After the Polka

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Polish disco is the ultimate sonic oxymoron. First, there’s the Polish. Polka-dancing, pierogi-eating, pope-loving Poles in the United States have for more than a hundred years been the besotted and bumbling protagonists in all manner of blonde, lightbulb-turning, boat-sinking jokes and other abuses that aren’t so funny. To be Polish in the United States today is to be part of a history of arguably incomplete assimilation from the marked ethnicity of the “dumb Polack” to a less conspicuous shade of white.

Then there’s disco. A great crop of relatively new books have documented disco’s cosmopolitan credentials; it’s also gay and black, and proud of it. So disco polo, a 1990s post-disco musical hybrid created by Poles, seems to be not only a sonic smash-up but also potentially an intercultural carnal sin.

 Poles know they shouldn’t like disco polo, but many do. They enjoy it and enjoy it in public but will not admit to enjoying it when they’re asked. For them, it is that bad. In 1998 the Warsaw Voice characterized disco polo as “music that has thumped the legacy of Chopin well and truly into the gutter.” This is one of the most often stated reasons that Poles hate disco polo: It is perceived as a frontal attack on high culture. Played on digital synthesizers by amateur musicians, it is simple in concept and execution and has lyrics that appeal to multiple generations of listeners, including the most uncool–children and the elderly. In short, it displays to the world the bottled blonde of the wildest ethnic stereotype, and Poles perceive the world as waiting to make them into a punch line.

The polka, the mazurka, the polonaise. These are the dances of Poland. In the spring of 2005 I was invited to a folk costume show in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, home to a large Polish immigrant population. A group of local children in traditional peasant costumes from preindustrial Polish villages danced the polonaise. In these same villages in the 1990s, one would be less likely to see peasant skirts and more likely to hear disco polo, which became the dominant sonic expression of village life in the 1990s and remains such in the lives of Polish expatriates in the United States. Christenings, weddings, name days, and other holidays all have a disco polo sound track. Although disco polo is folk in origin and folk in use, upper-class, urban Poles recoil at the thought of it as an expression of national identity, perhaps because it tells of a Polishness they wish to leave unarticulated.

The sonic genealogy of disco polo began with Giorgio Moroder, the Italian dance music producer. Moroder’s signature production style swapped the strings and organic funk of disco for synthesized melodies, drum machines in basic four, and English-language lyrics (often more like utterances) simple enough to transcend national boundaries. This became the formula for Italo disco, the first truly popular European electronic dance music, which made its way to Poland and the rest of the continent–Iron Curtain or no.

Disco polo’s cultural roots trace back to a genre called piosenka chodnikowa, or sidewalk music. During World War II, Polish musicians had few opportunities for public performance and would travel door to door playing and singing songs to raise money. As part of the resistance movement, young children committed the “little sabotage” of writing graffiti and singing anti-occupation songs in the streets. These melancholic, patriotic sidewalk songs continued to be sung through the 1950s and 1960s and were recorded by small private record labels. Sidewalk music became the ubiquitous rural wedding band music of the late 1980s, and the most popular songs became standard fare for local bands playing at receptions and country fairs. As these bands became more popular through the distribution of cassettes, they began to add their original songs to the repertoire but still played from the tradition.

The patron saint of sidewalk music was Slawomir Skreta, an entrepreneur who realized that this homegrown form had an audience but no industry. He coined the term “disco polo” and founded the Blue Star label in 1992. Foreign-owned labels like EMI wouldn’t sign disco polo artists, but by the mid-1990s the genre’s three main labels–Blue Star, Green Star, and Omega Music–sold huge volumes without the benefit of traditional print, radio, and television advertising.

In the 1996 disco polo documentary Bara Bara, Skreta defended his artists from the criticism that they were primitive, saying, “We don’t want bands to create music too professionally, because this professionalism can kill the authenticity of the songs and would for sure reduce the public.” That Skreta feels the genre’s authenticity (here meaning amateur-style songwriting, populist lyrics, and unmannered musical performance style) actually ensures a continued audience is a populist music business articulation of the folk model.

Another reading, that of the Frankfurt School, would be that the genre ensures its widest reach by producing work of a lowest common denominator of complexity, depth of emotion, and sophisticated expression. The lowest-common-denominator reading expressed the deepest anxieties of urban Poles in the 1990s, then finally free to engage in the consumption not only of Polish music but also of music from the international marketplace. Disco polo was really bad and really popular. It threatened to overtake Poland’s serious cultural expressions, so championed by the international literary, music, and theater communities during communism.

The primary consumers and creators of disco polo were villagers, the “losers” of the transition to capitalism in the 1990s. While collective farms were dissolved as early as 1956, eastern agriculturalists had been farming collectively until the end of communism, and with its end came a void of governance and the ensuing chaos of rapid market transition.

Not only was the east’s supposedly secure position as Poland’s breadbasket undermined by the opening of the market, but the increasing prestige and importance placed on the cosmopolitanism of the new Pole–multilingualism, emphasis on higher education, willingness to travel, toleration–furthered the gap between the rural and the urban. This space has come to be filled by alcoholism, depression, crime, and increasingly active hate groups. Anger and frustration about the lack of opportunities for advancement and the decreased standard of living in rural areas created a vast societal schism in Poland. In the 1990s disco polo became the sound of the frustrated rural people.

Many lower-income, uneducated Poles find disco polo sonically and lyrically hopeful but also driven by intense skepticism about the integrity of rural Polish life. Disco polo artists’ power comes from celebrating their perceived shortcomings, as in country music or Eminem’s B-Rabbit character in the 8 Mile battle scene. By making weakness obvious, by preemptively exposing redneck tendencies, disco polo flattens its critics by not only understanding its own badness but also basing its whole shtick on this brand of bad. Here’s your punch line. Let’s dance.

Daphne Carr is a New York City-based music writer. Excerpted from Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music, edited by Eric Weisbard (Duke University Press, 2007).

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