Nothing about Joe Biden suggests we should believe he will ever be different than he ever was. In fact, he’s resolute in being exactly what he’s always been. And thus we are all once again subjected to his unique blend of clueless gaffes and shameless defense of draconian policies. Is he merely a confused codger hopping from campaign stop to campaign stop, or is he a shrewd political operator with a mean streak a mile wide?
In fact, he’s both. With centrism crumbling, it is easier to see these words and gestures for what they are: woefully out of touch, evincing a sense of gross entitlement. Few people sincerely buy the idea that he will diverge in any meaningful way from his past of prevaricating and double-dealing. When you tell the rich “nothing would fundamentally change” under a Biden presidency, as he recently reassured a group of wealthy donors, you tell it to the rest of us, too.
And so when an old video surfaces of Biden saying he would throw ravers and rave promoters in jail, as it did in mid-June, there is no reason to believe he wouldn’t try to do the same or something like it as president.
“If I were governor of my state or mayor of my town,” he said at a 2001 Senate hearing on MDMA,
I would be passing new ordinances, relating to stiff criminal penalties for anyone who held a rave, the promoter, the guy who owned the building. I would put the son of a gun in jail . . . So I think we better send a message out to the local officials here — to the mayors, the governors, and everybody else — that if you were able to, theoretically, eliminate the circumstances and the places under which raves took place . . . you would be able to cut into this in an incredible way. More than if we gave you five hundred more DEA agents.
These are the words of an unabashed drug warrior. But folded into them is a logic that feels entitled to tell you when and where to go, what you can enjoy, and whether you have the right to live life the way you’d like to or not.
Rave culture in the United States has taken the same turn as many other underground scenes over the past few decades of late capitalism: commodified, diluted with celebrity, marketed to death at overpriced music festivals. But its underground existence is long, and it isn’t dead, continuing in empty deserts and secluded forests, even the odd urban warehouse that has yet to be transformed into loft apartments, events publicized through Instagram or SMS groups or old-fashioned word of mouth.
Popular culture is always contradictory, always a battleground between those who discover an identity apart from a dismal, degrading existence and those who see such spaces as a threat. And so it is with the trajectory of electronic dance music.
Chicago house, Detroit techno, New York garage music — these were aesthetically similar subgenres that sprung up, quite remarkably, during the 1980s. All emerged from black, brown, and queer “post-disco” communities marginalized in the Reagan years. All featured faster and more intense beats, filling and transforming abandoned urban spaces. They were, as Chicago house pioneer Frankie Knuckles described them, “church for people who have fallen from grace.”
Crossover and conversation between these scenes were common. So was repression from city officials and police. Techno acts from Detroit like Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May sold tens of thousands of records in Chicago, and deliberately wove the sounds of artists like Knuckles and Ron Hardy into their own music. DJs would put on all night dances in recently shuttered auto plants, often inviting artists from Chicago to perform, but also risking police raids. In the late 1980s, after Chicago police all but banned after-hours parties and the city’s scene went into decline, Knuckles returned to his native New York City and its own thriving scene.
Crossing the Atlantic and landing in a similar mix of vibrant subcultures and vicious austerity, the embrace of dance music and raves in the UK was swift, adopted by British artists and DJs who threw parties in abandoned airplane hangers, grain silos, squats, and open fields.
The sounds morphed into subgenres like jungle, drum and bass, happy hardcore. At a time of economic stagnation and widespread disaffection, UK youth were attempting to assemble their own utopian experiment. Plenty of drugs, particularly MDMA, abounded, tied up in a neo-psychedelic urge to transcend a life of gray drudgery.
In the context of a Tory-ruled Britain shocked with deindustrialization, raves were essentially contests over the meaning and uses of public space, much as they had been in the States. Anindya Bhattacharya, a London-based socialist who participated in the 1990s rave scene, remembers:
One of the interesting things about the scene is that you did get these . . . middle-class ravers who would set up techno sound systems in an abandoned railway arch, and all of a sudden be in confrontation with the police. And that would be a very, very rapidly politicizing experience. And they’d suddenly realize about this history of black music and black culture and why people rioted. It was quite interesting to see how quickly people picked up on this.
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 explicitly targeted unpermitted gatherings of over 100 people listening to music with “repetitive beats.” Introduced by Conservative MP Michael Spicer, it was passed that year.
By the time Joe Biden was bloviating about the supposed scourge of rave culture, he introduced a similar bill. The Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act (or “RAVE Act”) was presented and pushed by Biden in 2002. Cosponsored by such execrable figures as Joe Lieberman, Orrin Hatch, and arch segregationist and Biden BFF Strom Thurmond, it became law in 2003. Its preamble contained “findings” meant to guide law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and judges, recommending they look out for such dangerous items as glowsticks and pacifiers to aid in finding and arresting ravers.
Today, beyond the massive legal and relatively sanitized spectacles of EDM festivals, there is still plenty of push and pull over raves. Ordinances banning “unlicensed events” are still passed, parties are shut down, and undercover cops infiltrate and arrest attendees. In the past few years, it has happened in London, Los Angeles, and even Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.
Attacks on youth and music subcultures extend well past raves, of course. They fit perfectly within the context of cities overrun with CCTV cameras and surveillance, of rap lyrics as legal evidence and FBI files on juggalos. They are also cracks in capitalism’s pretense, with “There Is No Alternative” revealing itself as “Alternatives Will Be Punished.”
In the face of this, defense of rave’s ethos might seem woefully naïve. There is no such thing as a genre or style whose aesthetics can rise above commercialism and state repression all on their own. But this is beside the point. Far more salient is the space such scenes provide, however briefly, to dream without limitation or boundary.
As Simon Reynolds, author of Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, put it: “Rave’s values — collectivity, spirituality, the joy of losing yourself in the crowd — were literally counter to the dominant culture.” And it’s this countercultural utopian impulse that needs to be defended, precisely because of the questions it opens in the shape and feel of daily life.
Why should shuttered commercial space not be used by local artists and musicians as they see fit? What, for example, is so much more offensive about kids throwing a rave in a shuttered Toys R Us than the fact that the bankrupt retail giant simply fired its workers and abandoned its facility to rot in the neighborhood? Why, when disaffected young people try to transform a bleak urban landscape into what Reynolds described as “a cartography of adventure,” is the bleakness seen to be the preferable option?
A Biden presidency would provide a dismal answer to these questions. To him, all the nastiness of centrism and neoliberalism that have landed him in choppy political waters recently are still points of stubborn pride. Freedom, both cultural and political, isn’t so much enjoyed as rationed and punitively doled out by someone who knows what’s good for you. Except that we know better than Biden. We always have.