Rave Is More Than a Subculture

Jessica Hocking

This essay aims to look at how rave culture is more than just a youth subculture as defined by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (C.C.C.S.).  It will start by looking at the C.C.C.S.’s definition of a youth subculture and will go on to examine rave culture in relation to these theories.  Finally, it will hopefully show how rave culture is more than just a reaction to society at that time.  It will look at the spirituality of rave culture, the impact that it has had on many people’s lives and the DJ as an urban shaman.


Hall et al (1976) wanted to examine why and how youth groups were formed.  Youth only really came into existence after the second world war when, with the advances in industrialization and technology, it was no longer necessary for people to go straight into a working life at an early age and there was much more leisure time available.  There was no longer the immediate jump from childhood to adulthood, but there was a transitory period in between when a child became an adult, they may have been continuing their studies or just enjoying life.  This period of life between childhood and adulthood became known as youth, “’Youth’ appeared as an emergent category in post-war Britain, one of the most striking and visible manifestations of social change in the period” (Hall et al 1976, p9).  If there is youth then there will be youth culture, culture is defined by Hall et al as, “the peculiar and distinctive ‘way of life’ of the group or class, the meanings, values and ideas embodied in institutions, in social relations, in systems of beliefs, in mores and customs, in the uses of objects and material life.  Culture is the distinctive shapes in which this material and social organisation of life expresses itself” (1976, p10).


There is never just one culture, society is always split into different groups and there is always a dominant group.  At the time when members of the C.C.C.S. were investigating youth cultures they believed that these different groups are always a result of different classes within society, “in modern societies, the most fundamental groups are the social classes” (Hall et al, 1976, p 13) and the creation of youth subcultures was a response to the breaking down of class barriers at the time.  Phil Cohen (1972) argued that, “when working-class communities are undergoing change and displacement – when the ‘parent culture’ is no longer cohesive – youth (and the focus here is always on working-class youth) responds by becoming subcultural.  Subcultures thus become a means of expressing and, for Cohen, also ‘resolving’ the crisis of class” (Gelder, 1997, pp 84-85).  This is no longer applicable in today’s society as class is no longer such an influential factor in societal groupings, but I will examine this further later on in this essay.


Hall et al (1976) identify five specific social changes that caused the creation of youth cultures.  The first was the increasing affluence of youth, “the increased importance of the market and consumption, and the growth of ‘Youth-oriented’ leisure industries” (p18), a specific market appeared purely to cater for the youth, supplying, for example, youth clothing and youth leisure opportunities as the youth were experiencing rising levels of disposable income.  Secondly, the spread of culture due to increased communications led to, “the arrival of mass communications, mass entertainment, mass art and mass culture” (p18).  The most influential of all was the arrival of commercial television.  This enabled the youth greater access to youth culture and “the means of ‘imitation’ and ‘manipulation’ on a national scale” (p19).  Thirdly, were the destructive effects of the war, it was felt that the breakdown in family life, caused by absent fathers, led to increased levels of youth delinquency.  Fourthly, there were changes in education.  “This interpretation pin-pointed two developments above all – ‘secondary education for all’ in age-specific schools, and the massive extension of higher education” (p20).  As mentioned earlier, the fact that people no longer had to go immediately to work at an early age meant that another life stage, between childhood and adulthood, was created, “subcultural youth may also replace a lost sense of working-class ‘community’ with subcultural ‘territory’ – a shift which is symptomatic of the relocation of youthful expression to the field of leisure rather than work” (Gelder, 1997, p85).  Finally, there was a massive style explosion, a huge varying range of different ways to dress and different music to listen to led to the creation of a number of different cultures (or subcultures) within the main youth culture.


So, what were the main causes behind the development of the rave subculture?  Acid House, as it was then called, started off in the UK in 1997/1988 when some now famous DJs returned from a hedonistic summer in Ibiza where they were introduced to a new way of clubbing and a new drug named ecstasy.


They returned to a bored and depressed Britain in its third consecutive term of conservative rule where Thatcher’s golden age was turning sour.  As Matthew Collin put it in his book “Altered State” (1997),


“Thatcher’s “economic miracle”, a consumer boom fuelled by wild spending on credit and a mood of uninhibited individualism, was entering its final phase before the shuddering stock market crash of “Black Monday” heralded a plunge back into recession.  London clubland mirrored this monetarist climax; elitism was a virtue, acceptance had to be bought, and those who couldn’t afford the price were turned away, their voices denied expression” (pp54-55).


Was the emergence of the rave scene a reaction to the dominant political ideology of the time?  In some ways it may have been, economic depression was beginning to cause unrest and the youth were bored and wanted to have fun.  However, from the reading I have undertaken, I believe the main cause of the emergence of the rave subculture was in fact a drug, namely ‘Ecstasy’.   Ecstasy made you able to dance all night and turned complete strangers into your best friend.  Without Ecstasy, the rave scene probably would never have happened; Ecstasy was the catalyst that triggered off probably the largest subculture in Britain’s history. 


Ecstasy combined with dance music created a new and highly enjoyable youth experience.  Class, gender, age and ethnicity were irrelevant; everyone came together on the dance floor with one common goal, to have fun.  Aaronson (1999) notes, “there is no hierarchy. Everybody shares the dance floor, dancing, touching and sweating with somebody they might not otherwise speak to … Rave dance floors are public spaces open to all. Their aim, together with the quest for pleasure, is to abolish or subvert rules and transgress social order and prohibitions”.  Those who were part of the rave culture did not necessarily have anything in common, they came from all types of backgrounds, from university graduates and white collar workers to high school drop-outs and travellers all joined together by music and drugs.  This opposes Hall et al’s view that, “Members of a sub-culture may walk, talk, act, look ‘different’ from their parents and from some of their peers: but they belong to the same families, go to the same schools, work at the same jobs, live down the same ‘mean streets’ as their peers and parents.” (1976, p14)


To begin with, no one involved in the rave scene was specifically rebelling against authority, although it may have appeared that way, as they were labelled as deviants by the dominant cultural group.  Cohen (1972) cites Becker (1963) “...deviance is created by society… social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular persons and labelling them as outsiders.  From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’” (pp 12-13).  Persons are labelled as deviant if they are behaving in a way that is not acceptable to the dominant societal group, whether it be violence, drug-taking, the way they choose to dress or the music that they listen to.  If those in the dominant societal group do not approve or understand, those who behave in such a fashion will be labelled as deviant.  However, once the government introduced legislation to try and prohibit the subculture, the Entertainment’s (Increased Penalties) Act, 1990 and The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, 1994, (Bidder, 2001) then those involved began to rebel against the authoritarian regime.  Examples of this include the “60,000 young people, environmentalists, hunt saboteurs, unionists, socialists, squatters, travellers and civil rights activists, who joined the rally and march here[London] on July 24 [1994] against the criminal justice bill” (Junankar, 1994).  Although at some points during the reign of the rave subculture there were episodes of what Hal et al described as ‘resistance’ to societal changes, this was not the origin of the subculture.


Hebdige (1979) points to the importance of ethnicity in the development of subcultures in his work about punks, “the kind of immigration patterns which Cohen had seen as dislocating class structures in East End London are here regarded as central to the development of subcultural style” (Gelder1997, p87).  The rise of ethnic groups led to the punks adopting a twisted patriotism, for example wearing union jack t-shirts, but listening to the likes of the Sex Pistols who sang songs about anarchy in the UK, “it was an alien essence, a foreign body which implicitly threatened mainstream British culture from within and as such it resonated with punk’s adopted values – ‘anarchy’, ‘surrender’ and ‘decline’” (Hebdige, 1979, p64).  As mentioned earlier, within the rave scene ethnicity was ignored and people from any kind of ethnic background were welcomed.  There are, however, definitely parts of Hebdige’s theory of subculture that fit with the rave culture, that of ‘bricolage’ for example.


Bricolage is described by Hebdige as taking an object or symbol belonging to the dominant society and changing its meaning by using it in such a way that it becomes an example of the subcultures deviance.  Hebdige quotes Clarke (1976),


“Together, object and meaning constitute a sign, and, within any one culture, such signs are assembled, repeatedly, into characteristic forms of discourse.  However when the bricoleur re-locates the significant object in a different position within that discourse, using the same overall repertoire of signs, or when that object is placed within a different total ensemble, a new discourse is constituted, a different message conveyed” (p104).


Hebdige gives the example of, “the motor scooter, originally an ultra-respectable means of transport, was turned into a menacing symbol of group solidarity” (p104).  This use of bricolage can also be seen in the rave subculture, “Bob Holness is furious at t-shirts depicting him holding an E against a psychedelic background with the caption ‘Can I have an E please Bob?’” (Bussman, 1998, p94).  I personally can recall seeing people using Vick’s nasal inhalers to apparently increase the buzz of the ecstasy they had taken.  There were flyers using the ‘Smarties’ logo slightly changed so that it said “Smart E’s” and once or twice I did actually see people walking round with babies dummies in their mouths!  Glow sticks, which were once only found in a hiker’s rucksack, are now sold in many ‘rave’ shops or clubs, to be waved around whilst dancing.


The rave subculture may have displayed some of the attributes associated with the C.C.C.S. notion of ‘subculture’, but there appears to be much more to it than just the rebellion of youth against authority and changes in society.  One of the main aspects that sets rave aside from previous subcultures is the apparent spirituality of the experience, almost to a religious level.  Some may assume that this kind of spirituality was solely due to the amount of mood enhancing drugs consumed by those involved in the scene, but to anyone who was involved it was much more than just drugs.


Rave centres on dancing and Aaronson (1999) examines the importance of dancing to human society.  She starts by looking at the physical effects of listening to dance music and dancing.  Dance music consists of a rhythmic, repetitive drum beat, similar to tribal music, “From heartbeats to African drums, from the percussive and repetitive quality of Funk to the pulses of electronic drums in Techno and Rave, rhythm is the essential substance of music and dance” (Aaronson, 1999).  Aaronson says that the rhythmic drumming of tribal music brings out the animalistic instinct in humans, which is a good thing as it is this animalistic instinct that society tries to suppress, “Funk, Techno and Rave take us back to our intuitive level of being. Intuition is the animal in us, a mode of cognition which Western civilization has constantly tried to repress” (1999).  Listening to music is a very physical experience; our bodies feel the music and react to the rhythms.  Our experience of sound is not affected by our positionality, “Whereas sight is conditioned by social and cultural formations, sound waves have nervous and organic effects on human beings, independent of their cultural formation” (Aaronson, 1999).  This is an important fact to note as this is the main way that dancing to rave can break down social barriers.  On the dance-floor everyone is part of the same community, reacting to the same stimuli and a bond is formed between those sharing the experience.  On the dance-floor there is no class, gender, age or ethnicity, everyone is united by the music that they are listening to, “When individuals come together in groups, they are transformed. This is the most basic psychological effect of the crowd. The conscious personality of each individual disappears. It is as if all the dancers were part of the same body. Not only do people dance and touch one another, but also there is no more race, culture or things forbidden” (Aaronson, 1999).  This kind of community experience, where there are no cultural barriers, does not seem to be part of other subcultures.  There may be some feeling of community within other subcultures, but there are specific codes of conduct or codes of dress that one must adhere to in order to be part of the community.  There are no such strict rules that must be obeyed in order to be part of the rave subculture, anyone, no matter what their background, their age, gender or even the ways they dress, can be part of the rave community by just being there and enjoying the music and the dancing.  Aaronson highlights the necessity of recognising the importance of the dance-floor in society, “That is why the dance floor is so important in our society to recapture, if only temporarily, the instinctual forces of our existence, the only forces that can reconnect us to earth. A society that does not recognize the therapeutic value of public dance floors and abstract dance threatens its own mental and physical health” (1999).  We are continuously told how we must behave in social situations and on the dance-floor we are free, through dancing we break out of our social and cultural confines.


Aaronson highlighted the connection between rave culture and that of ancient tribal culture through the use of rhythmic drumming, however there are other ways in which rave can be linked to tribal culture.  Bennett (1999) wrote an article entitled “Subcultures or neo-tribes?  Rethinking the relationship between youth, style and musical taste”, in which he shares his thoughts that the creation of subcultures is due to people wanting to form families or tribes, due to the breakdown of family life, as opposed to just a reaction to structural changes in society. 


From what I have read, there were no major structural changes taking place in society to cause the emergence of the rave subculture.  However, it appears a great deal more likely that many of those who were part of the rave subculture were looking for somewhere to belong.  At the time when the C.C.C.S. was investigating the formation of subcultures, the family unit was large and still relatively stable.  In the late 1980s and 1990s, when the rave subculture was being formed, the family unit had become a lot smaller and contact with the extended family had lessened, one parent families and one child families were becoming more frequent.  This led to a large proportion of the youth at that time to want to belong to a larger social group or tribe.


Authors such as Brewster et al (1999) note the comparisons between the tribal leader or shaman and the DJ, ““More often than not, there was somebody at the centre of all this [tribal rituals].  Somebody who handed out the party plants, somebody who started the action, somebody who controlled the music.  This figure – the witch doctor, the shaman, and the priest – was a little bit special, he had a certain power.  Today it is the DJ who fills this role” (p10).  The DJ is central to the rave scene, they play music in order to create an atmosphere and build a community feeling.  Without the DJ there would be no experience, Hutson (2000) discusses the concept of “Technoshamanism” the term was coined by Fraser Clark (Rushkoff, 1994, p121 cited in Hutson, 2000) and describes the DJ as a modern shaman “in charge of the group mood/mind. The DJ "senses when it's time to lift the mood, take it down, etc., just as the shaman did in the good ol' tribal days" (Clark, 1995 cited in Hutson, 2000).


Hopefully, I have managed to show that the rave subculture is more than just a subculture, a reaction by working class youth to structural changes in society, and more of a religious or tribal experience.  I have shown how the dance-floor is such an important part of today’s society helping to break down social and cultural barriers and the feeling of community created by a crowd of people, all in the same place, having the same experiences all brought together by music.  The experiences that people have had being part of the rave subculture carry on into all parts of their lives and will continue to influence them as their lives progress.  The lack of importance placed on social and cultural differences within the rave scene is helping today’s society to become more cohesive and tolerant towards others of all backgrounds and cultures, if you can do it on the dance-floor then it is easy to behave in the same way in other areas of life.  We have seen how dance music is the only youth music ever to have had government legislation to try and prohibit it and the massive impact that the subculture has had on mainstream society, dance music can be heard almost anywhere and the style of dress adopted by those who are part of dance culture has become high street fashion.  Although there are many ways in which the dance scene is a ‘subculture’ there are also many ways in which it is more than just a passing youth craze.  Subcultures studied by the C.C.C.S. were seen as a reaction to the breaking down of class barriers at the time, the rave subculture can be seen as actually contributing to the breaking down of cultural barriers as opposed to being a reaction to it.  Although there are many ways in which the dance scene is a ‘subculture’ we have also seen many ways in which it is more than just a passing youth craze. 




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