The selection of this song might seem too on the nose for a post celebrating Pride. But…read on.
I first heard this particular song in the 1990s, around the time I went to my first gay bar.
Disco was not new to me; I’d heard a lot of the most popular disco acts on the radio as a kid, including The Bee Gees, the Village People and Donna Summer, the queen of disco.
I was around 9 or 10 when suddenly, disco was NO LONGER COOL. 10 year olds are all about this shit, see, who’s cool and who isn’t. We took notes, and promptly shunned what needed to be shunned.
It was also around that time when most of the musicians we’d heard all through the 70s gave way for new artists, like Blondie, who had some of that disco feel with a new, edgy urgency.
Disco was a dirty word for years, so I was surprised when I came out, and started hearing many old favorites within the walls of a gay bar or nightclub.
One night, during a drag performance, one of the queens sang “Enough Is Enough,” replacing “he turned out to be like any other” with “he turned out to be a motherfucker!”
The early 90s had its own popular dance music acts, but as the clubs inched toward closing time, the sounds of Black Box, Janet Jackson or Madonna would inevitably give way to a thumping disco classic or two, which brought everyone out onto the floor.
The club was the first place I’d heard “Mighty Real.”
Well, okay. If I’m being honest, it was the second place.
The first place I ever heard about that song? In my suburban bubble, that first place was Miss Sandra Bernhard, and my well worn copy of “Without You I’m Nothing.”
There’s a movie version of this, too, but the recorded version is just….amazing.
Before call out culture was even a thing, there was Sandy B, pointing out hypocrisy: “It’s 1988, and you can PRETEND that you’re straight….”
It’s now 2018, and we know things have changed. Certainly, there have been steps forward – LGBTQ people have the right to marry, and increased – if not comprehensive – legal protections in other matters.
But we also have turmoil at the federal level, at an institutional level, that is trying to reverse that.
Media representations of LGBTQ lives have certainly improved by leaps and bounds. But we still have celebrities hiding in the closet, still have the same dividing lines, especially in a time where Them Vs. Us has been elevated to an ugly spectacle of theater.
Many LGBTQ people, even the most loved, embraced and accepted, still feel a duality of sorts. We have to bring out different sides of ourselves around different people. Family gets one presentation, work gets another, friends get yet another.
It’s that way for me, anyway, a result of having to build those compartments years ago.
What does this have to do with disco?
Well, like I said, that whole business where disco was cool – and then it suddenly wasn’t.
I could only hear those changes on the radio, but in Chicago, it took the form of a riot.
If you don’t feel like watching that clip, let me give you the Cliff Notes version: A moronic radio DJ named Steve Dahl worked at a rock station and organized a “Disco Demolition” to burn those hideous disco records that he and his listeners disliked.
This event was supposed to be a “fun” halftime happening during a White Sox game. It ended up shutting the place down, because people rioted.
I’ve heard plenty of justifications for it – that it was a reaction to the oversaturation of disco on the radio, that it was bored teenagers – but it was a huge stadium of straight white men raging, angrily, at the “other” that this music represented.
Because disco was definitely music embraced and created by and for people of color, and by, and for, LGBTQ people.
Dahl has since spoken about this event many times. I am not a fan of his and do not wish to enrich him further on the matter, so enough said about him. The reactions by others have been analyzed in many forms and formats: another excellent summary can be read here.
And so disco crawled back into the underground. It fed the R&B sounds of the early 80s – certainly, disco influenced Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and Thriller, and, with a rougher edge and some guitars, came through in mainstream R&B, as well as a hybrid of R&B and rock like Prince.
But the exuberance of disco, that undefinable WOW about it? It came home to the clubs, where I eventually heard it in the 90s.
One of my dreams, if I could dream any dream and make it come into existence? Is to create, or write, a TV show. Network, streaming, cable, web series, whatever.
And while others have tried and failed at capturing the 70s music scene – especially the high profile failure of Vinyl – I think about how often that story has been told from the same perspective. Mostly rock and roll, mostly middle age white guys reminiscing about their days as working class punks.
My vinyl collection has a lot of disco, many artists that I never heard about the first time around. And I keep thinking that I’d love to create (or help create) THAT story, from that perspective. The story of how people of color and gay people lifted this music, created it, grabbed a small piece of the spotlight.
A taste of power, of glory, before the demolition. Before AIDS.
That sounds like quite a story, doesn’t it? Several seasons’ worth of story, at least. Still relevant today – with many of the groups still marginalized. A rich story with two big cultures in the middle of it.
Anyway, back to feeling Mighty Real.
I wanted to share this clip. I just discovered it in the last month or so, and it knocked me off my feet.
American Bandstand was a weekly fixture on TV, but I never saw this when it was originally on, way back in 1978, when I was all of nine years old.
It’s all lip synch, smoke and mirrors, but I see Sylvester, Martha Wash, and Izora Armstead, and I ***hear*** the audience.
This is a crowd that LOVED them. A crowd like I’d never seen before on Bandstand, and wouldn’t see again until the New Wave age, until the likes of Madonna appeared on the show.
In the center, Sylvester – a performer that defies categorization. A truly singular artist. The epicenter of the disco scene. A double threat, both black and gay, emerging from a gospel background.
I hear the audience’s applause, the acceptance, the love, and wonder what life would have been like for me had I seen this – had I know sooner that such a corner of the world existed.
There will forever be a part of me behind a brick wall, a duality that many people of color and LGBTQ people are familiar with – the one where you have to hide a piece of your authentic self to protect yourself, to protect blows and punches and violence.
No matter how much the world has changed, a part of me will always find myself in vigilance mode, protecting myself and my crew, remembering when I watched sentry in my younger days, the walls of our clubs and bars and meeting places the one space where we felt truly free.