Fashion and Fantasies: A Nightlife Culture Interview with madison moore



Vital Statistics

Name: madison moore

Group Affiliation: Interview Magazine, Thought Catalog, Splice Today, Artspace Underground

Hometown: New York, NY


Latest Project: Trying to finish this damn dissertation!

madison moore thinks critically and creatively about popular culture. A doctoral candidate in American Studies at Yale University, madison writes primarily about fashion, nightlife, and music, and his writing can be read in Interview, Jezebel, Art in America, Thought Catalog as well as on his weekly pop culture column at Splice Today. His dissertation is about how people in the worlds of fashion, nightlife, and music use glamour as a form of cultural critique. He gained public notoriety on the subject of nightlife largely in relation to a self-designed seminar he taught at Yale on Dance Music and Nightlife Culture in New York City.

NCI: A lot of your writing deals with fashion as it relates to American culture. Was it fashion that attracted you to nightlife culture or was it the other way around?

MM: You know, I’m interested in stories, and to my mind there is no greater story than the one a person’s fashion tells. Everybody gets dressed in the morning, and whether we know it or not, how we do it says a lot about who we are or perhaps even more significantly who we want people to think we are.

Whenever I talk to people about the relationship between fashion and nightlife, I always ask the person to think about what is typically the first thing a person does to go out? They get ready, they shave, they wear something new or different, they pull together an outfit—a look. So the question is how will you dress for the theater of nightlife? How will you prepare your body to be visually consumed by a largely anonymous audience? How will you dress to attract people you want to notice you, to get laid if that’s what you’re after (and who isn’t?) ?

I’ve always been a sort of club kid, and my favorite thing about going out at night is the fact that night time is different time—a time to do things we want to do rather than the boring things we have to do. For me, fashion plays a big role in night cultures especially since they are both about fantasy. The kinds of parties I like the most are the ones with the most fashion freaks—men in high heels and corsets, man tits fully out, girls dressed up like a fabulous bootleg Marie-Antoinette, people wearing outrageous wigs or aluminum foil, people serving beekeeper realness. This, for me, is one of the things that makes a nightclub interesting: it really hoists the intensity of the room into a kind of cinematic experience.

NCI: What is it about nightlife culture that attracts so many different types of people?

MM: Well, I’m nervous to talk about a single, monolithic “nightlife culture.” I prefer to call them nightlife cultures because, as a multi-billion dollar industry that’s responsible for a hundred thousand jobs and more than 65 million people every year in this city alone, there are various night worlds and various people who frequent them. There are swingers parties, gay sex parties and sex clubs for people who want to fuck. Some people want the jazz club experience, others want a wine bar. Some want to catch a show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg and go to the after party. Many enjoy an hours long conversation over an equally lengthy dinner. Some people go to a hotel like the Bowery or the W for an after hours cocktail, whereas others can’t wait to walk the categories at vogue balls.

What I’m saying is that there are different ways to do nightlife, and different people participate in it differently depending on what their fantasies are. That’s the key—fantasy. The one thing I think that links all the various night worlds and the pleasure-seekers in them is that everybody wants freedom, action. There’s that Alicia Bridges song, “I Love the Nightlife”—you know it—where she sings joyfully over a saxophone about loving the nightlife because she “wants to live,” she wants some “action,” and I think she leaves it up to us to decide just what she means by “action.” So what brings people out at night? : fantasy, freedom, action, wherever they can find it. 

NCI: Talk about the nightlife culture seminar. What was the reaction that your peers had before it started? What do you think the students expected at the beginning? What do you hope they came away with at the end?

MM: The Dance Music and Nightlife Culture seminar I taught at Yale was probably the most exciting part of my graduate education at Yale. It all started with the dissertation chapter I’m currently working on, which is about fashion and nightlife, and I started thinking about ways to expand that chapter into an entire class. Doing that would also help me see the architecture of the chapter I was about to begin writing. It was a way to introduce students—and myself—to the history of nightlife, and I thought that doing a class on nightlife would ultimately help me write the chapter. I was after how studying nightlife is in fact studying race, class, social issues, gender, sexuality, the law, visual culture—among other things.

The class was awesome, and I have never taught such a captivated audience! Each week was inspiring, and I really believe students responded to my creative teaching methods. Honestly, I think a lot of people (in and outside of the class) thought it was going to be this sort of puff class—you know, one of these classes where you just show up half asleep and get an A. But, no ma’am, I wasn’t having any of that. The subject matter may be fun and I might come to class with spiked shoulder pads on, but don’t make me read you. So the thing is, people still think that the only way to think critically in the humanities with a capital H is to think about old texts written by dead white people. Dead white people are great, and there’s certainly a lot of value in studying them. But there’s equally as much value in what I do, too.

A lot of the critique about my class was on how silly it was, what an easy A it seemed, and why on earth people at Yale, with its hallowed halls and collegiate-gothic architecture, would be studying this. Look, the fact is that thinking about popular culture is hard because everybody just takes it for granted. Everybody thinks pop culture is easy because it’s all surface. But it’s easy to take a single idea and make it overly complicated, which is what a lot of scholars do. It’s hard to take a massive concept and make it easy so that people can understand the world around them. Hard is easy. Easy is hard.

I think my greatest accomplishment with the nightlife seminar was that, over and over, students told me how much taking the class changed their whole perception of the world, not just nightlife. They were able to see and understand the cues of visual culture better than ever before, and some who did come into the class perhaps a bit skeptical realized that, in fact, things are not as easy as they seem.

NCI: Talk about the role nightlife plays in terms of class, race and sexual orientation in America.

MM: This is a huge question, because I would say that nightlife cultures are unfortunately already segmented along the lines of race, class, and sexual orientation. I get really annoyed when I go into a space it’s all the same kind of people. Isn’t that boring? Some straight dudes are terrified of going to gay joints lest they be “hit on,” woe is them. There’s that funny story about Park Slope being nervous about having a hip-hop club (i.e. black people) move into the neighborhood. There are clubs that enforce strict dress codes, which is just another way of racially stereotyping so that certain kinds of “undesirables” don’t get to come in. If you really want to know, I think a club should have gay people and straight people and drag queens and transsexuals and fashion freaks and people who don’t know what the fuck is going on and Wall Street types and men and women and the gay dudes are making out with women and the straight dudes are making out with the gay dudes and the music is ridiculous, and everyone just tosses their inhibitions and roles out the door. You enter the space as a body, not as a preprogrammed black heterosexual male who works on Wall Street, but as a body that wants to consume.

This, I think, was initially the spirit of the Harlem cabaret circuit in the 1920s. Cabarets were small, intimate spaces where all sorts and kinds of people were forced to bump into one another, dine together. It was intimate, and that very intimacy helped to shatter preconceived notions about social groups. The rent parties of Harlem also had that kind of spirit, so did David Mancuso’s loft parties and even a commercial space like Studio 54. I don’t think we see much of that mixing anymore, perhaps not in New York, anyway. Though I did recently go see one of my favorite bands SSION perform at the Highline Ballroom, and it certainly seemed like a very mixed crowd. When I go to some gay clubs in New York (I won’t name names!) I’m amazed at how monocultural the room is. I do not go out to be bored or, for that matter, to hear the Top 40!

NCI: To what extent does nightlife culture play a positive or negative role on the broader culture? Going forward, do you see more of less impact from nightlife culture on the broader society and why?

MM: Nightlife reform is a fascinating topic, because the social ills the media uses to scare us about the dangers of young people get framed through nightlife. The media associates nightlife with debauchery, noise, underage drinking, pre-marital sex, not to mention recreational drug use, all of which is true. But you know, nightlife is kind of this catch-22. No matter how people frame nightlife as inherently negative, the fact is that if you look at any post-industrial city in America that is currently in the process of gentrification, and so of bringing single white people and empty nesters back into the city core, what is the first thing they advertise? Inevitably they say: we have shopping, we have dining, and we have nightlife, and then there’s a photo of some people drinking a glass of wine or posing at a bar at a “hot” local club. The point is, reformers have always chastised nightlife whereas developers see it as an industry that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars into the city core and which brings with it the power to gentrify whole neighborhoods if not entire cities. In New York City alone, just think about how the neighborhoods of Chelsea, the East Village, Williamsburg, and now the Meatpacking District all came to be.

Nightlife isn’t going anywhere, even if people in New York never stop complaining that it isn’t what it used to be.

Have fun.