By Gamal Hennessy and Alysse Jordan
The type of nightlife venues in any given city is a reflection of both its population and the experiences that appeal to various demographic groups within that population. As populations and tastes change, nightlife culture changes with it.
- In the 19th and 20th centuries, New York had a large number of Irish Pubs because a significant proportion of the immigrant community sought to recreate the public house culture of Ireland. Now, the few remaining Irish Bars are facing the prospect of becoming "less Irish" if they want to survive (See Beyond Guinness, More New York Pubs Change with the Times), but experts within the Irish community see this as a natural and desired evolution. (See Death of the Old Irish Pub No Great Loss)
- Live music and dancing dominated most nightlife spaces until the rise of recorded music and the birth of the DJ (See Last Night a DJ Saved My Life). Now the number of live music venues has dwindled and dancing is almost exclusively tied to a DJ set. (See You Better Work). As disco, hip hop, and house became more popular and often cheaper for clubs to offer, live music had to adapt to a new reality.
Nightlife culture in New York City still maintains a wide diversity in terms of the types of venues and the experiences offered, but those venues will come and go depending on who lives in the area and what they want.
The Sexual Connection
Nightlife exists in large part as a sexual playground. Much of the behavior, fashion, and entertainment we engage with in nightlife is designed to attract, simulate, and stimulate sexual expression. (See Seize the Night) It is a space we use to project our sexual identities and expose ourselves to different and alternative social and cultural identities. Historically, nightlife is also a place where people can experiment or redefine their sexual expression. If we remove the sexual element from nightlife culture, we are left with pure consumption and artistic performances stripped of their primal energy.
But how does nightlife change as modern sexual rituals evolve? Online and mobile dating are not universal methods of finding sexual or relationship partners, but the percentage of people willing to use online dating continues to rise (See Five Facts About Online Dating). Websites like Match.com or apps like Tinder provide experiences that are seen by many as less stressful and more efficient than the somewhat random connections available in a nightlife setting. But what does nightlife lose as these tools become more popular? It will remain a social space for online connections to interact offline, but it may lose its appeal as a preferred or primary space for sexual expression.
The more profound impact may be more likely to emerge from social trends and legal reform than from new technologies. In previous decades, the LGBT community used nightlife as a primary social and recreational outlet. Because gay, lesbian, and gender-nonconforming people were often victimized or rejected by mainstream society, nightlife served as a safer haven in which to connect with like-minded people and shed their closested personas for a few hours. Queer individuals scattered around the country and around the world flocked to nightlife hubs like New York and Los Angeles to find community among people who might accept them when their families didn't. The LGBT community, along with marginalized Black and Latino communities, invested so much energy and resources into nightlife that they came to develop and define much of the nightlife culture that mainstream society later adopted. Nightlife spaces also had an impact on many changes in the legal and social standing of the LGBT community although those changes are still in a state of flux. (See Did Marriage Equality Start with Nightlife?)
When the queer community no longer needs nightlife as a primary meeting space, will they continue to invest the same time and energy in that aspect of their culture? As acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships grows in mainstream society and people feel less of a need to repress their gender and sexual identities, will that vital energy be diluted in nightlife? If more LGBT-identified people can find support in their own families and communities, how many of them will be willing to deal with the expense and stress of moving to New York City? How many of them will stay once they get here?
Change, Diversity and Evolution
Current evidence suggests that queer nightlife is evolving with the times. Like many other subcultures of nightlife, modern queer spaces are less about a megaclub experience that try to cater to every mood and taste and more about a diverse array of spaces that fit specific moods and niches that exist within the queer nightlife spectrum (See Gay Nightlife Is Dead, Long Live Gay Nightlife). This ability to adapt is a key aspect of nightlife culture that continues to defy pronouncements of its demise (See New York Nightlife is Doing Exactly What It Needs to Do).
In the wake of this year’s Pride celebration, it is fitting to look at how changes in society and technology create changes in the communities that shape nightlife culture. I'm not suggesting that anyone in the LGBT community, or any other community, has some kind of moral responsibility to nurture and cultivate nightlife culture at the expense of their personal goals and aspirations. I am suggesting that general changes in society will have a specific impact on nightlife. Change is inevitable and in many cases desirable. The nostalgia that is often connected to prior nightlife periods often ignores or glosses over the negative circumstances that created that scene. We can't go back to those eras without giving up our technology or the legal and social gains of the past four decades.