On its deepest conceptual level, raving can be thought of as transformative. It’s a subculture that sustains itself through participation, an exchange. There is a rewarding and addictive quality to dancing in these environments, one that perhaps runs deeper than surface-level explanations, like drug use. There’s a core of individualism, which somehow morphs and solidifies into community; something is shared, and taken away from the experience. But what the dancer gains is hard to quantify. In general, the word “transformative” alone can be used to describe something which facilitates a marked change in someone or something. Its etymology is more open ended than the word itself might seem. When we see something which stems from the root “transform,” a final product comes to mind—a set transition, something specific, created out of something else. A goes to B. But in truth, the real purpose of the word “transformative” is to signify cause and effect. Someone or something has been changed. But then the describer must go further, to specify the nuts and bolts of this evolution, to justify their usage of the word. Here, the ambiguity of the term alone works in our favor. To capture or pin down the elusive spiritual effect which underground dance music has upon the individual is tricky. On some level the effect is unique to each dancer. On another, something bigger can be traced out: the communal effects which spread deeper, formed out of participation. This piece aims to break down the intricacies which combine to make dance music transformative upon the individual, within the context of contemporary rave culture. To do so, it’s necessary to approach the phenomenon from several angles, unpacking both the sociohistorical factors which gave birth to the subculture, the music produced within it, and the community that arises when individuals come together to form something larger than themselves.
It’s one thing to observe this transformative effect—another to decipher how it comes about. Perhaps, in order to understand how raving is able to transform the individual, it is helpful to make a distinction between the different levels upon which this occurs. The most obvious is the experiential level of rave culture: the human element of which it consists, the ritual associated with it—in other words, what participation entails, and how the actual act of listening within a unique, transient environment, affects the dancer. It is also necessary to take into account the sociological factors which on some level necessitate the culture itself. Marginalized bodies dancing is a form of resistance, and for many the rave is a space of freedom, a step outside the structural and social restrictions which are unavoidable in the outside world.
A text which is particularly relevant to understanding the transformative within music is “Musicking” by Christopher Small. Published in 1998, Small addressed the role which ritual and participation play in the experience of listening to music. The book’s title—a proposed present participle of “to music”—refers to a term which Small calls for, to describe the active component involved in our engagement with music. “To music” as Small defined it “is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing.” 1 This term is a helpful way to consider the communal aspect of rave culture. It expands the scope of participation—looking beyond a binary view of DJ and listener being the sole participants. The sole players in the relationship. This broader view of engagement is perhaps a more practical view of how a temporary space such as a rave functions.
This idea from Small isn’t super new or revolutionary. Similar iterations have been voiced by earlier writers, such as Leonard Meyer in his 1956 Emotion and Meaning in Music. In the introduction, Meyer acknowledges that a similar view to Small’s has been present throughout history—highlighting how composers and performers of all cultures have, in the past “agreed that music has meaning and that this meaning is somehow communicated to both participants and listeners.”2 His view is slightly different, but it is another which acknowledges the importance of participants within the listening experience. Meyer calls this way of thinking a “referentialist” view; the meaning within music is not purely contained within the art itself. Rather, it ‘also communicates meanings which in some way refer to the extramusical world of concepts, actions, emotional states, and character.” The alternative, and for obvious reasons less championed view is an “absolutist” one, which essentially argues that the meaning of the music is contained within the work itself, and the artist’s process.3 In Small’s definition, this is not the case: Participation within music is not limited to the artist. Ravers, promoters, bouncers, all can be seen to participate in the music in some way. All of these people, on a literal, physical level, facilitate the transformative process which occurs.
But what does this participation do? What effect does it have upon those involved?
For Small, participation in listening has the effect of reinforcing values—this is what is at the heart of celebration. It is something we can observe within the history of celebration and its rituals. “Musicking” has always functioned as a means of social-definition and self-definition. Small articulates this idea as such; “Those taking part in a musical performance are in effect saying to themselves, and to anyone else who may be watching or listening—This is who we are.”4 In this light, raving is about identity and community—even if that seems obvious. A self-sustaining process of self-discovery occurs; I am who I am because this is what I choose to listen to. In doing so we are who we are because we have all chosen this. I am the dancer because I, in the core of my psyche, as an individual, am sustained by this music, given purpose. But slowly it has become apparent that I am not alone, because within each body around me, the same ontological belief seems to burn.
We may not all feel this way—each listener has their own spiritual attachment to dance music. But from my own experience and the feelings at the core of my musical soul, this really speaks to me. A real facet of dance music for me, arrives in the form of a sort of geo-specific unity, a communion. I’ve had moments at the rave, or the club, where when I stop to think, and put the music on a shelf for just a moment, another component of my love for the subculture, a slightly different one, becomes clear. It seems to me at times like this that there is another type of relationship that weaves its way through the fog. Or maybe not even a different type, but one that occurs between dancers in a different way. I love focusing on the DJ when I’m at parties with a lineup of artists I care about, I love to watch what they’re doing technically, to perhaps learn something, or even just have a little window, between arms and lights, of how someone I admire cranks out their craft. But Small’s take on the relationship between participants in music can be extended. The reinforcement of values takes place on a creative level, one that is tied into the spiritual. I love it when you’re locked into the music, having a moment of peak connection with the experience, and you make eye contact with someone doing the same. In those moments, listeners have perhaps had the experience of locking eyes with someone, who is in that same state of rapture, at that specific moment, who has made some physical gesture to acknowledge that you’re both riding that same feeling. The lone gun-finger and grin across a dark room, can represent something so simple but so beautiful.
I often think about going to a Swamp 81 New Year’s Eve rave around 2014 or ’15. I was seventeen at the time. My good friend Gabriel and I took the bus down to London just for the event. I still remember this goofy figure on the dancefloor, he was the archetype of the New Year’s dancer with one foot in narcosis oblivion, being slapped around by the sub-frequencies that ping-ponged around the wide basement. The two of us sort of locked together at this one particular blend, both of us—I assume—having an internal connection first with the music, then with each other, having both done that thing where you scan the room in moments of bliss to see if anyone else is going as wild as you over that specific moment. Be it a transition, a drop, or just the track playing.
I think that is just one type of communal moment to think about. It’s obviously larger than that— there are values reinforced which are far bigger and far reaching, ones with social implications—or the values we associate with our own taste, that we feel are mirrored by a certain sonic palette—but again, that is just one to think about. Maybe bliss can be the thread that ties a lot of these broader values together, and provides a door into unpacking our own personal beliefs and values and desires, within the context of other people, and a shared experience.
In specific cases, this ties into the history of resistance in rave culture. It is perhaps most significant, when the person consumed by this experience is marginalized. For people of color and queer ravers, this process is surely amplified; not only are they connected to those around them through a shared musical experience, but also on another level, one of a different sort of identity. In the context of a rave, temporal and synergistic as it is, this is particularly significant. The transient nature of its setting creates a space for marginalized bodies, one which doesn’t always exist in a physical form in the outside world. Perhaps it is this foundation of temporality within the nature and definition of a rave that makes this possible; the environment created is a fleeting, temporary space created, literally, out of community—like-minded people coming together. It is hard to corrupt an environment which only lives as a tangible being for the duration of the music.
For a moment, it’s a good idea to take into account the difference between a club and a rave, without creating some form of hierarchy. The two are different, but provide a collaborative framework that is essential, and both must coexist in order for our culture to survive. However, the two environments are extremely distinct. A nightclub is fixed, immobile; and the experience of music within it inherently mediated. It is a physical space, a business, an entity unto itself which exists as an institution. As such, the listener arrives with a degree of expectation. Most likely they’ve been there before. Within a permanent structure, one reliant on a business model, a chosen aesthetic, a degree of consistency necessary to draw in the consumer—the dancers here know something of the place before they hear the music. To some extent, capitalism’s firm grip on any legitimate creative venture, is unshakeable.
Again, I have no interest in presenting either space as superior to the other, only to reiterate that raves and nightclubs function in different ways. There are certainly factors unique to the nightclub that provide different advantages to this transformative process as well. A theory outside of music, which can be applied to showcase said benefits of the club as a permanent space, and its potential for the transformative, is William James’s argument about worldly knowledge consisting as a web. The pragmatist view, although more focused on political praxis, is relevant here in discussing dance music. James pushed the view that every individual has a stock (or web) of “old opinions already” which directly affect the way we react when an anomaly presents itself. This means that “until at last some new idea comes up with which [we] can graft upon the ancient stock with a minimum disturbance” we will remain set in our own web of reference.5 An idea is required that can mediate between our web and the new experience presenting itself.
If we substitute this broad view of knowledge for a musical one, the argument can be applied here to this idea about preexisting knowledge of a musical environment affecting the way we develop within the experience. In this case, the anomaly can be a musical one. A sound or style we are not familiar with, have never heard before. In James’s thinking, in order to absorb this, and incorporate it into our—in this case, let’s say musical-spiritual—development of identity, it is easier to do so when we can ground it in the known. In this view the consistency and familiarity of the nightclub is a good thing. If foreign sounds and styles are presented to us in an environment we understand and are familiar with, we can add them to our web of musical knowledge much more easily than if they were to be presented in a totally alien setting. An example could be if a DJ plays a piece of music that is stylistically untypical to be heard in a certain environment. Say a Berber percussion piece in a western nightclub. If a western club goer was to hear this music in its traditional environment and setting, it could perhaps be difficult to see its potential within a dance music set. That face of its utility. When we are spoon fed weird, unfamiliar styles and sounds in an environment in which we are comfortable; an argument can be made that it becomes more accessible and impactful upon the listener in a club setting, expanding our web of knowledge and taste, because we can mediate it with our existing experiences.
Whilst remaining wary of over-intellectualizing this thinking, I think that an essay from Barthes can be applied here. Since a secondary motivation for this piece is to instill the urge to interrogate and cross examine one’s own experience of raving, it seems logical to dive as deeply as possible into this whilst using external sources. For many, the impact of those early feelings of belonging, and of finding a sound which seems to reflect one’s own views on the world, and a community which traverses physical location, has led to the reorientation of lives. For thousands, who live and breathe dance music, particularly professionals who serve a larger audience, on some level an obligation exists by ontological necessity, to interrogate this love. There is also an educative responsibility, which again, often ties into both one’s own self-discovery, as well as the praxis they purport to want to enact within the subculture.
In “Listening,” from his 1985 essay collection The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, Roland Barthes connects some of Freud’s thoughts on psychoanalysis with the experience of listening. If we can separate some of Freud’s more interesting ideas from the incestual, there’s definitely relevance to be found in his writing. Freud argued that to enter an experience with expectation, or a predisposition to focus on a single element, makes one liable to overlook or experience entirely fewer aspects of the overall listening experience. From this, Barthes concludes that if one’s expectations are followed in this selection—if we latch on to the musical or visual element that we go into the experience expecting, there is a danger of never finding “anything but what is already known.”6 This applies to dance music on a sonic level; if I enter a rave expecting to hear a certain style, genre, or trait within the music played—on some level I’ll be searching for this whilst on another level subconsciously ignoring the sounds which fall outside of it. It’s surely not unreasonable, to extend this—or to argue that if I enter a club, fixed as it is in my mind both visually and sonically, something might be lost.
Expectation, here, becomes the downfall of exploration. As we’ve established, the transformative elements cannot be viewed in isolation; the music alone doesn’t create this state. Everything from setting, to the crowd and energy specific to it, contributes to this transformative process. If one of those things, as it is often liable to be within a club, always remains the same—some aspect of this subversion of expectations, which really is the heart of the transformative process, is surely lost. A rave, on the other hand, is a different creature. On a conceptual level, it advances the transformative by reflecting it. By its very nature it is in line with the experience it manifests; fleeting, unfixed. Often illegal, with parties switching up spaces each time, the listener typically goes into the experience knowing little of what they will see and hear.
Whilst the list of factors which facilitate the transformative process of raving are extensive, the music which defines the subculture is surely the largest. The music played at raves is an impossible thing to try and summarize; there are endless genres, tempos which range from the sub-eighty through to one-seventy plus beats per minute. Even blanket terms such as “techno” or “house,” which encompass an enormous spread of styles and subdivisions, are only labels—tools to identify certain styles within something larger. Genres after all, first and foremost are simple attempts to sell music, to make it identifiable to the consumer. Necessarily mind you. A single twelve-inch record will typically contain four tracks, four individual creations by a human being who is inherently complicated, evolving. To slap a label on this is pointless, even a single record in a single week of a single year, preceded by a legacy of decades of dance music to inform it—every composition will be beyond quantification. It is necessary to try of course—this isn’t some cruel marketing ploy developed by capitalism. To discuss music even with friends, broader terms are required, lest we spend hours trying to describe a single track’s intricacies.
In order to understand how the music itself contributes to the experience of raving, it is necessary to focus on the shared factors across all dance music genres, rather than attempt to go down the rabbit hole of weighing up the different styles individually. After all, a good DJ, while perhaps creating a trademark sound by sticking to a certain palette or aesthetic neck of the woods if you will, rarely occupies a single, specific genre throughout a set. Take for example DJ Plead, an artist defined by his love of percussion and the infusion of Lebanese pop influence into his productions and sets. This is an artist who has a trademark sound—albeit quite a unique one—but this hardly means he plays only music from within this area. Indeed, DJs who stick religiously to a single genre tend to operate in a sphere above the rave circuit. A sceptic would argue that in a lot of cases this could be seen as a career move, typical of the techno superstar. A more gentle understanding would be that the artist is a purist, or just in love with a single style they have mastered. In many cases, it is often an identifier of the old school crowd; artists present in the formative days of sub-scenes and subcultures within the landscape of dance music. If we look at Goldie for Drum and Bass, or Jeff Mills as perhaps the most obvious within techno—their talent and dedication is enormously apparent. But these giants of genre are hardly spinning at underground raves in 2020.
This might be a huge generalization. In fact, it definitely is. One of the intrinsic properties of raving is that it is very hard to quantify, or break down, or in most cases observe. A rave exists as a transient thing, fleeting, untied to a physical place, structure, or sound. Generally, the artefacts laid behind can’t tell us much about it. Today, people obsessively replay grainy footage of ’90s raves, wide-eyed teens on Castlemorton Common archived in shaky film footage. But we can’t learn much from this. Paradoxically, despite today’s advanced technology, every raver dancing with a smartphone in their pocket, capable of taking high quality videos and images, even less is captured. Footage of dark rooms and strobes, or squatting friends in the smoking area at sunrise, is either lost in the algorithm, or, should it survive, a hazy blown-out memento that doesn’t give us much. Perhaps it is the book-end artifacts which endure to serve some purpose. We may not be able to document the rave itself, but the humanity which blankets it, is informed by it, can be charted. Gleeful rides home on rent-a-bikes during the morning glow of South London. Tender jaws attempting a stab at a full English. The documentation of the people who come together to form the rave is maybe something we can learn from the most, a visual artifact of the community spirit which is experiential and impossible to capture.
Pinning down the transformative, or rather, trying to identify its sociological roots, will always be difficult. For many, it will also be somewhat redundant. Raving is an escape from the order and mundanity of regular life, and something plenty of dancers are wary of demystifying. In this piece I have tried to elaborate and identify some of the key factors which are present within the experience, but it is always necessary to keep in mind that this is all subjective. The beauty of raving comes from the duality of individualism and community, the mysterious overlap of the two. A subculture which is meaningful for individuals in different ways, but somehow evolves to bring such individuals together under something larger. In all of this perhaps the most objective argument is the need to refute the view that this is purely an exchange between the DJ and the listener. This binary view of what constitutes and creates a space for personal growth, transformation, it’s redundant. Small’s definition of musicking encompasses the correct way to view raving in our time. Participation is the bedrock of the rave, and it can emerge in many forms. Participation reinforces values, and even if these values are subjective, shifting, and impossible to quantify with words, we can know that they are there.
- Christopher Small, Musicking (University Press of New England, 1998), 9.
- Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music (University of Chicago Press, 1961), 1.
- Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music, 2-3.
- Small, Musicking, 134.
- William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, (Cosimo, 2008), 29.
- Roland Barthes, “Listening,” The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art and Representation, translated by Richard Howard (Hill and Wang, 1985), 253.