How rave culture got its groove back, inspiring everything from fashion to party drugs

For a long time, there was no cooler place to party than the Spanish island Ibiza. The tiny mass of land in the Mediterranean sea was home to the biggest dance floors (both legal and illegal) and an endless stream of world travellers looking to get high on electronica and ecstasy. So-called “super-clubs” like Space and Amnesia kept the hedonism going 24 hours a day and hosted up to 20,000 revellers at a time. For any serious raver, the pilgrimage to Ibiza was a right of passage.

Despite the scene’s enduring reputation for Caligula-esque debauchery, raves of the ’90s might better be compared to religious experiences than the drink-to-get-drunk nightclub culture that took over at the turn of the millennium. As much as it was about the music, drugs and fashion, it was also an escapist movement reacting to Thatcherism, Reaganism and the takeover of capitalist ideals in the ’80s.

Raves were anti-establishment and espoused the values of peace, love and unity. Ravers made their own clothes and partied illegally under bridges and in abandoned warehouses. There’s a reason why most churches incorporate music into their sermons; nothing connects a community like joining together in song and dance. It’s a tactic to strengthen social bonds. The rave scene used music to similar effect – granted, with larger subwoofers and looser morality.

By the early 2000s, the party was over. Authentic raves all but disappeared in favour of licensed nightclubs with towering bouncers and overpriced bottle service. This was in part due to a string of highly-publicized deaths related to drug use and the infiltration of the scene by younger, inexperienced partiers more interested in vice than virtue. Raves were no longer symbols of freedom; they were parents’ worst nightmares. Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman infamously instituted, then later repealed after public outcry, a city-wide rave ban.

On a deeper level, the world became a different place in the early 2000s. The 9/11 terrorist attacks wiped out most remnants of anti-establishment sentiment in favour of national security and safety. Living from a place of love and unity was replaced with living from a place of suspicion and fear. Rave culture withered in this new high-surveillance, freedom-compromising culture.

Even Ibiza faltered. Tourists stopped travelling to the island to visit the super-clubs and the tourism board was forced to rethink the destination’s image. The days of free-wheeling hippie culture were out, and plans to attract high-end travellers were in. Quieter neighbourhoods like Santa Eulalia del Río saw luxury hotel lines like Iberostar set up shop and offer fresh seafood, low-key beach bars with pristine cabanas and daytime activities like cove diving, hiking and golfing. MDMA was replaced with flutes of Cava.

But, sometime over the last couple years, a switch flipped and Ibiza got its groove back. Young people with a thirst for all-night dance parties began to flock back to the island and Mike Posner dropped his popular anthem “I Took A Pill In Ibiza,” putting the destination back in the pop culture limelight. It wasn’t just Ibiza making a comeback though, it was rave culture as a whole.

Last year the Ontario Science Centre (OSC) hosted an electronic dance party for the first time in 22 years (the last one was held in 1999). The OSC used to be home to the city’s largest rave events when promoters discovered they could rent out the building all night long – with the exhibits remaining open. Miami-based electronic music festival Ultra has boasted new attendance records every year since 2012, with tickets to last year’s event selling out pre-sale tickets in under five minutes. In 2012, Live Nation partnered with Bud Light to stage a new EDM festival, Digital Dreams, at Toronto’s Molson Canadian Amphitheatre on Canada Day Weekend. To the chagrin of some more conservative area residents, it’s been a raging success.

The return of raves is about more than just the resurgence of electronic music, though. You can hear that at any old nightclub. Rave culture is back in an all-encompassing way, influencing everything from fashion to the type of drugs partiers consume.

Raver fashion was always heavily DIY. The eccentric outfits they sought weren’t available in stores, so they simply made them themselves. The result was a funky, sometimes outrageous, expression of personal freedom and individuality. This spirit was lost as conformist brand-name labels took over the style scene.

From our obsession with Etsy and Pinterest to the dominance of style bloggers mixing and match prints and colours with wild abandon, there’s a new sense that clothes are about expressing yourself rather than blindly following style rules. Even high-end designers are trying to get in on the trend, sending multicoloured dreadlocks, neon prints, tutus, septum rings and ruffled crop tops down the fashion week runways. For the first time, designers are trying to keep up with the masses rather than dictate to them.

The drug scene has also become DIY. Rather than flock to the age-old standards of cocaine, ecstasy and acid, young partiers now favour so-called designer drugs in pursuit of new levels of transcendence. These can be either mixes of synthetic drugs or custom drugs made of common household items. Many of these drugs have psychedelic properties to escape the real world and a concerning number have resulted in deaths.

For many, it’s become clear that the post-9/11 climate of big government and fear isn’t working. People still don’t feel safe, the effects of the last recession still linger and, increasingly, we distrust our own leaders. This disenfranchisement has manifested itself in movements on both sides of the political spectrum, from Occupy Wall Street and the emergence of Bernie Sanders to the anomaly that is Donald Trump. Anti-establishment sentiment is the highest it’s been in years. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of social media has ironically left many users feeling isolated and disconnected.

All of this adds up to make the return of the rave scene about more than a mere excuse to party – it’s a sign people are looking for something more. The path to happiness might not be lit with glow sticks but, sometimes, the closest we can get to feeling connected is in a packed warehouse, throbbing to the heavy beats of electronica with thousands of other like-minded souls.

This piece was originally published in the National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux