In the early 2000s, fans, musicians, and allies of Seattle’s all-ages music scene were in the fight of their lives. At least, that’s what it felt like from the front lines. For close to 20 years one of Seattle’s most vibrant and passionate music communities had been suffocated by the Teen Dance Ordinance, a restrictive 1985 law that made it all but impossible for Seattle venues to legally host all-ages concerts. The children! Someone had to think of the children! It was bullshit.

By the mid-'90s, people had had enough and the fight to repeal the TDO began. Seattle loves to claim music as part of its DNA; it shouldn't have been a problem, right? Wrong. The City was being run by a bunch of conservative dumb dumbs who loooOOoooOOOooved the Teen Dance Ordinance. Mayor Paul Schell, Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran, and Council Member Margaret Pageler.

There were shouting matches at City Hall and dance-ins during community meetings. The Stranger even organized a flash mob before flash mobs were a thing to hold a dance-in during one of Pageler's pro-TDO community meetings. Rocky Votolato played an Elvis Costello song, more than a hundred people pushed chairs out of the way to start dancing, and Pageler threw a literal tantrum. Ah, those were the days. 

It’s a fascinating time in Seattle’s music history, but one that’s rarely talked about anymore. Until now. In his podcast for KUOW, Let the Kids Dance, music journalist Jonathan Zwickel digs into the history of the Teen Dance Ordinance—from how it came to be in 1985 to how it impacted young people through the '90s to how it ultimately, finally, was repealed and replaced by the All Ages Dance Ordinance. 

While it's an intensive history lesson, full of surprising twists and voices (what does Keith Morris of Circle Jerks have to do with Seattle's fight for all-ages music? Listen to find out!) it also only scratches the surface. Zwickel was nice enough to grab coffee after the podcast had wrapped taping to talk more about what he uncovered during his reporting.

I want to talk about the genesis of the podcast. So much of it is about the Teen Dance Ordinance, but even in the early 2000s, when I was reporting on it for The Stranger, I didn't know much about the long-standing history of Seattle's problem with dancing. I didn't know about how there was just one dance marathon in Seattle that ended in tragedy, for example. So getting into this, did you know the TDO was just echoing things that had been happening for generations? Or did you find out the TDO was the tip of the iceberg as you started to do research?

I had some inkling about that, but it wasn't clear just how directly related or how direct that lineage really is. The whole dance marathon thing, I first found out about that when I did a special issue at City Arts about dancing in Seattle and why doesn't Seattle dance? Or why, at least, does Seattle have the reputation as a place that doesn’t dance?

Which has long been its reputation.

Which has long been its reputation, but it also isn’t true necessarily! There are places where Seattle dances, there are places and times. There is a long-standing history of ballroom dance, swing dance—Century Ballroom has a very active community. And there's also a long-standing history of underground electronic dance music and rave culture happening here in the '80s, '90s, into the 2000s. And if you go to Nectar on the right night of the week, everybody in there is losing their minds and dancing a swirly hippie dance. You can be in the right place at the right time for that kind of environment. You can also never venture into those environments and see that sort of stereotype of the folded-arm indie rocker, just nodding, you know, somewhat sagely at whatever’s happening on stage.

You mention in the intro of the podcast that you’re doing this podcast because not a lot of people today know about the history of the Teen Dance Ordinance and the anti-dancing laws in Seattle because people don’t really talk about it. Do you have a theory as to why?

That's a really good question. I mean, I can't say that I have a working theory. It's almost like maybe talking about it is kind of corny? I think about in the '50s and '60s, there was a guy, Emmett Watson, who was a newspaper columnist. He was kind of a gadfly, man about town, who also founded the Lesser Seattle movement. This was at a time when the Chamber of Commerce was trying to, you know, sort of throw open the doors to the city and to immigration from California and other places to build up the economic vitality of the city. Emmett Watson did not like that idea. He didn't want new people coming here. So this was kind of a NIMBY mentality…

Seattle’s first NIMBY…

[Laughs] Well, what's interesting about him was that he was also a big supporter of women's lib, he was heavily against the Vietnam War… like his politics were pretty right on. 

That sounds so Seattle, though! Like, “I’m gonna be a NIMBY, but get an abortion! I’ll pay for it!”

Right? Totally. He’s a complicated guy and this idea of Lesser Seattle, I think, is an example of trying to keep this place singular and unique. In some ways, I think it also corresponds to the idea of the Seattle Freeze, right? Let’s just preserve the spirit of this place that makes it unique without watering it down. If you’re able to immigrate here and recognize there is a certain way we do things here, then by all means we will welcome you. If you’re trying to change things around on us, though, we’re going to tell you to go back to California. That might be curmudgeonly, that might be NIMBY, but I think it’s more complicated than that and I find it kind of respectable, actually.

In so many historical movements, people celebrate the time when something was overturned or changed, like, "Look how far we've come!" We don't don't do that much in the Seattle music scene. I don't know if that's unique to Seattle. I have only lived in Seattle and Nashville, two very music-centric towns, and Nashville is all about its history. Seattle is too, in a way, but not in the same self-congratulatory way. Here it's like, "Yeah, we had Nirvana and grunge and stuff, but shut up. Don't say the G word." Seattle is always trying to prove it's more than just its history. Which is kind of weird to me.

It is, I think, very tied up in the psychology of this place, which remains so elusive to me. I mean, if there is a definition to it, it's that it can't be defined, right? It resists definition. It's beautiful and it is frustrating. You can't pin it down.

This podcast is a good reminder of that! At one point in the podcast, you (rightfully) wonder how a city with such a vibrant arts scene can still be such a "nanny state," I think you called it. It can be conservative. Compared to Alabama are we conservative? No. But Seattle has never been this lawless place it has a reputation for being. Do you agree with that? 

Oh, for sure. One thing that came to light during the recording for the podcast is that within the all-ages music community and even within the late-night music and nightlife scene, these are communities that are built on trust and self-policing. There is no formal structure, really, they’re intended to be open to everybody, egalitarian, right? And because there is no formal structure, that makes them vulnerable to people who want to come in and lay down some structure and maybe aren’t bought into the creative, emergent spirit that these communities dwell in. Which then leaves it open to opportunists. So that’s how we get somebody like Mark Driscoll stepping into the all-ages community, where there previously had been no governance, no institutions around it. I think Mark Driscoll is an example of that, Dave Meinert is an example of that. Even Mark Sidran is an example of that, too, less in the cultural space and more in the political space.

The fact that Seattle has the hard prevailing theme of “We don’t have a theme, we’re just making it up as we go!”—artists thrive in that chaos, craziness. Other people are afraid of that. It’s stunting or potentially harmful to them, they can’t wrap their head around it, so they want to institute rules. Those are the competing forces that you see. For as long as Seattle is a free and open sandbox for creativity, which I think to some extent it always will be—it’s the last city, it’s the top left corner, white folks got here last out of anywhere—it’s still becoming itself. You’re gonna have people who want to lay down the law, impart their own rules and own sense of structure, perhaps out of a sense of wanting to help? I think Sidran probably believed that he was justified in his beliefs and he was trying to make the city better. Or people are doing the same thing for just their own ends. 

That’s the thing. I remember thinking at the time when people were so resistant to overturning the Teen Dance Ordinance that it was clear they had never been to an all-ages show in their life. Sidran, Margaret Pageler, the people who were very against letting the kids dance basically, they didn’t even really give a shit on a personal level. What they wanted to do was have the appearance for their constituents that they were doing something and making a change that mattered to the parents or the people who would vote for them. It’s performative. It was a low-stakes performative thing for them, but for us, it was actually costing us what felt like our livelihood when we were 16 and 17 years old. Looking back today, do you get that sense? Or, alternatively, did you talk to anybody who was like, “I was on the wrong side of history on that one”?

No. I was hoping that Sidran would maybe have some self-consciousness or awareness around that.

Like, “I overreacted, sorry!”

There was nothing like that. He emailed me some pretty lengthy email responses, and I think I did quote a little bit of one of those emails, and I wanted to do more of that. And my editors were like, “Eh, it feels a bit like an ambush.” Even though he gave us permission to use the emails. But I couldn't help but position them as like, “Look at this guy. He still doesn't get it. He’s still defending himself. He still doesn't see that history views all this very unfavorably.” Everybody that I spoke to, people that were politically involved back then—James Keblas, Kate Becker, even Greg Nickels or Jim Pugel—nobody was really willing to take a guess as to his mindset or his intentions. Which is why I really wanted to ask him. I think even in some of those email responses, he revealed he believed that this was the way to make the city better.

I was surprised by how reaching the topic is, and how many different paths you take and different people you end up talking to. You talk to fucking Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks! Can you talk a little bit about how this took you in surprising directions? 

I talked to a guy named Keith Asphy, who was a teenage party promoter in the '80s—he was so generous with his time, and he had great stories. He started putting on house parties then started putting on dance parties at the Filipino American Hall and every possible social hall around the CD and on Rainier and very quickly ran into problems with the SPD. There’s all sorts of racist enforcement of the TDO. Sidran, he was enforcing a noise ordinance, inequitably. He shut down something like 17 or 19 clubs over the course of his 10 or 11 years in office, and 10 or 11 of those were Black-owned and R&B or hip-hop clubs. And he made very public statements about, “Oh, it’s the clientele at those clubs that is the problem. It’s not the music, it’s the clientele.”

No wonder he didn’t talk to you!

It seems like there was no awareness of the racist pitfalls he was stepping into. I wanted to get into that whole aspect of the TDO and how it was inequitably enforced and how it befell the Black community differently. Initially, we had that as the second half of one of the earlier episodes, but the more I talked to folks, the more stories I got, the more obvious it became, “Oh, this is a whole episode. This is worth including in a more significant way.”

And, you know, the fact that Macklemore played his very first show at Sit & Spin for a Sureshot Sunday, that was his launchpad, and this was something the city was actively trying to shut down at the time and we wouldn’t have had, like it or not, one of the city’s main celebrity representatives at this point had the TDO been successful in shutting down that club. Those stories are really important to get into.

You’re on the board at the Vera Project, and you’re still very in tune with not just the music community but the all-ages community—how healthy do you feel like Seattle’s music scene is right now?

It’s such a strange moment right now. Before the pandemic, it seemed like the wave in Seattle was very much oriented around R&B and hip-hop and that is completely gone. The pandemic happened, and three years later what is emerging is oriented around punk and hardcore. The bands and fans that align with that scene or find their people in that scene, they are having a heyday right now, from what I can tell. There are a few different punk houses that are extremely prolific, there are also shows that happen under the First Avenue bridge. That’s, apparently, where this incredibly active, vibrant, sort of queer, non-binary, POC-focused hardcore scene is erupting right now, and that sounds amazing! That sounds amazing to me. And I like the fact that it’s not centered in traditional conventional venues. I don’t want to say it’s the same as it ever was, but it does seem like it’s always vibrant and it's always embattled.

We are still failing to support artists instituionally, failing to provide affordable housing for young people and artists so they can exist and just be in the city. We have the resources, and we have people who are willing to think about these things, but we're now again running up against this conservative city council and conservative city attorney who absolutely echo back to the Sidran days. It's this pendulum swing of like, "We have supported the arts and progressive causes for too long!" And so now they have to snap back to cleaning up the streets and have law and order once again. The fact that we can't navigate less of a swing of extremes is so frustrating because I think that's what everybody wants, but for whatever reason, we can't seem to find that balance.