Confession: I was absolutely thinking about pulling out of my first silent party an hour before I was to leave for it. I was running on minimal sleep and nursing a dehydration headache all day; and it was one of those cold, rainy fall days for which God invented cuffing season, malbec and Showtime Anytime. Lying immobile on my carpeted living room floor in the dark while watching SMILF seemed way more appealing.
I’ve never been a huge fan of nightclubs in general, and I appreciate that being in my mid- to late 30s allows me to be nakedly hostile toward them, instead of having to craft excuses to my boys as to why I don’t want to drop a dub to hear a DJ “spin” (read: shuffle through his iTunes playlist) songs from rappers with alternative-school-dropout bars. But I promised my boy Matty that I’d go, and The Root that I’d write about it, so I put on my big-boy Hanes, popped some Aleve and headed out to the Promontory, a restaurant-slash-performance venue in Chicago’s “downtown” Hyde Park neighborhood.
Urban Fetes, a Chicago-based media agency, has thrown silent parties throughout the country all year. When Matty explained to me their basic conceit—people gather to listen to music on headphones in a club environment—my initial response was, “Sounds like some white-people shit.”
Why would I want to pay to do something I can do in the crib while in my drawers eating dried mango slices? However, Matty assured me that the event would be rife with Negroes—indeed, the group of bad sistas in leather pants walking with me on 53rd Street as we headed toward the Promontory gave me hope that it might not be so bad after all.
I arrived at about 10:15, which allowed me to enter the venue pretty quickly; two hours later, there was a line down the stairs and out the door. They took my driver’s license in exchange for a numbered card and a pair of over-ear headphones. A nice young lady gave me a 10-second tutorial: On the right earpiece is a volume knob; on the left, an on-off switch and a switch that cycles through three channels: blue, red and green.
Each channel corresponded to a DJ on the stage, playing his own set independent of the other two; the headphones light up like neon with the color connected to your channel. You can see what channel you’re on by turning your eyes as far as they go to see the glow. Since I use Bluetooth cans daily, muscle memory made me dig for my iPhone every time I wanted to change a song; otherwise, the learning curve was not steep.
There were lots of attendees when I arrived—a healthy smattering of both bougie and hood black folks, along with a handful of white and assorted-ethnicity folks who were probably students from the nearby University of Chicago. Despite the headphones, almost all of the regular club staples were present: the call-and-response from DJs, throwing elbows at the bar to get your woefully overpriced and watered-down Jack and Coke; and dudes ice-grilling you if you dare scuff their Timbs (OK, maybe I’m projecting here).
The most interesting—and surreal—aspect of the silent party was watching people respond to widely disparate music. You’re “la-da-dee-la-da-doww”-ing to Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman” while there’s a dude freaking his girl down on the bar, so you switch to their green and hear “I was gettin’, gettin’ some head.” Take your headphones off and it sounds like what happens if it were socially acceptable for a roomful of people to dance and sing loudly to the music only they’re listening to.
The biggest appeal of these parties, I’m sure, is having the option of not listening to music you don’t want to hear, something most nightclubs don’t provide by design. There wasn’t a discernible pattern on the green and blue stations—just a mixture of old- and new-school rap and R&B. But because the event had a house theme (and because it’s Chicago), the red channel played house music all night. Also because it’s Chicago, R. Kelly’s “Feelin’ on Yo’ Booty” came on twice that evening, and damn near no one changed the station.
The DJs did well with their blends and song selections throughout the night, but there were certainly moments when all three were not hitting at the same time. For me, one of the worst parts of the conventional club experience is being forced to listen to a song that makes me wanna pull my brains out of my nose with a coat hanger, so the option to completely disengage was welcome.
The other appeal of that disengagement is the ability to talk to people with your inside voice—no Lil Wayne-breath-having dudes yelling, “HEY, HELLO, WHERE YOU FROM? CAN I BUY YOU A DRINK?!?” directly in your ear, motivating you to go home and activate a Tinder account to find your future husband. I met a woman simply by taking off my headphones, tapping her on the shoulder and introducing myself when she moved her earpiece.
Charity, who admitted that she was 40 despite looking a smooth seven or eight years younger, said she believed that the silent party is a microcosm of how people function in our society today (people doing their own thing, heads buried in their smartphones), which is a stark contrast to the sociable, presmartphone clubbing she did in her 20s. That the silent party could be a by-product of Donald Trump’s America made the whole thing a bit more … depressing.
Around 1 a.m. is the only time I saw collaboration among the DJs: Each one instructed everyone to turn their channels to green. But one of them rambled over the channel about nothing before turning on something slow that had everyone standing still, so I took it as a sign to change the channel from green to “Dustin’s pillow.” Despite an ever growing line to return headphones for IDs, Urban Fetes did well with coordination, allowing me to get out with no problems.
I enjoyed the experience of clubbing with a bunch of headphone-wearing folks far more than I expected to. Something that seems antisocial on its face actually manages to be more social and unique. Even if the idea of going out to a club makes you throw your index fingers in a cross as if Dracula is approaching—and even if you, like me, are a card-carrying member of the get-off-my-lawn set—a silent party is worth trying just once.
Attending instead of posting up on my carpet in front of the television was a good decision. Now, hitting up the dude selling jerk chicken and rib tips out of his truck outside the Promontory after 1 a.m. ... ? Not the finest 30-something decision.