Photos by Nick Sullivan except where noted
In the films I’ve seen of teens approaching the end of their high school careers (like me), there’s an inevitable prom scene. Usually it takes place in a garishly decorated school gymnasium and is packed with slowdances to songs like “Forever Young” and “Time After Time.” But as much of a hallmark as it is, I didn’t have much desire to go to my junior prom last year. I wasn’t really thinking about going to my senior prom, either. I saw the event as maudlin and cheesy. It’s this over-exaggerated “special night” that people hype as transcendental and insurmountably emotional. Just seeing how seriously teen couples take the art of the “promposal,” for example, is nauseating to me.
My creative writing teacher junior year, though, thought I should go. She described senior prom as a high school “rite of passage.” It’s the final blowout before graduation; it congregates the entire senior class under one roof with pulsating music and a daunting assortment of cuisine; it’s a school event, except you don’t have to learn anything. Senior prom is a penultimate chapter to the coveted conclusion of high school, but even though I hated (really hated) a good portion of high school, I thought experiencing this chapter would be more eventful than just sulking around at home dwelling on that hatred.
At the beginning of senior year, my friend Jake and I loosely promised each other that if we didn’t have dates by the month before prom was set to happen, we’d go as each other’s dates. It was great because he was my fallback. Also it guaranteed a less awkward time than possibly asking out a girl I don't know too well, which, as my mom told me, was the status quo when she was in high school. Months went by; we still hadn’t asked any girls out. And finally, this past Wednesday, the fallback became reality: I found myself walking up to Jake’s door, decked in a black tuxedo with ivory garments, ready to take some traditional pre-prom photos together on his front steps.
The high school was having an official pre-prom gathering at an estate with beautiful gardens, around a mile up the street, and some of my date’s friends had asked if we were going. “Gotta see if my better half would like to,” Jake said, and, since he left it up to me, I thought that some front step photos would be nicer than being cramped among a bunch of other high schoolers. My family came along to take some pictures, and Jake’s family took pics of their own. I asked my friend Nick, who took photos of me running around a mall in the name of music journalism last year, to come by with his camera as well.
Photo by Jake
Mom and Dad said I could have the car for the night, so at one point I drove them and my sister home and swung around back to Jake’s place. We went up to his bedroom to kill the minutes leading up to the 7:00 start time. We took a Snapchat selfie in front of his closet mirror, captioning it with a reference to both ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” and Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”: “might as well face it you’re a sharp dressed men.” Jake and I have found, over the course of our friendship, that we’re both well studied in the field of 80s music.
After that, we went down to my borrowed car and drove off. It was only a 15-minute drive to the venue, and we spent it listening to 88.3 FM WBGO, Newark, New Jersey’s haven for excellent jazz, soul, and world music. Besides their smooth jazz segments, WBGO’s repertoire is always high-quality, like the bebop they play during the week and the warm soul music of Felix Hernandez’s “Rhythm Revue” shows on Saturdays. Listening to WBGO acted as a relaxing offset to the unrelenting, low-end club and pop music that prom was bound to have vibrating the dancefloor throughout the night.
There was a handful of other seniors at the country club by the time we arrived, but the space was clearly not packed yet. Some faint intermission music played as Jake and I took a table at the back of the room, where we got an aerial view of the highway and miles of forest. Long tables of food bordered the room, but I was wary about eating since I didn’t want the possibility of feeling gassy at any point during the night. Being amid a cavalcade of high schoolers would just accentuate that feeling.
Eventually a curtain opened that revealed the second room, which held the dancefloor (with its DJ-booth/stage, rainbow-colored lights, and cluster of medium-sized speakers) and wide circular tables. People began to wander in, cliques began to designate their homebases at each of the tables, then an MC came out to try and galvanize everyone in proximity. One of the first songs was a slowdance to “All Of Me” by John Legend. The emcee beckoned all the couples over, while Jake and I stood at the periphery of the dancefloor, feeling a little out of place.
Photo by the author
After that brief slowdance (which looked like the sole slowdance from throughout the entire evening), the DJ got things pumping. The earlier portion of the mix played the running man Vine song into Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison,” which had been sped-up to be rendered consistent with the mix’s overall fast tempo. They played Drake, Future, and Future 2.0. During Soulja Boy’s “Crank That,” Jake told me that he saw some girls doing the song’s dance and looking frightened—almost as if they didn't want to be caught doing it.
At a younger age, I would’ve smirked at the music being played at prom; it was all totally mainstream. Instead I decided to just shut up and bask in it for the amount of time I felt like dancing. It was the perfect setting for this style of music to be blasting in anyways, so who was I to critique any of it? I pulled the fishing line move where you reel in your partner, and a few times my “line” got “stuck,” pulling me in reverse toward whichever friend I’d “hooked.” It was a fantastic opportunity that I embraced to make myself look totally obnoxious.
Photo by the author
A bunch of people didn’t seem to stop dancing at all, and the uptempo music set a constant high energy mood for virtually the entire night. I liked how the playlist’s lack of slowdancing numbers went against the prom stereotype. But Jake and I took breaks here and there. We spent the time meandering around the banquet room and running into people we knew. The outside area featured an illuminated waterfall display and a small gazebo. As I was walking up the stairs back inside, I heard a few seniors nearby complaining about something. “Why aren’t they serving coffee?” one of them asked. “You’d think having coffee isn’t such a far-fetched idea.” I thought about it a little, and four magical words aligned in my mind, an end of high school mantra: Who gives a shit?
We left the country club at 10:30, planning on going to a post-prom hangout that my friend Chuck (whom I once talked to about what music he likes) had invited us to. On the way, I misjudged a right turn that I was making on red, and I popped a tire on a curb. The car made a creaky noise as I drove it down the street and parked by a meter. I called my mom and told her what I did, feeling both flustered by the instance and drained overall from the long evening. My dad came over to where we were parked and drove the car to a nearby repair shop. From there, we all walked back to our place.
Getting a ride to hang with Chuck would’ve been tough to coordinate, so we called it a night (which I guess is a bit lame for a teenager to want to do: “call it a night”). While Jake was waiting for his dad to come get him, we talked about how it all went. My parents asked if it had turned out to be decent and about who we saw there. I honestly couldn’t think of that many cons. It wasn’t as transcendental or emotional as the hype, but prom was fun—in the sense that being in the same place as some of your really great friends is bound to be fun. No one seemed to really over-romanticize the event. The realization that this marked high school as essentially over hadn’t quite hit me; it still hasn’t. I don’t know what my big takeaway from this stage in life will be. I don’t know how my (negative) perspective will evolve. I do hope that I remember the people from high school who I found exceptional and fun to be around—rather than the cliquey, snotty ones—in the coming years.
Most seniors were going straight to the beach for post-prom and celebrating the nearing conclusion of high school. But Jake and I didn’t have any plans; post-prom was up in the air for us, just as going to prom together in the first place was kind of up in the air. As he was about to leave I mentioned that we could figure out something fun to do tomorrow. He was down, definitely.
Eli Zeger is Noisey's teen correspondent, now become a man. Follow him on Twitter.