While the mess that was Woodstock has been turned into a Sixties fairy tale, raves are accorded a place in the cultural pantheon well below Altamont, the infamous Rolling Stones show where a fan was beaten to death by Hells Angels.
Raves began as small, semi-secret, late-night affairs but they have now broadened beyond their humble origins, morphing into multi-day electronic dance music (EDM) festivals. Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra Music Festival have drawn as many as 230,000 fans to events where fans spend as much time looking at each other as they do looking at the stage and, as Billboard dance music editor Kerri Mason describes, “sing along to beats instead of words.”
Is bigger better? The front page of the February 2 Los Angeles Times was dominated by the headline “A fatal toll on concertgoers as raves boost cities’ income.” The first sentence reveals the article’s agenda: “On the edge of the Mojave, music promoter Pasquale Rotella staged a rave eleven years ago that ended with a coroner’s wagon rolling down desert roads.” It went on to describe the spectacular growth of the rave scene in the 21st century as emerging “from an Ecstasy-fueled underground of urban warehouses.”
Drug use doesn’t begin at raves, it begins when children as young as three are diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and are placed on Ritalin. As of 2010, according to the National Health Interview Survey, 5.2 million kids between the ages of 3 and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. According to the University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center, “Ritalin is a stimulant like cocaine” and “may cause changes in the brain over time.” Further, up to “50% of adolescents in drug treatment centers report abusing Ritalin.” Yet a vague evaluation by a doctor or teacher of too much “squirminess” can lead a youngster to spend an adolescence on meds. The none too subtle message? If you have a problem, pop a pill.
It comes as no surprise that many of America’s students are “squirmy.” Our schools are rapidly becoming assembly lines centered around standardized testing. Critical thinking has no place in such factories, especially not when the programs that help youngsters channel the natural energy surging through their bodies and brains--music, art, sports--are being cut back or eliminated.
Hundreds of thousands of young men and women emerge from our educational system only to wind up as victims of another legal drug-dispensing machine, the military. The Pentagon doesn’t trust you can to be all that you can be on your own, so it ensures that drugs are routinely given out to overcome sleep deprivation, illness, or anything else that might interfere with combat operations. In Afghanistan, two F-16 pilots who mistakenly bombed a Canadian infantry unit said they’d been pressured into taking amphetamines to sharpen their senses. To sharpen their senses? That’s why some people go to raves and take Ecstasy.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 38,329 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2010. Yet only an infinitesimal number of those deaths were caused by Ecstasy. 22,000 of the overdose casualties were due to prescription drugs. Could there be a connection between the epidemic of prescription drug overdoses and the fact that millions of kids have been placed on prescription meds at school? The media doesn’t explore that connection because prescription drugs are sold by Big Pharma. Ecstasy is sold by local drug dealers who have no political power and are fair game for tabloids like the Los Angeles Times.
If there is a sincere concern about drugs at public events, why isn’t anyone calling for a ban on the Super Bowl or the World Series? Drugs of one kind or another are present at all major sporting events and death and serious injury to sports fans happen frequently, often the result of drug abuse. Besides drugs, there is the issue of basic public safety. When two racing fans were killed by an out of control race car on March 17 at Marysville Raceway Park near Sacramento just a few weeks after 33 fans were injured by wreck debris at Daytona International Speedway in Florida, the incidents were treated as, yes, unfortunate, but really just another day at the office.
This double standard leads to an almost comical level of hypocrisy. James Penman, the city attorney for San Bernardino, California, has tried to ban raves at the National Orange Show Events Center, saying “The city should have zero tolerance for any activity in which drugs are an integral part.” Yet Penman doesn’t seem troubled by the events held at the nearby Auto Club Speedway, where dangerous drugs such as alcohol and tobacco are an integral part of the festivities.
People have indeed died of drug overdoses at raves. That much is true and that much is tragic. We are led by our media masters to focus solely on that fact like a dog that’s not housebroken having its nose pushed into its excrement on the kitchen floor. If we break free of that grip, we can see that raves aren’t mostly about drugs.
Given the size of the EDM audience today you might think it would be easy for major newspapers to find fans happy to explain why they go to raves. Last year the Los Angeles Times ran a big story on a gun buyback campaign by the police in which at least a dozen people were quoted, some at length, about why they were turning in their weapons. But the rave audience remains on mass media mute. I assume that anyone who writes for a living knows how to conduct a Google search, so the reasons for this oversight must go beyond a lack of training. With just a couple of clicks of the mouse, I found these, among many other illuminating quotes:
“[Electronic dance music] happened in concert venues and arenas,” Billboard dance editor Kerri Mason writes, “…it happened in parks and open fields, where young people wore fuzzy animal ears and talked about peace, love, unity, and respect—all without irony.”
“As far as a music culture goes, EDM is the one which will accept the kids on the outliers, the ones who get bullied, the ones who feel they may not quite fit in. This community is exceptional in its ability to bond all types together, and I am not exaggerating when I say it saves lives. Our audience is intelligent and kind….unprecedented in their drive to proactively support each other.”— Grammy-nominated producer/DJ Kaskade
Emilie, who blogs as Rolling Stone Raver, described her experience at Camp Bisco Eleven as one of camping, making new friends (“They were the true embodiment of peace, love, unity, and respect”), enjoying music and having “philosophical discussions with one of the greatest senses of community I have ever felt.”
The rave scene has grown in lockstep with the growth of war and unemployment or, as Kerri Mason puts it, EDM is “a generational opt-out from recession anxiety.” Wisconsin music fan Matt Fanale, who DJs as Eurotic, adds that “With the world as depressing as it has been lately, people want to lose themselves with thousands of others.”
Another Wisconsin DJ, Vinnie Toma, says: “Kids who are in college right now, or even several years out, there aren’t as many opportunities, and they’ve racked up tons of school debt. It can fuel a lifestyle that’s all about partying and pushing difficult emotions away.”
The serious problems that so many people now share fuel a need for communal gathering places. Raves help to fill that void as other opportunities for community are being closed off. College is now unaffordable for the majority of potential students. Libraries and recreation centers are closing. In many states, teenagers are banned by law from being in a car together. The camaraderie once found at work, however menial or temporary, is disappearing along with the jobs. 6.5 million teens and young adults are neither employed nor in school.
The youthful frustration and energy that powers the rave scene has caught the eye of America’s city fathers. Many municipalities face huge budget deficits and are eager to host raves, even though they often act as if they’ve made a deal with the devil. Judge Dave Barkemeyer issued a permit for a massive rave in Milam County, Texas, not because it serves culture or youth but because “it brings in a fair amount of commerce.”
An unprincipled pact has been made but it isn’t with rave promoters. It’s with corporations. Immediately after World War II, corporations paid 49% of all taxes. Now it’s 7%. That’s why cities are going broke. Municipal leaders have stood by and let this happen, often aiding and abetting corporate neglect with tax abatements and free land.
It’s not just municipalities which seek to profit from raves. The growth of EDM is attracting corporate interest as well. Robert F.X. Sillerman’s SFX Entertainment, owner of American Idol and Elvis Presley Enterprises, is in the process of investing upwards of $1 billion in buying up local and regional dance music promotion companies. Mega concert promotion firm Live Nation has acquired two major rave promoters: England’s Cream and Los Angeles’s HARD Events. As big rave events get more corporate, that may provide them with a degree of political protection but it will intensify pressure on the underground scene, which doesn’t deal with things like permits and has always had trouble with the cops.
The hysteria about raves accelerates the morphing of the so-called war on drugs into a war on youth. As Jeff Chang chillingly describes in his classic history of hip-hop, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, we are witnessing a shift from a politics of abandonment to a politics of containment.
One form of that containment is legislation, such as the Rave Act introduced by current vice-president Joe Biden and passed nearly unanimously by Congress in 2003. This law makes event organizers liable for prison time and $250,000 fines on the basis of allegations (not proof) of drug use. The danger in the as yet unenforced Rave Act isn’t so much in its possible implementation but in the way it amplifies the irrational fear of youth. In turn, this breeds acceptance of the growth of police power in all its forms, from Homeland Security to cameras on the corner.
The same could be said of a bill introduced in 2011 by California State Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, a Democrat who attempted to establish her cultural cred by claiming to be a friend of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ma proposed to ban any event that takes place at night and features prerecorded music. Was her target karaoke? Wedding receptions? Of course not. Ma’s bill failed to win passage but succeeded in further poisoning the body politic.
We need an open national discussion about drugs, how they affect society, and what to do about it. But the corporations with vested interests in certain drugs will not allow it. With the Supreme Court’s approval of corporate personhood, corporations now buy off the political process. Under the banner of “money is speech,” they make huge donations to Democrats and Republicans, both of whom are in the thrall of Big Pharma and the phony war on drugs. The rave audience, millions strong, is in a position to break through this wall of silence and get us talking to each other.