PRINT May 1994


Andrew Ross' Weather Report

OUTSIDE THE LAMINATED dreamworlds of Madison Avenue and suburban Christianity, where do you go to find shiny happy people? Traditionally, white America has looked to its youth cohorts for its’ most dependable images of compulsory happiness, with one or two anonymous faces of color rounding out the picture. This is odd, since many of us experience youth as the unhappiest period of our lives. America’s great social experiment, arguably, has not been democracy but the pursuit of happiness—that distinctively modern idea, ordained by the Fathers as an inalienable right and wielded ever since like some vibrating megadildo, available at the right price, though with no guaranteed long-term effects. Yet ever since youth began to vibrate on their own, within and around music of their own making, efforts at social control of the youthful body’s attachment to sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll have been relentless.

Take the recent brouhaha over gangsta rap. The interesting story here is not about violence; what everyone seems to be missing is the significance of the adoption of marijuana as the hip-hop drug of choice. Rap’s romancing of hemp is in part black cultural innovation (as with Timberlands, who would have predicted it?), in part an element in a revival of the boho-hipster culture of the jazz era, but it is also a conscious attempt to break with the culture of crack, which many consider to have been deliberately fostered and maintained as a genocidal agent within black communities. But why not take this challenge a little farther: hook it up with the movement to legalize marijuana, which has its friends on Capitol Hill and among conservative libertarians. Back it up with environmentalist science, which is hotly searching out cheap industrial crops as renewable sources of energy, paper, food, medicine, and textiles (hemp is 26 times stronger than cotton) in pursuit of a postgreenhouse economy. Hemp has helped resolve some of the big ecological problems in the past, and could again. (The name “marijuana,” incidentally, was popularized by William Randolph Hearst as a foreign-sounding name for hemp, so that its banning would not be connected with the plant’s widely accepted utilitarian qualities.) It could all add up to a genuinely revolutionary movement, against which the government’s moral control of the crop’s use for recreational purposes is the most cynical of smokescreens for the continuation of an economy based on profitable poisons.

Some rappers, notably Cypress Hill, have begun to stretch the issue this far, though most have preferred to boost the drug’s cultural currency. As far as gangsta rap goes, the heavy-lidded demeanor and low-intensity, affectless drawls of Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg capture the blunt-lover’s laid-back posture—which is graphically at odds with the hyperaggression the media associate with their raps. The hardcore masks of militant, rebel-with-a-cause rap and the ghettocentric scowl of menace-to-society rap are increasingly rare. A chronic smirk now plays around the edges of faces long versed in the grammar of inscrutability required to confront a society of white-skin privilege.

To clock the massive divisions in youth culture, consider what a far cry that smirk is from Smiley, the official emblem of rave culture, now irredeemably associated with the drug Ecstasy. Here, as the Italo-rave phenom Barracuda ordains, “The drug fits the face”: happiness in its most naive and unadulterated forms is the house rule, and you check your cynicism at the door. The durational effects of Ecstasy made it a practical choice for kids who had to work on Monday mornings. (The LSD of the 1960s, on the other hand, was a middle-class countercultural drug, for those with bohemian time on their hands.) Consequently, the now semioutlawed dance culture for which “rave” is an umbrella term became a genuinely mass phenomenon in Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By now, it has splintered into class-bound factions: on the one hand, hardcore techno’s abrasive working-class intensity; on the other, the upscale, chill-out, peace vibes of ambient and the “intelligent techno” of trance and progressive house.

Much has been made of rave’s restaging of the Summer of Love pagan millenarianism of the 1960s, but it probably has more in common with the trajectory of punk: U.S. metropolitan origins, a definitive Brit-European moment accompanied by a moral panic and government repression, and an uneasy reimportation back into North American suburban subcultures. Hence the transmutation of Chicago house and New Jersey garage into London acid, Belgian new beat, and Italo house, and the super-cession of Detroit techno by centers of production all over Europe as dance-floor demand there exceeded the American supply. When the music came back to American shores in the early 1990s, it was barely recognizable, like a sentence at the end of some giant game of telephone, in which everything that initially spoke of blackness and gayness (and humanity, some would say) had been selectively forgotten along the way. Beats per minute, revving beyond 150, had pulverized the homespun piano breaks of classic anthem house, and looped robotic shout-outs and bite-size interjections had replaced its soul-drenched diva vocals; generic sampled world-beat rhythms had submerged the distinctive Afro-American groove; and the bounce and kink of sexuality had been washed out by synth waves ricocheting off the walls.

Some critics have lumped rave in with the explosion in the popularity of country music as part of a multi-headed white reaction to hardcore rap (which has generated its own boho black reaction in the form of rare groove, acid jazz, and the digable fusion sounds that have accompanied the rebirth of the cool in the last year or so). For the rave-impaired, the Night of the Living E-Heads was a technodystopian white freak feeding ghoulishly off the soulless locations where it has taken root—like Long Island’s mall-soaked South Shore. There is too much snobbery in this for it to be the whole story. Much of the disdain comes from a rock-critic establishment ever resistant to nonlive performance, ever faithful to the gospel of Lester Bangs, and ever ready to anoint the latest torch-bearing heirs to indie-rock authenticity—one year Seattle, the next the female guitar bands. A greater part of the neglect is due to the structural geography of the American music scene—regionally decentralized, racially separated, and genre driven in ways that prohibit a mass movement organized around dance music, of the sort that developed so rapidly and pervasively in Europe.

The larger failure stems from generational incompetence: it takes more than patience to understand a youth culture that seems to have deliberately programed its entrenched infantilism as a way of deflecting the inquiries of adults. In the never-never land of rave, a void of psychedelic regression, no one wears clothes their own size, sartorially deferring adulthood. And this wonderworld is libidinally lazy—no one hits up on anyone and sex is only ever for other people, on some other TV channel. This ain’t no disco; but neither is it the crucible of rugged hetero chemistry traditionally offered by the alternative music scenes. A little chunk of the future is digested along with the Ecstasy. And if rave’s comic-book creativity lacks the fiber of reality woven into hip-hop (even when the hip-hop sensibility in question leans toward the cartoon), then let’s be generous and ascribe it, not to the savagery of white innocence or privilege, but to some tender commitment to the good old utopian principle of “not yet.”

I write as a confirmed voyeur, having been an irregular devotee of New York’s rave scene (benignly ruled by the nomadic NASA family) in clubs, warehouses, ballrooms, and piers for the last two years. During that time the rave network has expanded and contracted, torn between a desire to preserve a tight, local underground and a passion for spectacular hinges to attract and unite the faithful from hundreds of miles around. Though beset by the usual plagues of promoter’s rip-offs, bad drugs, and scene burnout, the will to take things to another level is remarkably buoyant. But where is it going? Like punk and postpunk, whose American subcultural career differed appreciably from its short tenure in Britain, rave will undoubtedly mutate as it works its way through the corpuscular life of suburbia and into the postadolescent light of day.

For one thing, rave is likely to permeate the new cyberculture, for which it already offers a tailormade soundtrack. But it will be no small tragedy if it retreats from its dizzy unityfests into virtual, online communitarianism. And it would be even worse for rave to trade its happiness togs for some tougher epidermal consciousness in which to ride out the commodity storms to come. In a society where the cultural view from the White House on any day of the week is a picture window of arrested development, no one needs to be reminded that we do not make happiness just as we please, or under circumstances of our choosing. All the more need, then, for a youth sensibility, like rave, with an independent vision of the penitentiary of happiness that is the long-lost American Way.