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Culture Hopping

In which R. Kelly blows off his expensive afterparty, vanilla cognac is marketed to the "transcultural consumer," and electroclash perseveres with the queers.



"I'm going to teach you how to dance," a short black man in baggy pants and braids snarled in a manner that he clearly thought I'd interpret as sexy.

"That's disrespectful," I told him. "I don't need your lessons."

We were inside White Star Lounge, an upscale club attached to Magnum's Prime Steakhouse. Only on the dance floor can you tread on anything besides carpet with a vaguely familiar pattern meant to convey opulence. With its fancy plush furniture, fireplaces, aquarium, and at least three VIP areas, the club normally charges a $20 cover. But last Thursday night was the R. Kelly afterparty, and general admission cost $50 for the plebes, $100 for VIP access.

Three friends and I, on the list as press, were ushered in right past the two lines snaking down the sidewalk. Inside, with the exception of my dance partner, everyone was supernice to us: women smiled and chatted with me and men complimented my gay friend who I'd persuaded to dress like a dandy--all of which was a shock not so much because we were the only white people in sight but because normally people anywhere even semiexclusive aren't nice.

In fact this was beyond normal niceness--it was special treatment. When my friends and I hijacked some people's VIP lounge seats and chugged almost a whole bottle of champagne they'd bought, no one said anything to us. It seems that in any sort of civil company these days, being overly kind to the minority is prioritized. Only here the minority was a spoiled party girl who didn't have to wait in line or pay and didn't even care that R. Kelly never showed up.

Around 3 AM the cops came in, making a beeline for the low-level VIP area, where I'd been sitting with former Sony Urban Music exec David McPherson for quite some time. "What's going on?" I asked a white female officer. "Apparently there's been a fight here," she said. I hadn't seen anything resembling a fight. Then the lights came on and the cops shooed everyone out.

I went upstairs to use the bathroom one more time before hitting the road. A pretty black woman in a tight dress and high heels was touching up her makeup. "White people can party until 6 AM," she said to the attendant.

Then she glanced at me and added, "No offense."

A few weeks ago Chuck Anderson, a rising-star illustrator whose work has been seen in a McGriddles commercial and ads for Absolut vodka, received an e-mail from Eric Johnson, an account exec with Trace, a magazine aimed at "today's multiethnic youth." Johnson wanted to know if he'd host a party at his place for Navan, a new vanilla-flavored cognac. Sorry, Anderson said, but I'm a 19-year-old Christian who lives in the suburbs with my parents. He put Johnson in touch with his friend Rob Robinson, a designer for a local ad agency who's known to his friends as Robrob.

"What up rob?" began Johnson's e-mail. "Thanks for replying. I am looking for 2 cool 'cats' such as your self to host a house party in chi-town. Tracemag organizes the party in partnership with NAvan. Navan is a new brand of french cognac that is being introduced to key influencers through our network of friends. The concept is simple, sit back and enjoy the ride. We will bring everything to your house, music, decors food, gift etc."

Trace and Navan were throwing two house parties in each of four cities (New York, LA, Miami, and Chicago) to introduce this new booze to its target demographic: Latin American and Asian women and what a distributor's rep referred to in the New York Times as "the transcultural consumer."

"I was skeptical of a corporate party," says Robrob. "Is the chef going to be some old dude? Are they gonna make this look gross?" But he appreciated the concept from an advertising perspective: throwing house parties is "cheaper than running a full-page ad in Maxim and people will actually care about the product." So he sent in the floor plan to his three-bedroom apartment in Humboldt Park and hoped everything would turn out OK.

On Saturday morning he was awakened by the delivery of $540 worth of rented dishware. Shortly thereafter a four-person decorating team, a handful of caterers, and a party coordinator showed up; they spent the afternoon transforming the place with a fancy bar setup, subtle lighting, a DJ table built on the spot, exotic orange flowers in tall vases, and palm fronds everywhere. Later chef Benjamin Rioux, who used to work at Alain Ducasse's New York restaurant, deep-fried shrimp and prepared multiculti crepes and sushi in Robrob's kitchen. There were also two off-duty Chicago cops packing heat. "I guess Navan legally had to sponsor security if they wanted to invade people's houses," says Robrob.

By the time I got there, at 11 PM, the place was packed. You can judge a house party's funness by how fucked-up the bathroom is. If the toilet's not busted by midnight, ain't nothing good gonna happen. And sure enough, though the catering team was doing a decent job of keeping the place tidy--one black-clad man even asked Robrob for a paper towel to wipe up a spill--the top was off the toilet tank, exposing a severely messed-with ball cock.

Those of us who know Robrob as a sweet, kinda weird guy who's into Cryptonomicon and "deviants" and doing "fucked up things with fucked up people" (as he puts it on Friendster) were baffled by the presentation. "What the hell is this?" we kept asking one another, though oddly enough we were having a great time.

"Creatives" marveled at the marketing genius. "A house party at a friend's," said a woman who works with Robrob. "That's brilliant." Photographer Jason Lazarus had another perspective. "Wow," he said, sounding half impressed, half disgusted. "I'm now trying to catch up with corporations--they're way hipper than me."

You know a trend is past its prime when the guy who named it wants to kill it. Larry Tee put the kibosh on electroclash last year when he tried in all seriousness to get people to call it "outsider electronic music." But Medusa's Circle owners Lora Chasteen and Pier Novikov, who've been throwing "Retro-Trash Electro-Clash" parties since late 2002, won't let it die. They split with partner Tony Duffy last October ("too many cooks," says Chasteen), but Chasteen and Novikov kept the name and moved the event from Vision to Metro. Last Saturday they threw an "End of the World Dance Party," decorating the stage a la Escape From New York with barricades, police caution tape, cobwebs, garbage hung on a clothesline, skulls, dead branches, a fake bloody hand, a road sign, army surplus netting, a trashed-out couch, a TV with "GOD" spray painted on it, and ventilation tubing meticulously arranged to looked "fucked-up." A giant, slow strobe flashed every so often, bathing the whole mess in garish light.

The set was created for Olympia electro-rap duo Scream Club, two foulmouthed, pro-queer, anticapitalist women from the Peaches camp of gross-out sexiness. Cindy Wonderful and Sarah Adorable spent a lot of time onstage giving shout-outs: to someone named Elizabeth on her birthday; to filmmaker Rusty Nails, who shot them for a music video earlier in the day and was up there with them at that moment doing more of the same; to Sarah's brother "Ben Adorable"; and to Jessica Hopper, their publicist. "I drank her pee," Cindy announced, "and hallucinated."

The scene offstage was just as outrageous, a budding fag's dream: at least half the crowd was dressed in drag, with hot pink and/or dreadlocked wigs, Frankenhooker boots, fake eyelashes so long they touched wildly painted eyebrows, and the usual assortment of buckles, rhinestones, leather, lace, glitter, neon, silver, and ruffles.

Why, oh why, are these people beating a dead horse with its own hoof? the embarrassed elitist in me moaned. Because it's still fun, retorted my inner populist.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Beno.

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