(Illustration by Giselle Potter)

Social creatures

In blues clubs, cocktail bars, and zoos, David Grazian, AM’96, PhD’00, investigates the artifice of authenticity.

David Grazian, AM’96, PhD’00, likes penguins now.

A sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Grazian wasn’t fond of animals, particularly, until he spent four years doing fieldwork for his book American Zoo: A Sociological Safari (Princeton University Press, 2015). While volunteering at two urban zoos, he came to feel genuine affection for the animals he cared for, even the cockroaches. But the penguins were one of his favorites, so that’s where my tour begins.

At the Central Park Zoo on a Wednesday morning in late June, Grazian and I are watching them. The penguins swim and dive in their “old-school exhibit,” as Grazian describes it, which has a painted background like a stage set. The rocks are made of poured concrete, he points out; some are hollow so they can be used for storage. It’s this kind of artifice that led Grazian to zoos as a research topic. The manufacturing of authenticity is a through line in his work, whether he’s in a blues club, cocktail bar, or zoo.

His first book, Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs (University of Chicago Press, 2003), looked at the disparate ways that tourists, Chicago residents, and musicians define “authentic” blues. None of their definitions is more valid than the others—authenticity, he writes, is “a figment of our collective imagination.” What interests Grazian in Blue Chicago is the search for authenticity, and its power over the meaning we give our everyday experience.

His second book, On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife (University of Chicago Press, 2008), likened nightlife to a confidence game, with shills creating “an atmosphere of synthetic excitement.” It dissected the artifice of Philadelphia nightlife: the staging and marketing of the clubs, and the self-conscious performances of their customers.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3720","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"358","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] Grazian’s unlikely scholarly path “from blues to zoos,” as he puts it in American Zoo, proved to be a rich one. (Photography by Lucy Baker, courtesy David Grazian)

But after Grazian and his wife, New York University journalism faculty member Meredith Broussard, had a child, doing fieldwork at night “no longer seemed tenable nor all that appealing,” he writes in American Zoo. He also found himself going to Philadelphia Zoo a lot, because his son loved animals. Grazian noticed similarities to blues bars and nightclubs, which all “feature backdrops of staged authenticity, tourist-packed audiences, a cast of performers and promoters,” and more. In their distinct ways all three, he writes, are “stages for the performance of authenticity and fantasy.”

Zoo visitors may think they’re getting a glimpse of nature itself. But it’s a sanitized, child-friendly version, with no waste, vomit , or dead animals on view. (At one zoo where he volunteered, “10:19” was zookeeper code for dead, as in the announcement, “I have a 10:19 hourglass tree frog.”)  Animals in a zoo, though protected from natural predators, are entirely dependent on their keepers for survival. The elaborate stagecraft behind their exhibits, Grazian shows, carefully balances the aesthetic expectations of viewers, the well-being of the animals, and the needs of other stakeholders, from donors to docents.

Grazian writes vividly about his fieldwork in American Zoo: “I shoveled cow manure and chicken dung, … clipped a ferret’s toenails, … picked horse and donkey hooves, stuffed frozen feeder mice with vitamin E capsules, bathed tortoises, and exercised overweight rabbits.” Like the rabbits, he lost weight, from a combination of the physical labor and a new revulsion toward red meat, caused by all the gross tasks involved in animal care. “You start eating a lot more salad,” he says. On the downside, shoveling hay at the zoo not only set off his allergies but made his wife allergic to him too.

To round out his research, Grazian visited 26 zoos around the country, often taking his son along as a fieldwork companion and cover story. (He had discovered that as a 40-something man alone at a zoo, writing notes and taking pictures, he was perceived as threatening.)

Of all the zoos he’s seen, his hometown zoo in Central Park, just six acres, remains a favorite. Opened in 1864, it’s one of the oldest zoos in the nation. The location, “in the middle of a bustling city,” is part of its appeal, he says: “The contrast is so glaring.”  But however strongly we feel it, the nature/culture dichotomy is false, he writes in American Zoo. Humans and their habitats are part of nature too, the zoo is a cultural production, and the boundary is “an imaginary one, important only to us.”

Grazian’s outfit on this warm day is vaguely safari-like: a cream-colored button-down shirt, beige shorts, sandals. Nonetheless we’re searching for a snow leopard. A sign explains the animal can be tricky to see. “That’s not a bad lesson,” Grazian says. “Snow leopards aren’t here to perform for you.” After a few moments of searching, he adds, “It’s actually right there”—below us, napping against the wall of the exhibit.

A group of children presses against the glass above the leopard, oohing and ahhing. “Let’s listen and hear what the kids say,” he says quietly.

Grazian recently published a paper in Social Psychology Quarterly about how parents at the zoo socialize their children about gender. “You would think the pretty one would be the female, but it isn’t,” says one mother quoted in the article. As we walk away, he notes that these kids called the snow leopard “kitty” and used the pronoun “she.” Usually, he says, “he” tends to be used “for something that can rip your face off.”

In the rainforest exhibit mist begins to spray. Grazian takes off his glasses and wipes away the steam. Zoos are often organized by “bioclimatic zones,” he says, which makes for some odd juxtapositions. The tropic zone jumbles together strange, colorful creatures from all over the globe; they would never live together in nature. A bit like the city itself.

At eight that evening I meet Grazian again, this time at the corner of Bleecker and Carmine in Greenwich Village.  We’re retracing his oeuvre in reverse chronological order: having taken in the zoo, we’re going to a cocktail lounge, then a blues club.

In On the Make, his study of nightclubs, Grazian returned to a concept he introduced in his first book, Blue Chicago: the nocturnal self, “a special kind of presentation of self associated with consuming urban nightlife.” The nocturnal self seeks what Grazian calls “nocturnal capital,” competing with others to get into clubs and get the attention of bartenders and other clubgoers. Nightclubs, he writes, give young people the space “to perform an elaborated nocturnal self for an audience of anonymous strangers.”

In graduate school, Grazian says, “I used to be a night person.” When he wasn’t doing his dissertation fieldwork at B.L.U.E.S. (on Halsted just north of Fullerton in Chicago), he was at rock clubs or dance clubs. He wrote at night; he did his class reading at Jimmy’s. But at 43, Grazian has slowed down. Tonight his nocturnal self is wearing the same outfit as his diurnal self, except he’s swapped the sandals for New Balance sneakers.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3721","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"358","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] Grazian researched his first book, Blue Chicago, at B.L.U.E.S. on Chicago’s North Side and 36 other clubs. He attended B.L.U.E.S. or its satellite club, B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, two or three nights a week. (Photography by Michael Clesle, CC BY-SA)

I trail behind Grazian as he crosses the street toward a familiar chain restaurant. “We’re going to Five Guys,” he says. I think to myself, OK.

At the back of the restaurant is a slim staircase. We are not going to Five Guys. We’re climbing the stairs to a “secret” cocktail bar, the Garret. I have to laugh.

The Garret is long, narrow, and noisy. In On the Make, Grazian takes a decidedly dystopian view of such places. He calls them “aggressively competitive environments in which participants are forever on the make, challenging each other for social status, self-esteem, and sexual prestige in a series of contests, attacks, and deflections.” For instance, a game for men is the “girl hunt”—as one research subject calls it—and a game for women is resisting the girl hunt.

Grazian orders a house cocktail, a First Lady. I would like a beer. But to be a participant observer at the Garret, in the tradition of the Chicago school of sociology, requires a cocktail, I think. I choose a champagne cocktail, the simplest drink.

Grazian doesn’t discern much meaning in the Garret’s decor. “Seems just like random kitsch,” he says. There’s a fireplace with an odd pile of books: encyclopedia volumes, The Senate and the League of Nations by Henry Cabot Lodge. “If you actually brought a book, and wanted to read, people would look at you like you were nuts.”

We find an awkward spot at the top of the stairs. Grazian kindly agrees to keep my voice recorder in his shirt pocket  and to analyze the room. “It’s above a Five Guys,” he begins, “as if it were a secret, but we don’t live in an era of prohibition.” The bar’s hiddenness is a marketing tactic to “generate buzz and to manufacture this totally synthetic exclusivity.”

A digital recorder is something Grazian didn’t have when he was researching blues clubs, and “you weren’t allowed to bring recording equipment into a blues club anyway.” So he would take brief notes on a coaster. Afterward he would turn these “jottings” into detailed, thorough field notes. “It looked like I was writing down somebody’s phone number,” he says. “Because I was in my early 20s, my memory was much better. I could remember whole conversations in a way that I don’t feel confident doing now.” If he wanted to write down an exact quote, he would sneak off to the bathroom.

There are also memory tricks. If someone said, “‘Wow, this is the coolest thing I’ve done since I’ve moved here,’ I would look at them and I’d say, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve done since I’ve moved here. I love that.’”

Another thing that’s changed since Grazian researched his first two books is that he’s not the only one obsessively documenting. “Everybody’s on their phones” now, he says. “In 2005 you couldn’t take pictures on your phone and post them on Facebook. That’s the document of your nocturnal self.” “Here’s the selfie,” he notes later, as a group of revelers snaps photos with three different phones simultaneously.

In Blue Chicago, Grazian is very present as a participant observer; he even drags out his dusty alto sax and sits in on jam sessions. (In a sitcom-worthy moment, Grazian’s desperate, off-key improvisations during his first solo are mistaken for free jazz.) But in On the Make—the book about upscale bars like the one we’re sitting in—Grazian disappears a little bit. Why?

Nightclubs are filled with distrust, Grazian explains. At B.L.U.E.S. he could easily strike up conversations with strangers, especially tourists. If he tried a similar approach in nightclubs, “people thought I was coming on to them”—even couples.  Groups of friends stay in tight clusters at nightclubs, as if in little gated communities. So On the Make relies heavily on interviews, focus groups, and firsthand narrative accounts of young nightlife participants.  At one point, he does go out for cocktails with a group of young women, “with my wife’s permission, of course,” he writes, “although I did have to endure some marital ribbing.”

Our final destination is Terra Blues on Bleecker Street, near where Grazian and his family live (he commutes to his job in Philadelphia). He’s never been inside before, since he assumed it would be inferior to blues clubs in Chicago.

Bleecker Street was “the center of beat life in the ’50s and the counterculture in the ’60s,” Grazian notes. “It was extraordinarily vibrant here, but now it’s 50 years later, and it’s all just souvenir shops.” As a high school student growing up in Fort Lee, New Jersey, he used to sneak into Greenwich Village and play his sax for money in Washington Square Park. “So living here now is just like a dream to me.”

Terra Blues is much more upscale than Chicago’s divey B.L.U.E.S., which opened in 1979 and looks like nothing has been updated since. In his book Grazian describes it as having “the strange atmospherics of a dingy, down-home tavern colonized by an airport gift shop.”

At Terra the stage is framed with a velvet curtain. There are tablecloths and candles on the tables; about a third of them are occupied. The wall of black-and-white photographs of musicians—a number of them from Chicago—“distinguish it as a blues club,” Grazian says. “That’s what every blues club would have in common: the Hall of Fame.”  Terra’s customers look like they’re in their 60s—the same generation who loved blues during the roots revival of the 1960s and ’70s.

While doing fieldwork at B.L.U.E.S., Grazian always drank Budweiser. It was the cheapest beer on the menu, it was unobtrusive (unlike a premium beer he once tried, which came in a fancy glass), and—most important—he dislikes it. Drinking was “a necessary impediment to doing the work. In other words, I drank to fit in,” he says.  He still drinks it whenever he visits B.L.U.E.S., because some of the waitresses still work there and remember his usual.

“Are we required to have Budweiser?” I ask.

“Yeah. Yeah, we are.”

The bottles arrive icy cold, with labels that read America (a summer promotion about authenticity that seems entirely appropriate). It’s almost 10 and the house band, the T Blues Band, is about to go on.

Grazian first visited a blues club in 1995, as a first-year graduate student. He had planned to go to the Green Mill to hear jazz, but his friend Chad Broughton, AM’97, PhD’01, who now teaches public policy at UChicago, persuaded him to go to Kingston Mines for blues instead. They stayed until five in the morning.  A few weeks later Grazian went to B.L.U.E.S., half a block down Halsted Street from Kingston Mines. The club, he wrote in Blue Chicago, “felt like the authentic blues club of my dreams.”

One night electric blues guitarist Son Seals was playing and asked the crowd, “How many of y’all here from out of town?” As Grazian recalls, “It was this deafening roar. I was kind of surprised.” The authentic blues club of his dreams was full of tourists who were chasing the authentic blues club of their dreams. A thesis topic was born.

In Blue Chicago, Grazian is not concerned with finding authenticity but exploring what different groups think is authentic. For tourists, race signifies authenticity; African American musicians are more authentic than white or Asian ones. Grazian recounts in the book how record companies in the 1920s labeled nearly all of their secular recordings by black musicians as blues.

For hard-core Chicago blues fans, authenticity is based on geography: a dive bar on the South or West Side beats a bar catering to tourists on the North Side. For professional blues musicians themselves, race and geography are not important. Authenticity—if they’re concerned about it at all—is based on the skill of the musician. And many working blues musicians would rather play where they get paid the most; a tourist joint or a bar in the suburbs is just fine.

At Terra the T Blues Band launches into its first song. “It’s exactly the same as you would hear at B.L.U.E.S.,” Grazian says. “Chicago blues, straight-ahead Chicago blues.” A moment later he shouts an enthusiastic “Woo!”

As the set goes on, though, it’s not the typical standards you might expect—the “Set List from Hell,” one musician calls it in Grazian’s book. When the singer mentions Robert Johnson, I brace myself for another tired version of “Sweet Home Chicago.” Instead it’s “Love in Vain.” “My guess is that most people in the room know the Rolling Stones version,” Grazian says. Later the band diverges even further from the canon, first with Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” then with the lovely guitar solo that begins “Blackbird” by the Beatles.

“Wow,” says Grazian. “Definitely the first time I’ve ever heard this in a blues club.”

“You all got time to Google it and find out what year this was made,” the guitarist challenges the crowd.

“1968!” Grazian calls out, no research necessary. “1968. The White Album.” He’s rewarded with a free beer—another Budweiser he doesn’t want.

Meanwhile a group of women in their 20s, dressed as if for clubbing in short skirts and heels, has settled into some tables stage left. It’s like characters from Grazian’s second book have accidentally wandered into his first. Why are they here? “That’s a good question,” Grazian says. His guess: “They could be international tourists, and so they think they’re having an American moment.”

They stay for the rest of the set, then make their way up to the stage to take photos with the band—or in Grazian’s terminology, to document their nocturnal selves.

He can’t contain his curiosity. Grazian hasn’t done ethnography in a blues bar for almost two decades, but he needs to know what their story is. He crosses the bar to ask.