The ass clapping, the big hair and nails, the dollars raining down – when MTV first gave me a glimpse into the Dirty South’s strip clubs, it mesmerised me and horrified my parents. I spent my teens reading up on Miami bass and still vividly remember the day the uncensored video for Ludacris's "P-Poppin'" scared my dad from the living room like a startled deer. In December last year, I turned this obsession into a pilgrimage to the booty bars of Atlanta, Georgia for the VICE film, Atlanta: Strip City.
Atlanta now boasts the highest quantity of dancers per capita in the world. The city began its march towards being the "urban adult nightclub" capital of the US in 1971, when a touring edition of the musical Hair (it’s OK, stay with me) was set to roll through ATL. Fulton County officials – freaked out at the possibility of the show’s now notorious nude scene being performed – sued in a bid to stop the tour on obscenity grounds. A federal judge however, then ruled that nudity was a form of free speech and protected by the Constitution. So the legend goes that not only did Hair come to town (thank GOD) but Atlanta’s adult clubs also went coochie-out-nude the very next day. Now, Georgia remains one of a clutch of places in the US where you can be drunk and fully nude in the comfort of the club.
Whether it be watching guys do dick-helicopters at Swinging Richards or 50-year-old women stick lit matches through their nipples at the Clermont Lounge, there’s a ridiculous range of adult entertainment in ATL. But it’s an inseparable companionship that has built up between the city’s hip-hop scene and its titty bars that has transformed the Atlanta strip club experience from something enjoyed by lonely men with awk boners into a social activity. The club DJs – such as the late, great DJ Nando, a 2 Chainz affiliate and go-to Atlantan figurehead for major labels – are seen as local legends and consider themselves the engines of the clubs, with ATL artists buttering them up for track plays. But if the dancers aren’t fucking with your music, good luck getting any radio play. Essentially the hopes and dreams of the city's young hip-hop artists rest in a major way upon the tits and asses of its strippers. It’s a relationship that has earned Atlanta’s hip-hop an adorable butt-worshipping irreverence and created a strip club experience atypical to the States. But in turn, it’s invited the rest of the world’s moral judgement, as if the city is constantly in Last Days Of Rome mode.
This was magnified last year, when the mainstream pop world decided that strip club culture was the next big thing it was gonna leech off. Thanks to artists like Miley and Rihanna, my innocent love for gigantic clapping asses was suddenly taboo. It became hard to reconcile my fanaticism for butts with countless keyboard-smashing op-eds on how the humble twerk was ruining everything. Sure, there were some great debates that tried to navigate through the tangle of race, class and sexuality, but there was also a ton of wildly simplistic shit-slinging. More often than not, I was grossed out by the venom of women who'd find that for once they couldn't argue their way out of a situation, and so instead just ended up blurting out things like, “But they’re acting like fucking strippers!”
So, heading out to Atlanta, I’d filled my head with an arsenal of smart-arse questions about the criticisms levelled at the industry. But as I met more dancers, it seemed to become less a mish-mash of gender issues and one solely of class. Girls had uprooted their lives, leaving behind family and friends in everywhere from Miami to New York, to take advantage of Atlanta’s lucrative and increasingly regulated strip scene. Sunny, a dancer at Kamal’s 21, was quick to stress that for most career-stripping was a huge commitment and if you were going to take the plunge you needed to make sure you were “looked after”.
After obtaining the $300 State of Georgia permit that all club workers must have, you need the regulation heels, regular breathalyser tests and, for some, even body part insurance. This was not just getting your butt out on stage. I know it’s a debate well trodden, but last year while pop starlets sparked debate around the sexualisation of women's bodies, over and over again the bodies of marginalised women were overlooked. The stripper, no matter what her story or reasons for getting into the business, seemed to be relegated to a sub-class of woman. By all means feel sorry for these poor, disenfranchised souls at a distance but ewww, don’t celebrate the “ratchet”. These are the same class undertones that say upwardly mobile women fucking around with ostrich feathers doing burlesque is empowering, but strippers must be too stupid to get a job doing anything else.
One dancer I met was named Passion. Her Detroit upbringing had already denied her any form of higher education before she could figure out what she wanted to do with her life. Having been stuck in a waitressing job, stripping at Atlanta's Magic City club finally afforded her an agency over her body and her bank account that I found hard not to admire. Voluntarily taking your clothes off for money didn’t have to be humiliating, but not being able to pay your rent was always humiliating. So despite how I felt about the industry, if I was condemning but not offering solutions, all I’d be doing was vilifying the dancers. Not very sisterly, right? As Dave Manack of Exotic Dancer Publications pointed out to me, “Adult nightclubs are a multi-billion dollar industry and also a very challenging business to operate in. Like any [business], there are very good operators and there are a handful of bad apples that tend to make the headlines. But guys will always want that interaction, whether it’s an act or not, they like the company of an attractive woman.”
Of course you can argue that Atlanta’s glorification of its dancers means we’re all fucked to hell, with dancers and female punters joining in with the commodification of themselves at the hands of The Man. But on the other, ATL’s open-armed strip culture has forced their clubs further and further into transparency. The women promote themselves fiercely and are deified on social media, to the point where their names precede the clubs they dance at. Atlanta’s strippers are not mere stage-flesh that some sweaty guy in a polyester suit glances once at before flicking a pound into a pint glass. It's this normalisation that’s earned the clubs an influx of female customers. Manack adds, “Over the last ten years or so the industry has actively tried to become more female-friendly. If there are more women going, that changes the dynamic for the better, and lifts the veil that all clubs are just these seedy places only guys go to.”
Does the pop world’s newfound fondness for the club have its wider pitfalls? Yup, loads. But does it afford the women actually living it some safety in its candour? Yes, and to me that’s something we should probably try nailing before having shitty roundtable summits on the adult industry’s moral impact.
Follow Jo on Twitter: @FUERTESKNIGHT