Tonight I'm Gonna Party Like It's 1989
If you watched Philadelphia's 'Dance Party USA' on the USA network in the late 1980s and early 1990s, consider yourself blessed.
Recently, it has come to my attention that this should-have-been seminal zeitgeist was not as widely viewed as I had thought -- as I had
hoped. 'Dance Party USA' was to 'American Bandstand' what 'Heathers' was to 'Grease.' Iconoclastic and true. A trainwreck with
gorgeously horrific debris.
If you've seen 'Working Girl' you can imagine DPUSA. Picture a probable younger sister for Joan Cusack as a regular participant
on a late 1980s equivalent of the Corny Collins Show from 'Hairspray.' That's it. Primarily white kids with big hair and boner bangs
(bangs sticking inexplicably straight up about 6 inches) proclaiming to the world that they polymorphically define the teen fashion
raison d'etre: oversized acid-washed garments with Flashdance necklines or conspicuously "worn" tears in the knees, sometimes
patched with plaid fabric (when needed to complete the specific fashion vector sometimes referred to as 'hobo-chic').
For the past few decades, style cognoscenti have loathed the clothes of 10 to 15 years ago, then they've heralded it once aged
to 15 to 20 years. Can we please forgo the 5 to 10 years of loathing and go directly to the love? We are going to be wearing
its derivative 'looks' a few years from now anyhow - let's call it fantastic and amazing right now and free up our hatred and loathing
for other, more deserving anathemas. As much as I enjoy "what were we thinking" reflections on style, one thing comes through
loud and clear, these kids were free: quasi-self-defined and deliciously uncomplicated. These were the halcyon days when "attitude"
was relatively novel and somehow desirable. On one DPUSA show, the DPUSA kids were dancing to Neneh Cherry's truly
brilliant "Buffalo Stance", but about a third of the way into the song, the cool ones stopped dancing to demonstrate their buffalo
stances. This somehow dumbed down form of voguing spread like wildfire. In just moments, no one worth her velvet scrunchie
was moving a muscle. So cheeky! So plucky! What could those irreverent poses mean? Clearly, they were down with urban life.
They knew what time it was. They were crazy def. They had mad street-cred. But they also wanted to be perceived as affluent -
which made them poseurs of the world-class variety. They didn't want you to believe in their pose, they just wanted the viewer
to see that were in the know. They weren't whores, you silly! -- they just sometimes liked to stand like one during certain songs!
One white male dancer adorned himself with what looked like a white plastic egg-timer, the sort sold at discount retailers,
on a chain around his neck. "Please look over here and notice that I am interested in being perceived as having dopey
freshness and wicky-wack phat flava" was his implicit message.
I never understood the social stratification amongst the regulars. What did the cool kids do to make them cool? There was a
definite in-crowd elite amongst the regulars but I was incapable of deriving an algorithm that explained a dancer's rank and
power. I do remember being impressed that a-list inclusion seemed infinitely more democratic than it was at my high-school
(I should note, however, that my high-school had all the charm of a Minnelli/Guest wedding reception in Dachau, perhaps
best summed up by the fact that none of the popular girls had any interest in being a cheerleader because that was the kind
of thing fancied by new money -- if not by the children of the hired help). If you can't be ridiculous without self-consciousness
when you are a teen, well, when else are you going to be lauded for rowdiness whilst dancing drill team choreographies in
micro-minis? It certainly isn't like you can grow up normal in America without that experience - and as a gay man, trust me
when I say that approximating the pageantry doesn't scratch the itch.
One highfalutin member of the show's fashionistas was a short, skinny, decidedly uninspiring white kid with square coke-bottle
lenses glasses that hinted that he might have taken the short bus to the television studio. He was exactly the type of kid who
memorized stats about the future career opportunities presented by silicon door-stops or vacuum sealed frozen foods, with an
engineer for a father who designed things like long-wear Philips head masonry screws and used words like 'pronto' and
'keister.' But within the context of DPUSA, he was a power-broker. And, dude, chicks dug him. I remember thinking two
things: 1) he must have a ten inch dick and 2) even if he doesn't, thank God that this [dis]harmonic convergence called
Dance Party USA allowed him to have this moment as one of the beautiful people.
And then there was Princess (née Heather Day, more at http://www.heatherday.com/aboutheather.html). The fact that her
birth name is Heather is proof positive that God cares. She banged her own drum: she wore one legged animal print lycra
catsuits - it probably goes without saying that she was the reason for my unwavering allegiance to the show. She had a
preternatural understanding of all things related to the artist then contemporarily known as Prince (TATCKAP). She made
her own club-clothes that were two parts skank and one part spandex poem. Apparently and unsurprisingly she went on
to a successful career as a competitor at aerobic competitions. I'm not kidding. God bless America. She is a mysterious
blend of femme fatale and coquette evidenced by her enigmatic writing on her website, "Many of you have asked if I ever
got to meet Prince…I always love a little mystery in life so I'll keep you hanging for now, but will divulge all very soon…." I
am breathless with anticipation. I suspect most of us are.
When MTV's presence first inundated teen consciousness in the 1980s, doomsday prophets foretold the end of individualism -
since edgy youth culture was as accessible in Peroria at the same rate of ingestion as urban centers, the presumption was that
a corporate sanctioned single teen spirit would, in an AOL/Time Warner manner, eclipse all viable forms of individual expression.
This might have been the case back at the advent of music video proliferation -- the REO Speedwagon/Journey years -- but
the maverick and intrepid efforts from the regular cast of Dance Party USA were an integral component of the most important
youth movement of the 1980s, the one that showed American teens that they had options, market segmentation and test
group delinated to be sure - but still, options for social identification and presentation beyond the antiseptic denizens of
American Bandstanders. Indeed, the range stretched all the way from Mister Mister to Paula Abdul.
Zebra striped spandex was a viable form of public protest. I saw it. I was alive.