Verve vs. Voyeurism

Mark Wojahn

SHE WAS WHIPPING him pretty good, all things considered. I mean, there she was in that cage, degrading him with all the enthusiasm she could muster, and all the audience could do was watch. As the mistress whipped, groped, slapped, and otherwise berated clients who had paid five bucks for the privilege, the sizable crowd looked on with a mixture of titillated curiosity and disengaged incomprehension. And although one of her friends (obviously a ringer) would occasionally step in, snap into character, and get into the act, most of her clients seemed to be concentrating on what the guys at the office would think. Welcome to Minnesota Nice--A-Go-Go.

Ground Zero's "Bondage A-Go-Go" is extremely successful, but only in the eyes of those who make a living from it: It's packed with customers who are only too willing to buy drinks and watch...and watch. On the dance floor, the crowd is suitably dressed--in various shades of goth garb and industrial metalloid, if not the de rigueur BDSM gear--and they're making an effort to get the party started. Sadly, they're surrounded by spectators wearing looks more appropriate to a sports bar than a dungeon. They stand, drink, and stare, apparently not knowing that paying a cover charge isn't enough--that these kinds of scenes are made by avid participants, not self-conscious voyeurs.

"Bondage A-Go-Go" serves as local ground zero for the nationwide mainstreaming of kink: My favorite example is the success of New York City's La Nouvelle Justine, a BDSM theme-restaurant that caters to tourists, not purists. Nothing is less appealing to the latex-and-leather set at "Bondage A-Go-Go" than a suburbanite with his jaw on the floor. Sure, the bonded minions may be into hot wax and nipple clothespins, but nobody likes being gawked at.

In general, it's probably this culture of passivity that hurts our own club life most. Granted, there are lots of other reasons--the 1 a.m. closing time, the arctic winters that force scene-makers to sprint from car to club, and the de facto racial segregation. But first and foremost is that classically Midwestern intolerance for hedonism: the way we frown upon glamour, dancing, fashion, and anything else that might smack of drawing attention to yourself.

But that's not to say we live in a dead zone. One of the rare exceptions to the above dynamic is "Mars 770" at First Avenue, which successfully caters to a generation of kids basking in the millennial glow of the rave and post-rave grooveworld--in short, kids who dance. This all-ages house/techno/old-school night has become a weekly haven for the pre-legal rave generation and, unlike other under-21 notables, "Mars 770" doesn't pack 'em in like New Delhi train passengers: There's plenty of room for everyone. This might not be a virtue in any other scene, but the "770" crowd doesn't come to pair off. A fairly un-self-conscious vibe abounds, and it feels good.

Yet when the smoke clears and the strobes settle, it's The Quest's high-energy, unintimidating, retro-infused Fridays that remain one of the best nights-out in town. The mix of '80s pop, '70s disco, and a little old-school hip-hop keeps things from getting too serious, and the crowd relaxes accordingly: You'd be hard-pressed to find as much fun with another crowd that's this racially and subculturally diverse. Inner-city hipsters shake it alongside glamour girls and middle management, apparently unaware that they're not supposed to be having this kind of fun in the same space.

There's always something self-indulgent about playing the retro card, but DJ Jerry Sylvers eases the guilt from the pleasure by keeping the mix intelligent. Pushing past respect-paying to the original sources of current R&B and hip hop--for example, Diana Ross's "I'm Coming Out," sampled in the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Mo Money Mo Problems"--Sylvers also turns out some wicked genre-bending. It's been months since I heard him juggle a medley of Madonna hits with a little Wrecks 'n' Effect and, believe it or not, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Still, I can't stop flashing back to that juxtaposition: remembering how surprised my friends and I were, and how that surprise gave way to excitement and even sweatier dancing. I'm sure we were not alone.

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