(all live action photos: Chris Chen of furcafe.com)
Watching people talk themselves into the decision to eat a stranger’s free cupcake can be pretty edifying.
If they’re going to eat one at all, they have to start with an initial spark of pure childish hunger. You get to witness the immediate controlling of that impulse, followed by a sort of pretentious suspicion.
They refuse to be fooled by this possible scam!
What are this cupcake’s credentials? Who sent you, cupcake?
Once they realize there is no catch there’s a kind of resigned bliss to the actual consumption. They have put themselves entirely in the hands of someone they’ve never met before, surrendered to the promise that sometimes good things just happen to individuals, without purpose. According to Alex and Ani Cupcake of RandomActsofCupcake.com, that’s where the real magic begins.
I first encountered the pair outside of a Jens Lekman show. They appeared out of a cab already loaded for bear, two pans of bright blue starfish cupcakes in each hand.
Immediately they started asking the blasé smokers leaning against the wall if anyone wanted one.
They split up and asked people specifically, polite, but forceful. At first most people said no, or walked past looking down, as if the offer itself would poison them if they acknowledged it, but as soon as some brave drunk girl inhaled one, a crowd of the curious started to form. What was initially a silent line of expertly coiffed strangers began to gel into a party, the two ringleaders chatting relentlessly with each snacker about the project and snapping photos. As I downed the chocolate candy top of my own, I wondered what could posses people to champion cupcakes: pure attention-seeking, a chance to make new friends, or something more?
This interview was conducted in Alex’s experimental kitchen and apartment while the two college students put the finishing touches on a pan of special BYT ‘cakes decorated with black Protozoa, Amoebas and other single-celled critters.
BYT: So how did that Jens show go? I mean compared to other indie rock shows. It seems like that crowd would be more conducive to what you all are up to.
Alex: It went great! The people at the Black Cat are really cool, although they don’t let us bring the cupcakes inside. Unlike at the Rock and Roll Hotel…
Ani: They’re the best, they let us store our pans behind the counter during the show.
Alex: But the Cat is awesome too, as long as we stay out of the doorway. It’s amazing that just about every staff member has been supportive…maybe because they always get a cupcake?
BYT: So how did you get started? Was there master plan all along, or…
Alex: There are a lot of creation myths.
Ani: But the first batch was an accident.
Alex: We made a pan for someone’s birthday, but we ended up not going to that party. So we walked around campus giving them to people. And that went really well, we met a lot of strangers.
Ani: Then we were going to that Casiotone for the Painfully Alone show, right?
Alex: You were going to meet my girlfriend at the time and we wanted to do something special. So we thought, why not give away cupcakes again?
Ani: But we wanted to do a test run, so we went downtown, like around the White House, at like 4:30 in the afternoon.
Alex: [laughs] Yes, really bad idea.
BYT: The tourists weren’t down with the cupcakes?
Ani: No, some of them wouldn’t even look at us.
Alex: Back then too we were a lot more aggressive. We wouldn’t take no for an answer, and that’s a bad idea with people who are going somewhere, instead of just standing around smoking.
Ani: We chased one guy down on his bike! He said if we could catch him he’d eat one, so we did.
BYT: Have you only gone to shows since then?
Ani:Yes, though we have talked about going to rallys, or conferences, something like that.
Alex: We almost went to a nanotechnology conference last year.
Ani: Mainly for the challenge of trying to convince them that the cupcakes were safe. That’s the biggest question we get: “Are these “Special” cupcakes?” That doesn’t even make any sense.
Alex: What terrible drug dealers we would be, giving away expensive magic cupcakes.
BYT: So that first Casiotone show, on your site you link to him as “Casiotone for the Too Rude To Accept A Cupcake.” Any drama there?
Alex: Oh, he was not happy.
Ani: It was before the show so… he just wasn’t ready to accept us trying to get him to eat one.
Alex: He was in his own place setting up onstage and we sort of interrupted him. He actually used that phrase on his tour blog the next day and apologized, so we’re cool.
(photo from their website)
BYT: Any other bands who’ve been weird about the offer?
Ani: No, they are mostly really happy to see us. Tell them about Sunset Rubdown!
Alex: Wow, yeah. OK, the first time we saw them we gave one to the drummer who just happened to come outside. Then when they came back and we saw them again, he went and got the rest of the band and they were all so excited to see us!
Ani: Camilla said they’d been hoping we’d show up. It was awesome.
BYT: You’re putting DC on the map, now all the bands will be expecting them. I guess you didn’t get one to Jens, since you couldn’t go inside, huh? At that show I noticed that sometimes you’d offer them to someone, and they’d look apprehensive, but as soon as you mentioned that you’d be taking their picture and putting it on the internet, they were OK with it. What’s up with that?
Alex: The business cards help too. [Whips one out]
Ani: Yes, it’s amazing how that makes people think you’re legitimate. Once they hear we have a website, they think we’re accountable in some way.
Alex: Plus everyone wants to be Internet Famous.
(tell us about it-ed)
BYT: About the website (), do you see the pictures as the motivation for the free cupcakes or vice versa? What do you do if someone doesn’t want their picture taken?
Ani: We give it to them anyway.
Alex: That doesn’t happen that often, once they decide to have a cupcake they don’t mind the picture. But every few shows that happens, and we just give it to them. The website is great, I love doing it, and I’ve worked really hard on it, but that’s not why we do it. Tell them about the Dismemberment Plan show!
Ani: Yeah, at that show we really figured out what is so great about this project. The people there were really receptive. They started coming up and telling us about their childhood experiences with cupcakes, and suggesting recipes…
Alex: We tried that one vegan girl’s recipe, which was delicious even though the cakes kept crumbling…
Ani: And this one short guy with a backpack who was standing by himself, we talked to him for a long time.
Alex: He had just moved to DC and was really missing any sense of community. He said that was the first time someone had randomly approached him here. This city doesn’t really have that welcoming of a scene, people don’t really talk to strangers like they do in other places, and suddenly it was like a party outside that show!
Ani: Talking to people, getting to know someone that you normally wouldn’t have met is the best part about doing this. I love feeling that we’ve broadened someone’s notion of what is possible.
Alex: I know we can’t actually build a community based around cupcakes, but it’s a wonderful idea.
BYT: Better living through dessert?
Alex: Confections for a better tomorrow!
BYT: Do you ever get any really negative reactions?
Ani: Not really. Most people are happy to see us even if they don’t take one.
Alex: Mostly they just ignore us. But we did get that one really mean comment on the website. Like, “This is the worst case of attention-whoring I have ever seen. Why don’t you stupid college kids have anything better to do but sit around in your dorm rooms listening to Phish and thinking of ways to be trendy.”
Ani: How did he know?
Alex: Yeah, he nailed us, we love Phish.
BYT: Did that really bother you?
Alex: It did! I felt like, no matter what we do, it will seem like we just want to bring attention to ourselves, but I could happily do this without the website at all.
Ani: That’s not why we started doing it. Some guy with a bakery once offered to sponsor us, but it seems like it loses its meaning if the cupcakes aren’t ridiculously homemade.
Alex: We wouldn’t do catering or anything, though in December we’re going to bake for some Christmas Rave, which seems different because it’s such a random idea. Hipsters dancing to techno Christmas carols? I have to be involved.
BYT: Besides that, any special plans? Ever thought about branching outside of indie rock? Going to a Death Metal show or something?
Ani: Haha we thought about that at the Boris show.
Alex: We almost went to an Aesop Rock show last year with the cupcakes. But we backed out at the last minute. I think it was the right choice. We want to encourage people that are usually too cool to talk to one another to come out of their shells a little. The shows we go to are chosen for that reason. But we usually decide at the last minute, like two hours beforehand, so who knows?
BYT: Think you could drop me a hint before you head to the next one? I’m now addicted to your drugcakes.
After the cupcakes cooled, and Chris and I each ate one (I believe I had a Foraminiferan, but I might have mixed it up with a common Paramecium) the CC Kids decided to walk around and give the rest to people in the neighborhood.
At first I was sure we wouldn’t get any takers.
Suits hurried past on their cell phones, and joggers put their heads down when Alex swung towards them waving the black pan. It probably didn’t help that Ani kept pointing out that there were single-celled organisms on their tops.
I felt pulled into the conspiracy, as my lurking and Chris’s camera seemed to put people off. I wanted to shout, “You fool—it’s a goddamn cupcake, live a little!”
But then we approached a couple younger women who instantly got the look. Their eyes lit up as soon as they realized they were being offered something free and delicious, a reminder of their childhoods’ special occasions. Some dudes stopped by to see what the girls were up to, and then they had to try a couple in order to not seem like wussies. An African guy in workout clothes walked up and looked confused, eyeing the small gathering on the corner.
“Do I want a cupcake? Well that’s kind of random, but, OK.”
Those who say no—watch out! Your days are numbered.