"Let me take you to a place I know you want to go..." - Inner City, "Good Life" 1988
The transcendent vision exalted in the lyrics to Inner City's techno classic has been at the core of DJ culture since its inception in the mid-1970s. Over the past 25 years, I've heard many DJs drop "Good Life" into a set and drive crowds into a tizzy–not only because it's a great techno jam, but because the utopian ideal still resonates with ravers. Inherited from disco, in raver parlance it boils down to PLUR–peace, love, unity and respect. When you are surrounded by people of varying ethnicities, languages, genders or altered states, a commitment to "be cool" isn't just something you stamp on a flyer, it's an oath you take and the closest we have to a safety guarantee.
In light of the deaths at New York's Electric Zoo festival over Labor Day weekend and the subsequent brouhaha from city officials, the press and other ravers, house nation's communal ethos feels like a quaint throwback, its message almost imperceptible in the shrill din of recriminations and clanging of cash registers. When news broke that the city closed the final day of the festival in response to the deaths, the reaction by many EDM fans on social media was basically: "Your death ruined my party." Shaming the dead and bitching about an inevitable, if delayed, refunds does not strike this old raver and disco journalist as a very loving vibe.
Aside from the growing body count, one of the most distressing things about rave culture lately has been watching it cannibalize itself. From fragmenting into sub- genre tribes that beef incessantly, to throwing DJs off decks, and dancing on the graves of dead ravers, the "We" in DJ culture seems to have been flipped on its head into "Me". Where is the unity? Where is the respect? Unlike punk, dance music is not antisocial; unlike gangster rap, it is not angry; unlike indie rock, it is not isolationist. More than any genre, dance music is supposed to soundtrack catharsis from the bullshit that divides us; it is steeped in multicultural, pansexual acceptance and holistic, pagan tolerance. When did it become so self-centered and greedy? Has EDM lost the roadmap to utopia on its way to the bank?
When government and the media are so quick to spin tragedy into menace, ravers turning on each other, only adds insult to injury and taints a vibrant culture from which many of us have matured into productive members of society. It calls into question the viability of rave culture's fabled Unitarian roots. Keeping the scene's "promised land" ethos alive is a collective responsibility. We–the promoters who book the gigs, the DJs who play them, the writers who cover them–are all cashing in and having a great time doing it. We owe it to our fellow ravers not only to entertain, but to inform, and most importantly, to support each other.
The last two times I attended Electric Zoo, medical tents, chill-out zones, and water refill stations were plentiful. What seemed to be missing was unity among the crowds. A striking example of the division: in one tent featuring a hot new DJ, the fist-pumping wild-eyed crowds were flowing; a few feet away, a veteran DJ played to a smaller group of loyalists, swirling in reverie. The two areas were merely feet apart, but based on their vibes, they may as well have been on separate planes, as very few people moved between both. Can a house nation so divided against itself stand for long?
The short is: Yes. Dance culture will never go extinct; it has survived countless bonfires and crucibles (the least of which are vapid award show shenanigans). But factions of dance culture are morphing into something perilously solipsistic and nihilistic. We can't trust its meaning or future to shady drug dealers or overzealous government officials, neither of which give a flying fig about PLUR. Made Event, Electric Zoo's organizers stepped up and did the right thing, refunding everyone. The rest of us need to follow suit.
On the dance floor, keep an eye on each other; try not to buy drugs from people you don't trust; don't be afraid to chill out, go sober, or just leave if you don't feel well. Don't pressure your friends into doing things they don't want to just because some celebrity or website has glamorized it. Everyone's body chemistry is different, and a thousand-person rave is no place to find out what your body's limits are. However much you paid for your ticket or your party favors, it is not more valuable than your life. Off the dance floor, fight for decriminalization, medical care, or education.