I don’t have the disdain for disco that some have. I do agree that it is a simpler form of music intended solely to temporarily entertain the masses (not unlike nursery rhymes, which I will return to shortly). However, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, and I’ve never dismissed it entirely because I have hoped an artist would someday use it as a vehicle to deliver ideas to a broader audience. And now The Residents have attempted this by reimagining their Eskimo album as a disco tune.
But while this may inspire some disco fans to seek out the original album, the material will be completely wasted on them. Without the thumping beat, they’ll move the needle ahead, searching for when the song they expect finally begins, only to find it never does. The record will get trashed with hardly a listen, and the liner notes and cover will certainly not be contemplated. The more likely scenario is that they will mindlessly dance to this record and never consider the source material, let alone what it says about the world.
It’s possible this is a crass marketing ploy on the part of The Residents, an attempt to sell more records by giving in to the baser desires of the public. But the flip side indicates another motivation. If they were really trying to sell more records, “Diskomo” would be paired with “Disco Duck Stab,” a danceable version of their Duck Stab album. Instead, they appropriate nursery rhymes and bend them to fit into their own mold. It’s the same action as taking Eskimo and changing it into a disco song. In both cases something simple is meshed with something difficult, the only difference being which one plays host to the other. So if they are not trying to educate the discotech regulars, nor are they trying to take their money, then what is the purpose of this release?
It’s an extension of the ideas put forth by Eskimo. Again we have the eyeball-headed figures, which have become a symbol indicating a critical look at culture. We first saw them accompanying a sampling of San Francisco’s music scene, then again on an album dedicated to revealing America’s insecurity with its place in the world, and now we find it on a distorted version of that same album.
One theme of Eskimo is the unwillingness to accept another culture on equal footing, preferring instead to create a false version that can be readily dismissed. The Residents have taken their own brilliant thesis and reformatted it into the dismissible form of disco. This is not a retraction of their ideas, but a strengthening of them. For not only does America disrespect outside cultures, but it also treats dissenting opinion among its own people the same way.
On the second side they have done just the opposite by taking familiar nursery rhymes and reformatting them into the uncomfortable form of Residents music. On one hand it’s a retaliation, a way to say “now do you see what you’ve been doing all this time?” But on the other it’s a call to action: we can take back what’s been buried and bring it out for examination or even celebration.
(Now, these nursery rhymes are mostly British, which weakens the argument concerning America, but enough generations here have grown up with them that they are now part of the culture. Or we can broaden the scope to all of Western culture. Or for that matter we might broaden even further to human nature, because nothing brings people together as strongly as mutual ignorance of another culture.)
And by using nursery rhymes – played on toy instruments, no less – the message is implicitly directed at children, or at least those who are still receptive to new ideas. And those are the people you want to target if you want to enact change in the world. Anyone else is a lost cause, marching to their disco beat and unable to hear anything else.