All the Pandemic’s Parties

How underground nightlife reporters Michelle Lhooq of Rave New World and Brock Colyar of New York shine a light on places where people don’t always want to be seen

It’s a quiet time for partying — not that it’s not happening, just that, once again, it’s a bad look to be posting too much about it. That’s a dilemma that’s long confronted nightlife reporters, even before lockdowns and social distancing guidelines. When you’re writing about people in their least guarded moments, in situations where they’ve let loose and feel momentarily free of the dictates of the superego, how do you tell the story without hurting the people you’re observing? How do you surveil a scene without ruining it? “Underground content thrives in the underground media, and underground media is strengthened by staying a little bit secretive from prying eyes that might assume bad faith, or even be law enforcement,” said Michelle Lhooq, previously an editor at Vice’s defunct electronic music site Thump, who started her largely paywalled counterculture newsletter Rave New World at the beginning of the pandemic. “When I started reporting on the reopening party scene, a lot of what I was writing was about psychedelic parties or interesting drug trends that I was noticing in the underground, and often I was talking about people using drugs in specific circumstances, or talking about my own experiences using drugs and how it made me feel and the insights that it would bring,” she said. Writing behind a paywall has allowed her to “feel more liberated to talk about things that could be seen as controversial or literally illegal.”

Lhooq’s newsletter wasn’t always paywalled. “At first, I just put everything up for free because you want to scale, and you’re stuck in this mainstream media mentality where numbers and reach are the most important, which is something that I think I inherited from working for all these new media companies,” she said. But she soon realized that publishing her stories for free wasn’t bringing in enough money to make a living, and, at the same time, a recent matter she was handling made her reconsider what she could have in the open. “My lawyer was like, ‘You need to hide all of your work, especially the stuff about drugs,’” she recalled. “So I was like, ‘Okay, let me start putting all of the drug content that I’m doing behind the paywall,’ and that way, it’s harder to index on Google, it’s harder to search for, and honestly, it’s harder to share.” The issue has since been resolved, but the paywall stuck around.

In the beginning, locking up her work was scary. “I was afraid to lose my reach. I think everyone who runs a Substack usually has at least ten times more free readers than paid, and the number of paid that I had was so few that I was like, ‘Oh my God, do I really just want to write for 100-something people? That’s crazy,’” she said. But it quickly became apparent how publishing for a more limited audience allowed her to have more honest conversations with people. “I wrote about some of the nightlife discourse that was happening around New York raves reopening, and there was a lot of really toxic energy in spaces that I felt the mainstream media’s exuberant coverage of nightlife, at least in the beginning, wasn’t really talking about,” she said. “Later, it shifted to what the real story was, which everyone was saying was that the vibes were off. But in the beginning, it was just all euphoria. I was trying to talk to people about the toxic vibe, and I said, ‘I’m writing this for a closed newsletter, so it’s not going to be visible to everyone, and you can be anonymous,’ often they would just be like, ‘Oh, okay, cool.’ People were definitely feeling good about that level of anonymity.”

It took Brock Colyar — the 23-year-old New York magazine reporter who wrote a blockbuster cover story on pandemic partying and writes its “Are U Coming?” party reporting newsletter, and who Lhooq has teasingly referred to as one of the “cub journalists popping 2C-B pills” — a few issues of writing their newsletter to fully understand the utility of anonymity in nightlife reporting, especially in such a public venue. “My first couple of issues, I was really naming people as I would if I was writing a story for the magazine,” they said. “In some of the cases, I was operating in really niche communities, and I was kind of outing people, not even for that ridiculous behavior, but drinking too much, doing drugs, flirting with someone at the party. It came to the point where I kind of decided that it wasn’t so necessary to be naming everyone. My readers were not benefiting from knowing the names of these people who they did not know and will not get to know anyway. After maybe the fourth or fifth one, besides the main subjects that I’m following around unless they’re a celebrity of some sort, I anonymize most of the people who I talk to.”

Eventually, Colyar realized that creatively deploying anonymity could not only resolve some ethical quandaries but could also be fun. “I had gone to Madonna’s pride party and interacted with this C-list gay porn star who was having an interaction with my subject, and it just caused a little bit of drama,” they recalled. “It’s fun to create some drama sometimes, and it’s fun to be a little gossipy, but it is coming out in New York magazine.” So they didn’t name the porn star. “Looking back, that drama was so crucial for the piece, and it was a great thing to have picked up on as the reporter, so all of that stayed in the piece, but it didn’t benefit my reader to know who this gay porn star was,” they said. “In fact, I found when I started anonymizing people like that, it became fun for the reader, because then you read it, and you’re like, ‘Who was this porn star? Which one do you think it is? Or who was this editor who’s doing ketamine on the dance floor? I wonder who that is.’ That’s kind of a fun thing for the reader.”

Even in her paywalled newsletters, Lhooq likes to play with that kind of surface anonymity, referring to Taylor Lorenz in one that’s been unlocked since its initial publication as “a notorious ‘it’ girl reporter who covers internet culture for the paper of record,” while also linking to her work. “I always liked that wink-wink partial anonymity where you have to kind of be in the know to know exactly what I’m talking about,” she said. “It’s more seductive to assume this half-in half-out insider-y tone. I think of a lot of the nightlife writing from The Village Voice or New York magazine in the ’90s, they were all written in this style. And then even the tradition of Gawker blind items,” she said. “I think it’s a little bit crass when you’re putting it all out there and naming names. It’s more fun when there’s a thin layer of mystery that you have to do a bit of digging to uncover.”

Colyar and Lhooq have both considered how public and vulnerable they themselves want to be in their work. Even though Lhooq’s newsletter is largely locked up and features a lot of wild moments, she uses a pseudonymous surname, a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s canonical dirty joke L.H.O.O.Q. And Colyar is conflicted about how often they appear in their newsletter. “I always, historically, made fun of journalists and other writers who gratuitously put themselves into their stories, and really never wanted to be that writer. And it has been a surprise to me that throughout this project, I have continually done that,” they said. “It’s something I’ve wrestled with. I think when it comes down to it, I’m asking my subjects to do a lot in this project. I’m asking them to let me follow them around for an extended period of time, in a place that they normally would not have a journalist around, asking them to record conversations. It’s a big ask. And I actually think that me being vulnerable in writing the newsletter, and also me being vulnerable when I’m with them on the night out, drinking what they’re drinking, taking what they’re taking, I think it builds a certain trust between us that otherwise I wouldn’t have.”

Despite all this agonizing about how to approach party reporting ethically, Colyar’s found that other journalists sometimes look down on the sort of work they do. So far, they’ve only covered a couple of media parties. They’d planned on covering the new Gawker launch party back in September but backed out when it conflicted with some events for Fashion Week. (No matter: they found out that Vanity Fair’s Delia Cai ended up covering it.) Instead, their initial dip into media party coverage came at the holiday party for the new socialist feminist magazine Lux. “That was, in many respects, not a good party, not really even a party,” they said. “Media parties are like 50 percent gossip and 50 percent pitching yourself or talking about story ideas. I kept getting wrapped up in that, talking about a story idea I had with some editor and then realizing that nothing about that conversation was useful in terms of talking about the party. I kept having to pull myself out of journalism brain mode. And at that particular party, I was working with a very specific type of media person, who were the type of people who occasionally were turning their nose down at a craft like party reporting.”

“We’re pleased to have seen all our friends before the current shutdown, and to have had a party reporter to memorialize it!” tweeted the magazine’s editor and publisher Sarah Leonard after Colyar’s newsletter ran. “We regret not asking them to dance, and also apologize for not having enough blow.”

Lhooq couldn’t always articulate why nightlife reporting felt worth doing. “When I first started writing about nightlife, I was just drawn to it instinctively, kind of moving towards the avant-garde that I found to be the most potent and exciting and raw and real. I had the option of moving into the art world, I had the option of moving into the lit world, and I was like those seem so fucking boring,” she said. “Then I think over the years, it was a gradual sort of unpacking of why is this shiny, glossy thing so meaningful to me? Because I think if it was just about looking fab and doing drugs, I would have lost interest a long time ago. But it seems to be tapping into something really deep for me. I’ve always been attracted to the political side of nightlife and seeing a lot of political discourse break in nightlife before it hit the mainstream solidified that interest.”

Both Lhooq and Colyar said that omicron has slowed down their partying. “I’m not going to anything right now,” said Lhooq. “It’s really giving 2020 déjà vu.” And Colyar’s newsletter has gone on a temporary hiatus while the wave crests in New York. “I was already going to be taking a brief break for the holidays anyway, so it seems like a good time to just stop for at least two weeks, take the temperature, and then decide when it should start again. My hopes would be that we restart this again in January.” They may well be back on the beat before this wave fully passes. “I reported on parties pre-vaccine, I reported on parties post-vaccine, I reported on parties during delta. I don’t think omicron is going to stop parties,” they said. “I want to take a break just to be as safe as possible.” In the meantime, they’ve been enjoying the benefits of not having to go out professionally. “I’m going to sleep a normal nine hours at night because this job has definitely changed the way I sleep,” they said. “So I’m looking forward to actually sleeping.”