest in John Travolta’s character Tony Manero, a young Italian-American worker from Brooklyn who loves to dance to disco music. Despite New York’s spells under mayors Fiorello La Guardia (1934–45) and Vincent Impellitteri (1950–54) the Italian Americans in the film are at the bottom of the heap and get involved in racialized clashes with others in a similar position. The pretexts of the fights between gangs are always the same: controlling territory, and women.

The plot structure of the film is almost banal, but Saturday Night Fever is also colored by a realism that exposes the awful combinations of masculinity and macho: pride, violence, honor, rape. But Tony seems rather less like this, because at the end of the film he hands over the coveted dance contest trophy to the deserving Puerto Rican couple, who had been victims of the audience’s discrimination. This helps pacify the racial conflict and lays the ground for his own redemption as a positive character.

For Tony, the dance is something pure: he wants to show off on the dancefloor and demonstrate his talent, something not to be polluted by class, or race. So far, so American. But the film, and the rise of disco off the back of the film, also had a particular effect in Italy. This was not least true among the youth of its mighty Italian Communist Party (PCI).

Since its emergence as a mass party during the anti-Nazi Resistance, Italy’s second biggest electoral force had sought to extend its hegemony on the cultural terrain, winning leading intellectuals and filmmakers to its ranks. But PCI intellectuals tried to make high culture speak to, and for, the workers, the rise of disco presented a new and different challenge.

Consumer society and mass “low” culture were hardly new: the arrival of television in the mid-1950s had already revolutionized mass communication in Italy, as had the economic boom of the turn of the following decade. But with Travolta arrived a new challenge. Communists who had long remained immobile in their own cultural niche were going to have to learn how to dance.

Grease and Disco

Six months after Saturday Night Fever, Travolta again hit the screens with Grease (in Italian released as Brillantina). In September 1978 the Communist Youth newspaper La città futura dedicated two pages to an article entitled “Brillantina e discoteche.” Massimo Buda’s piece focused on the rising phenomenon of disco, which had dominated the dance floors that summer, as well as the disapproving attitude many Communists had taken toward the new popular culture coming from the United States.

After around a decade in which young Italians had turned to extra-parliamentary movements, the paper asked how the PCI could reconquer a youthful audience (and thus an activist base) to which a gray and tired party press seemed unable to speak. Indeed, several other reviews had emerged to the left of the PCI which dealt in a more autonomous way with music, literature, cinema, culture (and countercultures), from Re Nudo to Muzak and Gong. Even within the landscape of the PCI-linked press La città futura was but a brief experiment (lasting 1977–79) opening up to questions of mass culture like those raised by Saturday Night Fever.

For the piece’s author Buda, the Communist Party had been caught on the back foot by new kinds of popular culture. As he wrote,

It is mistaken to stand in condemnation or say “Yes, it’s important to understand, but . . .”. For this expresses a moralistic stance, a haughty distance toward youth who are mostly workers and young women [sic!]. John Travolta is just the latest star coming from America: time will tell if it will last, but today he is a huge star who fascinates millions of young people. To shake one’s head in disapproval is mistaken, mere self-consolation. “Politics” can be done wherever youth are organizing for their own needs, however real or “false.”

Unfortunately, such openings to popular culture in the Communist press remained little more than episodic professions of intent. But maybe there was good reason for that. For wasn’t it a bit anachronistic to imagine fighting a battle of ideas at the level of mass culture?

Popular Culture

After 1945 the PCI had recruited a militia armed with pens, paintbrushes, and film cameras, as it formed a layer of intellectuals ready to wage the battle for cultural hegemony. Yet its new allies were highly “institutionalized.” This created a fossilized version of Antonio Gramsci’s own democratic cultural project, which had more widely emphasized the dimension of the “national-popular.” These intellectuals were firmly anchored in the historic split between high and low culture; that is, they stood at the highbrow level (e.g. seeing classical music as the gold standard) and defined whatever was outside of themselves as not counting as culture at all.

“Low,” or popular culture was thus either to be put to one side or seen as something to be “overcome.” Thus, even as Italy turned its workforce from agriculture to industry, the intellectuals spoke to the workers or of the workers but still on their behalf. Yet the peasants now becoming workers also brought with them deeply rooted mentalities and ways of life that would both be imported into their new environments and reshaped by them.

The sister of the consumer society, a new mass culture had sunk roots already in postwar years and spread yet further during Italy’s economic boom (around 1958–63). This was aided by the radio and TV (Italy’s first television channel was launched only in 1954). These innovations had a disruptive effect for Italians of whatever cultural level. Showing a sometimes elitist and conservative bent, the left-wing politicians and intellectuals called on to comment on mass culture often limited themselves to condemning “decline” and the dangers this change posed for the masses.

Telling was an August 1962 piece in the PCI review Rinascita (a political organ aimed above all at an internal audience of militants, party leaders, and intellectuals) in which the Communist general secretary Palmiro Togliatti responded to a young person in search of advice. For Togliatti,

the radio and TV are great things, but whoever reduces his whole free time, every day, to sitting in front of the screen or the speakers, is no longer a free man. Someone else is thinking for him, denying him a vision of the big, real problems today shaking the world. The organized class struggle acts, it is true, as a liberating force. But who will judge the young man who gets stuck into searching things out for himself?

This kind of response was again visible a few years later (in March 1965), when two young correspondents wrote in to the PCI’s official daily l’Unità commenting that “the Beatles are the genuine expression of the feelings and social situations of a desperate and agitated youth that wants to break with the old traditions.” The PCI paper sternly replied:

You say that the Beatles represent an escape from monotonous, bourgeois life, that they are a product of the new generation in Britain that, however comfortably off, remains deeply unsatisfied. That is what the Beatles are, then. And there is nothing more pointless and vain than escapism. If one can recognize that youth have every right to “escape” as suits their tastes, or in a certain social situation, we should tell them in all frankness that life is not escapism, and that a limitless escapism also ends up coming at a heavy price, in whatever part of the world.

It seemed that communism and consumerism stood close together in the dictionary but nowhere else. And for the PCI it was imperative that the American way of life, in particular, remained on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet as this storm of commercial impulses and new ways of thinking arrived in Italy, it did not only produce a superficial or cosmetic link between consumption and well-being. Rather, it led to the rise of new behaviors and values systems, which the Communists often struggled to interpret.

Gastronomic Music

Theodor Adorno’s writings on what he called “consumer music” were a point of reference for many intellectuals, in this regard. His analysis spoke of repetitive, pre-digested, packaged music designed to hypnotize the listener — something very useful for the great means of persuasion. This was consistent with Adorno’s lucid, sharp, and indeed horrified critique of mass culture, but also featured the typical “factory defect” of his output: namely, the impossibility of hating such culture without showing his disdain for those who enjoy it, for the mass.

It is not difficult to imagine what consequences such an attitude could have for the intelligentsia of a party like the PCI, which presented itself both as the vanguard leading the masses and as their mouthpiece.

More exceptional were those voices that considered consumer society and mass culture not so much as adversaries to be resisted or obstacles to overcome, but rather as new general conditions, an anthropological situation within which to act, whose tendencies deserved proper interpretation. These voices either departed from the PCI’s own cultural policy, or even stood foreign to the party itself: from the filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini to the sociologist Franco Ferrarotti and the writer and philosopher Umberto Eco.

They believed that it was necessary to distinguish between mass culture as an anthropological situation in which escapism became the norm, and then actual moments of “escape.” Their various approaches sought to break through the hubris of intellectuals who haughtily refused to take any interest in the culture produced in consumer society.

One counter-example within PCI ranks was Gianni Borgna, in his comments on the Festival of Sanremo, Italy’s leading song contest. Probably the most attentive and capable observer (and listener) to what mass culture was offering to the Italian audience, Borgna saw the Festival founded in 1951 not only as an instrument of consent that served the dominant Christian Democratic ideological apparatus, but above all a faithful mirror of the nation’s own mores. For him, the Festival — a contest among unreleased, Italian-language songs — was the theater of a fight for hegemony between old and new, conservative and progressive. He insisted on the need to concentrate on the messages that the broadcasts from Sanremo were sending into every Italian household.

The PCI did, moreover, have its own decades-long experience of popular music. From the immediate aftermath of World War II onward, it had staged local and national Feste de l’Unità at which the party faithful spoke about politics together, organized the struggle together, ate together, drank together, danced together and, in short, partied together. Alongside delegations from the Soviet sister republics, putting on folk dances in traditional costumes, there were traditional Italian singers and rising young pop acts and leftist singer-songwriters like Claudio Villa, Gianni Morandi, and Fabrizio De André.

The mixing of different genres at the Feste responded to the Communists’ need to present a variety of entertainment that could appeal to the many and different people attending the Feste dell’Unità, including a wide range of Communists: men and women, workers and students, young and old.

The Case del Popolo across Italy were even more pragmatic in their cultural and musical choices. Where no strategic-aesthetic line was imposed from above (that is, through strictly political music), the organization of this Communist recreational activity depended on the goodwill and the individual efforts of grassroots militants. The whole year long, they put on concerts with political choirs and singer-songwriters, competitions for emerging local singers, as well as unmissable dance nights.

Bach Versus Travolta…and Dylan

In February 1979, La città futura published a survey based on around a thousand questionnaires: what was the most widespread taste in music among its readers, and thus among the Communists? It launched the survey with the headline “Bach, Guccini or John Travolta?”. (Francesco Guccini is a left-wing singer-songwriter comparable for the ’68-era student movement in Italy to what Bob Dylan’s early years meant for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States).

This provocative title highlighted the alternative between classical music (considered a fundamental “high culture” and gold standard), singer-songwriting (politically committed on the Left, appealing to a particular generation) and mass-consumption music (Travolta’s stardom now having been confirmed with the success of both Saturday Night Fever and Grease in Italy the previous year).

As Buda put it in a further article:

Some have reacted by asking “How come serious political initiatives are being deserted while this trivial stuff is finding such success?” The fact is that many comrades continue, through a prejudice typical of people involved in political organizing (which is, indeed, a “serious” matter) to consider phenomena like music, dancing, the various forms of entertainment and mass culture as mere trivialities, whether futile or strange . . . And yet it is precisely these attitudes, showing disinterest toward this type of questions and thinking that what we are doing is enough, that produce alienation from politics and displays of the unbinding of the “political” and “personal,” especially among the youth, who we have discussed so much in these months [indeed] it is among the causes of the Communist Youth’s difficulties doing mass politics among youth today, being present among them and their recognized vanguard.

The La città futura survey crowned, as the most popular Italians, Francesco Guccini and Giovanna Marini (a pair not unlike Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, the most popular international soloists among respondents). The foreign albums most liked by the Communists who wrote in to the paper were Dylan’s Street-Legal and Neil Young’s Comes a Time, but in third and fourth place were the soundtracks to Saturday Night Fever and Grease. The survey also showed a certain preference for “consumer music,” with acts like Patti Smith, David Bowie, and Genesis also ranked highly.

It is no surprise that politically committed work by singer-songwriters showing another America or denouncing the present state of Italy was particularly popular among the Communist Youth. Such a preference almost goes without saying. But here it is rather more useful to concentrate on the dent in this homogeneity that Travoltismo (fortunately) represented, and which stops us from thinking about the survey respondents and Communist Youth more generally as an army of automatons who all conformed to some politically orthodox musical preference.

This was also a break from certain previous assumptions. The left-wing musicians’ group Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano had been founded in 1964, linked to figures around the Socialist and Communist parties as well as the far left. If this milieu had sought to valorize a tradition of protest songs, including through an eponymous magazine, by 1978 they had reached the end of the road.

For the Italian Communist Youth, disco music and the tracks from Grease stood far from such political songs; and yet one could equally like both. This showed, indeed, that the much-feared specter of “escapism” — seen by many in the PCI as an embodiment of capitalist manipulation — in fact served to explain nothing. It was also devoid of political value, serving only as a bogeyman raised by more serious — or rather, more straight-laced — militants against their younger counterparts.

Whoever wages the struggle only alongside whoever listens to the same music has lost already. Identification with a certain music may be a tactically convenient glue for those who are already included in the in-group. Yet an emphasis on this kind of choice leads to a broader vision unable to deal with mass culture as it takes form around us. It allows political activity to be led off course by an idealist conception of culture, cut off from mass tastes and thus unbound from reality.

Instead, it is necessary to start out from the concrete. As Gramsci almost put it in his Prison Notebooks (with a couple of paraphrases): “The premise of the new culture cannot but be historical and political, popular. It must aim at elaborating what already exists, whether polemically or in some other way does not matter; what does matter, though, is that it sinks its roots into the humus of mass culture as it is, with its tastes and tendencies and with its moral and intellectual world, even if it is backward and conventional.”

Reaping real political results out of this terrain is, of course, a difficult task. But the basic approach outlined by Gramsci has much to teach us. Cultural products should not be judged relative to some ideal of high culture, but instead in their own context, in terms of their meaning for their intended audience. Without properly understanding this context, we can understand nothing of the battle on the cultural terrain. If John Travolta sings in a forest, does he make a sound? Only if someone is there to listen to him.