Before it was cool: What I learned at the hipster sex party

The place was so hip even the guy from MGMT was there. But were we liberated and free? I guess so.

Published September 8, 2014 12:00AM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Sean Nel</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Sean Nel via Shutterstock/Salon)

What follows is my best reconstruction of the events of a party that took place in 2003 on the campus of Wesleyan University, one of the most hipster colleges in America. It's a good illustration of certain facets of hipster culture. It involves a minor brush with fame. My memory, like everyone else’s, is fallible, so some of my recollections are probably inaccurate. Corrections may be kindly addressed to Benjamin Winterhalter, The South Pole.

There she was, seated in a comically large plush chair, which was no doubt some trophy the hipsters had claimed from a Nickelodeon set (or some such) during one of their bizarre hazing rituals, the girl who’d invited me back to her dorm room to listen to Radiohead and sip organic tea. I had not previously been aware that “organic-vs.-inorganic” was a meaningful distinction when it came to tea. It’s a life of learning.

She was holding a plastic wine glass, whose contents she’d managed to spill on her treacherously short pink dress, and chatting with several boys at once, holding court and looking pleased with herself, laughing at their jokes exaggeratedly, or possibly at her own, it was impossible to hear over the music.

A friend of mine had pledged the frat that fall but backed out when he got the annual Pledge Task List, a hyper-secret document whose contents were known only to a select few. Its campus-wide reputation, however, was for being, and my friend confirmed that in fact it was, “just really weird.” Like what? He wasn’t supposed to say, but just to give me a small taste, if I promised not to repeat, the first command was “steal us something cool.” The imagination leaps from there, tries to conjure weirdness in excess of weirdness, wonders how illegal things get at Item No. 8. Certainly great marketing, albeit for a pretty esoteric brand.

This was their annual Sex Party. Most of the girls were in their underthings, the most scandalous ones they owned, retrieved from the bottoms of university-supplied dresser drawers and modeled for roommates beforehand, probably while pre-gaming with shots of Goldschläger, which was, for reasons that still elude me, very popular that year. Others came in corsets and thigh-high fishnets; latex fetish-wear that I found it shocking to learn an 18-year-old could possess; at least one in just her panties with masking tape Xs over her nipples; and plenty in short-cut bathrobes or teddies. “Treacherously short pink dress” was, in fact, a relatively chaste selection for the occasion. Guys were mostly in just boxer shorts, no shirts, though some of the gay men wore very form-fitting briefs, a few with silly accouterments like suspenders or fedoras.

It’s the sort of occasion that brings to mind the expression “the rumors are true.” Almost no one has actual sex at the party — though I suppose the rules are somewhat ambiguous about how to count members of this “hipster frat,” who could, of course, just go upstairs — but a number get very close and I’ve heard rumors. I’ve also been told that people do coke in the bathrooms. Most people, though, just get wasted, dance very dirty with people they half-know, and then at some point after 2 a.m. wander off, leaning drunkenly against each other as they careen down the sidewalk half-naked, probably intending to finish the scene in their bedrooms.

The first DJ that night was playing cheesy trance, the thump-a-thump-a kind with long beatless passages during which it’s unclear what an appropriate dance would look like. If the group in which I found myself is any authority on the subject, the answer may be “gyrating in slow motion while making wavy gestures with one’s arms.” My impression was that the crowd wasn’t particularly keen on the music selection — it certainly seemed like a bafflingly unhip choice to me — but no one was going to let that spoil their fun, the mostly-nude partygoers were on the dance floor just the same. Maybe it was supposed to be ironic, everyone joked.

There were strobe lights, disco balls, streamers everywhere, sex toys and condoms and dental dams — who uses dental dams? — guilelessly taped to the walls. The nominal political themes were “sex-positive feminism” and “queer pride” and just plain old “sexual liberation,” though the motivation for supplying these rather obviously euphemistic labels was fairly obscure. Hi, yes, is this Trent Lott? Sir, I thought you should be informed that some college students are having a sex-positive-feminism and queer-pride and general-sexual-liberation party, seems like they mean business, maybe we’d better reconsider.

At some point, the flow of music was interrupted and a number of hipsters emerged, some of them sporting their ordinary Dior T-shirts and women’s jeans, in apparent defiance of the party’s undressed code (a move that may have been intended to communicate “I’m sexy just like this”). They constructed an impromptu catwalk, I believe out of wooden crates. A kid who looked like he’d washed his hair with stale beer announced that there was to be a cross-dressing fashion show, to support the trans community, of course. Candidly, I do not remember much about it — believe me, I would tell you — except that I felt socially obligated to whoop and applaud for the various performers, not that I wouldn’t have, and that the best-received was a tall, muscular man in very well executed blond drag, purple feather boa and all.

When the music did not resume soon enough after the show, I got bored and decided to wander out onto the balcony, as did many others. I fell into a conversation with a group of girls wearing black corsets, who’d journeyed all the way from a neighboring college for the sole purpose of attending this party. They were mystified. I told them I was too. In the distance, leaning against the wrought iron of the fire escape in a pair of hunter-green boxer shorts, one still-Chuck Taylor’d foot propped against the railing, I saw a guy I recognized from my Russian literature class. His skinny frame must have been cold in the late-September air.

He was the type who actually wore an ironic John Deere hat most places he went, along with flannel shirts and ripped jeans. I might be making this next part up, but I also seem to recall that he owned a pair of aviator shades. He had been dating another girl in our class, a freckle-faced redhead with Coke-bottle-thick grandma glasses, the type who usually wore neutral-colored T-shirts and corduroys to class. We’d read Turgenev’s “First Love,” along with some lit. theory article by (I want to say) Mikhail Bakhtin. We were having the sort of meandering discussion that my professor seemed to like best, with long excursions about his time working for the Soviet government and regular tie-ins to works of popular culture, whose dialectical relationship to the novel would only become clear at the end and even then usually seemed a little tenuous. We’d somehow gotten from a scene in “First Love” to some point of Bakhtin’s to an unrepeatable Soviet story involving stolen copy machines to “Kill Bill, Vol. 2,” which I hadn’t seen, and our respective impressions of it. He, John Deere hat, raised his hand.

Now, he and his girl usually sat right next to each other, probably even passed love notes back and forth, or at any rate snarky comments about the rest of us, but today they’d situated themselves on opposite sides of the desk-circle. After he’d finished his spiel about “Kill Bill,” she snorted audibly. “Jesus!” she yelled, stunning everyone with her volume, including the professor, who craned his neck to see what would happen next. “You think you’re so smart. Why don’t you go cry in your room and listen to Modest Mouse, asshole?” She got up and left.

Yet there he was, not a week later, neither crying nor listening to Modest Mouse. I watched him retrieve a smoke from a pack of American Spirits, which, pocketless, he’d decided to tuck into one of his socks. He lighted it, then turned his head wistfully to the side as he exhaled. He was alone and seemed to want to be. I wondered if she, the now-ex-girlfriend, had been the author of a student editorial I’d read in the campus newspaper that week. The writer, a Miss Regatta Summer II, Class of ’05, ha ha, had related a story from a party at which she’d sat next to some hipster boy on a grimy leather sofa and listened to him drone tediously on about his interests. He’d tried to impress her by claiming to like Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” unironically, though she, street-smart socialite that she was, had seen through his ploy and quizzed him about his knowledge of Timberlake’s earlier catalog, a subject on which, suffice it to say, he’d rather embarrassed himself. Bluff, called. Next, he’d switched gears and tried to discuss the music he was “sincerely” into, and had lighted on a new album by the queer shock-rocker Xiu-Xiu, a novice move if ever there was one. I remember these two sentences of the article verbatim: “I mean, come on darling, Xiu-Xiu? Xiu-Xiu isn’t even that cool.” Your efforts to charm me were pathetic, in other words. Who’s so smart now?

(It is, for the record, my sincere hope that no woman ever feels the lust for vengeance required to inspire such a piece of writing. I’m certain my own efforts to impress are at least this flimsy.)

In any event, I’d kind of hit it off with one of the girls from out of town, which in retrospect was probably not an especially challenging feat. “Everyone’s so liberal and free here,” she marveled. I said I guessed so. The floor inside had become sticky, owing to the steady stream of PBR that had been sloshed on it all night. A new DJ had taken the booth and was spinning newish hip-hop, a change of pace for which everyone seemed grateful. The incredible heat on the dance floor, which, come to think of it, was probably sticky with sweat as well, was rather unpleasant, especially compared to the cool autumn air outside. As the songs wound on, she turned around to grind on me, thong on boxers, a new experience for me, to say the least. We gradually got more adventurous, my hands on her waist, her ass, up her curves to her breasts. “Do you want to make out?” she asked. I said I guessed so.

The music stopped again at some later point and the same beer-shampooed guy from earlier announced that next there would be a live musical performance. The crowd hollered. After some moments of relative quiet, during which everyone was still talking loudly, the lights went up. Something about how he couldn’t see the back of his mixer and could someone get him a Y-splitter and also the mic was too hot. Raising the lights was, of course, a serious breach of the implied social contract that governs the Sex Party. Girls wrapped their arms nervously around their exposed midsections; guys crossed theirs standoffishly. Tape-Xs-on-her-Nipples pretended to be too cool to care and went on gabbing, breasts bouncing as she gesticulated, red Solo cup in hand.

“OK, cool, kill it,” someone said, and all the lights died. People screamed. A thundering synthesizer blared, and multicolored strobes came on. The beat skittered and hopped, the bass throbbed, and he, a shirtless guy with longish hair, began to sing. He had a good-not-great tenor, and the mic clipped a bit (it was, in fact, too hot). It didn’t take long for me to recognize the tune, owing to a somewhat unfortunate “metal phase” I’d gone through in 10th grade, though more and more people began to catch on as the song progressed. It was, indeed, Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.” Squeals of delight went up from the crowd as he approached the chorus. “I want to fuck you like an animal!” he snarled, “I want to feel you from the inside!” On the second go-round, everyone was chanting along, the song selection so obvious and therefore so perfect, since the exploration of the unspoken obvious was the theme of the night. At the end, we went absolutely wild (as though we already weren’t).

“Any idea who that guy was?” she shouted in my ear. “None,” I replied. Curious myself, I looked around the crowd for the people I’d originally come with, and spotted a friend some distance away. “Hold on, I’ll be right back.” I weaved and pushed my way through the mass of bodies, making no effort to avoid brushing skin on skin, and found him. “Hey,” I yelled, “any idea who that guy was?” He shrugged his shoulders. “None, pretty damn good, though.”

* * *

That guy, in turned out, was Andrew VanWyngarden, lead singer of the band MGMT, who were then a campus group known as The Management.

I’d first been introduced to their music by my hall’s resident advisor — den mother, only he was a father — a couple of weeks earlier. He was exactly the sort of R.A. any freshman looking to get up to no good would hope for, always willing to turn a blind eye about bottles of vodka in dresser drawers or fire-code-violating candles. “R.A. Goggles,” he called it. He was the sort of dude who, after doing his required rounds around the dorm — most of which he spent chatting with people he wanted to know better — could be found at in-room parties the next dorm over, losing at beer pong while shuffling his feet to Michael Jackson. He wore Van Halen T-shirts and Levi’s 501s, even tied a paisley bandanna around his head from time to time, a gesture he most assuredly meant. I’d once decided, rather mischievously, that I should test his loyalties by daring him to write me up on the grounds that I was a big butthead who deserved it, a category for which the school’s “R.A. Concern” forms did not have a pre-printed checkbox. He went with “Other, please specify: Is a butthead.” I believe he actually got in some trouble for this, though I’ve always felt it was an important bonding moment for us. We learned fairly early on that we both played the electric guitar and decided, one weekend, to hang out in his room and jam.

He had a stereo system that would make any neighbor furious, provided that neighbor was not also a college student with an equally fierce stereo system. We tried to learn Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today,” me on rhythm, him on lead, but after a while got sick of playing and ended up just sitting around talking about music. This led to us each playing some of our favorite cuts for the other. He was into the Darkness’ “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” which I said was entertaining but not necessarily my style. I think I played him Interpol’s “Untitled,” a song I’d heard for the first time at a party with my high-school friends that past summer. I had been totally blown away, though I think somehow Goldschläger was involved then, too. “So,” I asked, “are there any good campus bands?”

“There are a couple.”

“Like who?”

“Well, there’s Andy, a ska band, everyone likes them.”

“Yeah, I think they played at the, like, orientation concert for freshmen. Anyone else?”

“You might like these guys, check this out.”

What he played me was an early version of the song “Kids,” which would go on to become a top 10 single on the Billboard Modern Rock charts in 2008 and make several “Top X Best Songs of the 2000s” lists, including Rolling Stone’s. They’d first recorded it, he told me, back in 2002, and were trying to promote their demo. It sounded awesome. “Control yourself,” VanWyngarden’s voice sang over the impressive speakers, “take only what you need from it!” I sat down and shut up during this one, a courtesy I hadn’t extended to the Darkness. “Wow,” I eventually managed, “that was pretty sick.” I asked him to burn me a copy of the track.

Years later, some friends would tell me that the lyrics were supposed to be about environmental consciousness, that they contained references to Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” I chuckled, since it seemed fitting enough, though I’d never bothered trying to decipher the words. When the band’s impressive debut album, “Oracular Spectacular,” dropped shortly after my graduation, several people from my new group of friends asked me if I liked “Em Gee Em Tee.” I replied that I didn’t know who that was.

In case there was any ambiguity, yes, I am trying to say that I liked this band before it was cool — way before, in fact. The only difference is that, in my case, it’s actually true. I was not friends with VanWyngarden, nor was I friends with lead instrumentalist Ben Goldwasser. I doubt very much that they have any idea who I am, and I suspect that they wouldn’t care if they did. I did, however, see them in concert at various locations on campus and was, in point of fact, playing the song “Kids” for people a long time before it was actually released.

What all of that amounts to, I feel, is approximately nothing. I do not consider myself special or unique or extraordinary as a result of the fact that I saw the singer of MGMT cover Nine Inch Nails at a Sex Party in 2003. I just happen to have encountered this particular band well before they became popular, which is no more a point of pride for me than the fact that I was 3 years old in 1988. I should not have told this story.

I suspect, however, that when people roll their eyes in disdain at hipsters who make similar claims, they feel themselves to be the intended targets of an especially overt — and obnoxious — form of cultural condescension. “Oh, Real Estate? I guess they’re OK. I was into them a few years ago. My cousin is friends with their drummer. Their new record is overrated, though.” Maybe it’s that these claims sound insincere — posturing for the sake of posturing, not grounded in lived experience. Or maybe, more likely, it’s just that we don’t want to get sucked into the hipster status-performance game, a vortex of irony in which we may be doomed to swirl forever. But either way, I think we can agree that it’s pretty annoying. Not a socially beneficial behavior, that’s for sure, and at any rate one whose principle effect is to bolster the power and influence of Pitchfork Media. Why don’t you go cry in your room and listen to Modest Mouse, asshole?

By Benjamin Winterhalter

Benjamin Winterhalter is a writer and editor whose work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, the LA Review of Books, and elsewhere. On Twitter @BAWinterhalter.

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