A Talk with Tim Lawrence
By Keerthana Annamaneni
On October 3rd, in the Jeffrey Loria Center for the History of Art, Tim Lawrence, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of East London, spoke to roughly two dozen Yale undergraduate students, graduate students, and professors on New York City’s Party Culture from 1980-1983. Open to the general public and sponsored by the Department of LGBT Studies, with support from the Wallace-Sexton Fund for LGBT Studies, the lecture detailed Lawrence’s most recent book, Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-83. The lecture catalogued changes in New York City’s party scene over four years, iconic developments in various art forms, and simultaneous shifts in the United States’ political landscape.
To complete Life and Death, Lawrence interviewed over 150 DJs, party hosts, producers, musicians, artists, and dancers, attempting to weave the multiplicity of perspectives into a cohesive narrative, without losing the color of each source. Elaborating on these interviews, Lawrence noted that many sources described New York as an “imperfect paradise.” Despite New York’s characterization in the 1980s as a cesspit of murder, crime, and garbage, Lawrence said, “[my sources] were afraid to leave for even one day in case they would mix something exciting or important.”
That excitement soon dissipated, Lawrence explained, in part due to two external forces: money and the AIDS epidemic. Lawrence specifically explored Reagonomics and its impact on New York City’s party culture: tax cuts transformed New York’s real-estate market, leading to growth in the double-digits and reducing the availability of affordable venues for low-income communities. The financial revitalization of New York further encouraged corporate re-entry into New York’s music scene, increasing the number of commercial clubs and reducing the creative liberty DJs could have. According to Lawrence, it seemed as though only a recession like that of the early 1980s, when the city was cheaper, could return the city to its former social hayday.
Lawrence also elaborated on the AIDS epidemic and increased use of recreational crack-cocaine in black communities as causes for New York city’s diminished party scene. Crack-cocaine and AIDS severely destabilized the queer and black communities, two key social groups in the New York city party scene. “These became communities on defense..they became more introspective,” Lawrence explained.
Even after devoting 600 pages to just four years of New York City’s party landscape, Lawrence said, “I still feel like I am just brushing the surface.” While unusual, Lawrence’s immersion in the New York party scene has personal roots. Following the death of his parents, Lawrence turned to the party scene, finding “solace in the hope and community of the party scene,” according to his website.
After being asked to write a book on the history of house, nineteen years ago, Lawrence fell upon the history of downtown dance culture, leading to an unanticipated 500-page book, Love Saves the Day, charting American dance culture in the 1970s. He furthered his exploration with Hold On to Your Dreams in 2009, a biography of the musician Arthur Russell. As Lawrence says, “I took a 19 year detour, and I never looked back.”
Keerthana “Keera” Annamaneni is a freshman in Timothy Dwight college. Contact her at email@example.com.