As the War on Drugs has cracked down for several generations, yet a visible, colorful, and animated drug-centered economy is on the rise.
The Electronic Dance Music (EDM) genre has exploded into a $20 billion industry, according to Toronto Life. The festivals that span the summer and is one of the United States “most mainstream and lucrative new artistic industries” write P. Nash Jenkins for The Atlantic, an industry which, by all mainstream media accounts, is an industry in which attending a concert is ubiquitous with prolific use of drugs such as MDMA otherwise known as Ecstasy.
Although the EDM scene and Ecstacy have a longstanding relationship, the ethos of rave culture has shifted significantly since the 1980’s, as, it would seem, has the police response to “party drugs” and the rave scene.
Raves emerged in the 1980’s as a youth subculture built up around music, socializing, and drugs.
“Raves are grassroots organized, anti-establishment and unlicensed all-night dance parties featuring various genres of electronically produced dance music, populated by large numbers of youths and young adults…in the late 1980’s through the early 1990’s…’rave’ was used to describe the distinctive youth culture that grew out of the Detroit techno and Chicago house music scenes…since its emergence, one of the key charactersitics of rave culture has ben the use of illicit drugs.”
-Kavanaugh and Anderson, “Solidarity and Drug Use in the Electronic Dance Music Scene”
In the 1990’s, raves were the target of law enforcement in an attempt to crack down on the use of ecstasy, ketamine, Rohypnol, and LSD, leading the rave scene to shift venues, moving to indoor, licensed nightclubs. Now, scholars Kavanaugh and Anderson argue raves exist in a continuum somewhere between underground venues and commercial nightclubs. The semi-commercialization has altered the rave-going experience, leading some to reject the contemporary scene as a fundamentally different subculture than the one they were part of.
Early EDM culture, as told by Better Living Through Circuitry, the rave scene has ‘implicit politics’ in which people who feel alienated, outside of any community, can find or make what is missing in their life at raves or festivals. The sentiment is known as P.L.U.R. (Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect). While those outside of Rave culture dismissed any feelings of solidarity as something chemically induced via party drugs, a more critical examination of the rave scene shows that the drugs amplified, but did not create, these vibes-of-belonging.
Today, the EDM festival scene is run by corporate America. The subculture has been swallowed up and distorted by the mainstream. Such absorption of a counter-culture into the mainstream is not new. Dick Hebdidge noticed the same happen with Punk culture in Britain, particularly as the Punk style was adopted by major fashion retailers and marketed to the “everyday consumer” in what is referred to as bubble-up fashion. The theory is that when a subculture exists and threatens the dominant power structure, one way of dismantling the power of this counter-community is to adopt some of their cultural artifacts or behaviors into the mainstream. When this happens, the subculture is no longer an oppositional voice, but simply another piece of dominant cultural practice.
The drug use in EDM and Rave culture has become a hot topic in mainstream entertainment media. Early references in Rap soundtracks painted ecstasy as a drug of the wealthy, part of a celebrity lifestyle and used in nightclubs, at house parties, or in luxury cars (Diamond et al, What’s the Rap About Ecstacy?). In Rap music, ecstasy is often associated with sexual desire, pleasure, and performance, while also associating use of the drug with dangerous behaviour such as taking ecstasy with alcohol or ‘drug binging’.
It is risky to assume that correlation implies causation, and difficult to pinpoint how much lyrics of rap songs may influence behavior. Without blaming mainstream media portrayal of ecstasy and rave culture for the shift in the rave scene, it is interesting to note the parallels.
As EDM culture became increasingly corporate, testimony from longtime rave attendees tells about a shift in the use of drugs in the EDM-rave scene. There were increasing cases of excessive drug use, poly-drug abuse including mixing ecstasy with cocaine and or alcohol or using primarily cocaine and alcohol over ecstasy (Kavanaugh and Anderson). Members of the early rave subculture lament the loss of the P.L.U.R. ethos, replaced by egocentric behaviors.
But it is not just the change in feelings of solidarity at these festivals that is striking. Knowing that cocaine, a highly addictive and heavily policed drug (depending on the user’s demographic) has become a drug of choice at raves, it is difficult to imagine how a festival with 40,000 people does not result in more arrests. The fact that police are present at these festivals primarily as first responders reveals a disconnect in the way different drugs and communities are policed.
A black man in a poor city center can go to jail for life after being arrested three times for possessing one marijuana joint. An upper-middle-class American youth can trip all night at a festival surrounded by cops and go home without even a warning.
Where is the disconnect? Drugs such as Ecstacy or LSD labeled as schedule 1 are treated as a public health concern and ‘wild partygoers’ are permitted to trip under the nose of the police. Cocaine, on the other hand, a schedule 2 drug on the DEA’s list, can result in a ticket directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
The issue is one much larger than this entry alone can address. On the surface, it has to do with the way we perceive the drug, either as a way to let loose and pursue some transient/religious experience, opposed to one that corrupts, leads to crime, immoral conduct, and unproductive citizens. On a deeper level, the response is rooted in a system of belief that has only pretended to eliminate systemic racism, and to a fair extent, convinced mainstream white America that we are a happy, colorblind country. This illusion could hardly be further from the truth.