What Does the Post-Pandemic Party Look Like?

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“When a plane takes off, there’s a moment when the pilot decides that the speed is right, he pulls back, and—boom!—you leave the ground,” the late David Mancuso, host of New York City’s seminal private dance party the Loft, once told me about his first “Love Saves the Day” party, held on Valentine’s Day 1970 in downtown Manhattan. “The party was like that. There was a point at which it just went up.”

Back in the early ’70s, as DJ-led party culture took root and multiplied in NYC, the only traveling of significance occurred on the dance floor, with Mancuso leading the way as he shaped the Loft into dance culture’s first and most advanced utopian space. DJs would take partygoers on a marathon journey that combined music, dance, communal ecstasy, and, for the many who fancied, some blotter acid. Partying was local, traveling was done on foot or by subway, and the destination was unknown.

The idea that a party might happen at the end of a plane journey emerged tentatively during the second half of the ’70s, when a cluster of New York DJs were offered residencies in Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK. Dancers started to make the kind of exotic, transatlantic clubbing trips that had previously been the preserve of the wealthier “jetset” class after Laker Airways launched its “no-frills” low-cost flights from London to JFK in 1977. “I followed the music from the moment I boarded a Freddie Laker flight to NYC,” recalls north-of-England party aficionado Jimmy the Dancer. “It got me into Studio 54, a few Lofts, and the Paradise Garage, to name a few.”

Transatlantic traveling intensified during the second half of the ’80s as dancers began to make pilgrimage-style trips to New York’s cutting-edge venues, principally the Paradise Garage and Bruce Mailman’s Saint. As Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Ibiza, London, and Tokyo emerged as hotspots for global party culture during the late ’80s and ’90s, house and techno DJs from the US learned that they were often more loved abroad than at home—and could earn more money there, too.

Party culture’s air miles debit increased exponentially in the years running up to 2020, as promoters increasingly took to booking DJs according to the size of their Instagram following, and partygoers showed a growing readiness to fly to club events and festivals held in faraway cities, fields, beach resorts, and stretches of desert. They didn’t even need to book a room if they partied all night before returning on a flight the next morning.

Concerns about the inflated fees being paid to DJs to perform at mega-events emerged before the outbreak of COVID-19. “A lot of people in the scene lamented the way headliner/Instagram culture has impacted the smaller end of the clubbing world,” says Andrew Pirie of Melting Pot in Glasgow. “Clubs that, for decades, oper-ated successfully with strong residents and some guests found that things became a lot tougher in the last few years. Clubs with a capacity of 500 couldn’t afford the guests that would enable them to hit capacity, and those that were affordable could no longer fill the floor.”

COVID-19 reversed these trends as governments across the world responded to the pandemic by introducing restrictions on socializing that have had catastrophic consequences for party culture. DJs found themselves at the vanguard of a class of creative workers whose income from performance has routinely fallen by close to 100 percent. It makes sense that many can’t wait to crank up the decibels (and air miles) once conditions allow. Yet COVID-19 has also provided party organizers with an opportunity to think laterally, and some have found the restrictive conditions to be liberating.

The elimination of the virus in New Zealand along with the ongoing restrictions placed on people entering the country have led to a resurgence in domestic partying. “Promoters have swiftly made stars of local DJs, giving them more exposure and opportunity to shine in the clubs and at festivals,” says New Zealand DJ and producer Christopher Tubbs. “Those DJs, for the most part, have risen to the challenge, giving partygoers those moments that turn nights and shows into folklore. It’s really healthy. The clubs are full, festivals are selling out, and the proceeds are staying in New Zealand and fueling the scene and the economy.”

The environmental benefits that would follow if the world’s tiny proportion of frequent flyers cut down on traveling are also clear. Latest figures show that in 2018 just 1 percent of the world’s population created 50 percent of carbon emissions caused by flying, with the US emitting more carbon from aviation than the next ten countries combined. It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect DJs to reject the international invitations that might help them return to financial health. Yet a sea change is also required if party culture is to honor its early utopian promise.

Questions remain about the future of party culture. “Perhaps COVID will change people’s attitudes to local providers,” adds Pirie. “The public has become a lot more aware that if they don’t use local shops they will go bust. Will this localism feed through to supporting local DJs and promoters?” On the other hand, pre-COVID habits could also make a swift comeback. “After COVID there will be a lot of people that need to make money to pay off debts from lockdown, leading to a more risk-averse booking policy. The big name headliners might even be able to increase their fees further since they will be in greater demand.”

The intensifying challenge of climate change along with the increased value placed on community during the pandemic suggests there will be no simple return to pre-COVID times. “A lot of people here think that globalization is over and that the era of cheap world travel at the drop of a hat is on its way out, too,” says Tubbs. “Many have found the current reality far more optimistic, self-supporting, and profitable than they might have imagined six months ago.”

The desirability of curtailing international arrivals and departures will be questioned by those who value the importance of freedom of movement. Yet the example of New Zealand, along with other countries that have brought the virus under control through closing borders, shines a light on the simple, deep joy that can be found in the organic rituals that shaped dance culture at its inception. This can become partying’s new direction of travel.

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PHOTOGRAPHER DAVIT GIORGADZE

STYLIST CHRISTIAN STEMMLER

HAIR DUSHAN PETROVICH

MAKEUP SUSANNA JONAS

PRODUCTION SASHA BAR-TUR, JANNIS BIRSNER

CASTING GIULIA MASSULLO

TALENT GABRIEL, HITOMI HIGASHI, CHLOE WALDORF, ESRA GÜRBÜZ, MONICA ROJAS GARCIA, KELVIN KILONZO


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