These Children That You Spit On
Dancing With the Clubkids
And then there's Austin's burgeoning, outlandishly creative clubkid scene, fueled by the rapid though sometimes shaky success of all-night dance clubs like Proteus, the 404, Ohms, and the Hollywood, the latter frequently staying open until 10 or 11am on the weekends. These are the crowds of kids hanging out front of Proteus in the wee hours, when the rest of Austin's party district have made their scores, found their lays, and are scurrying back home for one last Cuervo shot before crashing.
With their see-through vinyl backpacks slung over their shoulders, red and violet lightsticks clutched in their hands, and rivers of dance-sweat ruining their mascara and making their pancake gob up, these clubkids look like an exhausted army retreating under the all-knowing eyes of Generals Donovan Leitch and Madonna by the end of the night. But really, they're just trying to find a ride down to the Hollywood, to continue the night's fierce, fashionable revelries.
Asked about the youths that descend on Proteus every Friday and Saturday night, manager Kevin Campbell quickly professes affection for the legions of dance/fashion outcasts, and then adds, "They're multiplying." Like roaches? "More like rabbits, I think." Bunnies, huh? That's fitting: I've seen more "Hello! Kitty" and Keropi patches, T-shirts, and assorted Japanese cartoon character-festooned garb in the last three weeks than I can shake an Astro-Boy at. And you thought there was a trade war.
As in any scene, the clubkids are fueled not only by music - and here that music comes in the form of club deejays that spin endless amounts of House, Trance, Jungle, Techno, Dub, etc., for hours upon end - but also, and just as importantly, by a deep and vested interest in fashion, and all that comes with it.
Shar Superstar, 21, looks like a model, acts like a model, wants to be a fashion designer, and enjoys putting on fashion shows and long, moonlit walks. Well, maybe not long moonlit walks, but the rest is true. As a longtime member of what is more or less a recently developed scene, Shar's known by everyone, and got his start as a clubkid after visiting the Emerald City of Clubbiness, New York City.
"For a lot of us, this is not something that we're going to be doing the rest of our lives," he says. "We all have goals and we all have something that we want to do in society. It's not a complete, all consuming thing. For many clubkids, it has been that way over the years, but, you know, you grow up after you've done certain things, and you just want to move on. I personally want to head into more of the designing aspect of it, fashion designing and so forth. After all, the life of a clubkid in New York is only about two years."
Shar and others of his group - a sort of senior hierarchy of clubkids that have managed to stick around longer than most - view the clubs and their lifestyle as a stepping stone towards more ambitious ventures. Malaysia, a wiry, androgynous Asian with a penchant for what s/he calls "genderfuck," is on her way to being a model/fashion designer. Fashion rules their lives, completely, utterly, and without a trace of irony, except, perhaps for this, from Malaysia: "Everyone thinks we're rich, that we've got all this money because we dress up and look so good, but we're not. We're all completely broke. Most of what we wear is from thrift stores, or we borrow clothes from each other to get the look."
The Look falls somewhere between Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and post-Blade Runner, with a bit of Tex Avery thrown in for good measure. The most striking thing about many clubkid's ensembles - and the most treacherous thing, as it turns out - are the foot-high, multicolored platform shoes that have become so popular. Frequently made by gluing together the soles of liberated flip-flops one atop another, this vertigo-inducing footwear has become more or less a trademark of the scene. It's not unusual to see some poor kid topple, shrieking in embarrassed dismay to the floor, after putting too much weight on his instep. This resembles nothing so much as a terrorist attack on the Statue of Liberty. Ouch.
Sliver Cyberslut is another longtime clubkid. Already tall in his stocking feet, he's positively colossal in his heels, striding carefully through Proteus on any given Friday night in a way-too-small Starfucker Baseball jersey, his hair and makeup done in a style that might put one in mind of Princess Leia cross-pollinated with Chewbacca. Alarming at first sight, Sliver's modeled for the legendary Todd Oldham, and currently deejays three nights a week at the Hollywood.
"A few years ago I went to New York City after hearing about the club scene up there," he says. "I saw what everybody was doing and I thought it was fabulous: They were just having a really good time, and dressing up in these outrageous outfits, and being who they wanted to be. Nobody cared if you were a guy or a girl or if you were straight or gay or in-between. It was great, and, on top of that, they've managed to turn it into a business. The clubkids in New York get paid to show up, because they bring more customers into the clubs. People buy creativity all the time."
The androgyny factor is a big part of the clubkid scene. David Bowie may have made it popular to the mainstream, but clubbers take it to a whole new level. The first time I saw Malaysia, I thought she was a girl and flirted with her for a while (she's not, but for the purposes of identification in this article, she said to go with the feminine when referring to her). She doesn't remember this, but I do.
"Just recently I started doing the genderfuck thing," she says. "No breasts, but dressing and looking very much like a woman. I'll be down on Sixth Street, and I'll hear guys behind me saying, wow, what a woman, and then I'll turn around and they'll be like, shit! Is that a man or a woman? I'll look at them and say, well, what do you think? They always say, `What are you trying to do? Make yourself into a woman?' And I'll shoot back, `Well, what are you trying to do, make yourself a man?' They're putting us down because they think it's not normal, but to us, this is normal. I choose to do this because I feel comfortable this way."
With clubkids' wildly accentuated make-up, outlandish fashion sense, and gender-obliterating get-ups, it may lead most in the mainstream to believe that the whole scene is a rebel faction from Austin's notoriously creative gay and lesbian culture. But according to Shar, that's not really the case. There is, indeed, a sizable percentage of queerkids embracing and, in turn, being embraced by the scene, but "as far as it being either a gay or a straight thing, it really doesn't matter. There really are quite a few people involved with [the clubkid scene] that are straight. Granted, many of the males that are involved are gay, but like I said, you've got both persuasions, and it's not particularly either one.
"For example, in New York City, the mixed [straight/gay] clubs cater almost exclusively to drag queens, to the extent of consciously excluding the clubkids, who instead go to, and work for, the straight dance clubs. It's the straight people who accept and appreciate the clubkids, because they view them as clowns, you know, as a fun, kind of interesting thing to look at and be around. The drag queens and the clubkids don't generally get along, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that drag queens tend to have such a seriousness to them - they want to portray themselves as women, they want to win drag queen titles, and so forth. Clubkids, on the other hand, just really don't care. They just basically enjoy and carry out the ambience of the club scene. It's something that we do out of a sense fun."
Getting back to David Bowie, Shar adds, "In my eyes, it's just a little bit more interesting to have someone who's androgynous, because that's where the mystery is. I believe anything that is beautiful is beautiful because it arouses a mysterious interest in itself - you want to know how it works, what puts it together, and then maybe you're inspired creatively to either look for something else like that, or maybe do it yourself."
On any given weekend, Proteus, 404, and the Hollywood are convulsing with the hordes of clubgoers, dance freaks, and clubkids that sidle their booties through the door and shake until dawn, but Proteus is clubkid central (with the exception of Ohms on Thursday nights, when club fave deejays Carlos and Rich are behind the Technics). Boasting the best sound and a lightshow that must be seen to be believed, as well as DJ Herb of Alien Records [see sidebar], Proteus is the place to be. On any given night, a long line trails out of the club and into the street from their side entrance. "That's to discourage people from Sixth Street from coming in," says manager Campbell. Why? "They don't mix well with our usual crowd." The bathrooms inside are overflowing (everyone knows the bathroom is the place to be, unless, of course, you have to use it for a legitimate reason), the bar is SRO, and the dance floors - one down, one up - are clubkid paradise, a place to see and be seen, a place where they're are gawked at by the uninitiated, but not spit at, as sometimes happens outside, on the more hostile street.
The combination of concussive house music and rampant lasers and Intellibeams is bewildering at first, but quickly grows on you, making Proteus the most popular of Austin's quasi-underground dance clubs. Campbell estimates between 1,000 and 1,500 people come through in a night. It is, as they say, fierce, ruling shit.
Sliver: "It's very much a give and take situation. We give something to the club, which is mainly that we bring people into the club because of the way we look. That's our job, basically. It's a form of promotion, it's entertainment, it's the whole thing. It's like a circus in a way."
Partly because of their affiliation with the rave culture - and everyone agrees that this has been a very, very good year for raves in Austin - much media attention and generalized public opinion has been focused on clubkids, and the underground's use of the drug Ecstasy. When I brought this up, Sliver, who cheerfully admitted to being a recovering addict said: "The way I look at it is, yes, there are drugs in the clubs - everybody knows it - but then, they're in all the clubs, from Proteus, to Paradox, to wherever, and it really doesn't matter. We can go out on any given night without any drugs, any liquor, and have just as much fun - if not more so - than if we were fucked up. Drugs are not what the club scene is about. A lot of people tend to put emphasis on drugs because they don't really know what the scene is about, and drugs are a convenient peg to hang their assumptions on. It's just not like that, though."
Malaysia adds: "People think that because we don't act `normal', or look `normal' that we must be on drugs, and that's not always so. This is just the way we are, drugs or no."
Although the clubkids scene in Austin is a relatively new one, it remains one of the more vital subcultures around, having definite and decidedly strong ties to other clubkids havens such as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Recently NYC's uber-clubkid Richie Rich was in town, checking out the scene, hanging out, and generally acting like the underground superstar that he is. The frequency with which 'kids travel to other cities to check out the action there is alarming. Both Sliver and Malaysia have recently spent time in New York, and a host of other locals have also jetted about the country, advertising the Austin scene and, clichéd though it might be, generally setting the world afire with their groovy love thangs ("love," "acceptance," and "encouragement" are three words that seem to pop out of the lipstick-smeared mouths of clubkids with alarmingly hippie-esque frequency).
Another word you hear is "power." The power, and the freedom, coupled with an almost inexhaustible pool of talented imaginations, to be who they want to be, look exactly how they want to look, and act like the best budding fashion plates in the world, Mr. Blackwell be damned.
Shar explains: "The reason we feel power is because these are characters we've created. This is our own illusion, one that we've created all by ourselves, and we're getting attention for it. We become these characters, and when we're all dressed up, we're completely different than in the daytime. And, you know, it's an empowering character because it's appreciated."