This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
It’s 2016, and they say young people have stopped leaving their houses. Clubbing is too expensive for “millennials,” we don’t like big crowds, we’re “averse to risk,” some fart from Bloc said that we’re too lame to even know how to rave, and reports from the States suggest everyone in our generation is “ditching bar crawls for juice crawls.” Even the liberal left at the Guardian have turned their backs on the British youth, labelling them as sedentary dullards who like to “chill in and relax.”
Sure, we don’t have the cash to be heading out every night of the week, and we’re often too stressed with our shitty jobs or towering degree debt to even want to—I guess that’s what over 40 years of crushing neoliberalism does to the souls of the youth, guys—but are times really as bad as everyone is making them it out to be? Have all the young people swapped nightclubs for Nutriboosts?
It’s 7 PM, and I’m standing in Dublin city center. The rain-drenched streets are a complete mess. It looks like someone dropped an atomic bomb containing trampled McDonalds packaging, and students in various forms of formal dress are streaming past me in the hundreds, necking and then tossing “naggins” (200 mL bottle of spirits). There’s a grotesque pilgrimage going on, and it’s absolutely beautiful.
Tonight, around 7,500 young people—a mixture of naive first years, cocky second years, privileged trust funders, local chancers, creepy postgrads, and opportunistic dealers—will descend on Trinity College in their finest tuxedos, suits, ball gowns and faux fur, for the Trinity College Ball. It’s the oldest university in Ireland, and this is technically the biggest private party in Europe.
It’s an event dubbed as an opportunity for students to watch music and mingle in the surreal setting of Ireland’s oldest campus, but it is actually seven hours of dinner jacket hedonism in an environment that looks like V Festival went to Hogwarts, followed by 48 hours of partisan house parties. When Jessie J was booked to play years ago, she refused to perform after seeing the state of the students and instead decided to lecture the crowd on what a total mess they were. That's the kind of party it used to be.
But times have changed since I attended back in the day. For a start, it’s now huge, and Jessie J isn’t. This year’s lineup might still include classic college tour indie fare like The Kooks, but it also features Stormzy, Novelist, Formation, Waze & Odyssey, Gorgon City, Horsemeat Disco, and Seth Troxler.
With a lineup like that and a capacity that could fill three Fabrics, it made me wonder what kind of hedonistic youth I would find at an event like Trinity Ball, especially if the kids don’t go out and get pissed anymore? Would I uncover a shady cabal of smartly dressed grime aficionados? A pill munching generation of new young techno-heads in tuxedos? Or just a buttload of posh kids indifferently swiping Tinder and sipping detox smoothies while they waited for The Kooks to come on? I got myself a ticket and headed in, armed with iPhone note questions, an old dictaphone, a Boots disposable camera, and a desire to understand.
When I arrive at the box office, I’m handed a card with “What’s In The Pill?” written on it. There’s something a bit weird about a university established in 1592 handing out a leaflet containing stone cold truth bombs like “never double drop.” It worries me—maybe this will be the health-conscious snoozefest that the old and elderly co-founder of Bloc mocked us for.
There’s plenty of people in their Sunday best near the entrance hunting for tickets, but for the most part they aren’t willing to chat—they’re busy yelling: “ANYONE SELLING TICKETS!?” You have to admire the commitment of getting all dressed-up and pre-drinking on the off chance of getting into a private party that sold out months ago. I suspect quite a lot of them aren’t even students here. I assume that because a girl nearby finds a ticket on the ground and starts screaming.
I get talking to Mark, who is in a fedora and drinking a bottle of Buckfast. It “gets you fucked fast,” he rhymes to me. Mark wants to go in, but he needs to finish his Buckie, so he’s happy to tell us why he’s here in the meantime. “Stormzy?” He stares, like I just asked if he’s ever thought about selling his knees on Gumtree. “No I’m not here for ‘Stormzy’—what are you on about? I’m here for the Kooks!”
My heart sinks a bit. Here I am hoping the kids would be slating me for not knowing enough about LGBT dancehall or post-vaporwave or something, and they're hyped for hearing Luke Pritchard miserly mumbling “Sofa Song” once more for old time’s sake.
“I’m here to see my friends,” says Aoife, a final year student. “I don’t know many of the bands—I know the Kooks, and that’s kind of it.”
“People have heard of the Kooks before,” agrees her friend James, also in final year. “Even though they’ll only know like two songs, it doesn’t matter too much. Back in our early days the line-ups were good.” Note: Bastille headlined back in the early days.
I ask James if he thinks 7,500 kids descending on one spot is in anyway representative of general youth culture or just a one-off night of hubristic shitfacing. “I think it’s important to remember that someone can do this one night, but can be anybody else the rest of the time. There will always be people everywhere who are doing this sort of thing at some point.”
James is drunk. I let the pair go on their way as I meet two more people who are here for one reason only.
“Stormzy, innit?” Ammy and his pal tell me. “I wouldn’t have come if he wasn’t here. We don’t even have tickets, we’re just waiting for people who are so drunk they can’t get in, so we can buy their tickets off them. Who are you here to see?” I say Stormzy and they start cheering.
“What you doing today? Reppin’ innit!’ So what’s your name, cuz?” I start saying “I’m Tara,” but it turns out the correct answer was “Stormzy innit!” Credibility hugely diminished, I mumble “Good luck” and, as they start rapping the words to “Shut Up,” I decide it’s finally time to head down the red carpet and into the ball.
There is something quite otherworldly about the place. The beautiful old campus is covered in people, five different stages, bar areas, portaloos, and trucks selling kebabs. With the lights dancing over the cobbled stones of front square and the university orchestra playing covers of LCD Soundsystem, it feels like we’ve walked through the wardrobe into a fantasy realm. Albeit a fantasy realm where everyone gurns, and a guy called Daithí plays violin over mixes of “Hollaback Girl.”
For all my hopes of obnoxious carnage, everyone actually seems pretty pleasant. I meet Ellen and Aine, two first-time ballers, in the crowd watching the orchestra. “It is a little bit pretentious,” says Aine, “But it’s a fun night, you know? It’s like paying for a festival. Everyone’s going all out tonight and the atmosphere is good.”
They don’t really seem to care about the lineup, and I’m starting to see a pattern. The venue is full of people who are apathetic to the artists playing but who have still happily spent €80 to be here. It seems that just being here is worth that much alone, even if nobody is willing to admit it.
“It’s definitely way too expensive, but you’re guaranteed a good night,” says a 21 year old called Jegg, who is at the ball for a third time. He’s not here for any artists in particular but he’s ready to “embrace the session” with his mates. “I know people who have paid €250 to be here tonight, which is outrageous.”
And yet, for the third time in a row, he’s here—so, clearly, the night is worth something. Add to that all the people outside trying to get tickets, and the stories of people trying to scale the walls and sneak in: It seems being in Dublin and not being at the ball has become dictionary definition FOMO.
But has it simultaneously become the only night of the year anyone bothers? Jegg thinks it’s about getting selective: “In general I always think it’s kind of bullshit the way older generations try and presuppose new generations as being in some way lesser. When I was younger I used to go out to loads of nights that were all right, but as you get older you choose your nights better, don’t you?”
“It’s the hype,” says Michael, a first year clad in a jacket that involves wigs, fairy lights and sequins, before his friend Dylan cuts in, “We’ve heard all the stories and we wanna make better ones.”
I searched the night for these stories, but they weren’t entirely forthcoming. I almost started a full on race war at the whitest event possible (a guy told me to shut the fuck up when I said I was Indian). I did see at least three people being taken out of tents on stretchers, I met a dealer who sneaked in to sell pills by doing circus tricks, and Stormzy retweeted a picture of a fan who had managed to break into his dressing room—but these are hardly the materials that wistful club legends are made from.
As the time approaches, I’m actually a little worried about Novelist and Stormzy’s sets as I make my way over to their tent. I’ve met yet more people who are not interested in grime: Tilly, in her final year, tells me, “I thought the lineup was awful!”
Meanwhile Ronan, also in his final year, had other concerns: “To be honest, I’m ginger, I’m pale-skinned, I don’t think I would be accepted in that crowd. If there was a DJ set doing a nice mix of Talking Heads, I’d be there.”
As we all know, there’s only one thing worse than being a cutting-edge artist playing a university black tie event, and that’s being a respectable artist playing a university black tie event where everyone ditches your set to watch the college’s all male a cappella group do “alternative pop hits.”
When I walk into the tent, it does seem that Trinity college has actually turned up en masse for Novelist. Admittedly, some people are a bit confused over who he is, with one pissed girl asking, “Is this Stormzy?” Still, Novelist’s set is lit.
He wears a backpack throughout, like a young Kanye at a Def Poetry reading, and works the crowd into a proper frenzy. You have not witnessed the true scale of grime’s global reach until you’ve seen a group of white Irish boys in bow ties doing gun fingers and yelling, “RAW ENERGY!”
Stormzy follows, the crowd goes off, and five members of the security staff are forced to invade the mosh pit just to pull people out. Well, I say mosh pit, but it was more of a strange collision of Irish politeness and aggressive music, as tailored young men smashed into each other, only to then profusely apologise. “I know you're all in your nice suits and fancy shoes,” says Stormzy with a grin, “but for the next 25 minutes fuck that—the next 25 minutes are about ENERGY.”
“I’ve never been in a crowd like that”, says George afterwards, an American who has flown over for the weekend to see his girlfriend and to be at the ball. “You couldn’t breathe at the front, but people kept saying sorry to us!”
Unfortunately, watching Stormzy means I missed the Kooks, and now it’s 3.30 AM and I’m in the dance tent. Everyone’s jaws are swinging like pendulums, so I decide to eat a cereal bar to fit in. The people in the dance tent seem the most obnoxious, even if they’re ultimately harmless. Jonas Rathsman and Seth Troxler are fine, but I’m now sober, tired and cold—in being the observer of young people, I’ve become the embodiment of the media's representation of young person who doesn’t know how to rave. For most people, the 5 AM finish is just the start of chapter two—the time to figure out the after-sesh—but I cannot hack that. Troxler plays CeCe Peniston’s "Finally," the lights come on, and it’s time to head home.
I awake the next afternoon, still fully dressed and made-up from the night before, bag somehow still over my shoulder. Disoriented and trying to come to terms with what I’d witnessed, I make my way to the train station. There I meet some lads on the platform, somewhat dishevelled but still in their suits from the night before. It is 4 PM.
“I don’t remember anything”, one of them tells me, “But yeah, a good night.”
It makes me think of something Ronan said to me at the ball: “For better or worse, every generation our age knows how to rave, and they know how to take a lot of drugs. So [the guy from Bloc saying that] comes from people wanting to look at their own generation and think that they were the most craic, but it’s in us all. A night like Trinity Ball? It’s ancient release, it’s carnivale—you look around tonight and there are thousands of people releasing a pressure valve. We’ve lost religion, so instead we need this kind of thing where everyone can lose their minds and totally blow it off.”
Ronan might speak like an English Literature graduate spouting improvised Irvine Welsh monologues in the smoking area at 5 AM, but somewhere in there, I sense his point. Despite all the pretentious finery of the formal wear, traditional setting and the fact it’s called the Trinity Ball, there is definitely something refreshingly grimey about it all. It feels like the sort of party where 18 year olds would feel safe enough to drop for the first time, and all the toilet doors would be inexplicably missing in the morning.
Regardless of who anyone was or why anyone had come—for Stormzy, for Novelist, for The Kooks, for the university orchestra, or for Daithí’s violin covers of “Hollaback Girl”—it felt like every single person would end up face-down in a public space or a Subway at 6 AM or putting a cone on the head of a statue, reduced to their most dishevelled and pure form, and entirely satisfied. For days afterwards, shook kids, still in their ties and cocktail dresses, will line the canal smoking joints to "Take the Edge Off." All things considered, it doesn’t feel like anything has changed at all really.
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