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Rave Culture

December 8, 2002

Chris Zwar

Advent 2     Matthew 3:1-12


"Rave Culture" has been with us for well over ten years now, and although some may deny it, the transition from underground subculture to mainstream youth industry occurred many years before the millennium.


Ravers did not spontaneously appear, like all cultures they have a clear and traceable heritage. Rave culture was a product of its time; the strands of its DNA can be unravelled to expose the social, political and technological climates which germinated the "new" youth culture echoing traditions from the earliest histories of man. In the words of Melbourne composer David Cox "it's the same Dionysian urge, although instead of going into the woods with jugs of wine and lyres and harps, it's technology providing the music and the substances are designer drugs."


It is generally agreed that Rave Culture sprouted from the death of Disco but with a rebuttal of the materialistic "greed is good" mentality of the 80's. On a simple level, all of the basic qualities of "Rave Culture" are opposites of the narcissistic vanity present in the Nightclub (and previous Disco) culture. In the boom period of the 80s nightclub culture, image was everything. If you didn't look cool, or if you didn't wear the right clothes, you didn't get in. The implied aim of going to a club was to drink alcohol and seduce a partner for a one-night stand. Many nightclubs had advertisements which were more explicit than some Brothels. Besides alcohol, the drug of choice was cocaine, which increased the user's ego. Nightclubs were not primarily about music, which was generally mainstream and banal, and the lighting and décor were also secondary - the point of going to a club was to drink and potentially have sex.


Raves, contrarily, are based first and foremost on the music. The lighting and visual displays became just as important. The fashion was initially based on comfort, for long periods of dancing, before developing into "anti-fashion" - in which the designer-label pretension of Nightclub culture was parodied with deliberately kitsch op-shop bargains.


Around the same time, technology delivered a new form of electronic music with exciting possibilities - songs could be seamlessly cross-faded without breaks, so the listener could not tell when one song finished and another began, and they could be mixed together by DJs to form new songs. And because the instruments were electronic, the beats could be faster and more consistent than ever before. The same beat could be maintained indefinitely, something live performers could never do.


Just as importantly, the music was non-vocal which instantly overcame the language barrier. For the first time music from obscure European countries was being listened to and played alongside local artists. Composers with a home computer could produce international best-sellers. Compared to mainstream Rock and Pop music, the dominance and politics of local Record Companies and Distributors was not only reduced, it was simply irrelevant. The technology not only produced and delivered the music, but the emergence of the internet provided new distribution channels and a global network of underground musicians.


But identifying the genesis of modern-day Ravers doesn't tell the whole story. What makes Ravers distinct from other youth cultures are the "spiritual" elements - the tribal atmosphere, the shaman-like power of the DJ, the hypnotic power of trance music and the communal harmony. In this respect, what makes Raves interesting is their massive growth in popularity - suggesting that there's more to them than just loud music and baggy clothes. It would seem that Raves are fulfilling a need in today's youth which has not been identified or met by other industries.


With Ravers shunning the depressive qualities of alcohol, a major factor in the popularity of Raves is their accessibility to teenagers under the age of 18. Some of the younger Ravers wouldn't have been born when the first House Music was being composed in Detroit and the Happy Mondays were grooving Manchester. There is now a generation of adolescents who have grown up alongside Rave culture, oblivious to its "underground" origins and rebellion against the "sex, drugs and rock'n'roll" lifestyle.


Raves continue to revolve primarily around the music, supported by lighting arrays and visual exhibitions designed to augment the trance-inducing qualities of the music. Fringe art is also emphasised, along with vendors supporting all strains of mysticism. Cynicism is left at the door.


But even ignoring the majority of Ravers who attend simply because of the fun factor, or because of the hype generated by the massive industries now driving the culture, the allure of a Rave cannot be wholly attributed to commercially driven marketing campaign and the absence of a segregating liquor licence.


Rave culture is media friendly - it not only has colour and movement, but the over hyped shock-value of naïve teenagers admitting they take drugs, and considering themselves to be different from previous teenagers. The drug issue is so poorly represented that it's hardly worth noting. All youth cultures have a drug of choice - Raver's with their ecstasy and LSD are no different to the skater/surfers drinking VBs and passing the bong around, the Nightclub Queens with speed and cocaine, or the Rock Music industry's obsession with alcohol. The only difference with Ravers is their openness about consuming drugs, and their apparent denial of the potential harm.


Subsequently, the ease with which Raves can be discussed, analogies made, and all sorts of wonderfully colourful metaphors constructed has meant that Rave culture is usually credited with more depth than it deserves. When it comes to looking at the popularity of Rave culture, too many journalists fail to see the woods for the trees.


Rave Culture began by shunning the materialism and vanity of the 80s, creating an environment free from social hierarchies and the need to conform. A Rave event had a specific focus - the music - presented in a non-threatening environment. There were no sexual overtones and the fashions evolved into an androgenous style which further reduced any implication of seduction. The drugs involved, for those who chose to take them, did not invoke aggression or arrogance but rather feelings of love and openness. A core element of Rave Culture was a promotion of the Christian ethic to "love your neighbour as yourself".


In really simple terms, Raves were free from the angst and insecurities of adolescence; an event in which there was no pressure to fit a commercially driven social image, and where thousands of like-minded individuals could come together through their common love of music and dancing. No matter how many Ravers are interviewed, across all countries and age-groups, the same words and themes continue to recur - Raves are "safe", "non-threatening" and "secure", your appearance is irrelevant, everyone is friendly, and time and time again - "No one judges you".


The world of a modern, media-aware teenager is bombarded with images of how they should look, dress, act and think. The whole concept of advertising is based around creating desire, so it's little wonder that the idyllic portrayal of adolescents across all mediums is so different from the truth. It is interesting and slightly worrying that so many young adults feel as though they are constantly being judged, and although this egocentric behaviour is a hallmark of young adulthood, the modern teenager seems to be faced with increasingly unrealistic expectations.


Raves are regular events where young adults can mix with reel peers, free from the pretension still evident in nightclub and other youth cultures, and the pressure to conform to mainstream media images. In once sense, Ravers aspired to non-conformity, creating a paradoxical security by defining themselves through their rejection of a definition.


This security-through-mutual-insecurity is possibly why the Rave culture became so popular amongst the Gay and Lesbian communities, providing a safe and non-judgemental environment for young adults struggling with their sexual identities and the growing realisation that they did not conform to a societal norm.


The true average teenager, in every sense of the word "average", has no firm understanding of what they want to do with their life. They almost certainly don't enjoy school but feel pressured to complete year twelve. Their subject choices and university selections are more likely to be determined by their parents opinions about secure careers rather than their own vocational desires, so those who do progress from High School to University quickly feel as though their life is locked into a path which they have no interest in pursuing. For those who don't continue an education, the shock of leaving school can induce "career vertigo" - with the sudden glimpse of an entire life as an adult inducing nauseating feelings of either helplessness or simply emptiness.


A Rave can easily become the most significant, meaningful but most of all fun event in a young adult's life. It's a regular chance to forget about the real world and let loose with thousands of people who feel exactly the same. The regular Rave is an opportunity to empty the mind and embrace a music-induced trance with the security of knowing that all of those around are experiencing exactly the same thing.


With large Raves regularly attracting thousands of punters, not just locally but globally, it is foolish to pigeon hole or label every single Raver as an insecure teenager. There are all sorts of Ravers, across all demographics, age groups and social classes, and the popularity of the large events has the obvious link to the popularity of the music being played.


However it is impossible to ignore the majority of Ravers who share similar feelings of trepidation about their emergence into adulthood. It's a simple fact that teenagers who know what they want from their future and have a basic feeling of happiness are in the minority. We live in a time where youth suicide and the incidence of depression amongst teenagers is at a record high, yet something as simple as a warehouse party can provide an essential release from the pressures felt by today's youth.


The question of whether a Rave is a spiritual event really comes down to the definition of the word "spiritual". Although Rave Culture is certainly not a religion, with no God-like figure or even a universal belief system, Raves seem to give the Ravers who attend a sense that they belong to "something larger", or simply alleviate a feeling of loneliness and solitude.


It would be interesting to consider how many church going Christians find the after-service coffee to be more stimulating than the service itself. Perhaps Ravers are simply the first mainstream culture to openly embrace an environment in which complete strangers can talk to each other without any sexual overtones.


Rave culture is relatively young, and will probably always be tarnished with the irrelevant connotations of rampant drug use. But realistically, a Rave is just a great big party, free from stress, worry, anger, aggression, and where openness, honestly and friendliness are key values.


So they can't be that bad.

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