Cocktail Renaissance: The Re-emergence and
Re-invention of the Cocktail Way of Life
by Richard McKewen
The First Manifesto of the Cocktail Nation: 
We, the Citizens of the Cocktail Nation, do hereby declare our independence from the dessicated horde of mummified uniformity - our freedom from an existence of abject swinglessness. We pledge to revolt against the void of dictated sobriety and to cultivate not riches but richness, swankness, suaveness and strangeness, with pleasure and boldness for all. 
-- The Millionaire of Combustible Edison (Glenn 1994:81)

Standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling window, I look out and feel slightly vertiginous. An infinite sea of starry blackness begins a quarter of a mile beneath me and extends to the horizon. Drunk on a sense of power, I tower above the New York City skyline, and I claim it as my own; I am its absolute ruler for just a moment, a vodka gimlet scepter in my hand. I wonder what the skyline must have looked like in more glamorous days. Did the glow of the city have the same outline back around 1960 when it belonged to the likes of Holly Golightly and J. Pierrepont Finch? Or even back in the 1920s when it belonged to the mob (so they say) but was still the playground of Jay Gatsby and Nick and Nora Charles? After a moment's reflection I come to the determination that, no, it hasn't changed substantially. I conclude that, other than a few new skyscrapers ­ mere garnishes ­ and some cosmetic changes here and there, the substance of NYC's night skyline has remained the same. My friend Jeff then taps me on the shoulder, bringing me out of my reverie. "Do you want another drink?" Sure, I reply. Vodka gimlet, straight up. And with that I return to the reality of the "Strato-Lounge."

It's a Wednesday night at The Greatest Bar on Earth on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. This one night a week, the bar transforms itself into "Strato-Lounge," a shrine to a mythic past in which the cocktail is the source and symbol of all things, all meaning. Like most of the other patrons, Jeff and I have dressed for the occasion: I wear an olive green and cream-colored rayon shirt which hangs languorously on my frame, off-white twill pants, and camel-brown leather oxfords. Jeff has slicked his hair back and wears a midnight-blue velvet jacket over a vermillion and white psychedelic-swirled shirt. His black denim trousers and combat boots may at first seem somewhat anomalous, but verisimilitude is not his (nor anyone's) goal. Indeed, the DJ occasionally manages to overlay a contemporary disco track onto something like a Henry Mancini tune. Make no mistake: This is not a historic re-enactment. It is the cocktail lounge of the 1990s.

In recent years, the cocktail lounge has re-emerged on the cultural map as a popular site for socializing and spending an evening out, particularly among urban trendsetters in their twenties and thirties. Concomitantly, a whole cocktail lounge culture has arisen, complete with lounge fashion and style, lounge music, and an entire lounge aesthetic; transformed into an adjective, "lounge" has become a philosophy for many (like The Millionaire quoted above). More than just a place to drink, the cocktail lounge is practically revered by this lounge culture as a house of worship. And just as in a "real" church, worshipers in this house of religion are expected to dress appropriately, behave in a certain manner, listen only to suitable music, participate in communion, and, perhaps most importantly, take away with them something of this experience. Now a popular "scene" and coopted by market forces, "lounge" has managed to make its way into numerous other realms: the Internet (lounge-sites abound on the web), the music industry, publishing, film and television, cuisine, fashion, etc.

In this essay I would like to explore and analyze the rise of the contemporary cocktail lounge culture. But in order to understand what this lounge culture is all about, one must first look at the cocktail, for fundamental to the ontology of the cocktail lounge is the cocktail itself. What is a cocktail? Or, more importantly, what symbolic value does it have? If, as will be argued, the cocktail is imbued with an excess of meaning, how does that meaning then get circulated? While a documented history of the cocktail would no doubt prove interesting, such a history would not necessarily help us answer these questions. The approach adopted by scholars such as Joseph Lanza and Lowell Edmunds has proved much more illuminating. These authors have uncovered the ways in which the cocktail has entered cultural currency through popular forms such as film, television, and literature. Using their work as a starting point, I would like to read the cocktail into the space of the lounge. How did one come become embodied in the other?

In the second part of this paper I will focus on contemporary cocktail lounge culture. First, in order to uncover the meaning of "lounge" as adjective, I will try to unpack the meaning of "lounge" as noun, drawing on contemporary and historical examples. Then, I will turn my focus towards the present lounge revival. What is the "Cocktail Nation" mentioned in the epigraph on the first page? What are its manifestations? How does its philosophy get played out? Is there a politics of the Cocktail Nation? I will try to address these and other questions in the final part of this essay. However, clear-cut and definitive responses to any query prove difficult vis à vis the Cocktail Nation. According to The Millionaire, "the uptightanic hegemony of sticklers and punctiliocrats" must be rejected in favor of "artfulness, exaggeration, preposturizing, dissumulation, extravagant fraudulence, and fabulism of all kinds" (Glenn 1994: 88). More important than any answers I could offer is the way in which they are delivered.

The cult of the cocktail is a successful religious ceremony transformed into a secular rite. The bartender is the high priest, the drink is the sacramental cup, and the cocktail lounge is akin to a temple or cathedral that uses lights, music, and even ceiling fixtures to reinforce moods of comfort and inspiration. 
(Lanza 1997: 74) 
From Cocktail to Lounge

In the early part of this century, H.L. Mencken wrote that the cocktail qualifies as "the greatest of all contributions of the American way of life to the salvation of humanity" (quoted in Moore 1980: 337). While the hyperbole in Mencken's claim is debatable, the fact that the cocktail has had an indelible influence on the American (if not the world's) collective psyche is undeniable. When Jimmy Carter denounced the three-martini lunch, the press and the American public could instantly plumb the layers of meaning embedded in his description. Likewise, when Ella Fitzgerald plaintively sang "One More for the Road," everyone listening knew that she was not merely thirsty. And when Ian Fleming had James Bond order a vodka martini "shaken, not stirred," he was cultivating Bond's image as a suave sophisticate marked with just a tinge of danger and radicality.(1) Thus the cocktail is never merely a drink. As The Millionaire has remarked, the cocktail "is one of those elegant symbols where the very sight of it means something, and the more you think about it, the more aspects you discover that relate to everything . . . the balance of ingredients, the pursuit of the perfect mixture. It's like the Kabbalah or something" (Glenn 1994: 86). Packed with potentialities of meaning, the cocktail can simultaneously represent the excesses of the exploitative upper classes (Carter), a modicum of comfort for the lovelorn (Fitzgerald), and the flair and sophistication of the jet-set (Bond). It need not even contain alcohol; a Shirley Temple or a Roy Rogers can convey a whole individual series of meanings. It is this surfeit of decipherable meaning which attests to the cocktail's symbolic power.

As much as clear meaning, the cocktail also embodies contradiction. In his cultural history of the martini, Lowell Edmunds draws primarily on advertisements and literary sources to demonstrate the ambiguous and contradictory meanings attributable to the martini (1981). The martini can be simultaneously "civilized" and "uncivilized" (7), "classic" and "individual" (45), or "sensitive" and "tough" (51), depending on how it is prepared, who is doing the drinking, with whom, and where. Edmunds shows that the martini does not so much create meaning as amplify it, while simultaneously focusing and distilling it. Most, if not all of these contradictory qualities Edmunds ascribes to the martini can be extended to cocktails in general. Joseph Lanza does just that in his book The Cocktail (1995). While Edmunds relies most heavily on literary sources, Lanza cites primarily examples from film and popular culture. Edmunds also writes in an authoritative, scholarly style (with footnotes and substantial documentation), while Lanza tends to wax lovingly poetic and fails to cite or document all of his sources.(2) But they both come to similar conclusions: The cocktail, a mixture of often radically disparate ingredients, embodies contradiction both in meaning and substance. Yet, its meaning often seems lucidly clear (as in the Carter, Fitzgerald, and Bond cases mentioned above).

Equally ambiguous is the cocktail's history, its origins lost somewhere in the past. Lanza (1995), Edmunds (1981), and Moore (1980) all agree that we simply do not know who invented the "first" cocktail, nor even the etymology of the word itself. Anecdotes and spurious claims abound as to the origin of the drink. One thing appears for certain: The cocktail was an American invention. The word first appears in the U.S. in the early nineteenth century, and not in Europe until almost the end of the century. The earliest known use of the word "cocktail" in print was in the Hudson, NY, publication Balance and Columbian Repository on 13 May 1806:

From this earliest citation, we can see how the cocktail is already imbued with excess and contradictory meaning. The power implied in "potion" is at once magical and excessive, and the cocktail, while good for the constitution is also bad for the spirit.

The simultaneously tonic and harmful nature of cocktails has long been attributed to alcoholic beverages in general (cf. the Doorman's speech in Macbeth). The cocktail, despite its hazy origins (or perhaps because of?), is unique in its "magical" ability to convey more meaning than, say, beer or wine. Lanza attributes this mystical investment in the cocktail to the whole ritualized process through which the cocktail is prepared and consumed:

This ritualized process has its parallel in the manufacturing process. As Lanza notes, "the Industrial Revolution vaunted the art of combining separate components on an assembly line and calling it a product" (1995: 12). Just as the manufacturing process was controlled and owned by the ruling elite, the cocktail process was also the domain of the upper classes.(3)

Among the working and lower classes, the beverages of choice were beer, wine, and straight drinks such as whiskey or bourbon. According to Moore, the cocktail was in vogue at the most fashionable clubs and hotel bars in America and Europe by the turn of the century, but rejected in saloons and pubs. Cocktails were for "sissies and limp-wrist types" and "'hen-parties' given by well-to-do matrons and their debutante daughters" (1980: 339). The cocktail would not gain widespread acceptance until Prohibition.

In 1925, in a New York State Supreme Courtroom, Justice John Ford grew angry and publicly castigated an attorney for equating cocktails with adultery. The justice announced from the bench that everyone, including his daughter and other "nice people," were both going to and giving cocktail parties. Said Ford, "Everybody knows it, but won't admit it" (Moore 1980: 341). Ford's confession in the middle of Prohibition makes one wonder: How did the cocktail come to gain such widespread acceptance in the midst of its interdiction? Perhaps we can draw a parallel to the present. Our latter-day "war on drugs" has resulted not only in the rise of criminal syndicates, but in the proliferation of new "exotic" and "designer" drugs. Where marijuana and LSD were the staples of the 1960s and 1970s, drug enthusiasts now have a veritable pharmacopeia from which to choose: cocaine, crystal meth, crack, heroin, MDMA, ecstasy, K, etc. Despite the "war on drugs," levels of drug use continue to rise, even among "nice people." Furthermore, headshops have proliferated; one can buy drug paraphernalia at any number of locations.

In the 1920s, the cocktail and its equipage proved no different. According to Moore, in a New York department store in 1928 one could purchase thirty-five different kinds of cocktail glasses, fourteen kinds of shakers, and eighteen varieties of hip flasks (not to mention the numerous sizes and shapes of wine glasses available). The year before, a Manhattan emporium had raffled off an entire bar set plated in gold and valued at $4,000 (1981: 341). Moore also reasons that cocktails grew in popularity because of the fact much of the alcohol of the period was of poor quality (the infamous "bath-tub gin").

He also credits women for the rise of the cocktail. Bars and pubs, he notes, had always been male establishments. Prohibition forced the consumption of alcohol into homes and private clubs, spaces readily accessible to women (many private clubs had begun to admit women as a result of the suffragist and womens' movements). As women entered these spaces, so did their "sissy" drinks. Furthermore, private drinking clubs not only broke down sexual boundaries, but class ones as well. Cocktails were no longer only for the rich. Collectively forced underground to drink alcohol, members of disparate classes came together to imbibe.

Lanza takes a less materialist approach in his analysis. For him, the cocktail achieved its apotheosis by means of its newly illicit status:

The contraband status of the cocktail endowed it with a ritual allure which gave birth to an entirely new culture ­ one of nightclubs, speakeasies, café societies, and organized crime. According to Lanza, alcohol consumption during Prohibition engendered within the popular imagination a carefree life of glamor and celebrity. But as Justice Ford reminds us, even a "nice person" (presumably non-glamorous and non-celebrity) like his daughter enjoyed the cocktail life. Thus the cocktail came to represent simultaneously criminality and class, vice and virtue, excess and restraint.

With the demise of Prohibition, the cocktail lost some of its luster. Indeed, the years of restraint and shortages resulting from the Depression and World War II helped temper the American psyche. Cocktails became an extravagant luxury, enjoyed by only the wealthiest classes. The conservative political climate which produced McCarthyism and a Republican presidency in the early 1950s further tarnished the cocktail's reputation. But as the decade progressed, the cocktail did recover some ground. The cultural milieu which produced the stultifying conformity of Levittown, the anomie of the Organization Man, and the gastronomical wasteland of the TV dinner, desperately needed an escape. The very wealthy could run off to Europe. The moderately wealthy might venture to the newly-developed oasis of Las Vegas. Most people could afford neither. Many could, however, escape to a local cocktail lounge.

If the beginning of Prohibition marked the dawn of the cocktail's glory, 1960 marks the beginning of the golden age of the cocktail lounge. John F. Kennedy became America's first Roman Catholic president, overturning a protestant-influenced smugness which had governed the White House for almost two centuries. Under JFK, the presidency became "an arena of sin, momentary redemption, flashy pageantry, antipapist conspiracy theories, and dashy cocktail parties at both the White House and Hyannisport" (Lanza 1995: 109). The son of a ex-whiskey smuggler, JFK exuded a glamor tinged with a seductive criminality. The First Lady became known throughout the country as a beautiful and ideal hostess, giving a nationally telecast tour of the White House. As the country received an intimate vision of the high-life beamed into their living rooms, people everywhere began to desire a small piece of the glamour pie. At the same time cocktail lounges began to dot the urban and suburban landscape.(4) While most Americans could never achieve the high-life of a Kennedy, they could escape to a cocktail lounge and lead an imagined glamorous, even libertine, lifestyle, if only for a couple of hours. The advent of the commuter and the rise in automobile use meant that one no longer needed to drink in the neighborhood tavern (where one would be under the prying eyes of neighbors). Cocktail lounges became not only an escape, but an anonymous one as well. In popular culture, movies, advertisements, etc., cocktails became explicitly linked to sex.(5) What had always lingered just below the conscious threshold of the cocktail was now out in the open.

As a result, the cocktail lounge thrived. The middle classes, burdened with a culturally enforced sense of stability and security, found in the cocktail lounge an outlet for their repressed desires. During the day, at work or at home, a uniform front was required to stand up against the threats posed by communism, racial unrest, and the burgeoning conflict in southeast Asia. At night, in the anonymity of the lounge, one could let his or her guard down.(6) The strictures of the "real world" could be lost, disregarded even, within the smoky realm of the lounge. While this golden age of the cocktail lounge would come to an end with the upheavals of Vietnam and the "sexual revolution," its traces would once again become visible some twenty years later.

It was a time when hedonism was acceptable . . . That's an amazing concept these days. What happened to that world of pleasure? There's way too much guilt going around . . . [We are] trying to bring back a sense of fun, and we want to look good doing it. 
-- Ben Daughtrey of Love Jones (Crisafulli 1994: 54) 

From Lounge to Cocktail (Nation)

In the late 1980s, Joshua Glenn ventured into Boston's Paradise Club to experience something called the "Tiki Wonder Hour." On this one night, the normally unremarkable nightclub had been gussied up with replicas of Easter Island stone faces, palm fronds, and fish nets. Televisions stacked on top of each other became totem poles, each screen silently showing Sinatra (Frank or Nancy), or Dean Martin, or Wayne Newton, etc. The band on stage was dressed like something out of a Vegas act: white polyester tuxedos with wide lapels, frilled shirts, gold chains. They played music that lingered somewhere between jazz and Muzak. The night's theme did not appear to be mere kitsch, however. The band, Combustible Edison, was too good, too slick. The members seemed to be taking everything very seriously, down to the proclamation of their "manifesto" (see opening epigram). Or were they?

Around the same time (circa 1989) in Louisville, a trendy nightclub called Tewligan's hosted a up-and-coming local band called Love Jones. >From their first moment on stage, I was mesmerized by one anachronism after another. They wore matching dark polyester suits. The music was addictive if baffling: it was as if someone had taken elevator music, shook it with a dash of punk and soul, and strained it over ice. Their songs featured lines about cocktails, barflies, and little black books. The vocalist did not sing ­ he crooned. Bongos and organ provided a sound rarely heard anymore outside of Vegas and Atlantic City. The college-age crowd loved it, despite the fact that the music sounded precariously like something their parents (or in some cases grandparents!) would have listened to decades previously. Lounge was making a comeback.

So what is lounge? To answer this question, we must first ask, what is a lounge? In the following pages I shall attempt to describe "a lounge." I realize that there is no set formula, no standard by which a lounge may be measured. Every lounge is different, and every lounge creates its own sense of lounge-ness. And lounges have certainly changed from 1960 to the present. Yet, many lounges do share similar traits. And I firmly believe that within our cultural imaginary, there is lurking somewhere a quintessential lounge. In the descriptions that follow, I draw on my and others' perception of actual lounges, as well as the one Platonic lounge which exists only via the shadow it casts in my imagination.

Before we address what a lounge is, let's look at what it is not. It is not simply a bar. In his sociological study on cocktail lounges, Kavadlo makes a useful distinction between bars and lounges: "Compared to the bar the lounge occupies a unique setting because it promotes its form of escape by utilizing a combination of virtually all of the sensations and emotions" (1988: 4). Bars are for drinking and socializing. While lounges provide a site for similar activities, they are more concerned with the realm of the experiential, i.e. the entire sensorium.

What, then, does a lounge look like? Lounges are typically decorated according to a theme. Escape from the "real world" is often an overriding motif. Common themes are Polynesian (à la Trader Vic's) or an interplanetary one (à la innumerable Stardust Lounges(7)). Or a cocktail lounge may simply be a nice place with chandeliers, luxuriant banquettes, and pretensions to class. What matters is that the lounge is somehow perceived to be beyond the banality of a quotidien, hum-drum, middle-class existence.

Designers manipulate lighting in lounges to foster an other-worldliness. Lounges rarely have windows to the outside world. If they do, they are typically heavily shaded during the day. Robert Venturi's architectural study of the Las Vegas casino seems relevant here. Venturi argues that the casino, since its low ceiling never connects with outside light or outside space, disorients the occupant in space and time:

Often the only "natural" light in a lounge comes from candles. Individual flickering anachronisms in the modern age, candles also contribute to the other-worldly glow. The haze of cigarette and cigar smoke casts a veil over the visual field, diffusing already diffuse light. In the World Trade Center's Windows on the World, large modernist light towers protrude and glow independently from the floor (much like the slot machines described by Venturi). In New York's Litchi Lounge, light fixtures were uniquely made, but based on a Chinese lantern design. Internal spheres revolved around the light source in order to animate an otherwise relatively static space with a dramatic, throbbing glow. According to Bonnie Schwartz of Interiors magazine, the dramatic lighting was designed to compliment the flamboyant drinks offered, some up to six feet tall and featuring elaborate garnishes such as feathers, balloons, fresh flowers, fanciful swizzle sticks, and "exotic" straws (1992: 22).

What does one drink and eat in a lounge? As cocktail lounges became keyed to a desire to escape, cocktails definitely started to became more exotic. Martinis and juleps gave way to newly-invented cocktails with names which bring to mind far-away places. Drinkers discovered mai-tais, Singapore slings, and Cuba libres. With the recent revival of "lounge," even more new cocktails have been invented whose names reflect the consumer's desire to partake in a mythic past. I've enjoyed many Jackie O. martinis(8) at Stingy Lulu's in the East Village, and I've even had an Apollo 13 martini(9) at a swank establishment called First (at 87 First Ave.). Food consumed in cocktail lounges does not usually take the form of a "meal" as Mary Douglas has defined it.(10) Rather, cocktail food consists of tiny snacks, canapés, nuts, etc. Furthermore, unlike in most other settings, in the cocktail lounge it is considered appropriate to eat with your fingers ­ yet another chance to break the confines of the "real world."

What does one feel in the cocktail lounge? What role does touch play? Besides touching food, lounge-goers are usually surrounded by a variety of pleasurable textures. Los Angeles's Shark Club utilizes huge undulating velvet drapes and heaps of silken pillows (Henderson 1992: 78). New York's Temple Bar's dark velvet walls and seat coverings, and The Greatest Bar on Earth's puffy, sofa-like velour seating achieve a similar effect.

Related to the idea of touch is the relation of one body to another. How do bodies touch and move? A good lounge is a crowded (though not too crowded) lounge.(11) At "G," a lounge in Chelsea with a predominantly gay clientele, the space been designed to promote sociability and movement. In the seating areas, chairs have no backs which allows a person to turn easily and engage other patrons in conversation. The entire establishment is designed around a ovoid-shaped see-and-be-seen bar which also facilitates movement. Writing in Interior Design, Henry Urbach notes that "circulation has been planned to offer a continuous circuit of movement without dead ends or dark corners that might slow the social whirl" (1997: 147). Despite Urbach's claim, I noticed during my visit to "G" that the social whirl did in fact come to a halt at times: "G" is a lounge; moreover, it is a queer lounge ­ it affords its clientele a degree of sexual promise unavailable in the "real world." Occasional libidinal pauses in "G"'s social whirl would seem inevitable. However, the use of curves instead of strong angles can facilitate movement, as well as create a more relaxed and comforting atmosphere.(12)

Curving bars, sloping floors, and circular architecture characterize countless lounge spaces. The Greatest Bar on Earth does it in a particularly stylish way with serpentine brass railings, mosaics and swirling patterns on the floor, kidney-shaped rare-wood bars, and ceiling fixtures that appear as textured waves. The centerpiece of the Union Bar (on Union Square) is the curved bar itself, originally from Time Square's Astor Hotel, made from a sixty feet long serpentine swath of mahogany. Steel lighting fixtures suspended from the high ceiling form a illuminated halo around the bar. The furniture is vintage ­ "think cocktail lounge of the '40s," says Edie Cohen in Interior Design (1996: 176). Architect and designer Jordan Mozer's creations profiled in the October 1992 issue of Interiors exhibit a similar "curve" aesthetic. His "Surf 'n Turf," a lounge and restaurant in Japan, brings the oblique lines and curves of cartoon fantasy to life. The outer space theme (cf. Stardust above) is revisited in his project "Stars," a bar and restaurant with an 1950s and 1960s space race theme. The light fixtures are abstractions of asteroids and stars, and the furnishings are inspired by memorabilia from the period. The distorted projections in Mozer's renderings of "Stars" emphasize the curves and waves of his designs. His nightclub in Houston, "The Tempest," perhaps serves as his best example of this "curve" aesthetic. Conceived after Shakespeare's play of the same name, the interior seems to be caught in a cyclone. A circular center area is surrounded by booths and banquettes on an upper, peripheral area. The light fixtures consist of blown glass shaped into waving squiggles and paper lanterns with straight edges forced into curves to follow the circular movement of the architecture. All of the furnishings appear to be wind-blown, trapped in the cyclone which is "The Tempest."

Fundamental to the lounge, almost as important as the cocktail itself, is sound, i.e., music. What does one hear in a cocktail lounge? According to Kavadlo, music is what truly sets the lounge apart from other drinking establishments. It is also the most powerful of the sensorial experiences: "In particular, it is the total musical ambiance that serves as a spectacular agency for evoking a eudaemonistic spirit" (1988: 1). Later he argues that lounge music opens up the greatest possibilities for satisfying desires through "mood" enhancement. The lounge-goer should desire to "submit" to the music:

The music in a lounge must be able to transport effortlessly the lounge-goer from one mood to
the next. Indeed, there is a genre of music known as "mood music." It could be described as background music, cinematic, non-distracting, or even shading. According to Lanza, this lyric-less "moodsong" reinforces mounting suspicions that we live inside a dream" (1994: 3). We don't hear it. We experience it. We frame ourselves within it. But "mood music" is not necessarily "lounge." As Kavadlo points out, lounge music makes more demands. It must be able to deliver us effortlessly from one pleasure to the next. "Mood music" (as Lanza defines it) can take us into a dream-like existence, but it is only one sort of dream. What if your dream is to get up and do the rhumba? Elsewhere Lanza writes that cocktail music, like fine alcohols, is best when clarified and distilled: Lanza's description of cocktail music encompasses more than just mood music, but it still falls short of Kavadlo's pleasure transportation requirements.

The David Driver Quartet, Cocktails with Joey (two NYC-based lounge groups), Combustible Edison, and Love Jones all started out as (or contain several former members of) punk bands. They all abandoned punk because it failed to transport them to pleasure. At the beginning of this section, Ben Daughtrey of Love Jones asks,

The Millionaire feels the lounge provides a much broader vocabulary than rock or pop music does. "[Rock music] communicates the id well -- I'm hungry, I'm horny, I'm angry. But lounge has more color. It covers a wider spectrum" (Crisafulli 1994: 54). Jonathan Palmer of Love Jones says that their conversion to lounge from punk was "a reaction to these bands that stare at their shoes and sing about their emotional problems" (Schoemer 1994: 59). In a recent interview, Joey Altruda (of Cocktails with Joey) expressed his belief that most contemporary music fails to deliver: "I think there's a certain amount of people who want melody. They want something they can hum" (Sobel: 1998:30).

So, what is lounge music? As Joshua Glenn notes, it is much easier to say what lounge isn't than what it is. It certainly is not rock music. And while it may possess some sort of "exotic" element (ostensibly "African," "Indian," or "Polynesian" rhythms), it is essentially white-bread music. Or as The Millionaire describes it, "roots music for [white] people from Connecticut and Manhattan." (Glenn 1994: 85). And while jazz can certainly be heard in a lounge, it's not really lounge music -- it is too grounded in reality. Furthermore, as Glenn notes, "while you probably wouldn't blink" if you heard a Combustible Edison tune in an elevator, it's not Muzak, either. Glenn intimates that lounge could be viewed as a subset of easy-listening. I would argue that point,(14) but I agree with his final conclusion. Lounge music, "is defined only be what it is not, and by its special relation to lounges . . . and lounging" (85). Such circular reasoning ("lounges define lounge music" and "lounge music defines lounges") is not surprising given the levels of irony one could plumb from the new Cocktail Nation.

When The Millionaire read his First Manifesto for the Cocktail Nation, he was harkening back to what Abbie Hoffman had dubbed the "Woodstock Nation." Hoffman had compared the phenomenon of "Woodstock" to an American Indian nation,

Like Woodstock Nation, and subsequently Queer Nation, the Cocktail Nation tried to foster some sense of community. That is what drove Joey Cheezhee to become a lounge singer and self-proclaimed citizen of the Cocktail Nation. Resigning from his job as a college chaplain and Jesuit volunteer, he left the church for the lounge life. But what sense of community can a nation based on cocktails engender? Back in 1957, sociologist David Gottlieb noted that while neighborhood taverns and bars fostered a sense of community and belonging, "the lounge caters to a transient clientele which does not form a cohesive group" (559). Mary Douglas commented over twenty years ago we will only eat with people about whom we care, but we'll drink with anyone ([1975] 1997: 42). Fashion writer Glenn O'Brien sums up the dilemma succinctly: "The whole ethic, the whole belief system implied in the cocktail party is: You never know. Anything is possible. What the hell? Why not? What was your name again?" (1995: 48). While the Cocktail Nation may have many things to offer, intimate and lasting social bonds would not appear to be one of them.

But is the forging of true social bonds really a goal of the Cocktail Nation? According to the Second Manifesto of the Cocktail Nation (again, penned by The Millionaire), the "Doctrine of Inauthenticity" states clearly that inauthenticity is the "active principle of the exalted state of fabulousness . . . That a thing is the original is no guarantee that it is the best. That a thing is not 'real' does not mean that it is 'false'" (Glenn 1994: 88). Fabulousness, then, requires a distancing, because even if there is a "real" somewhere (and that would no doubt be debatable), it should not be privileged over the "false." Thus when it comes to forging community, a "false" relationship is still a relationship, and an equally valid one at that.

While such a philosophy can be liberating, it can also be subjected to critiques on both the artistic and political level. Many (if not most) music critics are formalists at heart. For them, an essential component of any "good" work is originality. A review of the Cocktail Nation (Combustible Edison in particular) appeared in the "alternative" music magazine Option in 1994. In the article, Jason Cherkis accuses the latter-day loungers of nothing but an unoriginal, recycled use of kitsch. Unlike 1970s fright-rockers Kiss (!?), the Cocktail Nation, he says, has yet to do anything meaningful, good, or original with kitsch. Besides, he sneeringly reports, "How big is this Cocktail Nation really? I've seen a few magazine blurbs, but I don't hear teenagers passing by in their trucks listening to Combustible Edison" (64).

A more valid critique of the Cocktail Nation philosophy can be made on a political level. Taking a Susan Sontag-esque position on the campiness of their act, Aaron Oppenheimer (of Combustible Edison) claims that they (and presumably the entire Cocktail Nation) are apolitical:  "A lot of modern alternative rock is very negative -- 'things suck and I'm unhappy about it.' I can only take so much of that. We don't mix politics with our music" (Rothenberg 1997: 78). At first glance, the two manifesti would appear to bear this out. But do they? By favoring the "inauthentic" over the "real" and by admonishing people to revolt against "the void of dictated society," aren't Cocktail Nationalists posing a threat to the capitalistic bourgeois order which demands conformity and productivity (least of all fabulousness) and which is necessarily founded on the valuation of an "original"? Perhaps. Such a claim assumes that the manifesti are actual calls to action. But are they? Or are they simply examples of more ironic distancing and posturing? Indeed that is what makes Combustible Edison's use of kitsch so compelling. They do not seem to be making fun of kitsch so much as adoring it with an ironic insincerity. As Glenn notes, Combustible Edison has mastered the art of "the winkless wink" (1994: 88). Trying to fathom the levels of irony may very well give one a headache.

A more serious critique of the Cocktail Nation can be made on the historical plane. The entire lounge movement is unabashedly a-historical. As Chris Napolitano writing for Playboy notes, "The real beauty of lounge is that while there's plenty of history to draw from, no one is keeping track" (1996: 198). As a result, when lounge afficionados recycle the music of Les Baxter and Martin Denny, they usually do so uncritically and without thinking of the racist and orientalist overtones of albums such as "Rituals of the Savage," "Afro-desia," and "Jungle Jazz." Worse yet, right-wing critics such as John McDonough of the Wall Street Journal can praise the lounge movement for effecting the re-release of music which "rises heroically above its own harmless artifice to offend diversity consultants everywhere, proving that the best offense against bad politics may be bad taste" (1997: 13). McDonough's glee is precisely what worries Milo Miles of the on-line magazine Salon: "Given the current yearning for a past that never happened, Ultra-Lounge [the same collection reviewed by McDonough] may deserve another name: Republican ambient." He continues later in the article:

Miles's worries and critique is well-placed. How would the Cocktail Nation respond?

In another article for Salon, Carina Chocano offers a response. She admits that "retro" has little going for it. The 1940s through the 1960s is a historical period in which bigotry, sexism, and an almost fascist persecution of the mildest (or imagined) forms of dissent were the norm. But the "cheerful irrelevance and vapidity" of the current lounge movement marks the first time in over twenty years that "unabashed frivolity is in."

Chocano seems to think that since people in the past actually could manage to have a good time in the face of social evils, such "frivolity" should not necessarily be viewed as irresponsible. But irresponsibility is precisely what the lounge revival is all about.

It would appears that this bind is inescapable. If we look again at the "Doctrine of Inauthenticity," we may have a means of escape. The lounge movement (in theory, at least) does not privilege any sort of "original." Nor does it privilege any particular "past." It is a creation of our own historical moment. While it may borrow the trappings of the past, it is grounded in (indeed, was created in reaction to) our current existence. And despite denials by those on the Right, we still have institutionalized bigotry and virulent xenophobia. (At least the certain atomic death threat appears to have been nullified.) Unlike the 1950s and 1960s lounge scene, the current one is certainly more inclusive. In a recent commentary in the 'zine Lounge(15) the editors write,

When Love Jones, Esquivel, and Combustible Edison blipped on the pop culture thermometer a few years back it was primarily to an audience composed of the hip white middle-class . . . Cocktail culture has not only permeated every social strata, but we are finally breaking the color lines. Lounge influenced acts like Toledo, Ozomatli, and Count Indigo are breaking color boundaries. Once the bastion of urban coastal cities like Los Angeles and New York, "lounge" can be found both nationally and internationally. (Wick et al N.D.: 5)

A feminist critique of lounge can be made as well. Writing in Esquire (of all places!), Robert Rothenburg cites the work of cinema theorist Frank Krutnick when he claims that lounge may represent the restoration of a phallic order in a society in which sexual roles have been disrupted by cataclysmic change. When Rothenburg cites "feminism" along with AIDS and world war as "cataclysmic change," I know not to ascribe much validity to his opinions. Nevertheless, it is possible to make a feminist critique. And maybe it is possible to "excuse" these shortcomings as well as part of some postmodern "irony." But as Count Indigo notes, "You can only go so far with irony. You have to have a genuine love for this music, otherwise, you couldn't listen to it" (Pride 1996: 91). As Lanza notes, "the cocktail lounge offers a combination fun house and minefield" (1995: 65). Maybe love is precisely the thing that will let us navigate our way through the minefield safely.


1. The classic martini is made with gin, not vodka. Furthermore, the myth still persists that shaking instead of stirring a martini somehow "bruises" the gin. While the martini marks Bond as having the tastes and sensibilities of a rigid upper class, the fact that he prefers it in such a "radical" way endows his character with a certain flair and licentiousness, not unlike the license reflected in his double-O appellation (license to kill).

2. These differences in style, methodology, etc., between Edmunds and Lanza no doubt reflect the exalted position which the martini has been afforded within the cocktail mythos.

3. Around this time (the late nineteenth century) the first cocktail manuals appeared. According to Edmunds, they were all published with professionals (bar staff) in mind, and not laypersons. "Men [sic] did not know how to mix drinks" (1981: 27). If true, this claim only lends more of an air of mystery and magic to the cocktail process.

4. Many of the spaces profiled in Kavadlo's sociological study (1988) of the cocktail lounge date from this period. These lounges have been in continuous use since their opening more than thirty years ago.

5. See Guarnaccia and Sloan (1997) for an amazing collection of advertisements and memorabilia from the period. See Lanza (1995) for several examples from the cinema.

6. Indeed, the CIA knew this and in the early 1960s designed a surveillance device (i.e., a "bug") in the shape of a pimiento-stuffed olive which could be discreetly left in a martini glass (see Lanza 1995: 106).

7. I've been in at least two that I can recall: one in Phoenix, and one at a resort in the Catskills (not to mention the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas).

8. Actually a vodka gimlet with a splash of cranberry.

9. A dry martini mixed with Tang, served in a glass with Tang powder on the rim. It sounds disgusting, but it is actually quite tasty.

10. "Each meal is a structured event which structures others in its own image." ([1975] 1997: 44). For Douglas, in order to qualify as a "meal," any food prepared and served must be analogous in its presentational structure to other accepted "meals," e.g., soup first, dessert last, with a balanced main course in-between. Cocktail food rarely takes such a highly structured form.

11. Lanza cites William Maclean's (dubious?) 1959 study "On the Acoustics of Cocktail Parties" which calculated each interaction between human and libation according to reverberation time, room dimensions, and signal-to-noise ratio. All it takes is one guest too many to throw the entire party off-balance. "The significant thing is that the party doesn't get progressively louder. It suddenly goes from quiet to loud when there is one guest too many, or as they say in nuclear physics, when it 'goes critical'" (1995: 106).

12. I can recall being chastised for a "lack of curves" in an undergraduate design for theatre class. The professor found my floor plan and rendering for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead too angular. "It's a comedy!" he barked at me. "You need more curves."

13. According to Glenn, "the clinking of martini glasses and the sophisticated murmur of appreciative listeners is considered to be almost another musical instrument by lounge afficionados" (1994: 86). Not long ago I was at a soirée/recording session of the David Driver Quartet which took place in a loft on the Bowery. David encouraged the guests to chat (quietly) and to "clink crystal" in order to add ambience to his recording.

14. While Yma Sumac singing "Taki Rari" is quintessentially lounge, her music could hardly be considered easy listening.

15. The 'zine is undated, but given the internal references and other articles in the issue (labeled vol. 4 no. 1), I would date it sometime late in 1996.


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