Looking back at renegade nightlife over the past 12 months, 2003 was the year that Detroit techno finally stole disco’s glam, punk’s irreverence and Hollywood’s processed glitz to make the dance floor a stage for cultural regurgitation, scathing self-commentary and rampant misbehavior. By refusing to accept the high-priced boredom that the clubs serve up, certain promoters put the focus back on the here and now with more imagination and debauchery than ever before in techno’s history.
The poster child for all of this low-budget madness has been Untitled, the Saturday night weekly at the Shelter in downtown Detroit. Untitled celebrates its first anniversary this weekend with Jeremy Caulfield, Chris Daniels and residents Tadd Mullinix, Derek Plaslaiko, Mike Servito and Matthew Dear. (Magda will also play an after-party at an undisclosed location.)
It all started as a simple collaborative effort between Blackbx promotions and the Ghostly International label. The idea was to buck the trend of local clubs relying on big names to draw a crowd — something that Jon Ozias (also known as “Jonny O.”), the man behind Blackbx, has seen all too much of after years of booking talent for Motor, then later for The Necto. Untitled took four great DJs, gave them full control and did it for five bucks — almost as a way to directly test whether or not it really is “all about the music,” as local clubgoers are known for whining aloud.
The initial results of Ozias’ experiment proves that no, it is, in fact, not “all about the music.” Untitled went through last winter and most of the spring with a lot of dead nights despite the really great new music.
Ozias wanted Untitled to be about voyeurism and exhibitionism before it became just another weekly among the sea of typical Detroit weeklies, but it wasn’t happening. Last spring, however, things changed in the electronic scene. The glorious drunken mess that Corktown Tavern became — before it shut down after the Movement festival — created a lot of wild energy that had to go somewhere.
That’s when Ozias started to brand the hell out of raising hell at Untitled. A brutal ad campaign ensued — with outrageous fliers, bombardment of the Detroitluv.com message board and cell phone text messages — and, finally, the night found its legs.
“I wanted to see how we could use promotion for something other than to just inform people about what was going on,” says Ozias. “We started to utilize a lot of the tools that companies use for branding, along with a lot of propaganda.
“The blessing and the curse of Detroit’s musical history with techno,” he continues, “is that it gives us a pretty high bullshit meter — we weed out a lot of the other [trends] that other cities fall prey to. The downside of that is that it causes people to take themselves way too seriously. But no matter how serious a pretense you put on things, if you’re dealing with a DJ-driven dance night at a bar, it’s about people having a good time and getting drunk. That’s why people go out. We wanted to cut through all the bullshit and just call it like it is. We completely stole all of our [promotional] ideas — it was an amalgamation of all of the past cultures and scenes that we’ve fetishized.”
Untitled’s flier aesthetic got wilder and louder until it was completely (and self-consciously) gaudy. They wanted it to be the coolest thing happening, so Ozias started openly pronouncing it the coolest thing happening. He’d go to other events, pick out the most outlandish-looking people in the room, and personally invite them as though his club night were a private party and only they were invited.
“I wanted everything to be an exclamation point,” proclaims Ozias. “We started working with a black, white, pink and yellow color scheme — everything was just the most obnoxious color. The attitude was, let’s not just give it to them, let’s give it to them tenfold and really see how far we can push people. We tried to make it OK to act out again. We wanted to make it OK to have fun so that people felt compelled, and even obligated, to stay out ridiculously late and act even more ridiculously.”
The moment that really seemed to define the absurd lengths to which Untitled would go was this summer’s Paris Hilton is Burning party. They printed a flier with a paparazzi crotch shot of Hilton getting out of her Porsche, miniskirt hiked, sans undergarments, smiling and presumably ready to cause trouble. The word “Untitled” barely covered you-know-who’s you-know-what. Exploitative, maybe, but after seeing even one episode of “The Simple Life,” there’s no question that Paris would have it no other way.
It was hot, for sure, but the flier was also an obvious commentary on the celebrity culture Paris-mania epotimizes. Here’s a girl who’s famous for being famous and behaving very, very badly. That’s exactly what the folks behind Untitled decided that they wanted to do for their patrons. Ozias wanted to make people feel famous enough in their own minds to the point where they felt they themselves — not him, not the DJs — were the real stars of the night. And now that everyone was famous for being famous — and Detroit has no shortage of cartoon characters and undiscovered D-list movie stars — everyone had the right do whatever the hell they wanted.
Suddenly, throwing drinks in people’s faces became normal behavior. It wasn’t uncommon to see someone sprayed in the face with vodka from a Super Soaker or to see heavy artillery (a perforated paddle wielded by Ozias’ girlfriend, Delia Godoy) brought out for birthday spankings.
Then things got even more ridiculous. Ozias held the first annual Ms. Untitled pageant, wherein contestants competed for a crown, a Ms. Untitled sash (a pretty funny title if you think about it) and a few donated CDs. There was a car crash-themed night; after-parties stretched into the morning; fake new genres emerged (sasspunk, jungleclash, dorkwave); a Mr. Untitled was crowned; Hilton-inspired female regulars started calling themselves the “debu-twats;” and everyone who got into it got all of that energy back plus a mean hangover.
Not unlike Paris herself, Untitled — whose mainstays are doing a little better in the frontal lobe department — took heat for being famous for being famous. People who might’ve enjoyed themselves had they played along didn’t see the humor in the self-aggrandizement.
“We were totally hit with hate mail,” claims Ozias. “But rather than taking those things and trying to defend ourselves, we used it to define the night and ourselves the next time. People would say, ‘This is just about cliquishness and stupid popularity.’ Then, of course, the next direction for us was saying, ‘Yes, we are a clique’ and ‘Come on, join our clique because we’re the cool kids, and not only are we the cool kids, but we’re prettier than you are too.’”
A good example of this attitude: When accused of acting like a bunch of popularity-obsessed high school kids, Untitled had its own homecoming.
“All the girls went out and got thrift store prom dresses and cut ’em up to make them incredibly short,” he reminisces. “I’ve got a suit on with the sleeves missing, and just as a weird coincidence, some guy from Carhartt comes in to shoot photos of Detroit club life for a catalog they’re putting out in the UK. So somewhere there’s gonna be a catalog running with all these girls in torn prom dresses, and now chicks in London are gonna think that’s the new Detroit club look. It’s just hilarious that they did this on our homecoming night, which was a complete joke.”
It’s not a complete joke, though. After years of waiting around for somebody to do something to invigorate a techno scene that was resting too heavily on past achievements, nights like Untitled have shaken things up, making the people, the entertainment and the music a perfect backdrop.
Untitled happens Saturday night at the Shelter (431 E. Congress). Call 313-961-MELT for information.Robert Gorrell writes about electronic music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]