How We Fight Out of This
Confronting the ghosts, the energy and the potential reward at 2 GIGS: Olivia Rodrigo @ Radio City Music Hall (April 27) + The Loft @ Ukrainian National Home (May 29)
With the exception of the first couple of lockdown months in Spring of 2020, I never stopped going to what I call live gigs. Big bands at marches. DJ dance parties on cordoned-off blocks. Improvised performances on street-corners and rooftops. New venues/bars that reconfigured their “covid cafes” and backyards into stages. Newly opened DIY spaces with flat door rates, mask and BYOB policies, places that have become crucial to the playing of new music. (I even wrote a weekly column about these “shows” last summer.) All were busy being born in Brooklyn during the first 18 months of the Pandemic Era, and if they mostly did not address the business side of live music, they did speak deeply to musickers for whom live music is a kind of lifeblood. But these types of gigs speak to the few not the many—not all music lovers are that obsessed, nor throw so much social caution to the wind, nor find enough interest in hearing three radical noise musicians trade squalls in a park accompanied by a poet to call it a “performance.” Which is to say that, for live music to retain its broader cultural power, it was always important how more popular events—in established settings, with widely accepted rituals (seats or tickets, for instance)—reconstituted themselves into experiences where bigger audiences could feel music in a way that also spoke to the primal feelings of the fucking mess we’re living through.
Because that’s one of the powers that live music possesses: it brings the right therapeutic reflection on the ugly beauty that surrounds us. Invoke the past, place us in the here and now, then open up future possibilities by remapping the brain activity. Music also recognizes that we all have differing needs inside our individual fractures, that each discrete set of listeners deserves their own version of “medicine.” And because our society continues its great death-spiral towards a more firm embrace of cruelty and inequality, the potency required of that musical salve must grow as well. Regardless of the ceremonial shape a gig takes; this does not feel like a time for subtle learnings. Which brings me to two very different but very much “establishment” gigs I’ve had the pleasure to attend recently, and which in their own ways clearly presented how music continues to supply the energy and inspiration required to get past the self-destructive sameness of our current moment, and to address the prospects of confronting Babylon on the way towards Zion.
It may come as no surprise that one of those gigs was the first Loft party in over two years—the prior one, The Loft’s 50th birthday, having taken place just a couple of weeks before New York initiated its lockdown. But maybe you shouldn’t be startled to read that the other was pop-punk sensation Olivia Rodrigo’s opening night at Radio City Music Hall. One ran on the energy of earned, measured survival, while the other channeled a pent-up explosion of youthful possibility; yet both demanded that the participating musickers give completely over to feeling, by choice or circumstance, and confront the future.
Considering what we’ve all been going through the last couple of years, the first and cruelest question posed before The Loft, a party that basically helped define contemporary DJ dance culture and which some of the aging regulars have been attending since the Ford and Carter administrations, was if everybody made it safely through the first two years of the pandemic. That question though is also par for the course for this party’s mindset. Notions of mortality have been part of The Loft’s purview since the beginning: the invite to the first happening in 1970 was a postcard with an image of Dali’s melting clock, and a declaration that “Love Saves the Day,” spelling out clearly (if metaphorically) that redemption is always required, and that human time ends. This gathering started for and by predominantly gay men outlasted the early years of the AIDS plague. Records played here aren’t mixed into one another by the selecting DJs, but rotate until the final note. It is in other words partly a temple of “Death Disco”—not the ghoulish, nihilist goth ideal, instead embracing conclusion as a part of the ultimate rhythm. It’s a thing always worth thinking about when dancing at The Loft, where many attendees have lived so much more life than even a GenX schlub such as I, and continue to come back as a truly fulfilling way of marking time. It was thus heartening to see so many of the elders I’ve gotten to know over the last 15 years still there, even if a little worse for the wear. (Though the lack of masks was disconcerting on the night, and has in retrospect seemed foolhardy when hearing about folks testing positive afterwards. FTR: Mrs. Jones and I wore ours the entire time.)
The other obvious, present weight on the party came from the location The Loft’s been held in for almost two decades. The Ukrainian National Home qualifies as an old-school East Village staple, opened in 1958 inside a building that was itself one of downtown Manhattan's original Jewish-gangster, jazz-dance temples, The Stuyvesant Casino. Since late February, it’s taken on an explicitly symbolic role: one of the primary NYC sites representing a long-settled community and people whose homeland was now under attack. This connection between The Loft and Ukraine is mostly circumstantial—but fate is what and where you make it, and the longer the connection persists, the less chance is a factor. The connection just is. This spacious, wood-paneled mini-ballroom was where The Loft founder David Mancuso brought his party when, after three-decades-plus, throwing it in his own home became untenable. Since the mid-2000s, this hall has been transformed into one of New York dance music’s foundational safe-spaces; and just as the people who gather there require an invite, or to be brought by friends, the ideals represented there are likewise hand-picked to complement a specific, expansive point of view. (Real world friction isn’t always left at the door, but invoked primarily by a selector’s music choices.) In this case though, the outside world’s intrusion was absolute, and the Home’s national associations unavoidable. So The Loft’s embrace of a side in the conflict—all the blue and yellow balloons and glow sticks, Edwin Starr’s “War” an early record played by the night’s selector, Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy—became another reminder that the best of what passes for entertainment includes a conscious reflection of the world outside.
The Loft’s continuous existence, then, is an occasion to consider exactly what helps get us through the darkest part of the night. It’s now a trusted institution based not on traditional tribal affiliations, but shared interests and affirmations. It’s also a dance party of different “clans,” with their individual belief systems, interpretations, and critiques of things seen, sounds heard, ways of medicating the emotional mosquito pricks which keep gnawing, and celebrating the subconscious breakthroughs that help keep us oscillating wildly. On the surface, the proceedings are guided by a set of mostly familiar songs (“Loft classics”) that keep the barely R-rated hedonism of the dance moving. But when the going heats up, what begins to guide this ceremony (often critiqued as disco nostalgia for an era that an increasing percentage of these dancers never lived through) is the group-mind of a crowd; its collective receptors having become, for 6-8 hours, equally sensitive and pointed in a similar direction. The intimate changes that take place during the motion and the stillness of this period are unquantifiable. Imagine how hard it is, as an adult, to find yourself in a community where all members are attentively engaging in the same sermon. The Loft is part church, part sporting event, but with no counter-denomination, or preferred resolution. You participate in its moment with every ounce of strength, because the energy always returns — if not immediately, then as a strategic reserve. The good fuel.
The Loft is not the only classic party where you see people dancing their asses off for an extended period of time, where the back-and-forths between record-selectors, song-selections, and dancers’ feelings begins to feel like telekinesis, and the whole thing rises beyond easy understanding. But the length of its track record is incomparable, especially in New York. Everybody in the room trusts what’s coming — you’ve come to The Loft to receive it, after all — even though you have no idea what form it will arrive in, as “Strings of Life” or “It’s Alright, I feel It” or “Whole Lotta Love” and an explosion of sorts happens. Or maybe a series of explosions. Afterwards, for the rest of the night, everything changes — the flow of the party, the obviousness of the next song, the part you play in the world. Catching my breath this time round, I was thinking that the breakthrough comes because of the long-time trust in the ritual, in your fellow participants, and in the assuredness of the resulting grace. Pretty much every adult in that room is mindful of the hardships lying on the other side of our shared moment; all are scarred survivors of similar, familiar and newfound machinations found in the American nightmare, the planetary one, or just their own personal hell. But for a few hours, amongst the 500 or so kin, they embrace the energy they collectively contributed to creating and sustaining. In that moment, lies at least a kernel of the answer to survival. Individual, definitely — society’s, potentially.
I don’t think that the overwhelmingly young female and femme-identifying crowd that entered Radio City Music Hall on a rainy Tuesday in late April, had such grand premonitions or aspirations. Which isn’t to say that they were not learned in the world’s ways, for what has the past 28 months (and counting) been if not a kind of lesson that’ll require a lifetime of processing. Judging from most of the wide-eyed gazes, overheard small-talk, and their (perceived) median age, seeing pop-punk sensation Olivia Rodrigo on one of the world’s most famous stages was a New Experience! Whether it was the rite of a First Concert, or just making it out of quarantine into a crowd this size, and thus putting themselves and their chaperones in a new sort of danger. (Though, in fairness, there was a vacc check at the Radio City doors, and the percentage of those masked was actually seemed greater than at The Loft.) The pre-show din was that of a coming-out party, a special event that mattered desperately in a way most concerts do not. When was the last time you’ve been in a room where the pent-up energy of a huge gathering of teenage girls feeds the proceedings? Having bore witness to heartthrobs and pop stars being drowned out by a million adoring squeals repeatedly over the past 30 years, I can safely say I’ve never beheld a current like the one which lit up Radio City that night.
Some of this is undoubtedly on Rodrigo, whose work speaks to this audience, at this moment, in a way that most of her contemporaries doesn’t — or maybe even can’t. Some of the Olivia formula is obvious in the way of all big American pop culture nowadays: A crowning route from Disney kid to viral TikTok sensation to pop star, combined with a talented, writerly embrace of rite-of-passage tropes — the “punk rock ‘no!’,” the teenage break-up song — spiced by a timely aesthetic recognition of grunge and pop-punk just as ‘90s nostalgia makes its way back into the feed. Yet these lowest-common-denominators can’t account for the details (performance, songcraft, perspective) that add to Rodrigo’s turn as a trusted troubadour for throngs of young women graduating elementary and middle schools wearing N95s, proficient in many types of lockdowns before puberty, hyper-screen-stimulated, and old enough to know they’re on-the-verge of losing generational rights. We all got it bad, liberal parents exhort, but pity the teenage girls.
Rodrigo goes one better, letting them roar in a way that Katy Perry hired a team of Swedish producers to help her imagine. Barely older than most of her fans but co-writing the entirety of the debut album Sour with producer Daniel Nigro, Olivia curses like a sailor, sneakily calls out oppressive social systems and does the hard lyrical lifts with the guile of a Nashville veteran (which she kind of is, in Gladwellian terms). All without lobbying for critical A’s in authenticity or serious artistry, and generally sneaking under the rockist radar. Those who continue to dismiss this shit as mere kiddie-pop can go right ahead. But when Rodrigo saturates those break-up songs with a breadth of experience that emotionally illustrates what she’s already lived; when one of the emotions is a taut expression of “sorrow” at a time when unprecedented number of people are grieving, while an equally unprecedented number choose to regard that grief as fabrication; and then you hear a ‘tween girl express that grief at the top of her lungs because all she’s doing is singing along to what was the #1 song in the country for eight weeks; then “you said forever, now I drive alone past your street” transgresses the simplicity ascribed to it by a society which calls pop “unserious” or “apolitical.” Consciously or un-, most of those gathered at Radio City dove into this ocean of feeling Olivia led them to along pop’s neon-bright highway. So their group-mind expression of “Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” hits in many different ways. And OMG is it loud!
Of course the only reason I was there is that I am one of those liberal parents. (Shout-out to the bevy of accompanying fathers, especially the dude in an iron-on “Dads for Olivia” tee.) And my 11 year-old brought their best friend, and I brought Mrs. Jones because we’d all been singing along to every song on Sour for over a year, crying sometimes, making up our own lyrical asides, asking “What does that line mean to you?” For our family, these simple, catchy tunes provided lungfuls of the sentient culture, even as so much of the world outside the door grew increasingly asphyxiated — the Mrs. and I old-cynic enough to recognize the cycles society is stuck in, but trying to parent with at least a spoonful of “you can be the change” insight to keep the child less anxious, and ourselves from crying even more. Here, in this grand hall and away from the recorded album, the performance of these songs and their rapturous reception manifested a response that hinted at what one change to the cycle might feel like. It was confirmation that setting free the angst for 75 minutes at the top of your voice, of joining a chorus of teenage peers you’ll never personally know but might be sharing trenches with for a lifetime, is both immediate reward, and potential source for whatever happens next. Most of the girls here were too young to already start calling it survival, but self-aware enough that it’s more than what currently passes for normal life.
Earlier on the day of The Loft, I’d read a short piece by Joseph Han about the Korean tradition of jesa. It is a way to honor and interact with the spirit world in order to acknowledge “that we live with ghosts every day and that a fulfilling life is one that honors our connection to them, and thus to one another. Our health, and peace, depend on the feasts we can make of memory, the nourishment it provides both the living and the dead; if not, we run the risk of having starved lives, in this [world] and the next.” The piece rang true, familiar. For thousands of years, instilling notions akin to jesa has been central to music’s social purpose—think of all the folk songs and ceremonial dances addressing the dead, often performed by (or, in front of) a gathered crowd, the depth and power of this real-time communally absorbed music providing a universal, spiritual sustenance for just as long. This historical fact is all-too rarely addressed and acknowledged at the moment; instead we’re bogged down in music’s content, critique, and, especially, its capitalization. But that capacity remains, and impossible to subside. The ingrained memories these rhythms and melodies and experiences speak to need not be ancient, just as you are never too young for the lessons embedded in them. It’s all archetype. And when the feelings these sounds reactivate spark your core (soul, essence, whatever you choose to call it), the gulf of time between when you first felt their power to move you and the current moment dissipates indescribably. Heed it truly, and we might just make it.