So bad it’s good

air-guitarListen, you’ve got to follow your bliss. I’m just saying, when the guy in the black trench coat snatched up a microphone stand and started miming a wailing guitar solo, it was time to leave.

It wasn’t the mime, per se. I have no problem, for example, with air-guitar. Writhing around as you play an imaginary electric guitar is a clear and brave commitment to fantasy, much like paying tax in South Africa and imagining that the money is going to the rural Eastern Cape rather than to a secret bank account in Dubai.

But when he picked up that stand and started lashing it with his fingers we could no longer pretend that the party was going well.

Then again, the party had been billed as a nostalgic trip back to the shoulder-pads and synth beats of the 1980s, so it was probably doomed from the outset.

The organisers had tried to evoke some familiar 1980s tropes, and, to be fair, they’d got a few things right – the white people sat at the opposite side of the room from the black people, and the place seemed incredibly far away from the rest of the world. But mostly it just felt like the last half-hour of the Christmas party of a small company that is about to go bankrupt in the new year.

We’d tried to get into the spirit of things, offering ironic cheers when the leathery DJ played Rick Astley, but it was heavy going. After an hour, the black people shuffled out with politely disgusted expressions. After two, we picked up the Rubik’s Cubes that had been left lying around as authentic 1980s décor and quickly became despondent and angry as we failed to line up even one row of colours. Nobody wants to have their intellectual limitations thrust at them while listening to Jason Donovan in a cavernous black room that smells of stale beer and surrender.

Perhaps fearing that he was losing us, the DJ retreated into his professional comfort zone, and, with almost visible relief, started playing hard rock from the 1990s.

As if by magic, the far wall, which I had thought was an enormous black curtain, revealed itself to be half a dozen young men, emerging in folds of gothic blackness like Transylvanian bats obeying the whispers of an undead count. Moments later, one of the pimply bats bounded up onto the stage, and was making the mic stand wail. Which is where you arrived, and where I started planning my exit.

two of them held up iPads and started filming

Again, I must insist it wasn’t the fantasy that bothered me, or even the use of a prop. After all, let he who has never picked up a long metal stick and used it to play a careful forward defensive or raised it and cried “En garde!” cast the first aspersion. No, it wasn’t the pretence. It was the pedantry of it. Because as we watched him play a wailing guitar solo on the stand, we realised that he was taking it incredibly seriously. And so were the people watching him. So seriously, in fact, that two of them held up iPads and started filming him as he bent over the rod, making absolutely sure he pressed his fingers onto the correct invisible fret as he plucked the right nonexistent string.

We slid out of there a little later, leaving the children of the night to their thrashing and raised rock ‘n’ roll fists. We agreed it was pretty much the least successful party we’d ever seen, and we’d seen both COPE and Agang.

In the following days, however, I found myself starting to feel more kindly towards the dismal evening, until, a week later, I could even believe that I’d had fun.

It seemed a strange about-turn to make. After all, the party had been terrible. The music, the décor, the food-like substances strewn across the trestle tables: all had been bad.

And then I realised: that’s why I’d enjoyed it. It hadn’t just been bad. It had been authentically, unselfconsciously bad. Which had made it rather wonderful.

We’re not allowed to be bad at having fun any more. The advertising industry and its high priests in pop culture have forbidden it. Gatherings must be gilded and glistening, defined not by who’s there but by who didn’t make the cut. Spontaneity must run on a marketing schedule. Fun must be Photoshopped.

The right car, the right clothes, the right friends, the right thoughts: when it comes to seeking pleasure, the free market is a totalitarian regime. You’re either on trend or you’re ironically off it, which means you’re on it anyway.

But a bad party, where awkwardness bumps up against shyness and spills over into clumsy exhibitionism; where people’s oddness is affirmed and their quirks displayed on a stage; well, I find that rather consoling.

So make it wail, mic-stand hero. Make it wail.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail


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