A PhD in Nightlife: Talking to Madison Moore

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I recently was part of a panel discussion brunch that Gamal Hennessey had put together. It was part of his Nightlife Cultural Initiative. One of my fellow panelists was Madison Moore who is a doctoral candidate at Yale. He studies nightlife. He comes at it from an outside perspective. As an industry insider I found it fascinating to listen to his observations. We had coffee at Small Wonder in Williamsburg where we both reside.

Steve Lewis: So you were up in New Haven, coming down from Yale to go out in the city. You’re this club guy, and you start looking at clubs with a different set of eyes. Were you applying sociological theory to what you saw?

Madison Moore: I’ve always been obsessed with nightlife. When I was 19 I spent the summer at UC Berkeley and instead of being in class, I did everything I could to sneak into all the 21+ clubs. I didn’t have a fake I.D., but I’m fluent in French. So when I got to the door I would be charming and cute and I would lather on fake a Franco-English accent, telling the doorman “Euh, ay dunt ave my pahsporrrttt.” Sometimes it worked!

I didn’t start thinking sociologically about nightlife until very recently. I was seeing all of this scholarship coming out that takes a serious, historical look at nightlife. Lewis Erenberg’s book Steppin’ Out is great. Elijah Anderson has a brilliant ethnography of a corner bar on the South Side of Chicago, and David Grazian’s book On the Make is a must for thinking about nightlife and youth culture. Basically I was already a partier and an electronic music buff, so I thought why don’t I try my hand at thinking about the cultural impact of nightlife. I was already going out anyway because it interests me on the level of the everyday. But no matter how much a person knows, even say a famous sociologist like Pierre Bourdieu, I don’t think it’s possible to apply sociological theory to nightlife, but you can make important ethnographic observations and develop theories from nightlife.

You’re writing a PhD thesis about how people use glamour in everyday life. How did you come up with that topic?

Well, it all starts with my grandmother. I grew up as the only boy surrounded by a bunch of fierce divas. My grandmother and her sisters, so my great aunts I guess, would always get dressed up to the hilt to go out to the casinos (“the boat”), to church or to a concert I was in, and especially for big family parties. I’m talking rhinestones, sequins, feathers, heels, wigs—they were always taking it there. I just saw my great aunt Mildred not too long ago at a family thing, and she was serving a tight fitted leather dress with peak shoulder pads, black stilettos, huge gold door knocker earrings, fishnet stockings, and a head full of curly, teased out hair. I said, “You better work 65, darling.” So I was fascinated by and curious about why they got dressed this way. Then I realized that being gaudy and fabulous allowed people to imagine their own place in the world, and on their own terms—just the way the club kids did.

Does your recent article about Tina Turner and her use of “fierceness” deal with similar issues?

I’m all about fierceness right now because it’s the subject of the book I’m starting as soon as I finish the dissertation this summer. I’m interested in fierceness as the taking of space—visually, sonically, and physically. I think this fierceness pushes the envelope by creating an idealized space in real time, right now. Tina, Grace Jones, Marie Antoinette, Sharon Needles, the club kids—these are some fierce queens. So with the Tina article, I talk about how Tina uses fierceness in her live performances and what it means that certain subcultural groups (women and gays of color in particular) are prone to use fierceness as a strategy of self-assertion.

Nightlife, Tina Turner, fierceness—it seems like you study nontraditional things. How are you able to do research like this?

You know, I went for the Ph.D. because I want to write intelligent books about popular culture for a mass audience. There are plenty of people who are interested in the Medieval period or in 17th century literature. And that stuff is great. But there are not enough people thinking seriously about pop culture. I’ve been writing about pop culture for a long time—I have dozens of articles on Thought Catalog, a couple of which were re-posted on Jezebel. I’ve had a long running column at Russ Smith’s online web magazine Splice Today, and sometimes I get to do some amazing freelance work for Interview. The point is, I don’t see why a scholar can’t write across multiple platforms and about pop culture. I remember one time I pitched an article to a magazine and they told me my tone was too scholarly, then I submitted a different article to an academic journal and they told me my tone was too pop-y. A lot of academics don’t really like popular  culture, but I do. If I wasn’t in a Ph.D. program I would probably be in a band and working at some pop cultural or fashion magazine anyway, so why not combine all of my interests? I see myself as an interpreter of cultural zeitgeists, and that means taking what I see and translating it for a mass audience so we can better understand the sensuality of the human experience. The other thing is that understanding cultural zeitgeists—this is what turns people on nowadays. The iPod generation wants to understand the popocracy.

SL) But does someone who merely studies nightlife know more than, say, a club promoter or a business person directly involved with the industry?

MM) Those of us who study the history and culture of nightlife are interested in broad cultural practices and what they reveal about, say, Americanness. For instance, the rise of the nightclub as a distinct cultural form in the early 1920s did much to shift American cultural values away from the sterility and staidness of the Victorian period. Studying nightlife is really to study American cultural history and the formation of subcultures. It’s also the study of law and how people respond to, wholly reject, or dance around laws.

SL) Could there be a program or a study that explained flow, service, and the science of nightclubs? Could nightlife be programmed?

MM) That’s a tough question, because some of the best nightclubs in the history of nightlife were quite carefully and specifically designed. In the early 20th century, a restaurant like Murray’s Roman Gardens was designed specifically to lift people from the 1900s in New York City to a villa in Pompeii. It had a dramatic interior that reproduced a Roman garden. Or a place like Studio 54 that worked partially because of the way Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager designed the space with the dance floor on the stage—“because everyone has always wanted to be on the stage!”—and calculatedly courted the media and celebrities, or even a place today like the Boom Boom Room with its specific, glamorous, Old-Hollywood feel and amazing views. The design of the space definitely impacts how people will experience. So I think it’s possible to have a calculated approach to a night scene, like imagining things that will make it “hot” whether that’s the right  DJ or promoter or venue or theme. But I don’t think that devising a program and crunching some numbers would necessarily spit out a hot night scene. But nightlife is also about people, let’s not forget. Vogue balls are some of the most ribald parties I’ve been to, and very often these things take place in community centers or just any old bland space. But it’s what happens in the space once the people get there—the way they take space—that enlivens it. 

So then what do you see as the top points or universal truths of nightlife?

When you look at nightlife and urban amusements at any point in history, in any location, you’ll notice a couple things. One is that everybody parties—birthday parties, happy hours, proms, senior dances, art opening receptions, wrap parties, house warming parties, red carpet events, live music concerts. I don’t think anyone is immune to a good party. The other thing is that people say nightlife is about escapism or wild abandon, but I would say it’s also about community. It’s a coming together of like minds. We might be coming together for music and a great DJ, or we might be looking to hook up with a specific kind of person we know goes to this kind of place, or else we might just want to be around people who are into what we are into whether that’s art or music or sports. This coming together around a single thing pries open conversations because all of a sudden you now have something in common with almost everyone sharing the room with  you.

So the ability to connect with people is different in a club than on the street?

Absolutely. People go out because they want to be social, but we are all socially inept in some way. Music is one important tool in making us feel less stupid. You can nervously make eye contact with the guy you want to dance with or who you think is cute because, well, what else are you supposed to do with your eyes while you’re dancing? Maybe the beat is so hot and you’re really into it and you know all the words to the song, and you share this feeling with others dancing around you through eye contact, close touch, even accidental touching that becomes you dancing with the person next to you. Dancing is a primal mating ritual. Without words, the communication is almost  totally non verbal and yet incredibly specific. Just think about the ways you might clue someone in that you want to dance with them. It’s easier to break the ice on the dance floor than any place else.

What are the other things you’ve observed about nightlife?

You’ll see that almost all hot creative fads, art movements, and anything tapping into the zeitgeist emerges around or has a night scene. The Abstract Expressionists had The Cedar Tavern, Warhol’s people had The Factory, downtown heads had Max’s Kansas City and The Mudd Club, and on and on. This just shows that nightlife also impacts creativity because it harnesses very sensual experiences. It’s in the space of the bar, club or on the dance floor where we feel the most human.

Do you think nightlife has the power to push social boundaries?

This is so important. Especially when times are tough or when a particularly conservative ideology tries to clamp down on freedom.  All conservatism does is inspire people to imagine other, more creative and clandestine ways around the law. The U.S. government tried Prohibition—and look at how successful that was! Or think about the Swing Kids in Nazi Germany who dressed weird and were listening to hot music in underground, private quarters—against the law. A conservative ideology is in place does not mean that people won’t find other ways to express themselves. There’s always a way, and here’s a little secret: creative movements are often born as a pushback against conservatism. So the more restrictive things are, the more they are just adding fuel to the fire if you ask me.

Where do you like to go out?

I go to a ton of live music shows. It seems like I live in the The Highline Ballroom, the Music Hall of Williamsburg or Terminal 5. I always go see my favorite people—Ladytron, Patrick Wolf, Santigold and SSION. But other than live shows I’ve always loved Le Bain and the Boom Boom Room at The Standard. Le Baron is great. My friend Simonez Wolf does these awesome pop up parties, and I like. Anything that Susanne Bartsch attaches her name to, I’m right there in a sequin catsuit. My Chiffon Is Wet at Eastern Bloc, Sugarland, Metropolitan, Hanky Panky at Webster Hall, and the SPANK and XANADUDE Brooklyn loft parties. Vogue balls. The best party I’ve been to though is hands down RHONDA in Los Angeles. I like parties with good electronic/indie music and people in wacky costumes, where there are gay people, straight people, artists, businessmen, models, people serving Marie Antoinette-in-Avatar on vacation in the year 3000. It turns the club experience  into something quite cinematic.

Now that you study nightlife, do you find yourself getting annoyed at certain clubs when you go out?

Sometimes I walk into a place and want to leave immediately. Maybe the music isn’t what I’m looking for, or the scene isn’t right. My biggest pet peeve, though, is when I go to a club and the DJ is playing all Top 40. Don’t get me wrong—I love me some Beyoncé and Gaga like any other queen, but I do not go out to hear the radio!

It sounds like you know what you like or what experiences you want from nightlife. How did you figure that out?

I’d just arrived at Yale from Ann Arbor, Michigan and I was excited to have New York in my backyard. As an undergraduate I remember reading this short story about a young gay dude who spent time away from Yale on the weekends to explore the New York gay scene, and he described taking the last train from Grand Central back to New Haven. I got into the symbolism of that journey. Let me tell you, I’ve been on that train many, many times. Up until then I just went to the standard gay clubs because I didn’t know what else there was. Gay people go to gay clubs period, I thought. But then my friend Casey told me about this party called MisShapes at Don Hill’s, this “it” party he’d read about in a fashion magazine. So I was like, Okay, let’s give it a shot. When we got to the front of the line Thomas the doorman let us in free despite the $10 cover. So already I felt cool for going to the “it” party for free.

But it is what was inside that turned me on. I was completely astonished, totally floored. I had never seen people dress in such outrageous costumes. I had never seen straight people at a club with gay people—especially not straight dudes. Speaking of which, I had never made out with a guy who was claimed he straight and had his girlfriend dancing next to him as proof. And most of all, I had never heard that kind of music. I didn’t know about Peaches or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or the B-52s. I went freaking bananas. Everything I thought I understood got inverted. And like that I was sort of baptized—it completely expanded my sensibility and what I liked in terms of nightlife.

How does Brooklyn nightlife compare to Manhattan?

I live in “Burgpoint”—right on the cusp of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. In the last three years alone I’ve seen a number of restaurants and clubs and bars open up within a one-block radius of my apartment. I’m in walking distance to Metropolitan, Sugarland, the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and Spritzenhaus, plus any number of hole in the wall-y bars. The thing is, everybody is in or coming to Brooklyn now, and if you don’t believe me, get into the L train at Union Square at midnight on a Saturday night and count the number of people getting out at Bedford. Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, even Gowanus, this is where things are popping off because all the young creatives live in Brooklyn. “Brooklyn” has now become a brand, and I remember Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz saying how in the creative world, no place is hotter than Brooklyn.

Most common misconception of nightlife:

That everybody who goes out is an alcoholic, drug-taking heathen with no morals. This is an idea that has long been associated with nightlife because night cultures are easily linked to hedonism.  Early 20th century socialites like Eugenia Kelly and Ellin Mackay made the news because they partied hard, and Eugenia partied so much that her mother put out a warrant for her arrest to stop her! There’s such an anxiety around nightlife and immorality that my aunt Jackie, who is super religious, used to tell my cousin and I whenever we would leave the house anytime after sunset, no matter where we were actually going, she would lean in and say, “Now look: don’t ya’ll be going to them clubs. That’s the devil’s house.”