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Nocturnal cultural observations from the dance floor

There's a lot of lessons we can learn from a night on the town, writes TRA's Vanisha Narsey - and a lot of lessons brands can learn, too.

One: The digital dating reality show

Needing a reprieve from the ponceyness of Ponsonby, after a long day in the office, a colleague and I stumble upon Conch on Ponsonby Rd – record store by day and restaurant/ bar by evening.

Low key is guaranteed by the mosaic tiled path leading down to the courtyard, the brightly coloured panes of glass that frame the restaurant window and the large rustic looking wooden bar. It feels a bit like the bar was constructed by new-aged hippies astute at putting together IKEA furniture. Underground hip hop plays at a non-offensive volume, meaning conversations flow easily.

Arriving at the start of happy hour, we watch as solo patrons come in. Some wait awkwardly at the front of the restaurant, feigning interest in the vinyl whereas others sit at the small bar tables, staring into their phones (sans drink) until they are joined by someone amidst a flurry of fumbled hellos and a mishmash of hugs come cheek kisses.

Each pair take a position at the small tables with two stools sat across from each other either nursing a single drink for what seems like an unusually long time, or they file out to the courtyard where there are a handful of intimate closed wooden booths set for dinner.

This pairing off was like watching a modern day Noah’s Ark designed for the way online and app dating works – a first date drink that may, if all things go well, segue into an intimate dinner.

Was it this type of people watching that inspired the developers of the first online dating platforms I wonder?

Finding a partner is hardly a new phenomenon and newspapers and magazines used to thrive on the advertising revenue from their back page ‘looking for love and friendship’ small ads. What’s new is that this has moved online, but the face to face meet and connect (or not) ritual hasn’t changed in centuries. It’s not the basic human needs that change, it’s finding culturally on code ways to address them.

Two: Eavesdropping on cultural storytelling

It’s a Tuesday night at The Powerstation, a live music venue in Eden Terrace. Vince Staples is about to take the stage. Vince is a black American rapper who preaches about his experience being raised in the underdeveloped part of Long Beach, California. The gritty reality of growing up surrounded by racism, poverty and oppression is at the forefront of his music.

I walk into the dimly lit venue onto the sticky mosh pitcome-dance floor and I’m surrounded by mostly white 20-somethings wearing slim cut jeans, old school Vans and bomber jackets. For a moment I thought I had got the date wrong and I was actually seeing some post-hardcore band or downtempo electronica act play. I see girls dressed in denim miniskirts and black singlets bopping along and every now and then throwing out gangster hand signs whilst mouthing every single word of the lyrics.

Borrowing from other cultures is extremely common and cultural appropriation is a delicate issue. However, appreciating diversity and other cultures doesn’t need hands-on experiences in multiple cultures to form empathy and understanding, particularly when the cultures come to you.

With Auckland’s population becoming more diverse by the day, it should be no surprise to see an empathetic reaction from all (no matter your cultural affinities) in connecting to emotionally driven human stories whether they be rap or another form of communications. Vince’s rapping worked for everyone not just because they enjoyed the cultural vibe but because they ‘got’ the story he was telling.

Three: How was it for you because it’s all about me

With no plans made one Friday evening, a casual dinner with friends turned into a drink and somehow ending up at Studio, a live music venue on K Rd. Brooding singer/songwriter MAALA is taking the stage that evening and we decide this might do for our evening’s entertainment. The tender 21-year-old recently won Best Male Solo Artist at the New Zealand Music Awards, so we think, he must have some talent.

Once MAALA takes the stage, squeals of adoration are heard in the youthful looking audience and he begins his set. Now, I’ve been in some pretty ruthless mosh pits in my time, but this was something else and quite unexpected particularly for a solo artist who’s electropoppy sound is far from the more aggressive music genres like hardcore punk that facilitate a style of dancing where pushing is encouraged.

Despite this being a live performance the audience treated it more like background music. Millennials danced in circles, to each other, singing along with the music as if they were listening to a recording. They were so much more focused on their appearance to each other in their group of friends, and gave little attention to the performance. So much so that at the end of the set when MAALA indicates his closing, the audience just began to filter out. There is no shout for an encore.

The behaviour seen by the Millennial-heavy audience is just another way of seeing priorities through their eyes. In this instance, we see how connections to others in and around them, is central to their being. The connection to the performer on stage can be forged through other avenues like social media but in that moment what’s more important in heightening the live gig experience, is how they and their group of friends feel and look in that moment.

I hope Maala wasn’t upset about the lack of encore. I hope he realised what a good time he was enabling. And indeed why should he be upset, the audience had a great time, the customer experience was good and they left happy and with fond memories that will encourage a repeat of the experience. It made me think about how many companies and brands worry too much about getting positive feedback for their performance instead of focusing on how the experience was for their audience.

Vanisha Narsey is a consultant at TRA.  
This article first appeared in Issue 02 of TRA’s Frame magazineTo subscribe to the future issues of the magazine, please email subscribe@tra.co.nz.

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