That’s so cool!” squeals Nia Peeples at least twice in every edition I’ve seen of The Party Machine With Nia Peeples, television’s latest entry in the time-honored young-people-dancing-to-records genre pioneered by Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. And what does Peeples find so cool? Everything: Flabbergasted is her middle name. From the clothes worn by the dancers (”I love that shirt!”) to guests like M.C. Hammer (”Your album was No. 1 for 21 weeks, it sold over 10 million [copies] and on top of that — I can’t believe it! — you’re starting your own record label!”), our Nia is nonplussed, eternally.
Peeples has been an actress (the TV version of Fame), a recording artist (her first album, 1988’s Nothin’ But Trouble, was a modest hit), and the host of MTV’s Friday Night Street Party. Yet before Party Machine, which made its debut in January, she was still semi-obscure; I was never sure, for example, what the difference was between Peeples and Pebbles, the host’s guest on her very first show (f.y.i.: the latter uses only one name and has had bigger hits).
But Party Machine executive producer Arsenio Hall made a star out of Peeples when he tapped her to host a dance-music half hour that would follow his own talk show. Hall’s entirely sensible reasoning was that at 12:30 in the morning, viewers who’d been pumped up by his own over-the-top, so-cool talk show style weren’t satisfied by switching channels and chilling out on David Letterman’s cranky-guy irony. So now, Arsenio’s party segues smoothly into Nia’s party, and the combination has been a ratings success in such big markets as New York, Detroit, and Washington.
The Party Machine is set in what seems like the inside of James Brown’s stomach: a dark, cavernous, multilevel space in which dancers bump and grind, while all around, huge gears and pulleys twist and turn, lower and raise, rumble and clank. Peeples is most often glimpsed leaning against a stairway rail, surrounded by wiggling dancers, yelling about how cool things are over a perpetual din of the latest dance-music hits.
Like all TV dance shows, The Party Machine features a mixture of civilian and semipro dancers whose faces and gyrating bodies you come to recognize from night to night. Peeples’ brief interviews with the stars are primarily product promotions. But one tunes in to a show like this not for the interviews but for the latest fashion styles and up-to-the-minute dance steps.
The Party Machine comes along at a time when TV dance shows are showing renewed spunk. The legendary Bandstand may have left the scene in September 1989, a victim of poor ratings and the absence of host Dick Clark at its helm, but MTV’s Club MTV, missing from your screen for a while, will return on April 13 in a redesigned, hour-long format still featuring Downtown Julie Brown (”Wubba-wubba-wubba!”) as host.
Soul Train also endures and prospers. Now in its 21st year, the self-described ”hippest trip in America” remains just that. To be sure, host Don Cornelius, with his stiff posture and overly precise diction, remains a man out of time, adapting old-time radio phrases for a new generation (”Here’s Digital Underground and a groove that makes you wanna move real smooth!”). But a recent edition found Cornelius playing host to rapper Ice-T, who couldn’t be hotter as the costar of the hit film New Jack City. T delivered a fine performance of his latest single, ”New Jack Hustler” (”In my brain/I got a capitalist migraine…”) and then said to Cornelius, ”I’m happy to be on Soul Train; I’ve waited all these years — it means a lot to me.” And he meant it.
When Cornelius started this show, Soul Train was ridiculed as a black rip-off of American Bandstand. But it has survived as its own creation, a vital example of black American pop culture featuring the sleekest dancers and the most cutting-edge sounds of any TV dance show.
There is also the USA Network’s Dance Party USA, the Honeymooners of TV dance shows, packed to its vibrating rafters with proletarian white kids whose reach for chic fashion frequently exceeds their grasp. On Dance Party USA, Farrah Fawcett’s Charlie’s Angels haircut will never go out of style. The show prides itself on being the video version of a telephone party line, taking calls from viewers, reading fan mail on the air, and inviting members of the home audience onto the show to dance as well as to describe their impressions of the Dance Party USA experience (”The studio is, like, bigger than I thought,” said an awed recent guest).
These days, Dance Party is hosted by the no-last-name Bobby, a Rob Lowe wannabe who never removes his shades, and Princess, a bottle blond who winks at the camera and kisses her fingertips three-times-fast by way of greeting. Dance Party is a treasure trove of teen sociology. Princess to brunette , dancer: ”Carrie, where have you been? We haven’t seen you in weeks!” ”Well,” said Carrie, taking a deep breath, ”I had pneumonia and bronchitis for a while and I made the school play and I got a new boyfriend!” ”That’s great!” said Princess. ”Can I hug you, or will I get, like, sick?” The Party Machine With Nia Peeples: B Soul Train: A- Dance Party USA: B+