Silhouette drawing of a person with a caged bird inside them, looking at other people dancingBy John He

Volume XXXV, Issue 2, March 8, 2013

I have a confession to make: I like my Amherst bubble. In fact, I like it so much that I spend much of my time in a bubble within a bubble within a bubble. Thus it was a rare excursion for me when, one Saturday, compelled by a promise to a friend, I took a step out and journeyed down N. Pleasant Street to the Valentines-themed “Love Comes Out” party at the much-hyped University of Massachusetts. It had been a while since I last stepped foot in the “real world.” I expected exotic dancers and elephants and extravagance in general. I was somewhat disappointed.

At first glance, it seemed far less—let’s just say—questionable than most Amherst parties, whether TAP or GAP, Crossett 101 or Crossett 102. It was made inherently less dubious by the very fact that it was held in the non-claustrophobia-inducing atrium of the UMass Fine Arts Center, as opposed to some random basement or a cramped common room, or worse, the Friedmann Room.

There was actually a line to get in, since the building had exceeded capacity. But we were privileged nevertheless with the opportunity to stand outside a glass partition and survey the scene before us. The muted music found its way around the cracks of the glass doors, beckoning all of us in line to begin preparing our bodies for what awaited us, to sway and nod along as we visually feasted on the excitement within. The potential for fun appeared to increase exponentially as time progressed. In fact, I was already beginning to viscerally feel the potentiality for fun transmute into actuality (literally; I could feel my viscera vibrate).

Inside, the collected masses writhed to the rhythm of the music, pumping their fists in near synchrony. A guy in a toga could be spotted gyrating across the dance floor, weaving in and out through the multitudes of people. (It was not a theme party.) Outside, someone seemed to be having the time of his life throwing up, though quite safely, seeing as he was surrounded by EMTs carefully monitoring his condition. In front of us, an intensely frustrated girl with an elevated BAC demanded to be let in. Her yelling seemed to be effective, for we were soon allowed in.

I stood at first on the outskirts, attempting to chat with my friend, chocolate-covered strawberries in hand. I met some people, whose names I couldn’t hear, much less remember. We exchanged a few words. Conversation would’ve been nice—after all, the whole point of my excursion was to meet new people, for I had always entertained the fantasy that, if only I got out of my bubble once in a while and went to these parties, I’d strike up a great conversation with somebody and realize how much we have in common. Except speaking was not practically feasible—nor, in fact, was yelling.

So what else is there to do in such a situation but dance? And dance I did. Gingerly, I attempted to insert myself into the dancing multitudes, easing into their momentum. Epileptic flashes of light. Somebody’s butt. Somebody’s butt again, this time vehemently and assertively pushing against my back, pushing me uncomfortably close to a random girl dancing in front of me. Grinding. Lots of people grinding—in pairs, in triplets, now in a chain—a continuous loop of simulated sex, obscene and oddly comical at once. How they didn’t spontaneously erupt into a public orgy was a mystery to me.

In time, I admit, everyone’s rabid enthusiasm infected me too. It was hard not to get carried away. But there also came times when I’d stumble into pockets of reality, or rather of sobriety—one of those meta moments of self-observation. When I looked around, I would see an uncontainable grin on every face. And then I’d see the grin on my own face. I could not dance away the nagging knowledge that I was only superficially partaking in a temporary spectacle.

There’s no denial that parties are fun and pleasurable, but let’s not deceive ourselves: More often than not we go to them because they are the only place where we can meet new people—the only time, besides Orientation (imagine just plopping yourself down at a random table in Val tomorrow), when it is not awkward to insert ourselves into another group of established friends. But where speaking is impossible, and genuine interaction unrealizable, what lasting connections can result? It is a rather unfortunate fact of our social existence that the most dominant forum of social interaction precludes meaningful social interaction.

That night I decided to walk back to campus. Only the cold, hard quiet could clear my head of the ringing echoes of pop melody blasted to the max. I wondered how somebody from any other age would react to the sight of us today. I imagined the puzzlement of an outsider looking in, one who was not immediately immersed in and inured to the culture of our age.

Amherst’s social scene seems to be a source of continued discontent. We’d like to think that it’s a distinctly Amherst problem, founded on the administration’s misguided policies or inadequate programming. But at UMass I realized that the same problem must be alive and well across the nation. No amount of action or attention from the administration can restrain or move the community in any significant way. We kid ourselves if we think the administration can transform the social scene with community hours or a bar. We do what we want. No change can come from above when we ourselves doggedly latch on to the culture of impersonal partying as the primary source of socializing.

So we may criticize the culture, but we are the culture. Perhaps, it’s time to examine ourselves. What really lies at the bottom of the spring of desire that moves us to crave the type of rhythm and pleasure that we do at these parties? What kind of friendships and social interactions do we truly value and desire? These are the broader questions that we must face as a community, but also individually. Or will we be content to be forever a community of acquaintances?