Mixtapes for Hookers

Lisa Lisa vs. Metal Night: Everyone’s A Winner

I realized, at about 11:15 tonight, that I hadn’t really spoken today. Through an odd combination of events–my boyfriend being out of town, my work consisting of walking dogs and editing photos, my familial Christmas obligations being over for now–I just didn’t have anybody to talk to today, excepting the one girl I ordered a coffee from this afternoon.

I had no intentions of going to a bar tonight, but realizing that I hadn’t spoken yet made me worry slightly for my sanity. So I went to the E&O, just to say something to somebody.

The E&O is a divey bar, three blocks from my new apartment, that is simultaneously small and yet oddly cavernous. It’s located on a side street, which by Providence law means that it’s forced to close at midnight. And it is, for lack of a more meaningful term, our hipster bar. There are a lot of beards and a lot of plaid and a lot of people getting shots with PBRs. Which isn’t a value judgment; I’m pro-beard and pro-plaid and, if forced to choose, would take a PBR over a Narragansett any day. But you know what I mean. I played the game I usually play when I’m lonely at a bar–How Many People Here Would I Consider Doing It With Based On Sight Alone?–and there were nine, which is a lot.

While it’s generally a rock bar, Tuesdays at the E&O have become kind of a thing. A DJ plays a lot of poppy stuff from the late seventies through the early nineties, with the videos for each song projected onto the giant screen that occasionally dominates the space. His song choices are novel the first time you see him and slightly less so once you know his schtick. But that’s fine, whatever. Tonight I heard/saw “Love Come Down,” “Best Of My Love,” not one but two Billy Ocean songs, and “Head To Toe,” Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s number one single from the summer of 1987.

Of everything I saw in my forty-five minutes there, “Head To Toe” was the one song that really got heads bopping. Yeah, the one girl in the cheetah-print minidress was already singing meaningfully into her straw when “Get Outta My Dreams Get Into My Car” started. But “Head To Toe” really hit big with the crowd as a whole, most of whom were my age (I’m guessing) and most of whom (unlike me) probably hadn’t heard the song in quite a while.

The first single from Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s Spanish Fly album, “Head To Toe” hit number one right after my sixth birthday, which is more or less exactly the point when I clearly remember knowing all the songs, and the videos, that appeared on MTV and on our Top 40 station, 92 PRO-FM. (Honestly, though, I preferred “Lost In Emotion,” Spanish Fly‘s second single, the video for which is notable for featuring the single most hilarious condiment-specific product placement in music video history. Sorry, Gaga.)

This year I actually saw Lisa Lisa in concert, at the nostalgia-heavy Freestyle Rush, a package tour of artists (Stevie B! Expose! Brenda K Starr!) who could only really afford to make two stops: Springfield, Massachusetts, the city where freestyle never died; and Providence, where the mayor himself came out before the show to thank the audience for keeping the spirit of freestyle alive. He seemed genuinely tickled that Lisa Lisa was actually gracing our little burg, and that made me love him even more than I already do. (Our mayor is Dominican-American and forty, meaning that he was a teenaged boy when Ms. Velez hit it big, so it’s probably not that surprising that he was a fan.  But still.) The Freestyle Rush ended up being my favorite concert of the year, despite Stevie B’s child support arrest-related absence, although honestly that probably says less about the show and more about the bleak state of my concert-affording finances and the even bleaker state of live music in Providence.

But I digress. “Head To Toe” is a good song. A great song, probably. I was done with my drink and I stayed to hear the rest of it. But of course after a few minutes it ended and then the lights came up and then I wanted another drink. (Note to people with taste buds: the Sam Adams Saison is bad. Even if it’s only $3, don’t bother.)

The West Side of Providence being what it is, the clock striking twelve leaves two options on a Tuesday: a possibly quiet bar playing an iPod stocked with songs I’d know, or Metal Night.

Metal Night is loud, and the metal is not any kind of metal that I know or can speak about.* It could be from 1976 or it could have come out last week, and it could be by guys from down the street or it could be by the blackest, most famous band in the history of Scandinavia. I just don’t know. I hear no songs that I know and don’t know that I hear any songs that I actually want to know. And I kind of like it that way.

But that got me thinking about what it is about bars that I actually like. Because I went and had one beer and a fine time. But because of how bars on the West Side of Providence work, most of the people that were rocking out to Lisa Lisa showed up at Metal Night at the same time I did, and I wondered what their thoughts were.

I know people go to bars because people are social and they like drinking and sonic ambience is not necessarily at the top of their agenda. (See also: people that go to karaoke bars but who aren’t there to sing.) But for me, an occasionally lonely snob, I feel like there’s a different answer. For me the songs are important, which is why my go-to bars are the ones where you can hear Leonard Cohen and Boards of Canada and not, say, the gay bars, where there are just so many songs from the Glee cast that one can hear before one considers enrolling oneself in a hetero conversion camp.

But why do I go? The bar is open, which I guess it not a minor point. And also I was a little bit deprived socially. I could have just gone home and cracked a beer or made a cocktail and put on my own freestyle records. I mean I was doing that this afternoon, anyway. But I guess I like knowing that there’s a DJ in the room who is making conscious decisions about what’s getting played, and who knows things that I don’t know. Anyone with internet access at this point can thoughtlessly cobble together really awesome playlists, which is why I’m often overjoyed with things I hear at Whole Foods. But knowing that someone cares, and that it’s someone’s job to specifically make you care about what you’re hearing? That’s a really valuable thing, even if ultimately you don’t even really know what you heard.

[*As an aside, I just Googled the DJ’s name, because I don’t know him and don’t want to be the one that’s all like “DUDE what is this song?”, and apparently we went to the same high school.  He was two years ahead of me.]

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