On "Lovers' Rock"

Like so many people, one of my cherished childhood memories is falling asleep in the pile of coats on a relative’s bed, during a house party. For me, it was the coats piled in my grandparents’ bedroom, which always smelt like freshly ironed white cotton and Nivea lotion. Their bedroom, which, after my parents’ divorce, became mine and my sisters’ bedroom, had a trio of windows that looked out on to the side yard. On party nights, it was only cool black and deep green out there. Peace to me, or one of its incarnations, is lying on top of tweed coats that smell of Old Spice, on a slightly muggy April night after Easter dinner, those windows open up to the air, a breeze flowing through the white gauze curtains.

What a delight to find in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series a perfect invocation of a family house party in the “Lovers’ Rock” episode. The party in this show takes place in the 80s, the attendees are not family but Black British teens for the most part, and the songs they dance to are only tangentially connected to the ones we heard at our parties—though there is one scene, when “Kung Fu Fighting” starts to play and everyone strikes poses like Bruce Lee on the dance floor, that shook forth from the recesses of my memory seeing adults and kids around me, when I was a toddler, doing the exact same poses as the song came on the stereo.

“Lovers Rock” is my absolute favorite genre of film—the party movie. These are actually really difficult to pull off in a convincing way. Often, movie parties are too over the top, too packed, too polished as what tehy actually are in real life. Think the lavish benders in high school movies like Mean Girls and Can’t Hardly Wait which always seem to, conveniently, take place at mansions. “Lovers’ Rock”’s party feels real because the dancing takes place in one packed living room, with only enough peopl to fill the floor. Late at night, the boys take over and pound the floor, slamming into each other. At one point, the DJ turns off the record so that the whole party can sing, a capella, to a song. This felt more in tune with the parties, the few parties, I have loved.

I used to love watching party scenes because my life as a child was filled with house parties and neighborhood parties and then, when my mother left her abusive marriage, we weren’t invited to many parties for a very long time. It’s funny who people choose to side with, who still gets asked to dance, in those situations. Anyways, instead of going to parties, we watched a lot of them in movies. My absolute favorite was the house party in Shag, a movie I am sure no one remembers, about a bunch of white girls in 1960s Alabama who enter a dance contest during one crazy weekend and discover love and sex. I loved that party scene for its chaos, for its sweetness, for the asides—people kissing in side rooms and quietly vomiting in bushes and gorging in kitchens. “Lovers Rock” has a beautiful recurring aside—the back yard of the house party, where the house’s sofa has been set in the grass, and couples go to sit on the plastic covered cushions in the night dew, flirting and sparring and kissing each other.

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I was very naive as a teenager so was convinced my life in parties would resume in college—what was college for, if not that? I don’t want to admit it, but I think the source of my deep depression my first year of college was that there were no good parties to be found. I only went to one—at a small bar around the corner from Columbia, where I ended up with my women’s a cappella group (gee, I wonder why I didn’t find any good parties?) one night after a show. I shut the place down dancing on the bar to Prince’s “Sexymutherfucka” and it was the one time I was out and awake past 9 pm in that long spring of deep depression.

I transferred to another school and became determined to find my life in parties and it actually worked. First semester, I lived in a big house a mile from the center of campus, across the street from a giant cemetery, on the highway out of town, with only other transfer students for company and we still managed to throw a really great party the first few weeks in—another transfer student drank so much she threw up in my roommate’s specially purchased stock pot, the one he used every Sunday to make stew while listening to A Praire Home Companion. I knew i should feel bad about this, I did feel bad about this, but also, this was such a perfect party detail, one that movies had promised me.

Senior year we got even better at throwing parties and at a certain point my friends and I came up with a partly joking but also partly serious club called The Party Savers, with a uniform and a special dance. We only ventured out in this once, and did this dance once, and it was my luck I did both in front of the one straight man who had ever expressed sexual interest in me my entire time at college—a football player who had had his friend stop me on the lawn of another party to say “He thinks you’re the most beautiful girl on campus.” Oh, the perfect Black Excellence children we could have had by now if I was not so committed to this other version of coming together, this dream of a party, so that the next time he saw me I was in a pink satin letterman’s jacker and pink bandana, miming a lunge in what was supposed to be an ironic, winking, coordinated dance routine but really just looked like derangement. That boy headed for the hills and I never even saw him on campus again.

Even before the pandemic I had aged out of house parties. Or, at least, the exciting kind. We still throw, or attempted to throw, pre-pandemic, big house parties with family—remnants of those parties from my childhood, when everyone—neighbors and church friends and grandparents and school friends and cousins and cousins’ high school friends—passed through the house. But mono-age house parties, I think, are a part of my past. The last two I remember—one at Stuyvesant Mansion, before it became an overpriced events space, back in 2014. I’d moved into my first solo apartment and a bunch of friends came over to christen the basement space and then we all walked, in cold weather and rubber boots, to the mansion which was dark and hot and crowded and one room was packed and the other was bare because the DJ was trying to make an ironic dance off to “New Kids On The Block” happen and no one was biting.

The other is the last party I went to before lockdown. It was my first late night after giving birth. I wore a polka dot party dress I’d ordered from Asos—puffed sleeves and fishtail skirt, it could have been made in 2020 or forty years before. I met a friend for a drink at an oyster bar—my first hard liquor in nearly 18 months. At the party, in a work space in Gowanus, where everyone had been instructed to wear polka dots, I wanted to dance but I was acutely aware I was too tired, too self-conscious, too bruised and new to do so. But I stood in the corner and I made a few party friends—the kind of people you meet on the dance floor, convinced they are your soulmates, your new best friends, your profound cosmic companions—before they melt away again, into the crowd.

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