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New York City Party Culture 1980-83 Conjuncture, Queers, Women with Professor Tim Lawrence

October 26, 2016

by Alessia Palanti, Italian, PhD candidate and 2016-2017 Graduate Fellow

Professor of Cultural Studies and co-director of the Centre for Cultural Studies Research at the University of East London, Tim Lawrence spoke at IRWGS about his most recently published book, Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983.

Prof. Lawrence related a fascinating historical outline of New York City’s party culture from the late 1970s into the 80s, and attributed the forging of queer subcultural communities to New York’s (and the US’s more broadly) socio-economic and political atmosphere. In the 1970s, according to Lawrence, New York City already distinguished itself from other cities musically; but 1980 marked a sharp escalation in creativity resulting from the interaction of dance and musical cultures.

In the late 1970s, New York City was considered a “cesspit,” an “imperfect paradise,” and hub for “dysfunctional dread.” Lawrence described how New York had the highest concentration of queer people, and diverse cultures, and became a more accessible nexus for artists, largely due to its affordability. Deindustrialization in the 1980s, New York’s dire economic condition, and the flight of the white middle class into surrounding suburbs left the post-industrial generation in New York to live, socialize, collaborate and forge a mix of music, visual arts, and performance that came to define the city in this period.  New York, as Lawrence put it, “was like Halloween every night”; there was an explosion of activity and the blossoming of a “post-disco, post-punk, and yet to be named hip-hop scene.” Taking place in large garage spaces, parties lasted as long as 18 hours and were sensorially immersive environments whose goals were to foster transformation and exploration. Dance parties were staged 6-7 nights per week and involved a combination of live bands, DJs, screenings, and immersive happenings. In this way, the party was akin to a gallery, a multi-sensorial museum space. Unique to these scenes was also the constant movement between musicians and visual artists who would contribute to one another’s arts—paradigmatic of the party scene’s collaborative bedrock.

Lawrence claimed that queers of color were crucial to the creation of New York’s party culture, in fact, alienating white gay men who had dominated those spaces during the disco era. While personal antagonisms occasionally poison the atmosphere—for example between East and West Villages, or Uptown and Downtown scenes—it generally was all about openness and collaboration, where the geographically and socially polarized backgrounds of white suburban “refugees” and people of color from the Bronx were no grounds for the curtailment of DIY art collaborations. DJs facilitated such collaborations by crossing musical genres throughout an event, sticking by their commitment to creating cross-cultural communication via music.

In 1983, the end-bracket year of Lawrence’s study, the conditions that enabled the party culture scene shifted dramatically. The AIDS virus reached epidemic proportions, encouraging already inward-looking groups of dancers to become more closed, shifting their music choices—for example, ceasing to play African American music in 1984—facilitating the Reagan Era’s agenda to shut down queer party cultures. A number of phenomena, including the corporate reentry into New York City’s music market, and intensifying regulation of party spaces, trumped the spontaneity and unity upon which the party culture was based, and creativity became evermore tied to consumerism.

The music scene is often overlooked by historians, and Lawrence’s project offers an exhaustive and captivating cultural perspective. For Lawrence,1980s New York gives us a sense of a city’s potential, of the ways in which communities and cultures can flourish under different social organizations.  As Lawrence put it in closing, “the future will always be ours to make.”