How Today's Conventions Are Like the Goth Clubs of the 1990s
Anime Expo 2013
There are a lot of reasons that I keep going back to fan conventions. They're fun. There are lots of stories inside the convention halls, far more than can fit into one article. They are filled with creative people who are, by and large, friendly and willing to exchange ideas with others.
But as I continue to go to these events repeatedly, year after year, there's something else that keeps pulling me further into the world. It's an unusual sense of familiarity that goes beyond the conventions themselves. These events, and the people who attend them, remind me of the parties and people I met two decades ago. Back then, though, I didn't go to conventions. I went to goth clubs.
In the mid-1990s, my best friend turned me onto goth clubs. It took some convincing on his part. Crowds made me lightheaded. A crowd of people who could be judging everything I wore and every stupid thing that came out of my mouth might have triggered an anxiety attack. Once he finally got me out into the night, though, everything changed. In L.A. at that time, there weren't a lot of clubs that catered to the kids with darker tastes. However, there were plenty of us who preferred velvet dresses and Peter Murphy over baggy jeans and Beck. The clubs that appealed to us would get packed. There would be at least a few hundred inside these Hollywood haunts, smoking cloves on the dance floor as we danced to songs with titles like "Stigmata Martyr." Just being there was a life-changer. Here were throngs of people who were kind of like me. No one cared that I was a total dork in day-to-day life.
Sure, fan conventions and goth clubs are fundamentally different. Cons are weekend-long events that combine panels, screenings, shopping, dances and other activities. Goth clubs happen a few times a week. The focus there is on dancing, although sometimes live performances and art are a part of it. However, they're both social events. More specifically, they're social events that bring together people who probably never identify as cool or popular. You'll find people who have interests that they don't share with those they encounter in daily life. Both are a celebration of the things that you thought made you weird. Your outsider traits in the regular world make you an insider in these havens. Maybe that's what makes both highly addictive.
Getting sucked into the club world was easy. My friends and I figured out a way to schedule classes and work around the nightlife. We organized carpools heading from our college campus, near LAX, to Hollywood nearly every night of the week. We made new friends fast. We frequented a record store that kept us up-to-date on all the new music. We spent weekends sifting through thrift shop piles for outfits that became increasingly fierce. Within a year, I landed my first DJ gig. Not long after that, a new club called Coven 13 brought me in as one of the regulars behind the decks.
When you find something you love and a place where you feel like you belong, it doesn't take long go from passive attendee to committed member of the community. This happens time and again at conventions. People rise from novice cosplayers to convention personalities with armies of fans. They go from waiting in line for panels to hosting them. If you go to a lot of conventions and stay in touch with the people you met in the beginning of your journey, you'll see transformations. People who at first appeared shy eventually exude confidence. It's an amazing thing to watch.
However, this all goes beyond personal growth. In both the convention world now and the goth club scene of the 1990s, the needs of the community come into play. There's a struggle to keep the scene yours that manifests whenever subcultures reach greater recognition.
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Fan conventions have been around for longer than many of the attendees have been alive. It's only been in the past few years, though, that they've reached a sort of mass appeal. Being a "geek" is borderline hip, insofar as you can actually find t-shirts proclaiming your comic book obsessions at mall stores. Towards the end of the 20th century, that happened with goth too. Goth clubs had been around for well over a decade before reaching the radar of the regular world. TV crews stepped into our dance parties. Hot Topic brought velvet and PVC finery to the suburbs. All of a sudden, everyone from our grandparents to our little cousins knew all about goth, or, at least, the mainstream impression of it. They might have asked us if we were into Marilyn Manson, to which the reply was/is always, "Ugh, not really goth." We had the constant debates about what defines our scene. We complained as loudly as we could every time we thought that our group was misrepresented. There was always some sort of goth drama too, much as there is cosplay drama now. Years later, though, very little of the annoyances of being part of the subculture-of-the-moment stick with me. What remains are the friends I made and lessons I learned at the clubs.
Scenes can live for years, even decades, without anyone noticing. Eventually, though, someone will discover what's going on inside the world you and your friends have come to cherish. They might like it too and, with the best of intentions, will tell others about it. As the word spreads, though, views of your world get distorted. That's natural. Scenes are nearly impossible to explain even when you exist inside them simply because we're talking about a collection of individual experiences. Despite that, generalizations flourish. At least for a while. In time, the public gets bored with that they think you're doing. They'll find another group to expose, stereotype and alternately praise and stigmatize. You'll go back to living life with the friends you made at the events that helped you become your awesome self.
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