#Speakeasies everywhere, nor a Four Loko drop to drink!
A special Fingers x Garbage day split edition
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Editor’s note: Today’s special edition of the boozeletter is a split email with Ryan Broderick of Garbage Day, a newsletter about internet culture. I’m a paying subscriber, and if you like Fingers, you probably should be, too.
Ryan and I agreed the loose theme for our split would be contemporary online nostalgia for late-Aughts drinking culture. First up is me on the TikTok-ificiation of the “modern speakeasy,” then comes Ryan on the Four Loko-sized hole in Gen Z’s supposed indie sleaze redux. Hope you enjoy!
The modern speakeasy’s secret life online
30 miles west of New York City sits a New Jersey laundromat that is actually a bar that is actually a “speakeasy.” It’s called The Laundromat Speakeasy. Well, that’s what its website metadata says at least; on Instagram it calls itself Laundromat Bar Morristown. Whatever: it’s a place that serves drinks that is designed to look like a place that doesn’t serve drinks. It fails on the merits of stealth thanks to the marquee out front, the Potemkin washer/dryers lining the interior, and a “secret” door towards the faux back wall that is easily distinguished from 30ft away as you walk by on the sidewalk. Clandestine, it ain’t, and its deliberate social media footprint doesn’t seem to help its case. But then again, it was never supposed to be a secret. Modern speakeasies, after all, are born into a “secret” life online—and on TikTok in particular, they beguile more than a hand-carved cube from a suspender-wearing mixologist at The Campbell Apartment ever could.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. A suburban bar that launders the stage-whisper schtick of urban Aughts speakeasies—which themselves gained mainstream cachet as Klout-era simulacra of the (poorly kept) secret drinking dens that popped up during Prohibition—into the feed-optimized lingua franca of the new Roaring Twenties by disguising itself as an actual laundromat is a pretty on-the-nose allegory for the way sanitized cosmopolitan anachronisms are further commodified and sterilized for bourgeoisie mass consumption beyond city limits in the digital age.
Which, yes. That’s why I chose it for my lede, thank you for noticing! But rather than simply shit on what qualifies as nightlife these days in the North Jersey suburbs (of which I’m a proud-enough son), or cast an urbane sneer at the inherent contradictions of “modern speakeasies” as a concept, let’s use this space to ponder a trio of dumber and possibly more revealing questions about their uncanny existence in the liminal space between online and offline, and what it can tell us about drinking culture In This Economy. OK? OK!
First: Are modern speakeasies actually happening again? Yes, yes they are. Retrieve your voyeuristic gaze from the untamed wilds of Morris County and direct it instead towards New York City. I know it’s obnoxious to center The Big Apple, Bay-Bee!!! in every cultural trend, but when it comes to post-Prohibition American mixology generally and the latter-day speak specifically, there’s plenty of precedent. It was there that bars like Angel’s Share (opened 1993, but soon to shutter, RIP) and Milk & Honey (the late Sasha Petraske’s late Lower East Side joint, opened New Year’s Eve 1999) established what longtime drinks journalist Robert Simonson would 13 years later declare “the model for neo-speakeasy cool.” It was there that second-wave speakeasies like Little Branch (2005), Death & Co. (NYE 2006), and P.D.T. (2007) became household names and “best of” mainstays. And a third-wave after that. So it’s only fitting that it’s the New York where the speaks are at it again.
And they are. According to Timeout NY, “Speakeasy-themed bars are booming once again in NYC,” with a half-dozen new entrants joining a cityscape of already-pouring “secret” drinkeries in the past few months alone. If recent history is any guide, these latest ripples will radiate out from NYC to points less sophisticated, homogenizing and templatizing along the way and cresting in another modern speakeasy wave. Depending on where you’re reading this from—a certain North Jersey laundromat comes to mind—the last wave may have yet to recede.
Second question: Why are modern speakeasies actually happening again? By which I mean, the idea of a modern speakeasy is in 2022 embarrassingly passé for drinkers of a certain age and type, i.e. disaffected early-to-mid-thirties former Brooklyn renters who have lately found themselves in the provinces. Namely: people exactly like me. Doesn’t my opinion count for something? Maybe not. As my pal Molly pointed out, these bars are having a moment not just across IRL NYC, but across American TikTok generally. I think this is yet another indication that the vibe has shifted, and not in a direction that favors balding 33 year-olds that know who Sasha Petraske was.
Consider *extremely Dennis Reynolds voice* the implication. That TikTok, either in spite of or because of its many faults, has captured the interest of America’s millennials and Zoomers (among others) is at this point well-documented. Ditto, that those younger users are powerhouse tastemakers and coveted consumers with growing spending power; double-ditto, that they’re as thirsty for novel footage as they are for espresso martinis, or Buzz Ballz, or whatever.
Stir all that together with the fact that everyone is desperate to experience spatial/cultural novelty after being locked up for the past couple years, and you’ve got a potent cocktail (ahem) for the online redemption of not-blind pigs. While the concept may be mid IRL—after all, the thrill of walking through a vending machine/telephone booth/etc. only lasts as long as you’ve got the scratch for $19 Bees Knees, if that—it is primo grist for the social media mill. Spend even a few minutes on TikTok’s #speakeasy hashtag1 and you’ll notice that the bars that appear there, though technically different and scattered across urban and suburban geographies nationwide, share certain characteristics that have been custom-curated to attract the creator’s lens. Call it the Beauty & Excess Aesthetic, or the Blind Barber’s Joybird Special, or, if you must, “night luxe,” lol. We’re talking snarky neons, obsolete tube TVs, and opulent wallpaper. Gimmicky doors, goofy-chic bathrooms, and gilding aplenty. A low-light jungle of snake plants and parlor palms. If Milk & Honey was the model for neo-speakeasy cool, #speakeasy is its yassification.
But what does it all mean? you cry with chagrin. Are we gatekeeping old speakeasies, or being gatekept out of new ones? What is the relationship between the yassifier and the yassified? These are heady questions, friend. Let’s try to bring it home.
First, on the matter of media: ever since I was but a lad toiling in the #content mines, secrecy and exclusivity has been a reliable trigger for audience engagement. You know what used to do really well in Thrillist emails a literal dozen years ago, before the rise of TikTok or even Instagram? Speakeasy write-ups! I view the current resurgence of modern speakeasies both IRL, and on social media platforms, as more of an evolution of that underlying feedback loop rather than a revolution/regression in taste. Now, instead of a handful of ever-consolidating digital sweatshops pumping out formulaic listicles and putting nominally under-the-radar places on the radar of massive Facebook audiences—11 epic speakeasies in [insert city here]!—we have a bajillion creators doing much the same thing for much smaller, but more numerous audiences on TikTok (and maybe Reels, if anybody actually uses Reels to post anything other than TikToks, which I do not know), and businesses built to cater to them.2 Like those establishments, the vast majority of the output still sucks shit, but a bunch of writers lost their jobs in the process, and if that’s not an evolution of digital media, I don’t know what is!
The enduring popularity of the concept follows apace, I think. American drinkers have gravitated to modern speakeasies pretty consistently over two-plus decades because they bestow a halo of intrigue, cliquishness, and class. In combination with some crushed velvet banquettes and a hunk with an undercut who refuses to pour vodka, this gives bars free license to upcharge the shit out of patrons, which of course only reinforces the charade’s robber-baron thrill. In other words, the case for opening speaks IRL—especially on the cultural rings of Saturn that expand concentrically from first-tier American cities, on which the nation’s Morristowns reside—still makes sense. In some places, the concept arrived so late that it never stopped making sense.
The interplay between IRL speakeasies and their digital proxies, then, is best understood as a paradox of consumerism, context collapse, and suspended disbelief. Meaning that fancy bars can only exist if they sell enough high-margin drinks; customers only want to buy high-margin drinks at bars that seem cool; secret bars seem really cool to customers that can afford to buy high-margin drinks; but those bars can’t stay secret if they want to sell those drinks to those customers, who, not being cool enough to ever hope to find actual holes in the wall in the first place, turn to TikTok for the vicarious frisson of that discovery instead.
Such is the dance of the modern speakeasy: don flamboyant garb to cadge free marketing from the armies of micro-influencers who thrill their credulous audiences with the cheap parlor tricks and cloak-and-dagger LARPs therein. By the time the footage makes it to #speakeasy, the real-life bar from whence it came has long since forfeited any claim to secret status. But that was never the point. The post-Prohibition “modern speakeasy” has always been a bar-as-theater where operators launder surcharged cocktail commerce through the performance of conspiracy for its own sake. By flattening the production from stage to screen, TikTok’s #speakeasy just speeds up the spin cycle.—Dave Infante
Searching For Gen Z’s Four Loko
Folks who have been reading me for a while know that I’m a little obsessed with looking for similarities and differences between how millennials spent their MySpace era and how Gen Z is spending their TikTok one. There’s a lot in common, particularly the role that viral music has played in online trends. The short-form video platform has brought back “viral audio” as a genuine part of the attention economy and with it, a bunch of really interesting movements in fashion and art. Last year, it seemed like Travis Barker and Machine Gun Kelly’s TikTok-optimized emo might be the next big thing. And as the duo’s clique of moody influencer/artists release new albums this spring, we’ll see exactly how much staying power that all has.
With the rise of TikTok emo, trend forecasters began speculating about the return of “indie sleaze” — that fashionable grime that oozed out of VICE covers and American Apparel ads in the late 00s. The cyclical nature of trends makes it seem like the logical next step for nostalgic zoomers. But, as I said, there are just as many similarities as there are differences between 20 years ago and now.
The most important missing ingredient for a return of indie sleaze is the exploitative Terry Richardsonian sexual politics that defined both the mainstream and the counter-culture of that time. A lot of dubious claims have been made about “puritanical zoomers,” but I spend enough time on Tumblr to know that young internet users today are just as feral and demented as we were at that age, but there’s a much bigger emphasis on healthy sexual power dynamics. Which is perhaps what middle-aged millennials are mistaking for pearl clutching. Either way, I don’t see zoomers having to go through anything close to the two-pronged millennial nightmare that was Tucker Max and Dov Charney. But who knows.
The other missing ingredient needed for zoomers to properly transition from their TikTok emo phase to the TikTok indie sleaze phase is actually much easier to nail down, however. They don’t, as a generation, have a truly iconic bad alcohol. Yet.
Now, like with the sex-panicked zoomer myth, this may also be a thing that simply won’t ever line up between generations. Maybe zoomers are too busy with their Juuls and weed to need an alcohol to center their generational identity around. For millennials, we had two that, in opinion, defined that 2008-2012 period when we came of age online. There was the not-so-ironic return of Pabst Blue Ribbon and, of course, Four Loko.
To understand the role that alcohol has played in the evolution of millennial web culture, we have to talk about the role that DSLR cameras had, as well. We don’t think about it anymore, but the bulk of those early internet celebrities who appeared at the tail end of the MySpace days were really just people who either had access to digital cameras or knew where to be to get in front of someone else’s. And for a while, the best way to do that was at a party. Younger readers may not even know that nightclubs for a long time would hire in-house photographers and then post photos on MySpace or Facebook after the weekend. Proof in point: Jeffree Star. If you ever needed one person to act as a living history of the last 20 years of internet culture, Star would be it, unfortunately. Though, as I said, virality is different now.
Even as dingy warehouse hipster parties were overtaken by more wholesome millennial influencer trends, like Christian Girl Autumn, alcohol — and the connotations of an irl party as being somehow connected to online fame — have stayed. One could argue that the Kyrsten Sinema toxic millennial boozy brunch, complete with Harry Potter margaritas or whatever is just a VICE warehouse party for the soon-to-be middle-aged. The aesthetics are different, but they’re both alcohol-centered social events meant for staging viral content and building online clout. Whereas, zoomer virality is actually the reverse. Gen Z's internet fame is found alone in bedrooms or barely furnished McMansion hype houses nestled up in the Los Angeles suburbs away from the real world. Even before the pandemic this was true, but now the pandemic has surely made it worse. Gen Z singer Gayle's maybe-industry-plant hit single, "abcdefu," was first strummed out for her internet followers alone on a bathroom floor. Internet content for Gen Z is defined by its isolation.
Ultimately, I don’t have a lot of answers here, only more questions. My gut tells me zoomers won’t ever find their version of Four Loko or even PBR. Though, you could maybe argue it’s White Claw or ranch water. Which would make Barstool Sports the Gen Z VICE? Ew lol. Can the generation behind Dimes Square even HAVE a VICE? I just don’t think pop culture — which is also internet culture now — can ever line up with how things used to be. Millennials may not have grown up in a monoculture, but we did have the fractured remnants of at least a duo-culture. The hipsters in Brooklyn could post hipstamatic fake Polaroids of PBR cans, while the gym-tan-laundry finance bros uptown could chug Four Loko. (I went to college on Long Island, where the emo kids were chugging both.) Today, I don’t see zoomers being drawn to trends that are either defined by or against some idea of a mainstream. Pop culture now is a landscape of a thousand-and-one filter bubbles. It's possible some Gen Z Discord server have all settled on a novelty alcohol to make memes about and we'll just never know about it. (Interestingly, though, I do think Gen Z have somewhat unanimously decided that Monster Energy Drink is the new Mountain Dew.)
All I do know is that, typically, in the moment, internet culture shifts don’t feel like shifts until they’re already over. One day, you’re learning there’s a drink called Sparks that has malt liquor and caffeine in it and it turns your tongue green, the next you’re drinking something called Four Loko that looks like an Ed Hardy shirt, and then finally, all of it’s banned and disappears forever. And that there's also a tendency to want to view the future through the lens of the immediate past, even though it doesn't totally line up right now.
Also, if any time was a perfect moment to bring back caffeinated alcohol it’s 2022. C’mon, America. We earned it. It’s been a long couple of years. I want to vibrate again.—Ryan Broderick
To give you a sense of how much people love consuming this shit, and how cyclical it all is: in 2015, VinePair wrote up a story about this guy who had built a “speakeasy” in his house; in 2021, it went viral on TikTok, and VinePair wrote up that virality. I bet you both articles did great. The #speakeasy ouroboros strikes again!