Most nights on The Street are dim, dark dance floor affairs, but on February 25th, The Quadrangle Club is starkly illuminated. The lighting feels friendly, but also like a party your parents threw for you in middle school. A friend and I enter Quad through an unfurled red carpet. We are here for The Alternative Goes Hollywood, with posters featuring: “Chik-Fil-A. Nachos. Popcorn. Celebrity Photos. Magicians. Movie Ticket Giveaway. Cider Pyramid,” but weirdly, I’ve noticed, they don’t say what “The Alternative” is, or what it is “alternative” to.
My own background research provides me with some of the details, but not many. The Alternative is a club that presents an “alternative” social scene to The Street. As a way of distancing itself from the “monolithic campus drinking and hookup cultures,” its parties do not provide alcohol.
We walk inside. I see plastic champagne flutes filled with sparkling cider, Princeton runners smiling with dancers who smile with one-time Nassau Weekly writers, students perched, focused, around a magician revealing card after card. Fairy lights, Kanye glasses, red solo cups and candy line the tables.
Not everyone has adhered to sober party code; I see a friend who appears to be having an outrageously great time, but when I email to interview her about the event, she admits that she and her friends had pre-gamed so hard she didn’t entirely remember it.
Trays of popcorn seem to magically refill themselves throughout the night. A beaming senior woman walks from small group to small group, loudly blessing us. It feels odd to just talk and eat and walk around a house, until I realize that’s exactly what a night out at Princeton usually is, just without the dance floor, the lust, and the alcohol.
“Revolutionize the System”
Within Princeton’s social scene, it seems nearly impossible to create a lasting party culture outside the model set by the eating clubs. Impossible, at least, without some kind of unifying purpose outside of just being “alternative to.” Of course, what The Alternative is now is quite different from what it was when it was first created, partially because it wasn’t entirely created without an alternative purpose.
The Alternative was founded by Jennifer Palmquist ‘13 and a small group of her friends in 2013, in order to provide a community and social scene for people dissatisfied by Street nightlife. However ,former president Takim Williams ’16 told me that the Alternative’s original purpose was actually religious: it was officially tied to Christian Union, PFA’s New York-based parent organization, whose mission is “basically to develop Christian leaders with conservative ideals at top colleges who will then go on to have a positive impact on society,” he wrote over email. (PFA stands for Princeton Faith in Action, the largest campus Christian ministry.)
This doesn’t seem to out of place; while the idea of providing an alternative social scene outside what The Alternative defines as “monolithic campus drinking and hookup culture” is not an inherently religious idea, a large amount of the abstaining population on campus is religious. Yet what’s interesting is that The Alternative was created in reverse—Christian Union “had decided they wanted to encourage some students (Jenn and the gang), to start a student group complementary to PFA that was an inclusive social organization with the goal of shifting campus culture to be more in line with a Biblical, conservative ethic,” and that’s how The Alternative came to be.
Williams noted another strange quirk of the CU-led Alternative. When the club was linked with CU, an employee acted as the ‘leadership coach,’ and a liaison between The Alternative and CU and would sign off (or not) on all of their plans for events and social media messaging. CU funded the parties, but also demanded that the group host events accompanied by ideological messaging. Though Williams believed in CU’s tenets about the detriments of hookup culture, binge drinking, and ephemeral sex, he felt that he was “pressured to be more preachy than [he] wanted to be,” and more to the point, preachiness was counterproductive to the social mission.
“Our funding was dependent on their happiness,” Williams explained over email. The bureaucratic machinery stalled each event, and its affiliation with CU made it very hard to maintain an inclusive vibe. Williams found it hard to then say persuasively that The Alternative was not just for religious people.
According to former president Christian Say ’17, and current president Paul Draper ’18,their need for The Alternative was less religiously motivated, but instead revolved around the desire for close friendship on a campus that excludes non-drinkers from the main social scene. As they pointed out, if you don’t drink (or if you just want to drink casually), Princeton has few options. The town has a pretty nonexistent bar scene, and on campus, there are almost no communal spaces. There’s Frist and the Fields Center, but the Fields Center is far, and after 1 a.m., Frist is swarmed with students staggering home from The Street. Residential college common rooms are ghost towns at night. If you’re not in an extracurricular group or interest group, there are few alternatives areas to hang out. And no, libraries do not count.
Say had a confusing freshman orientation week; he assumed he would love going out, and dove headlong into frosh week revelry, which meant partying until 5 am then sleeping until 12 p.m. only to do it all over again. After a few days of this, he felt exhausted and disoriented. When friends in his residential college told him about The Alternative, he saw potential in their mission to, in his words, “revolutionize the system.”
However, he soon realized that there seemed to be two separate missions. “Some people wanted to go much more activist about hook up culture things, some people wanted to just keep this social, right?” he says. From a definition posted on their now defunct original website (I accessed it through a promoted CU page), I realize the meaning of “activist” in this sense. The description of the club read:
“We believe the hook-up culture is an oppressive force that often pulls people into harmful social interactions that they may not have originally envisioned would be a part of their college experience. And the implications—socially, emotionally, physically and culturally—can be far more destructive than most people realize.”
This original mission statement sounds like a slight spiritual sister to the Anscombe Society’s mission, a club devoted to promoting family, marriage, and “a proper understanding of the role of sex and sexuality.” Which makes sense—the constellation of Christian groups on campus is small and interconnected between the religious and politically conservative. PFA membership overlaps with The Alternative, which overlaps with the Anscombe Society, which overlaps with the membership of the College Republicans and the Princeton Tory. The current president of the Alternative, Paul Draper ’18, is also the president of the College Republicans; the former Alternative president, Christian Say ’17, was the president of the Anscombe Society.
When Say became president in the summer of 2015, The Alternative had cut ties with CU and now operates as a secular, student-run organization. Plus, Say wanted to rebrand. So he revamped the website to reflect The Alternative’s status as the ”new campus norm” in order to attract new students. Instead of infographics about the emotional toll of hookups, the new website includes a list of “Ground Rules” such as: If you’re under 21, that sucks, and If you can’t say sumthin nice . . . don’t say nuthin at all and And as always: Sun’s out guns out.
At The Alternative party I attended, the only vestige of the group’s CU-affiliated past was the party’s constituency. Though, unlike in Williams’ time, The Alternative is officially not just for religious students, it seems that its CU past is embedded in its DNA. Each party means a negotiation with the club’s own history.
When speaking about The Alternative in terms of ideology and mission statements, it’s easy to forget that whoever runs The Alternative essentially runs Princeton’s largest fun committee. When I met to interview Say and Draper, they both referred to The Alternative like it was Princeton’s weirdest party start-up. Which, honestly, it kind of is.
The Alternative is necessary, Say told me, because “the social scene is really, just objectively lame.” He elaborated: “Our ragers aren’t even good ragers. No offense, right, but we can’t even throw a good bad party.” I recognized Say’s name from his articles like “You Are Not a Heterosexual” and realized that I expected him to speak like his editorials, with lines like “On this view, demanding same-sex marriage is like forming a baseball team and then demanding to participate in a soccer tournament on the grounds that everyone on the baseball team finds soccer a difficult and boring sport to play.” His speech was animated with a cadence that I would almost describe as fratty. Draper was the more composed of the two; he sat with perfect posture and had a habit of banging his fist on the table for emphasis.
“It’s just pure numbers,” Draper said. “From a business aspect, it’s a successful model.”
“We’ve had 300-400 people at every single event,” added Say.
To create a successful Alternative party, one requires a blank check and the mind of a zany twelve-year-old. Draper and Say told me giddily about the time they threw a breadstick themed party, and how when they had to transport the sheer amount (70 dozen, they estimate) of chewy bread product back to Princeton, they ended up shoving boxes through the cracked window of a car until the car was filled completely. Say told me how, in order to prepare for their holiday party, he ran wildly down the aisle of a grocery store and piled at least 20 gingerbread houses into his carts.
The Alternative has capitalized on Princeton’s ability to spend incredible amounts of money on social events that aren’t The Street. Draper estimated that the Christmas party alone cost about $4,000. Though the Princeton Alcohol Initiative and Projects Board reimbursed him for the cost, Say recalls being uncertain about how much Princeton would fund. The scale was like nothing they had ever seen. And it seems to be catching on. The Alternative has thrown two of its largest parties at Quad, and because of their success, more eating clubs have reached out to Draper.
Say’s favorite memory was the hugely successful 2015 Christmas party. It was the first of the Alternative’s successful events. Its success was as much a shock to the presidents.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Says recalled wistfully. “People at the party were just… talking.”
At the Christmas party, the Alternative teamed up with another “alternative” Princeton group: WPRB, Princeton’s student radio station, known mostly for its eclectic programming. In a picture from the infamous Christmas party, WPRB program director Harrison Waldon can be seen standing next to Say, his waist-length, wild hair pulled back in a knot.
“When they asked us to DJ for them we were like ‘Sweet! Let’s make a crazy Chrismas set!’” Waldon told me. So he and his WPRB crew put together a “two-hour set of Christmas bangers: Primus, Cap’n Jazz, Snoop Dogg, some satanic hymns, pretty standard WPRB.”
The word “Alternative” means “available as another possibility” but it also signifies “alt;” alternative punk music, alternative presses, alternative style. Baby bangs, Doc Martens, progressive politics, weird hip-hop, violet lipstick.
But on Princeton’s campus — as with many universities — conservative political groups, often tied to religious organizations, are the fringe. When this is the real alternative, the parties look less like WPRB’s brand of classifiable alternative, and a lot more like a party that doesn’t exactly know what it wants.
When WPRB played their set, they started out with standard Christmas music, and then started to get into their grove; queuing up a sort of 9th Wonder style instrumental hip-hop track. Not many people were around to witness, but Waldon noticed that he had started getting concerned looks—someone from Quad approached him and asked, very hesitantly, for something more Christmas-ey.
“We looked at our playlist to see that a Sonic Youth track was up next, and were like ‘Uhhhh yeah for sure’ and scrambled find some more standard Christmas music to please the people,” Waldon relates in an email.
Playing Hava Nagila didn’t bode well for them either (“I think we thought it was going to be a ‘holiday’ party, but it definitely a ‘Christmas’ party), so when in doubt they stuck with Mariah Carey. Despite the mix-up, Waldon found the event in general to be pretty positive; he was glad to see people from disparate groups acting out their dissatisfaction with the drinking culture. Plus, he writes, he didn’t see anyone lose their shit.
Though The Alternative has a significant amount of people in charge of throwing the parties, there’s no clear constituent membership. Though Draper and Say point to the “core group” made up of their mutual friends, for a club with the purpose of throwing large parties with disparate circles of friends, the aspect that’s missing is obviously the coherent organization identity. To be a member of The Alternative means you’re involved with running it. Because of this, The Alternative seems to exist only in the realms of the parties they throw; not quite a venue, not quite a group. Maybe this will fill in with time. As it exists now, The Alternative has capitalized on something Princeton’s social scene actually needs. It might not be completely without a religious agenda, but it’s forged something genuine.
At the end of our interview, I asked Say and Draper what is next for The Alternative.
Portable laser tag, lights, bigger parties, different eating clubs, magic, photo booths, gear giveaways.
“Someone wants to do inflatables,” confided Draper. “It’s on the table.”