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Taylor Swift vs. Olivia Rodrigo vs. the world: Why dance nights are serving up instant nostalgia

(Photo illustration by José L Soto/The Washington Post base on images by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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On any given day, perusing the event listings at a favorite music venue will result in the usual genre-spanning mix of musicians, whether up-and-coming or well-traveled, as well as DJ gigs and dance nights. As the world grapples with the latest wave of the pandemic, cancellations and postponements are more common than ever.

Apart from these coronavirus-caused disappointments, calendars are increasingly filled with dance nights dedicated to the present or not-so-distant past of pop music, pitting artists’ discographies against each other: Madonna vs. Gaga vs. Britney; One Direction vs. the Jonas Brothers; Taylor Swift vs. Miley Cyrus, Olivia Rodrigo or just herself.

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Dance nights dedicated to nostalgia have been a regular feature of nightlife for years. 9:30 Club has hosted events dedicated to the ‘90s, aughts and 2010s; Cryfest — pitting the Cure against the Smiths — will celebrate its 20th anniversary at the Black Cat this February; and there are two distinct traveling shows dedicated to turn-of-the-millennium emo and pop-punk (one is even booked at Coachella).

But the rise in artist-specific dance nights — especially ones dealing in almost instant-nostalgia — seems to be yet another pandemic side effect, of both venues and promoters looking to fill slots emptied by tour changes and of audiences looking for a fix of familiar fun during a time when joy is in short supply.

“Listening to a few artists that you know so well and doing something communal is so important right now,” says Alisha Edmonson, co-owner of D.C.'s Songbyrd Music House. “We’re all trying to learn our way back into hanging out with our friends again. For two years, we’ve not had that much communal experience.”

For Isabelle Gillman, attending a Taylor Swift-focused dance party was a lark that turned into a genuine connection to the music community in the District, where she had moved a few months before. Gillman, 22, doesn’t describe herself as a huge fan of the singer-songwriter, but went to Union Stage’s “Look What You Made Me Do” party last August thanks to a roommate who is a serious Swift obsessive.

“She actually wanted to get her heart broken before the rerelease [of Swift’s ‘Red’] came out so that she could hear it better,” Gillman says.

Gillman was familiar with the idea of a Taylor Swift party because of videos of similar events on TikTok, so she was prepared for a crowd almost exclusively made up of 18-to-20-somethings, some dressed to resemble different eras of the star’s career while sipping cocktails named after her ex-boyfriends. Taking a break from the Swift-heavy playlist (with some Rodrigo and early Cyrus mixed in), Gillman struck up a conversation with a Union Stage employee that resulted in her volunteering for the venue; she eventually became the on-site supervisor for its street team.

“This Taylor Swift event — just like some random thing that my roommate forced me to go — has sparked a lot of connections,” she says.

Other Taylor Swift-focused dance nights have been rewarding on both sides of the stage. Gemma Sherry DJed a similar night at Songbyrd in November: “22 & Good 4 U,” an event that adds buzzy newcomer Rodrigo to the mix. An Australian singer, saxophonist and DJ who splits time between D.C. and Philadelphia, Sherry DJs mostly weddings and corporate events, along with supporting her own jazz albums (she was touring Australia when interviewed).

“Honestly, it was one of the best performances — DJ or singing or anything — I’ve done in my life, because it just felt great,” she says. “Everyone’s there for the right reasons: it was about the music.”

Like Gillman, Sherry was not a huge fan of Swift before the event, but since then, she’s become a self-described Swiftie thanks to the gig. She was impressed with the “lovely” crowd that clapped after each song and came prepared with “Rocky Horror Picture Show”-like embellishments. At one point, the crowd passed around masks of ex-Swift beau Jake Gyllenhaal and draped Sherry in a red scarf — both nods to cult favorite “All Too Well,” a song understood to be about the actor. Plus, the applause and adulation she received made her feel like she was Taylor Swift.

“It was such a great community, everyone was so connected the whole night,” she says. “I just felt like we’re all in this together.”

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That sense of community has been an unexpected aspect of the “22 & Good 4 U” offering, which is the brainchild of L.A.-based promoter Ben Schechter. When concerts began to return last summer, Schechter — who has booked live bands for the past six years under his What the Sound banner — wanted to promote a party night. A fan of Swift and Rodrigo, he settled on a brand name that paid tribute to both artists and has found success with the concept around the country.

For Schechter, part of the appeal of artist-focused dance nights has been how these shows differ from traditional concerts, where the focus is chiefly on the performer and not always on cutting loose with friends and fellow attendees.

“You don’t really have to focus on anything else except for belting the lyrics that you already know so well,” he says. “I think that experience after the pandemic [began] is super powerful.”

Plus, the experience has another benefit, for music fans looking for a peaceful refuge as the pandemic rolls on and anxiety about the state of the world continues to grow.

“Both the venue owners and the attendees have the same feedback about just how safe and warm the night felt,” he says. “No drunk dudes are hitting on them and no frat guys are there.”

Taylor Swift vs. Olivia Rodrigo Dance Party, Feb. 3 at 8 p.m., and Taylor Swift Dance Party, Feb. 4 at 10:30 p.m., at Union Stage, 740 Water St. SW. unionstage.com. Sold out.

22 & Good 4 U, Feb. 19 at 10:30 p.m. at Songbyrd, 540 Penn St. NE. songbyrddc.com. $28.

Note: Proof of vaccination is required for admittance to these shows. Check venue websites for details.

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