Smiling can actually make you happier. Right? That’s what we’ve heard from social researchers and Nat King Cole and passive-aggressive family members for decades. The idea goes back more than a century. In 1872 Charles Darwin wrote: “Even the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.”
In 2020 the science no longer fully backs this up. But it’s what I’m thinking about as I dutifully follow an acclaimed chef’s advice to boil exactly 20 currants in half a can of beer and set up a YouTube livestream of a DJ set tastefully lit by a tealight candle inside a cheese grater.
This is a party, I tell myself. We’re having fun! I think this is what fun was like!
This was Party For Melbourne, a one-night-only “virtual house party” from Ben Shewry, the chef and owner of world-renowned restaurant Attica, and The Avalanches. Presented as part of the mostly cancelled Melbourne Food and Wine festival, the event was designed to “bring joy and fun into the homes of anyone affected by the current Covid-19 lockdown in Victoria”.
“I moved here in 2002 [from New Zealand] and the sound of the city was Since I Left You by The Avalanches,” Shewry said at the start of the event. “There’s no better place in the world to live and there’s no better place to create. We want to remind [everyone] that this is still a life worth living – even in lockdown, even in these conditions.”
Shewry covered the food and drinks – he released recipes for cocktails and party snacks throughout the week before the event – and The Avalanches brought the music. Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi, founding members of the group, performed a retro one-hour set from their respective lounge rooms.
The livestream came just days after the announcement of their forthcoming third album, We Will Always Love You, and it’s the closest thing the dance legends are getting to a big promo event for a while. They’ve premiered music throughout the year, and also dropped a new track in the set ahead of the album’s launch.
The whole “stay strong”, “we love you Melbourne” thing may seem melodramatic from the outside, but spirits are so low in this city. We’ve been in some form of lockdown for close to six months. We’re all looking forward to a one-hour extension of our nightly curfew on Monday. It comes with a bonus extra hour of exercise a day, and people who live alone will be allowed to have their first visitor in months. Live gigs are the last thing on the roadmap to “Covid normal”, whatever that may be.
But are virtual house parties a good replacement? These events have lost some of the novelty they once had. In late March, the Melbourne queer club Poof Doof attracted more than 32,000 viewers to its first online broadcast. This Saturday night there were just 70-odd people watching the weekly Twitch stream (now sponsored by Tinder).
It’s possible that people are coming to terms with the fact there’s just no substitute for embracing your sweaty friends on a dance floor. But Party For Melbourne isn’t exactly Poof Doof. Shewry does not want to make you nostalgic for messy 6am Macca’s on Chapel Street. He wants you to create pixelated avocado in honour of Melbourne’s favourite breakfast dish and reminisce about ornate ’80s-style party snacks.
“All the best parties are mad hectic,” he wrote in the incredibly dorky recipe for his Hectic Prawn Cocktails. “Especially those small-town cabarets I frequented as a teen.”
To his credit, the recipes were great (and much more cost effective than usual Attica offerings). I mastered the avo toast savoy, ants on a log, champagne and strawberry jelly and wattle fizz. It was collectively way more effort than I’ve ever put into party snacks in my life, but hey, I’ve got the time.
In the end, my party wasn’t “mad hectic” – my partner was in his PJs and the set ended at 9pm – but it did bring to mind the moments that were. It tasted like overpriced but picturesque rooftop bars and sounded like that golden hour of a house party when everyone’s on the same wavelength. As one person wrote in the livestream comments: “This set would’ve gotten the boot at Meredith.” It made me nostalgic for my city of fancy food, great music and dumb trends.
The science is right: slapping on a smile won’t make you happy. It’s never going to be as good as the real thing. But sometimes it’s nice to remember those muscles still work.