What The Hell Is With This Disco-themed Political Attack Ad?

Political attack ads are almost always trashy–lurid details about an opponent’s sordid life, wild speculation, tasteless graphic design and distorted mask-like images of politicians’ bloated, malevolent faces like cartoon villains. But, few ever strive to become art or at least be so bizarre that they reach a level of aesthetic greatness that can only be described by that three-letter word.

Enter Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf’s recent attack ad against his Republican opponent Scott Wagner, which uses disco as a weaponized means to paint Wagner as….something. A bad girl? Macho man? Lost in music? Born to be alive? The real intent is unclear, which makes this monumental moment in politico decision-making worth delving into here on Filthy Dreams.

The ad is a mere thirty seconds and yet, it packs that lightening fast time with so much mind-boggling imagery and questionable choices that I found myself watching it over and over again, more confused and amused as time went on. Beginning with cheesy and stereotypical 1980s neon font, that quintessential scary deep-throated attack ad voiceover chimes in: “Early 1980s. Disco is stayin’ alive. Chicken McNuggets made their debut and Scott Wagner showed up in Harrisburg.”

Ok. First off, by 1980 after the meatheads at the Disco Demolition Night and the eye roll-inducing contrived camp of Saturday Night Fever, people were already tolling the disco’s death knell. It’s an odd reference for a politician. Even stranger is the image of steaming Chicken McNuggets. Is that really the only 1980s references they could come up with? Disco and nugs? And what does any of this have to do with state politics? Who the hell knows, but it got me interested.

From there, the ad rockets to a tacky rendering of laser lights being blasted over the capitol building in Harrisburg and an image of Wagner made to look like he’s grooving to the beat. Now, I don’t think the Wolf campaign thought this thing through. I look at this ad and I’m convinced that Trumper Scott Wagner is that party person Pennsylvania needs. He loves the nightlife! Sure, he thinks climate change is happening because the Earth is moving closer to the Sun, as well as the combined heat from all of our bodies, and when he was confronted by a young woman Rose Strauss about these idiotic assumptions, he called her “young and naive.” But maybe that moronic belief derives from his many nights dancing at too many discos. Clubs can get hot, you know! They’re disco infernos!

Now, it’s difficult to suss out just what the Wolf campaign was going for here with this disco-related ad. Were they trying to paint Wagner as, you know, a little swish? A bit decadent? A little light in his loafers? Or were they posing disco as inauthentic just like Wagner, associated with artificiality and the moneyed class?

For whatever reason, disco often becomes the punching bag for any number of grievances. Of course, it became a focal point for angry white men bent on destroying disco’s superficiality and frivolity for rock’s authenticity with the anti-disco riots. But as Alice Echols shows in Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, “‘disco sucks’ was perhaps the one thing progressives and conservatives could agree upon” (212). As she continues, “For many on the left, disco was the final nail in the coffin of the sixties–all the proof needed that commodification had transformed pop music from a site of countercultural rebellion into triviality and acquiescence….For the right, by contrast, disco represented not political quiescence but rather the continuation of the sixties’ hedonism and all-around depravity. For many irrespective of where they positioned themselves on the political spectrum, disco wasn’t art” (212-3).

So what is disco for Tom Wolf for Governor? Clearly, they’re trying to define Wagner as a political insider, but, it also makes him look unserious and quite possibly a bit queer. A strange choice coming from a Democratic ad. As Echols explains, disco can be manipulated to signify just about anything. “Attacked for being both too gay and too straight, too black and too white, oversexed and asexual, leisure-class as well as leisure-suited (loser) class, disco represented anything but a stable signifier. Its ability to arouse such disparate response meant disco was fair game for all manner of scapegoating,” she observes (214).

No matter what the Wolf campaign was going for. It is certainly memorable, which is why I’ve broken down some key moments from this short but strange attack ad:

I think someone over at Tom Wolf for Governor has watched David Lynch’s Inland Empire. That ever-spinning record player in the opening of this attack ad looks just like the one Laura Dern dreams up in that 3-hour of existential terror film. And just like the “Lost Girl” asks in that scene: “Do you want to see?” Yes yes! More!

And suddenly, we’re at a disco! Is this a vintage PA disco? I doubt it. But let’s breakdown some of the wardrobe choices here–where do I get a sparkly jacket like the guy on the right? Is that Scott Wagner? Or is he the Ralph Macchio look-alike dancing with the big-haired babe on the left?

Cut to Chicken McNuggets–the icon of the 1980s! Make sure you get a close up of the steam rising from that fried slurry! Anyone else hungry?

Do you think they were trying to go for a Warhol effect here? Or a mug shot? Or both?

Apparently, when Scott Wagner came to Harrisburg, he ARRIVED! Pretty in pink and ready to get down tonight!

Look at those lights! I’m dazzled! Harrisburg never looked so fun–or fun at all really. I can just imagine those special effects set to Donna Summer’s “Try Me I Know We Can Make It.”  All that’s left is to fire up the smoke machine and confetti cannons.

“Disco faded out, but Scott Wagner’s is still here and he’s the very worst of Harrisburg.” With this line, suddenly, the disco ball and all those people milling about and swaying sadly like zombies disappear. How DARE Tom Wolf imply that disco faded out?! I want an attack ad about that! Disco will NEVER die! *cranks up “I’m A Cruiser”*

I don’t known about you, but I have a hard time believing this guy is or was ever into disco.


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