All aboard the fantasy spaceship

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Book review: Microphone Fiends: youth music and youth culture, ed. Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose (Routledge, 1994)
Published in Alien Underground 0.1, 1995

“The rave, techno, and ambient club scenes are complex social spaces, part extension of high school, part fantasy spaceship, ravers either squatting in circles like nomadic travellers in a children’s refugee camp, or else navigating or free-styling, with the aid of torches and glow-in-the-dark collars, through artificial, dry ice-filled, dance zones
like parentless, gas-masked survivors of some near-future environmental disaster, for which cyber-pagan space travel is the favored escape route. Travelling light with miniture knapsacks fully equiped for the night’s activities and the ultimate rendezvouz with dawn, the ravers undertake their journey accompanied by music that
often only sounds good on drugs” (from Andrew Ross’s introduction – oh yeah Andrew, what drugs were you on when you wrote this?)

Academic studies of “popular culture” are always contradictory and often amusing. Often either they miss the point completely and drift off into a theoretical stratosphere a million miles removed from the experience of the people living the culture, or else they go through a lot of trouble to state the obvious. A classic case of the latter was shown on the recent Channel 4 Equinox programme “Rave New World”, where a team of psychologists from Manchester University concluded on the basis of questionnaires completed at a party packed with hundreds of people smiling and dancing that “people who go to raves often enjoy them more than people who don’t” and “these people are having a really good time”. Occassionally though people paid to
think do come up with some interesting ideas.

Microphone fiends is a collection of essays mostly by US academics covering such diverse scenes as hip hop, Brazilian funk, disco and Riot Grrrls. If you can be bothered to cut through the waffle, there is some good stuff in here. Of particular relevance to us is Sarah Thornton’s “Moral Panic, the Media and British Rave Culture”.

This essay is basically a critique of the whole notion that there is such thing as an “underground culture” independent of media and commerce. Instead Thornton argues that “underground” rhetoric is more about maintaining an aura of exclusiveness to keep the masses at bay, and that this obsession with being cool is mainly a boy’s game.
Hence it is revealing that the opposite of “underground” is “handbag”, implying music that’s strictly for girls.

Far from being threatened by the undergound, the culture industry needs it since “The record and publishing industries… have sectors that specialize in the production of ‘anti-commercial’ culture”. True, the tabloids might have got worked up about acid house in 1988 but this just boosted record sales. Indeed so-called underground scenes and the tabloids feed off each other since “Moral panics are one of the few marketing strategies open to
relatively anonymous instrumental dance music” and “They render a subculture attractively subversive as no other promotional ploy can”

I think that Thornton is partly right. There is some elitism around, with a snotty attitude to any record that is more than a week old and is liked by more than 10 people. It is also true that rebellion is being turned into money on a grand scale with “underground” rhetoric adding a frisson of danger and transgression to tired multinational marketing ploys (see for instance “the underground issue” of i-D magazine, November 1994, where articles on allegedly “underground” noteables as Mixmaster Morris and Richie Hawtin sit alongside adverts from Virgin, MTV, “sack the workers” Timex and “we exploit people with AIDS” Benetton).

But Thornton’s comment that underground “imagines itself as an outlaw culture, as forbidden just because it’s unauthorized, and as illicit event though it’s not illegal” is too one sided in the light of of the Criminal Justice Bill which has singled out particular types of dance parties as criminal. True, Thornton might not have known that the CJB was on the horizon, but there have been conflicts between party goers and the cops since the start of the rave scene in 1988. For instance in November 1988 police with dogs broke up a party in an “SAS style” raid on a derelict house in Sevenoaks attacking people with truncheons, torches and an iron bar. People fought back and several cops were also injured.

“Underground” nights in expensive clubs and “underground” compilations on major record labels might be bullshit, but loads of people taking over empty buildings and creating free or very cheap space for parties on their own terms is a real alternative to the commodity culture industry. And when sound systems become the focus for a serious showdown with the cops in central London, as happened on October 9th, it is clear we are no longer just talking about empty gestures of fake rebellion.

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