The Definition of Nightlife Culture


By Gamal Hennessy

(Note: This article has been modified from the upcoming book: Seize the Night)

People don’t often associate the words “nightlife” and “culture”. At first glance, the two ideas don’t have anything in common. But when you take a moment to consider it you’ll see that nightlife has a direct relationship to and a profound impact on all aspects of our wider culture.

Before we can look at the ways nightlife influences culture, it would probably help to know what we’re talking about when we use the word “culture” since it is a word that has a variety of meanings and value judgments embedded in it. Once we know what culture is, then it will be easier to determine if and how nightlife offers any substantial contributions to it. We already know that nightlife means the environment of bars, clubs and lounges, so we don’t have to spend too much time on that.

I found several definitions of culture online. While they are all similar, each one offers a slightly different perspective for analysis. Culture has been defined as…

  • Socially transmitted behavior, art, beliefs and institutions.
  • The patterns and traits considered to be the expression of a period, class or community.
  • Intellectual and artistic activity and the works produced by it.
    Manifested in activity such as music, literature, lifestyle, food, painting, sculpture, theater and film.
  • A set of material, intellectual and emotional features of a society or a societal group including art, literature, lifestyles and values.

If we look at nightlife through the prism of any one of these definitions, it is not difficult to see how this environment fits within the cultural landscape. Nightlife has its own behavior, art, beliefs and institutions that are distinct to our community. Our patterns of behavior express the changing times we live in as well as our social class. Nightlife is an abundant source of artistic activity that manifests itself in the music, drink, food, interior design, fashion and lifestyles of our community. Finally, nightlife represents a societal group that has its own values, its own emotions and its own perspective. Nightlife as a distinct aspect of modern culture is readily apparent to anyone who actually takes the time to observe it. As we separate nightlife into its individual elements, the components of each of these definitions will become clear.

There is another definition of culture that needs to be addressed before we talk about nightlife culture. Matthew Arnold was quoted as saying that culture is “the best that has been thought or said.” This definition helps create a divisive split into two forms of culture; highbrow culture and lowbrow culture. There are those who see highbrow culture as museum quality art and classical music and lowbrow or pop culture as everything else; anything that has mass appeal. Basically, under this paradigm, self proclaimed cultural warriors see highbrow culture as a treasure worthy of protection and respect and lowbrow culture as the dregs of society, worthy only of disdain and ridicule.

The problem with this definition is the subjective nature of its assertion. The first question that we ask when faced with Arnold’s definition is what constitutes the best and more importantly, who exactly decides what is best? The subtle implication is that some, mostly European, cultural movements are intrinsically better than others. Attacks on lower forms of culture can be seen as attacks on diversity and individual choice. It is interesting to note that some aspects of nightlife culture, especially music are non European in origin. Does the fact that nightlife serves as a haven for minorities, homosexuals, and progressives make it easier to reject nightlife culture as viable. Does it make it easy for the cultural warriors to deny that nightlife culture even exists?

It is important to recognize that different cultures cannot be placed on a linear scale and compared against each other as “more” or “less” cultured. Non-classical, non European art, lifestyles and values do not represent less culture. They represent a different kind of culture. A Zulu tribesman is no less cultured than an Eskimo, who isn’t less cultured than an Irish Catholic who isn’t less cultured than a ballerina who is not less cultured than a Goth. Each has, to a different degree, all of the traits found in the definitions of culture on the previous page. Any assertion that alternative cultures are somehow less worthy of appreciation and respect is narrow-minded, self centered and xenophobic. Once we understand that, we can understand that nightlife culture has just as much to add to our society as any other culture.

Have fun.
Gamal