Sociological Soirees

A conversation with Victor P. Corono

By Alexandra Warrick

Nightlife sociologist Victor P. Corona has traveled past the velvet ropes of New York’s wildest clubs, cocktail spots and cabarets, contributing to his field in an irresistibly idiosyncratic–and iridescent–way. In pivoting his academic focus from the military to the world of drag queens and glam scenes, Corona seeks to dissect their hold on our national imagination. As a Columbia professor, he has also sought to bring his interviewees into the classroom to trip the light fluorescent, as it were. To fête the upcoming release of his star-studded book, Night Class: A Downtown Memoir, contributor Alexandra Warrick, CC ’17, welcomed him back from a trip to Los Angeles with a conversation about its flip side–New York City–and its complex underworld.

The Blue and White: Congratulations on the upcoming release of your book Night Class: A Downtown Memoir–the title of which is an apt triple entendre. You’ve taught at Columbia, the fulcrum of your courses being the world of nightlife; you focus on the class divides inherent in the scene; and you’ve experienced your own series of “night classes,” learning all about the fame game from exploring the club kid jungle. Tell me a little about the inception of this project.

Victor Corona: I did my Ph.D. in sociology at Columbia about a very different subject–about the U.S. Army–and I spent a year in Washington D.C. collecting dissertation data for that project. Since it was a study of an organizational labor market, I foresaw eventually looking at cultural careers where the very rigid stratification system that exists for army officers doesn’t exist–obviously a much more volatile career system. I had the misfortune of finishing my dissertation during the year that the recession hit the academy the hardest. And so, when I was looking for a job and eventually started doing some courses at Columbia, that’s when I really started to explore my interest in pop culture and urban culture.

Little by little through different moments I explore in the book, I ended up becoming really obsessed with the downtown story and its cast of characters. I went from being curious about this group of service members in their olive green uniforms, saluting and marching and working in our Capitol and how that culture developed over our nation’s history, [to being] interested in a much different cast of characters downtown, drag performers and artists and fashion designers and musicians, that coalesced around Michael Alig’s club kids but also the Warhol Factory and Lady Gaga’s downtown scene and nightlife hotspots like the Box. That started this six-year journey that I end up discussing in the book.

B&W: Nightlife has been criminally overlooked as a source of serious sociological consideration, but you hold that there’s gravitas in the glitz. You’ve dedicated your career to its development, even contributing the first academic analysis to exist on downtown doyenne Lady Gaga. How do you respond to your peers who perhaps refuse to acknowledge the importance of nightlife studies?

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Illustration by Jacquelyn Klein

VPC: I think that’s a very close-minded approach. I think what is so fascinating and joyful and stimulating about sociology is that it is interested in human identity, and can apply very different methods to understand why people want the things they want, why people do the things they do, why people chase after the things that they chase after. For any colleague to say that nightlife–which is all about the most augmented, sometimes free expressions of identity–to say that that’s not worthy of sociological attention is extremely close-minded and, frankly, boring.

I think that the reason I’ve always had high enrollment in my classes is because students come to schools like Columbia to be in an exciting urban environment, and they’ve often been to many of the clubs that I’ve mentioned well before even registering for my class. It’s part of not just youth but a part of enjoying what extremely vibrant urban centers like New York have to offer. I think of nightlife as a place where so many of the norms that govern our behavior during the day are stripped away, and that makes for an extremely fascinating sociological laboratory for both the people participating in that scene, drinking or flirting and dancing and dressed to the nines, and to the people who actually make it happen, to the people who populate that social space. I try to make sense of all those different things in the book. Both the notables in the downtown scene that have made downtown New York what it is today, and my own journey through it, having been that dowdy researcher, that cubicle rat, and having become somewhat of a regular in that scene–are the stories that I try to tell.

B&W: How does your history of political activism and work for the military shape the sociological perspective with which you approach nightlife?

VPC: I think that the sociological conclusion that I would make is that, at the end of the day, each of those sectors that I spent a little bit of time in–political activism, and the military, and downtown New York nightlife–they’re all the same. When you strip away different ways of dressing and different social spaces, at the end of the day it’s about the same search for identity. Certainly they all involve hierarchies and intrigues and jealousies and pettiness, but also spectacle and fabulousness and theatricality. They’re all different substantiations of the same human impulse for me. If I’ve been surprised by anything, it’s just how remarkably similar these very different social settings ultimately are.

B&W: You recently spoke to the Times of London sharing your intent to tackle “the puzzle of hierarchy.” “Politics, military, nightlife”–all share velvet ropes of some kind. Speak to our contemporary culture’s hunger for this sense of exclusivity, this sense of rank…

VPC: My interest in hierarchy goes back to my favorite work of fiction–and I think it’s timely, given that you and I are speaking on Inauguration Day–1984 by George Orwell. Two of my tattoos reference this extremely important work to me. It’s a book that I remain obsessed with. I’ve often said if you want to understand me, you need to read 1984, because it really ended up framing so much of my own sociological imagination. A lot of people reference 1984 when they’re talking about government surveillance or an all-powerful government but at its heart it’s really an extremely in-depth, nuanced meditation on power. That’s maybe a deeper question that I would apply to the similarities between politics and the military and nightlife. When you speak of hierarchy, it’s essentially about power and control. So I think today all American culture has always been about hierarchy because it’s always been about stardom–who is the “superstar.” What has changed is only how that’s achieved. We’re going back to the old Hollywood studio system to now, a variety of platforms on which to achieve it–it goes back to that human yearning for meaning and for a sense of status. We all want to know that we matter; we all want to know that people give a damn about our existence.

I think what’s missing is the commitment to hard work. People ask me, “Oh, so you’re writing about nightlife? I bet you’re going to throw some really fabulous parties.” In my business, the act of writing is extremely unglamorous! It’s you, sitting at a desk, by yourself, hopefully with your attention undivided, and just writing. As my dear Rose Wood, who’s on the cover of the book, says, “A writer is one who writes. A songwriter is just someone sitting in front of a piano, or whatever instrument they use, and just working by themselves” – and that hard work is unglamorous. So what exists today is that mismatch between these colossal yearnings for fame and status and adulation, especially on things like social media – people fawning over the likes, so hungry for the likes – and a commitment to work that is not really Instagrammable…If I were to speak to contemporary culture today and what hierarchy looks like, I think that that is sometimes missing. That’s when you get these empty-headed reality stars that are leading us towards a culture I don’t think I’m very comfortable with.

B&W: Something you said just now reminded me a lot of an [art] piece: [Elisa Giardina Papa’s] “need ideas!?!PLZ!!”  She did a mash-up compilation of vlogs that she found on the internet…young 11-year-old girls would make these Vlogs and the titles would always be like “Help…I Need Ideas”…and they would just be speaking into their webcams saying, “I want to have tons of followers, I want to be famous, I want to have a popular vlog – but I don’t have any ideas so please, guys, like and subscribe and give me ideas to talk about.” So it’s this all-frosting no-cake [approach]…

So what exists today is that mismatch between these colossal yearnings for fame and status and adulation, especially on things like social media – people fawning over the likes, so hungry for the likes – and a commitment to work that is not really Instagrammable…If I were to speak to contemporary culture today and what hierarchy looks like, I think that that is sometimes missing.

VPC: Exactly, that’s a perfect example and it’s extremely sad to hear that. Because at the end of the day, the joy of creativity is supposed to be at the heart of all this! My book discusses Lady Gaga’s career and her deep downtown lineage; the reader will see in the book I’m a bit critical about elements of her work, but I also know that A) she’s enormously talented and B) I would say that she really enjoys the process of creating and singing and songwriting. And at the end of the day that’s what culture is supposed to be about.

I often say I sleep better when I’ve had a good day of writing because that’s how my mind is most alive. As my old mentor at Columbia, Harrison White, used to say, when those synapses are firing, that’s an extremely important part of why we do what we do. So the fact that the girls in your example are just pleading for ideas that they can use to become famous is just an extremely sad thing to hear. If 1984 is a meditation on power, my book is ultimately a meditation on spectacle, delusion, and fame. Being in Los Angeles these past couple of days, you just really are confronted with this question of fame.  It’s a very unnatural condition for humans and what’s interesting is that, despite all the very cruel consequences that we’ve seen fame have for people’s lives, people still want it so desperately.

B&W: It’s the great lie of our times, right? It’s the panacea; it’s the magic bullet that will solve all of our problems. Notoriety.

VPC: Yes, absolutely. The idea that this kind of generalized, anonymous love will satisfy whatever pathology is pushing you to seek it is extremely dangerous.  At best, it’s a fool’s errand, and at worst, it can lead to some really awful consequences, as I trace in my book.  Suicide, the killing of Angel Melendez, drug addiction…it can lead to many dark places.

B&W: On a lighter note – the Box, which features prominently in your memoir, possesses perhaps the toughest velvet ropes in town. First of all, a nutshell pitch: what is the Box and what makes it special to you from both a sociological and personal perspective?

VPC: I devote a chapter of my book to the Box because I think that it is one of the most, if not the most, important nightlife spots in New York today in 2017.  It is part club, part cabaret, part theatre, and it has found this really great way to marry outrageous performance art that you can’t find anywhere else really, and a successful business model that has lead to its celebrating its 10-year anniversary next month in February.  I love taking friends or ex-students there because almost all of them inevitably say, “This was one of the best nights of my life.”

It’s just this magical journey that you get to undertake from about 12:30 at night, which I know is way too late for some people, to about 4 in the morning, when you end up sitting next to Rose McGowan or Sam Smith, as has happened to me, and see art that you can’t see anywhere else, from amazing contortionists and fire-breathers and aerialists to the great Rose Wood who ends up becoming this kind of disco mother to me and who does things that I didn’t know the human body could even do.  There’s this raw shock and awe that Rose gives you, and it is in some ways a throwback to previous periods in nightlife that privileged a spectacle.

B&W: In Night Class, you speak to the wildest array of nightlife figures. We’ve got legendary vamps like Amanda Lepore and Suzanne Bartsch, writers like Interview’s Bob Colacello, a slew of inventive members of Warhol’s Factory and the Haus of Gaga…these are people who have experienced this beautiful underworld and come out with brilliant works of art, brilliant things to say on the nature of fame. What are some lessons you’ve gleaned from these illuminating conversations?

VPC:  When it comes to fame, is it still a success if you make, say, one film in your 20s and win an Oscar, and then you do nothing else worthy of an Oscar for the rest of your career – are you still considered a success? Rose hasn’t won any awards, but could she still be considered a success? She has zero social media presence…but of course I would consider her a success because she’s just had such an impact on people.

…I think the main lesson, the main thing that I come away with is something that a few people tease me about but really it is true: the proof is in the pudding. Either you hone your craft or you don’t. No red carpet photo, no viral image, no number of Instagram likes, nothing will secure your legacy or future or whatever the hell it is that you want like a true devotion to your craft.

If you’re doing it for the applause…that’s when you’ll end up at this huge, yawning abyss where you just feel lost. And I think that’s why fame can be so dangerous for people, because that won’t satisfy you in the small hours of the morning when you’re really faced with your mortality and who will give a shit about your time on this earth. That empty fawning over you will not satisfy you: either you enjoy what you do, and it fulfills you, or it doesn’t. It’s as simple as that – and that’s what I learned from all those people you mentioned.

B&W: Nightlife is a sociological goldmine, but beyond that, it’s a complete opera – there are victories, tragedies, dark horses, unpredictable upsets and constant changings of the guard.  Is there an unsung nightlife figure whose story you’ve always found poetic and that you feel warrants more study?

VPC: In some way, my discussion of Suzanne is that, but what’s interesting about Suzanne Bartsch’s story is that it’s now at this moment that she’s finally starting to get our due. There’s this documentary coming out about her, she just had this beautiful window at Bloomingdale’s unveiled during the Christmas season, she had the Museum at FIT retrospective…[she’s] someone who has created this enduring nightlife community by always paying attention to what’s new, but maintaining a certain set of aesthetic standards for what makes a fun and interesting party.

If you’re doing it for the applause…that’s when you’ll end up at this huge, yawning abyss where you just feel lost. And I think that’s why fame can be so dangerous for people, because that won’t satisfy you in the small hours of the morning when you’re really faced with your mortality and who will give a shit about your time on this earth.

She, too, works very hard and she actually enjoys it…you see that point in the night when she just has that beautiful big smile and you can tell that she’s enjoying this assembly that she has created, that she has curated for New York. The right mix of hosts and DJs and venues, that alchemy that she has mastered, is not sufficiently appreciated, and I’m glad to see that institutions like FIT and Bloomingdale’s are recognizing her ability to do that.

B&W: There’s also a kind of social alchemy that takes place when you curate the panels that you’ve been hosting at Columbia, NYU and beyond, on topics ranging from gender to sexuality to politics to modernity with everyone from theorist J. Jack Halberstam to jazz man Brian Newman to “Primates of Park Avenue” author Wednesday Martin.  How do you go about matchmaking?  What’s your approach?

VPC:  My panels I think of as a highlight of the semester in the sense that I bring the class people that can speak directly to many of the themes and debates that we’ve been talking about in class.  Sometimes they are people that I’ve interviewed for my book, sometimes they’re people I know from nightlife, sometimes they’re scholars that I’ve interacted with…and I can honestly say that, in eight years of teaching, no panel has been a disappointment.  Every panel yields really great reactions from the students because it’s this safe space where students can really ask whatever the want and we can have some really frank and honest conversations with the people that have been kind enough to visit my classes.  It’s gotten to the point now where one other school asked me to curate their panel series and where a lot of people ask, can I come to your class to speak?  I feel bad because I can’t just have people every week; I have to be really selective in terms of who gets to be invited.

I always look for a mix of perspectives – mix of age I think is very very important.  To have someone who is – even if they’re a little unsteady or unsure of themselves – to have them there alongside great, seasoned thinkers and scholars like Jack Halberstam and Wednesday Martin makes for an interesting conversation.  They’re out of their element – these are people who are used to hoisting a vodka bottle at 2 in the morning or performing at 3:45 in the morning in this laser-lit nightclub, and then here they are in front of my undergraduates at 11:30 AM.  That in itself I love and I think they enjoy being out of their element.  It’s this great frisson, this great energy that comes out of bringing people from downtown New York, or these outside New York worlds, to a classroom. 

B&W: Gilles Lipovetsky’s theory of hypermodernity, with all of its fresh new anxieties, has been a touchstone in your work and in your teachings at Columbia and beyond.  What do you find most worrisome about our hyper-accelerated culture today?

VPC:  I think that short, easy soundbites are the reason that the man who was inaugurated as our president today ended up winning the election.  There is the acceleration of our work and personal lives, a hallmark of hypermodern culture that has led us to where we are today.  Our aversion to long-term deep thinking and nuanced policy answers have led us to a person who offered easy answers to very serious, complex problems.

When you’re on the Subway – to borrow a little from Wednesday’s brilliant Primates of Park Avenue – put on your primatological hat and look at your fellow homo sapiens using their phones.  Scroll scroll scroll tap scroll tap scroll…I mean, that is how we interact with our world.  Through this lightning-quick consumption of images and characters and bells and whistles, and we’ve just lost so much of our ability to think critically and deeply and that’s extremely worrisome to me as an educator, as an instructor, and just as a person.  It’s the reduction, simplification, “meme-ification” of culture, and I think it’s sad.

Observe it in a museum: these paintings that are just renowned and so valuable both monetarily and their symbolic value….and you’ll see a tourist just hop in front of it, do a quick selfie, throw up the deuce and have someone take a photo, and then walk away, having maybe glimpsed it for three seconds.  That is truly tragic…

Musicians talk about this all the time…when you’re a musician, you want people to feel the music, to sway, to look at you, to cry, to smile, to laugh…and having people just holding up their phones to take some grainy, wobbly, few minutes of footage – it’s just so stupid!  So these are the things that worry me about hypermodern culture and where it’s going.  Going back to what I said before – the proof is in the pudding.  I think it lead us to who became the 45th President of the United States today.

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