Paris is Burning (1990)
You know that here at mofidelity.co we’re as much about the music as we are about the cultural context that provided the grounds for the sound. In this sense, ‘Paris is Burning’ is essential viewing for anyone familiar with the original New York dance music scene or for anyone interested in exploring some music-adjacent but still very much connected history.
I can’t stress enough on the importance of reading Tim Lawrence’s exhaustive, seminal, must-read book that is ‘Love Saves The Day: History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979’. I have seen ‘Paris is Burning’ several times before reading the book and I have understood its protagonists and their surroundings in several different ways, depending on the level of self-education on the topic I’ve been at at the time. But reading ‘Love Saves the Day’ was like discovering electricity after spending a lifetime on candles.
See, my most often lamented complaint about dance music today is not the quality of the music itself – every decent dance music fan knows that you need to seek and you shall find and if you don’t seek in the first place, then you’re not really a dance music fan at all. My most often lamented complaint is always a cultural one, for as much as I am on this train ride because of the sounds that rock my carriage, I am also here because the sign on the door promised a whole bunch of outcasts like me would be riding on it too.
The contextual origins of dance music seem to be often forgotten in today’s mainstream acceptance of 4×4 beats and stumbling out of a club at 6am. Before disco was whitewashed, straightened and conveniently choreographed for the masses (see: ‘Saturday Night Fever’), it was a safe haven for the unwanted. The queers, the black and Latino kids, the kids of the Italian immigrants and former refugees, the drag queens, the liberated women. Dance music provided a family for a whole plethora of outsiders without one. The dance venue provided a home for the bullied and the homeless. It supplied those much needed couple of hours of forgetting just how redundant your existence was considered to be outside of The Loft, The Gallery, The Sanctuary, The Paradise Garage, The Warehouse…
Walking into a club today you may think that none of this was ever part of the rich and politically tumultuous history of dance music, its fathers, godfathers and its children. This is not a criticism though – the mainstream spread of a marginalized subculture should be a cause for celebration as it implies a move forward, towards awareness and progress. However, entering a club today, you would most probably find yourself surrounded by the type of person who was originally the reason for you – the freak – to look for a safe haven inside the venue.
It’s an unfortunate turn of events and one that some clubs, promoters, artists and DJs are trying to overturn with the nights they put on, the music they produce or by being vocal about it. But that’s once again for those who seek. Personally, I plan on accentuating on the fundamentals of the culture for as long as I have a voice and a blog to do it on.
Now to ‘Paris is Burning’ – the cult 1990 documentary by Jenny Livingston following the lives of some of the most prominent figures on the New York ball scene in the 1980s. What is it about exactly? Everything I wrote about so far.
It’s important to point out that ‘Paris is Burning’ is not without its controversies. Some of the people featured in the film have expressed their outrage to the way they were portrayed – namely, the sensationalized focus on crime and exile. I couldn’t possibly post the film, recommend it to you and dismiss these concerns. So do watch with a critical eye, having in mind that the editing – as it usually happens – has been designed to show the shocking, the dramatic and the sometimes plain offensive.
I trust you and your judgement and I trust you’re here because you’re one of us.
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