Raver (noun): insult used to indicate a silly, frivolous, or stupid person; often associated with “trance” or “techno” music.
Like so many of my generation who came of age in the nighties or even early aughts, I have come to use the term raver as a pejorative. It’s easy to trace the etymology of this. All those pacifiers, glow sticks, candy bracelets. All that hopping like bunnies in clown pants to power trance or to progressive house. All that love and joy and happiness that fades just as quickly as the e hangover appears. And yet I feel I must speak in defense of this lost tribe of aged out tweens and twenty somethings.
Friends, I beg of you, let’s stop this nonsense. Raver is not a pejorative. There was a moment in time when dance music was poised to change the world.
I spend a lot of breath and a lot of space talking and writing about the regret I wrestle with as a result of so many years lost to the club scene, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that these years were anything but lost. I find myself now wrestling more with the growing suspicion that gratitude may in fact be a more appropriate approach to my sordid past.
Rave (verb): to run, dance, yell and generally comport oneself like a wildwoman in the throes of madness, in a state of loud delusional disbelief that the world around her is real or legitimate.
I spent a long time as a peripheral fan of the dance scene. I listened to drum and bass, big beat, west coast trance in its nineties nascency, bootleg cassette tapes smuggled to me by the old school Moontribers I worked with during high school. They were irresistibly fascinating to me, those pioneers of the underground scene. They were the shamans of the new world, wise and otherworldly, a new age take on claim jumpers, squatting with speakers on desert lands while I stayed home studying my AP Algebra. I loved the stories they would tell me, loved the coolness with which they interacted with everything. I fantasized about the way they all seemed to have found a way to exist in happiness and outside of the rules, fantasized about someday finding a way for myself to do the same. They were to me a symbol of absolute freedom.
I would go to clubs in LA occasionally, mostly mainstream, sometimes a little harder to find, but even in my every-night-out European summers I never quite found myself in clubs with the music I really wanted to hear, never quite found that freedom those old Moontribers had taught me could exist. Until one night I found it. In a suburban Madrid bullring, at a party with thousands of strangers and five friendly Americans, somehow I found it. And it felt as though I had been creeping along a hallway for days, months, years, and all that time I could feel myself getting warmer, warmer, warmer still, and then suddenly the doors flew open and I stepped through and I was free. For the first time in my life, I was free. And all I wanted was to go deeper, all I wanted was for that freedom to last forever.
That first year, that year of transformation that most of my family and friends prefer to call me going crazy, it wasn’t me going crazy at all. It was me ceasing to be crazy. It was me no longer trying to force myself to be everything I thought everyone else wanted me to be. All my life up until that point, I had followed all the rules. I said all the things I was supposed to say, did all the things I was supposed to do, befriended all the good kids I was supposed to befriend. I wore J Crew suits and sensible shoes. By seventeen I had even gotten myself elected to the retiree parish council! I was the good girl, the reliable girl. No one ever worried about me, ever. I had the act down – except for that weird, crazy music I would listen to when no one was there to judge. I had buried so much of my soul so deep down that not all the church incense in the world could smoke it out, but that music made it move.
That day, that first night at the Madrileño massive, I felt filled with such joy and such relief, I knew there was no going back. That party led to another party followed by another party followed by another until before I knew it my life was the party. I had found friends, found community, found connection through the music that had up until that point been my solitary refuge. And so deeper I went.
Five years later, a different city, different friends, a different scene. I had moved back from Europe to LA, and the party life wasn’t about candy ravers anymore, it was a commitment. The crowd I danced with now weren’t just dancing at the parties, they were djing the parties, producing the parties, selling drugs to the parties. It was as though I went back through time and initiated myself into that old Moontribe scene and stuck around for the long haul. We had all by now given up everything in pursuit of pleasures that didn’t jive with what the aboveground world valued. Commercialism, vanity, climate change, culture wars, land wars, credit frauds, and no way to change any of it. The world we had been raised to believe in was a lie, and the only way to live with the lie was to reject it completely. We weren’t giving up, we were dropping out, and together we created new families through our acts of defiance.
Did I go too far? Did I take too many drugs? Did it become about nothing more than escapism? Maybe. But maybe not. I saw a lot of people burn out, some of their eyes turned quietly to charcoal, others exploded into tragic grand finales. But that wasn’t me. The person I am now is better, stronger, tougher, and truer than I ever would have been without each and every one of those experiences, those people, those tracks. I didn’t burn out; I just decided after awhile that it was time to get off of those shadowy backroads and take my show onto the main drag.
The dance scene led me to permanent, positive changes in how I perceive the world, and in how I perceive myself. I used to let people trample all over me; that’s not a problem anymore. Now nobody even tries, as if somehow they seem to know better. I used to keep my voice down, used to dumb my speech down. I used to be afraid of the world and I used to be afraid of being alone. Now I’m not afraid of being heard. I’m not really afraid of anything.
The only techno I hear now is when I’m alone, running, driving, writing, just like the old days. The extent of my debauchery is more or less limited to getting a little too drunk in the backyard with my husband after our daughter has gone to sleep. And that sense of communal joy? That too is limited to those precious, infrequent writers groups, those once yearly afternoon escapes with my maid of honor and fellow former party person, the oh so occasional kid free house party. But even in these slimmed down incarnations, the old expansiveness remains, that joy still lines my soul.
So for all you closet ravers, for all of you aging hipsters who are too hip to admit you too used to take pacifiers to parties, used to slide and wave your way through even the cheesiest of the John Digweed days or pound your way through six hour sets of serious hard techno, I say it’s time to come out of the closet. Maybe not this weekend, maybe not the next, but someday, let’s all go pray together, just for old times sake. Fish out that beat up bootleg cassette, that old Electric Skychurch or Orbital or Aphex Twin. Or if you really want to make me swoon, let’s go way back to the beginning of my music world, to my American hero Jeff Mills. Because the dance scene may not have changed the world, but there’s no denying how it ultimately changed all of us.