Rave culture, Music Theory, and Escapism... Feedback anyone?

Sean Parker (seanp@uu.net)
Mon, 1 Feb 1999 22:49:00 -0500

Here are some collected thoughts of mine on the topics listed above... I'm looking for some discourse to focus my ideas... Seems like some of these issues would be of interest to Extropian types...

Dance culture is a culture of escapism, a culture of acquiescence, a drug culture, and foremost -- despite vocal objections to the contrary -- a culture centered on the individual. What might have been it’s only redeeming characteristic, the supposed love, togetherness, and unity of all ravers, as well as the open, unrestrained affection and freedom of expression (all captured in the much invoked but largely betrayed "PLUR") is easily reduced to the fraudulent, the artificial, and the chemically dependent; without "E" these benefits would surely evaporate. MDMA deserves some credit for its short-lived but singular ability to produce "empathogenesis" or that "loved-up" feeling of compassion or connectedness which is its hallmark. If not for the inevitable recreational abuse of MDMA, and all the problems associated with escapism in general, it might prove a useful substance under a controlled environment. Needless to say, the necessary control is not and won’t be present at a rave in the foreseeable future. Even the music of dance culture -- oft cited by enthusiasts as the scene’s lifeblood -- is just intended to perpetuate these escapist themes, themes which are of course the real fuel behind the fire, more so than music or drugs. As modern dance music has become increasingly good at catering to dancers, it has simultaneously evolved an uncanny ability to distract and disassociate the mind. My contention is that dance music, for reasons I will elaborate below, has become a genre particularly well suited to abstracting and refocusing the mind, and thus highly conducive to escapism. My belief is that music which emphasizes the change in pitch over time (such as chamber music in the Western tradition, to cite an extreme example) tends to focus the individual on learned patterns of change, both in pitch from moment to moment, and in the overall direction of the song, shifts which are easily anticipated as we come to learn the natural harmonic progressions of a particular genre. Learned patterns of melody and accompaniment make the process of anticipation feel intuitive and the process of hearing and tracking the predictable change in tone and structure focuses the individual on the song. The focus achieved by tracking this combination of predictability and surprise makes listening to popular music satisfying and entertaining. Generally percussion is merely the glue by which a song is held together and is used to set the mood/pace of a song. Descended from a combination of African music, which emphasized beats, and the Western tradition of religious music, which was highly dependent on tonality, popular genres such as rock, alternative, and country have struck a successful balance between the percussive beat oriented, and tonal melody oriented modalities which had existed independently for so long. Now for a little whack-ass music theory, inspired by maddeningly complex drum n bass, a little house and a lot of funky breaks. Listening to underground dance music, I became aware of my mind’s inability to wrap the long tentacles of cognition around each distinct element, to fully encompass the sum and entirety of a song, always finding myself limited to the momentary perception of individual components. Take for existence a particular drum-loop. Let your mind latch on to it for a moment and it repeats; you can focus for just long enough to pick out its recurrence. But it is sporadic and unpredictable, and quite often your mind loses it in some other component, a bass-line or competing drum loop. Most frustrating, the patterns of beats and samples, taken individually, are just that, patterns; clearly, recognizable as structured, layered, and arranged via some stroke of human intelligence. But that predictability is limited to the individual samples, to perceive the song as a whole requires a kind of detachment, a removal from the deep analytic perceptibility of sound patterns. So it follows that electronic music has the peculiar capacity to dissolve the immediate locus of thought and erect in its place a kind of detached imperception that is neither analytic nor emotional -- it simply is. Historically, this characteristic of beat oriented music was exploited by aboriginal cultures seeking communion with the spirit world via provocation of altered states of consciousness, generally through highly repetitive layered beats and frenzied dancing; a phenomenon commonly referred to as trance induction.
Drawing parallels between raves and aboriginal spirituality is nothing new, Terrence McKenna and others have been expounding the connection for years. In fact, the concept has caught on in the rave scene at large to the point where the connection seems downright commonsensical. In certain circles this new “techno-spirituality” is seen as a way of justifying the culture, in essence infusing something inherently meaningless with some kind of profound (albeit warped) significance. And as we all know, aboriginal rituals often combined their hallmark uninhibited, unstructured dancing with the use of mind-altering substances, the mixture of which further intensified the perceptual divergence sought by practitioners; this of course paralleling the widespread use of drugs at rave parties. What really scares me about this “connection,” ironically, is exactly what inspires others. We’re talking about something with a longstanding record for being used as a spiritual aid, a physical and psychological tool tailored to subverting the conscious mind and refocusing it entirely on the “spiritual,” - which like any religion, is a wholly irrational belief system. Spirituality was the dominating characteristic - the focus - of every primitive “aboriginal” culture I can call to mind. What does this mean for dance culture? I have a feeling we’ve hit on something big, something capable of squelching one’s inner voice, drowning it in a barrage of aural horseshit and inducing cognitive dissonance pretty reliably - in essence, the perfect form of escapism.
The only thing more dangerous than escapism to society, and accordingly to the happiness of the individual, is acquiescence. This is the essence of passivity, of servility. It is the lowest form of defeat, one that facilitates the passing from conscious opposition to unconscious indifference, which knowingly folds, or relinquishes, in the face of confrontation, and which is removed from the day to day, minute to minute evaluative process by which we derive reality from sensation; a process that is both healthy and productive.


- Sean Parker sean@broadsite.com
- Principal (703) 626-5959