ARTICLE NATASHA STAGG
HOW HAS RAVE CULTURE CHANGED SINCE IT STARTED? PRETTY MUCH EVERY WAY IMAGINABLE. AND NOW, IT’S MORE POPULAR THAN EVER
Insomniac, founded by Pasquale Rotella in 1993, is a production company that puts on some of the biggest parties in the world—as in 400,000 attendees (Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas this year). After a reported legal scare involving allegations of embezzlement, conspiracy, and bribery in 2012 and at least eight drug-related deaths occurring at EDC since 2010, Rotella is used to scrutiny. He’s also great at deflecting it. For example, he often brings up the wonder of a child, his child, Rainbow Aurora Rotella, and how the one-year-old has inspired him to create atmospheres that grant a similar feeling to adults. “Becoming a father has been the most amazing chapter of my life,” Rotella tells me, just as he has told hundreds of interviewers. “Every day is a new adventure. First words, first steps, birthday parties…” (He brought her, in 2013, to her first EDC at 3 months old.) When I ask about his recent rise to EDM-hero, another canned response: “The culture is so much bigger than one person. But I definitely believe we all need to play our part and come to the table with a positive attitude. Everyone has the power to positively or negatively impact someone else's experience.”
If you follow Rotella, his wife the former Playboy Playmate/Girl Next Door Holly Madison, or Insomniac on social media, you’ve seen Rainbow Aurora. You may have even seen, during last month’s EDCLV, blown-up photos of the toddler being held above crowds on homemade totems. As the famous couple and their millions of fans have pointed out, their child, who is far too young to truly experience EDC, has now become a symbol of its intentions—mainly #PositiveVibes (#FollowTheRainbow).
Rave culture has always held in high esteem extremes and contradictions: in the 1990s, the mantra PLUR (peace, love, unity, respect) would show up written in beads on backpacks full of contraband and on the bracelets of minors passed out against Porta-Pottys, bright lights and smiley faces decorating what were essentially carnival haunted houses with less supervision. The resurgence and mainstreaming of EDM in the twenty-teens has brought with it a retro appreciation of rave-wear and hashtag-happy converts to PLURlife. (This is not to be confused with a retro Y2K-era cyberpunk style, wearers of which opt out of festivals for the same reasons the originators of underground raves did—Festivals are for the masses, not the electronic music elitists.) Now, the tutus, the faux-fur calf covers and the bedazzled bras are seen as the gear of the American festivalgoer, who listens to party masters Steve Aoki, Tiësto, and Skrillex. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, #raver refers to a much more widespread call for positive vibes than the nineties could ever dream of.
When asked about the good old rave days, Rotella isn’t afraid to get nostalgic. “There was something special about the simplicity of it all. I'm so grateful for how far Insomniac has come... but there was an intimacy to those early days, just like anything that starts out small and gets bigger.” His favorite parties from the ninetes? “Shiva's Erotic Banquet, Paw-Paw Ranch, Apocalypse... Paw-Paw Ranch even had a petting zoo. DJ Dan is still one of my favorites artists.”
A promotional documentary made by Insomniac called Under The Electric Sky, despite being a two-hour commercial for a festival (Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas) produced by the same company that puts on the event, received good enough reviews to get distribution, and it’s now in limited theaters. In it, we follow (in 3-D) devoted fans to their destiny, EDCLV 2013. I see the feature a few days before EDCNY (held, actually, in New Jersey’s Met Life Stadium), and I have to admit it’s not bad. The participants include a misfit EDM fan from Texas and her boyfriend, a group of fratty guys, one of whom had recently overdosed and died, a couple who had met at EDC twenty years earlier and were getting married there, a loner who had lost the ability to walk and found therapy in dance music, and a “rave family” of three men and three women not restricted by the binary-normative suggestions of coupledom, who were also getting “married.”
After the screening, my press group is invited to a secret warehouse party complete with decorated freight elevator and go-go dancers. There are too many journalists here for it to be any fun, even if it is held by Rotella and Madison, but it’s at least educational. These promotions are aiming, with fliers and old footage, to teach newcomers to this scene about rave roots and peaceful intentions. I’m reminded of a time when these pre-internet underground parties were about feeling—after one solved the scavenger hunt in order to find them—acceptance. (The drug dealers and date-raping came later.) Raves were like another kind of failed socialism, and almost can’t be blamed for what they turned into. Each counterculture in existence has followed the same formula the ravers did, after all:
1. Create a scene by rejecting the predominant one (music, color scheme, graphics, fonts and mascots).
2. Assign a drug (or euphoria, which could mean adrenaline, abstinence, religion, Special K, Ecstasy).
3. Make a secret password: If everyone is allowed in, no one is. With other scenes—hippies, punks, skaters—one had to perfect an undefined toughness, which was dependent on context. Finding the rave, though, was literally about knowing a secret password at a secret meet-up spot, and getting a secret map which led to a secret party, which, once you were there, you were in. It was meant to be a wonderland free of judgment and grown-up rules (but with all the fun parts of being adult still intact). So as long as you knew about the rave, you could be a raver. Now, all you have to do is buy a ticket (or be offered a press pass).
I attend EDCNY for the first time, and even though it is massive, I am immediately disappointed that it is not as big or as full as the EDCLV in Under the Electric Sky. Far less performers and one less day make this feel like yet another preview of the real EDC. But as I enter the pulsing parking lot I’m swept into the moment as easily as most people here. The music comes from four different stages—one of which took me a whole day to find—and it is infectious. A crowd of weathered and fresh-faced partiers stand under pouring rain the first day and blistering sun the second. The main stage is where the famous mascot of EDC, a blue owl, hovers over a booth. Instead of the seizure-eliciting lightshows that come with most EDM shows, this stage gives us a slowly tilting cartoon character, the expressions of whom are comical in relation to the music. I’m fully experiencing the scene at this point, taking it all in as much as I can, sitting on the shoulders of a giant New Jersey native covered in tribal tattoos. The owl's eyebrows raise and his eyes cross, then turn red as the beat speeds up, as if this is too much for him. I’ve been to quite a few of these types of parties and have never seen such an accurate portrayal of my own feelings. When the music reaches the drop, the owl looks relieved. (On day two, I’m convinced the owl’s movements are not synched to the music at all.)
Hardwell, Adventure Club, Krewella, Headhunterz, Boys Noize and dozens more DJs play their sets, as we ride amusement park rides, drink, and dance. Many kandi-covered attendees sit and lay down on the pavement in groups, their faces blank, or wander to the “chill zone” to find water. In one tight crowd during Hardwell’s main stage set, I overhear a young woman say she feels dehydrated. “I literally have no water in my body. I need something to drink,” she says, leaning on a shirtless guy. “I’ll give you something to drink,” he responds, high fiving his shirtless buddy. Tiredly, she laughs too. In line for a ride, I see two strangers exchange kandi bracelets, joining curled fingers and outstretched thumbs to form a heart shape. Their expressions are as blank as everyone else’s. Even the hardest dancers look super-serious, like they’re working. And I don’t get it, but I do: It’s all part of something bigger, as Rotella said. Everyone does their part in this community, this cross section of New Jersey called EDC “New York,” representative, I agree, of something much larger.
Surrounded by shuffling, nodding zombies, some even wearing masks, I’m struck by how strange it is we have to try this hard to escape our own routines in the first place, and how it is even stranger that the escape becomes another type of routine. I never experienced the original momentum of raves, but I imagine they were, at their inception, a dream that breaking from a workweek could also mean breaking from reality: from consumerism, and essentially, time and space. Just because that dream was dashed doesn’t mean that the rave can’t live on. But in the twenty-teens, ravers raised to be business-minded in the face of a recession seem even more hedonistic than their predecessors, when given the opportunity, and the break from cossumerism has turned into a major shopping trip. Now, instead of underground parties, these extremely advertised ones ask one to spend hundreds of dollars on tickets and hundreds more on travel and costume, and to rely on this weekend of debauchery to fit nicely in a fenced-in area on one’s two days off. Rotella was right about another thing: Child-like wonderment is something many would apparently do almost anything to recover. As adults, we are told to control our own destinies. That way, when we fail, we only have ourselves to blame. Festivals like EDC (and Ultra, TomorrowWorld, Electric Zoo, etc.) let us off the hook from that particular pressure. The transit is taken care of, the music and/or intoxicants act as numbing agents, and everyone can easily start fresh on Monday, scrolling past the hashtagged images as if the party never happened.
After my first EDC, I'm convinced that for better or worse, raving is (still) risky, which has to mean, in a way, that it's still alive. As Rotella mentions in Under The Electric Sky, raves were for a very short time truly about a loving environment, and then they became a place for people to sell drugs. In creating the massive, multi-million dollar events like EDC that don't allow minors and are monitored by police, he says he wants to create a similar mood to the one he remembers before drugs took over. But are the new versions better than the old ones?
“Definitely not superior. Each era of dance music had its own defining characteristics. Undergrounds were where it was at in the early days. That's all we had. There’s no way those warehouse parties were any less important than the bigger festivals. If it weren't for them, we couldn't be where we are today."
And what about that word, 'rave'? What does it mean now? "'Rave' is a word that will probably never go away, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," continues Rotella. "For people like myself, that word was ‘underground.’ It all really depends on when and where you came into the scene. As long as the party is going off, it doesn't real matter what you call it.”
images courtesy of insomniac