The Future of Dance: Rave as a Cultural Phenomenon
When my teenage stepdaughter saw this book lying in my pile of “to be reviewed” books, she exclaimed, “Ohmigawd! That’s the most awesome book ever!” Now, in my teenage days it would have taken a book on the Sex Pistols and punk rock to elicit the same sort of response from me. So that’s what we’re going to do; compare how rave culture relates to punk and alternative-mainstream culture.
Mireille Silcott, a former music editor at The Mirror, a Montreal based alt-news magazine, has crafted a well-done book on rave culture, done in much the same manner as writer Gina Arnold’s tome on American alternative/punk rock and the bands that made it happen, Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, St. Martin’s Press. Silcott gives a by-the-city account of the events and people that created raves, in a just-the-facts manner, passing few judgments, citing the often vast differences in each area’s music (that to a non-raver would all sound the same), never glossing over the inevitable drug involvement, and only putting herself in the picture when necessary. (Silcott is also the co-author of On E: A Book About Ecstasy, Omnibus Press, and mentions her use of drugs in Rave America more than once.)
Much like punk, rave disciples argue over whether it was developed on America’s shining shores first or across the sea in England’s dance halls. With rave, the answer is the same as punk’s: Neither. Both punk and rave mostly got their initial start in the same place, namely, New York City. (Which, believe it or not, is actually a country quite apart and separate from the rest of America. What, you don’t believe me? Go to the Bowery, to Wall Street, down under the streets in the abandoned subway tunnels, to Soho to check out the graffiti, hang a bit in Central Park, at Washington Square and tell me New York isn’t a country all its own. Go ahead, visit for a bit. I’ll wait . . . Back already? Good. We’re already a third into this review and still got lots to do.)
Silcott’s book starts out with a riveting first-hand account from rave-celeb, and self-described kiddie-candy-raver, Tommy Sunshine, about his first experience at a Storm Rave which sounds a lot like a 1970-era’s neo-hippie witnessing his first punk show. In Tommy’s own words: “There was a twenty-five-foot chain-link fence between the crowd and the DJ booth . . . he’s playing records, thrashing around like he’s in a fucking punk band . . . he smashes the record on the wall behind him. There are kids climbing all the way up the fence—twenty-five feet high, hanging onto the fence, screaming . . . ‘Faster! Faster!!!!’ and he’s playing tracks that are 180 BPMs! . . . These New York maniacs want it faster?! . . . I don’t think I could talk for three weeks after I came home. I was shell shocked.” And you believe him.
Silcott then does a hit-and run history of dance music in the 1970s, starting with gay disco, and promptly leaps to how disco fell to the wayside in the New York nightclubs and evolved into fast-paced dance music by oft-drugged-up DJs for oft-drugged-up dancers in gay bathhouses and nightclubs. When the sound and ideas emanating from these places caught on with white suburban kids, who adapted these new ideas for their own purposes, it soon became what we now call rave.
The early raves, with their Mother Earth sensibilities and outside fly-by-night shows, evolved into extravagant cyberspaces with one of a kind laser shows and large screen projections held in vast warehouses. Ecstasy, the drug of choice for most early ravers, prompted dancers to adopt pacifiers (as a way to stop their jaws trembling, one of the drug’s side-effects) and to use vaporub products as a way to maximize the tingling effect the drug induced in them. Mini-backpacks, commercial parody T-shirt designs, glow-light sticks, floppy hats, baggy pants, visors, and skateboard wallet chain fashion became staples of various segments of the extensive and growing rave culture. A lot of this has now been assimilated into mainstream dance culture, much like punk styles such as safety pins, torn jeans, and fast-and-simple chord progressions have been adopted by the new breed of alternative/punk bands. (Actually mainstream—don’t get me started . . .)
And in the final chapter, after you’re sure it can’t get any wilder, Silcott takes you full circle back to where modern club dance music originated: The New York male gay scene. The scene swiftly shifts to the post-AIDS gay dance circuit, a series of one-off events and charity balls held yearly in various cities across America that show the scene for the true excess it is. The devil is in the details and Silcott manages to hit them all. Stories of rampant drug use, shifty promoters, and death by misadventure fill the pages, chapter by chapter. Tales of bawdiness, the perils of AIDS and back-room anonymous sexual encounters, infighting between promoters of dance fundraising events and members of the media—this dramatic chapter could easily have been an entire book itself, as it only barely brushes the top of the scene’s bewildering and extravagant surface.
It’s the disparate dichotomy of raves that really hit me while reading this book. Just as punk and alternative nineties rock culture has many varied disciplines, styles and adherents—so does rave culture. Raves are smiley faces stickers on backpacks, happy-joyful dancers in baggy pants and crop-tops gulping smart drinks while entranced on the dance floor in a rapture of aural pleasure. Raves are also gangster-rap hoodies, leather, break dancing, acid, and crystal meth victims. Rave is fast-fast dance music, throbbing bass and DJs turned into celebs du jour. Rave is dance spectacle.
So am I trying to tell you that rave is the new punk? Of course not, any more than alternative or grunge was. But, right now, kids all across America and the entire world are just discovering this phenomenon through the Internet, word of mouth, and books like this one. Rave is far more adaptable than other, older, differing dance cultures, as shown by its ever-evolving musical style and ability to cross cultures (and oceans, rave is now world-wide) easily.
Rave hasn’t been assimilated as much as it’s on its way to becoming the new pop conqueror.