Mixed Messages: Resistance and Reappropriation in Rave Culture

Article excerpt

Back in the days before America was online, computer geeks who liked techno music began hosting secret rave parties in San Francisco. Revelers followed treasure hunts, whispering passwords to strangers on street corners until a rave emerged in somebody else's warehouse or field. The drug ecstasy was passed around like Tic Tacs, and the music played until the cops showed up. Now, a generation later, underground raves have gone pop. Last weekend at 3Com Park, nearly 29,000 peaceful ravers queued up in broad daylight, $40 tickets in hand, for the largest, cleanest rave San Francisco has ever seen. "Raves are more like concerts now," said James Olson, a rave promoter with B3 Candy who recently drew 42,000 people to the Long Beach Civic Center. "It's all about money; that breaking into the warehouse stuffis a thing of the past." (May, 2001, p. A1)

THE TRANSFORMATION of rave culture from underground, and frequently illegal, dance parties organized by electronic music lovers to highly publicized popular concerts sponsored by local radio stations and major music labels was predictable, if not wholly inevitable. After all, part of capitalism's appeal lies in its ideological flexibility--its capacity to embrace transgressive subculture, repackage it, and sell it as the latest stylistic innovation. Though predictable, rave culture's evolution was and continues to be anything but simple and straightforward. It entails a set of complex negotiations surrounding the meanings of artist, authorship, and authenticity. It reflects deeply fought rhetorical/ideological battles around communalism and commercialism, performance and product, and sharing and spectacle. It evokes criticism from youth who feel that the "true spirit" of raving has been lost and praise from parents who applaud the end of this delinquency. It is, in short, a process that highlights the dynamic tension between resistance and reappropriation, between counterculture and commodification.

Rave culture provides an especially instructive site for exploring this tension on at least two counts. First, in a postmodern consumer culture where identity is increasingly tied to the active consumption of images and styles (Kellner, 1995; van Poecke, 1996), music is among the most central and significant ways that youth articulate style and hence a sense of self (Christenson & Roberts, 1998; Hebdige, 1981; Shuker, 1994; Thornton, 1996). By studying a musical subculture--particularly one as socially, politically, and economically influential as raving--we hope to illuminate the varied ways that youth continually (re)negotiate difference in constructing their identities. (1) Second, an analysis of rave culture allows for a consideration of rhetoric's widely overlooked material dimensions (Blair, 1999, pp. 16-17). Music is not merely a symbolic experience; it is also an embodied experience. Music acts directly upon and is quite literally felt by the body. In the case of rave culture, the rhetorical force of music on the body is shaped by both where (the venue) and how (drug use) the music is experienced. As we demonstrate, the meanings, functions, and politics of rave culture have mutated as the sites of raving and the drugs associated with it have changed. As such, this study stands to deepen our understanding of how the materiality of rhetoric is connected to corporeality and social space.

In exploring these issues, we contend that underground rave locates its transgressive character in the logic of communion. (2) We argue further that the commercialization of rave culture by the music industry subverts the logic of communion in favor of commodity spectacle through the relocation of dance culture into clubs and the redefinition of the DJ as artist and superstar. Before proceeding with our analysis, however, we review the literature on resistance and youth subculture as a theoretical basis for interpreting the practices and products of raving. We, then, offer a brief overview of the origins of rave culture by situating it within the culture of music more broadly. …