Yes, yes, partying is an escape from reality but it's also a play space, a way to work out the anxieties of the world by fooling with your identity, a place to push the boundaries of society into a personal utopia.
To me, underground nightlife can also be a fascinatingly warped mirror of the problems facing the world, its trends the raw expression of deep-seated angst. As W. consolidated his political power in the early '00s, nightlife fashions and music (and drugs) returned to the tastes of the Reagan and Thatcher '80s, when angular pop and cold synths were a loud rebuke to false sincerity and hubris. The recent explosion of pre-AIDS-era disco and imagery in many gay clubs may be an unconscious wish to transport ourselves to the time before the Republicans' disastrous "morning in America." And the vibrant local hyphy scene is based on auto sideshows: literally wasting gas (use it while you got it!). Now, well into W.'s second term, we're reliving the rococo styles of Bush the Elder without irony. Dance floors are looking like a punk rock Cosby Show, and I'm into it.
But that's all theoretical musing. The most important thing about nightlife is community, whether you're a full-time club kid or just going out for a drink after work with your friends. You want to be around other people, to not feel so alone in this crazy world, to make a connection. You walk into a bar, and suddenly you're in a minisociety, one you hope you can handle better than society at large.
Can this community make a difference? Sure. The nightlife community, gay and straight, was instrumental in the fight against AIDS (and still is). It banded together to defeat the antirave legislation of the early '00s. Tons of parties raise money for good causes. Currently, party-oriented groups such as the League of Pissed Off Voters (sf.indyvoter.org), which reaches out to young people through DJ events, and the SF Party Party (www.sfpartyparty.com), which influences local politics by combining education with clubbing, are doing their best to change the world.
"People on the left these days seem to think that denying themselves pleasure is the only way to take back the government. The early energy of protest against Bush has turned into a kind of self-punishment. That's so dry and boring and ultimately useless," says Dr. Stephen Duncombe, editor of the Cultural Resistance Reader and author of the new book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. I called him because I wanted to talk about the guilt some of us feel about partying when the world's going to shit. He's been a prime mover in theatrical resistance groups such as Reclaim the Streets, the Lower East Side Collective, and the utterly fabulous Billionaires for Bush. (He's also kind of cute in a young-professor-at-NYU way.)
"We should be using the positive energy of nightlife to show people that politics can be both entertaining and transformational," he continues. "Politics should be a fun, interactive spectacle, like the kind nightlife provides. No one wants to get involved with something if it seems like more work."
Yet still I worry. What would life be like if the war were here? What if I were a gay Iraqi? I trolled the Internet gay hookup sites to find a gay Iraqi to talk to about it. All I could find at first were half-naked American soldiers stationed in the Middle East (we are everywhere!). I eventually came upon a Western-educated gay Iraqi refugee living in Jordan who identified himself as Arje. He said I was being foolish. "Go out and have fun," he replied when I wrote that I didn't feel like partying off the weight of the world. "Have a dance for me."