The phrase “Burn, baby! Burn!” has been associated with the 1965 Watts Riots. As a result, I’ve always found it fascinating that it would find its way into The Trammps’ mega-hit “Disco Inferno.” It is, I suppose, what Thomas Frank wrote about in his first book, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. It isn’t that those ad men were just trying to co-opt what was cool. It was what they thought was cool and they were simply using it.
It’s certainly the case that the songwriters, Leroy Green and Ron Kersey, were not making a political statement. The song came from a scene in The Towering Inferno, where a disco is burned down. “Disco Inferno” is pure fun, the way that the very best Disco music was. But it must certainly be that the writers had the phrase in their mind because they had heard it associated with the Watts Riots. And there is something kind of sad that just one decade after a riot that took the lives of 34 people should be so vague that the phrase could be co-opted to mean nothing more than burning up the dance floor.
But that’s the nature of our modern society. The Watts Riots started over the police stopping an African American man. The reasonableness of the whole thing is not the question, however. The issue is that we had then, as we have today, a racist system. People denied justice will hold in their resentment and anger for only so long. And to nitpick over the exact timing or cause of their anger is to miss the whole point.
Disco Inferno: Burn That Mother Down
When I see white people like those who took over the Malheur wildlife sanctuary, it makes me think of all the people who have real grievances. Throughout its brief history, the Black Lives Matter movement has been nitpicked to death. A twelve year old African American boy with a toy gun is driven up on and murdered by police within seconds. But when armed white men take over a public building because some rich people are being held accountable for their acts of arson, we get a month-long negotiation to see that no one is harmed. Yet it is the Black Lives Matter protesters who are condemned because they aren’t doing it right. They aren’t courteous enough. They don’t wait their turn. They somehow never know the exact right words that would make their problems all just go away.
African Americans, like all minority groups, are just supposed to shut up — unless they are providing us with entertainment as delightful as “Disco Inferno.”