IS THERE ANY SUCH THING AS “UNDERGROUND” ANYMORE?
This week, the second part of a piece of fiction I wrote, set in the early ‘90s rave scene, runs here in the Synthesis. The pictures in the story are from parties I was at (and that’s me at probably 17-years-old, on the right in the picture above). I started going to these illegal all-night parties when I was fourteen, in 1992, and for three years they were all my friends and I lived for. When I meet fourteen-year-olds now, this fact shocks me. We were children.
Coincidentally, on Saturday, I went to the first “rave” I’ve been to since those days. It wasn’t a rave, per say, actually, but was in fact a Bassnectar show in San Francisco. A few notes, then, on how things have changed.
First off, the music now is fucking amazing. Like many ex-ravers, I sort of burnt myself out on straight techno. Drum and Bass, Trance, Hardcore Techno, House: been there done that one too many times. I’ve got nostalgic love for ya, but that’s about it. On the other hand, I love bands that are deeply influenced by electronic music, like Radiohead, CocoRosie, LCD Soundsystem, Sylvan Esso, Kanye, and so on.
For a long time, whenever I’d check back in to see what was happening in the electronic dance music scene, I’d be disappointed. It didn’t really seem to have evolved or it seemed actively shitty and uninventive; endless years of bad dubstep for instance.
But what Bassnectar and his peers are doing is qualitatively different than what we were listening to back in the ‘90s. Where our bass was still something conceptually tied to drums—it was deep but it still “hit” you—the bass that you experience at a Bassnectar show is like some sort of weapon of the future: previously technologically-impossible ultra-low-frequency wobbly maximalist tsunamis of bass that just keep coming and coming, crashing over you like you’re a Japanese coastline, overwhelming you, but which still drop in in that trap-music, hip-hop-head-banging, stink-face make-you-say-“uhhhhh” kinda way. It’s the telos of bass. It has to be. Otherwise you really would get “turned up to death.”
The second difference is how much better everyone looks now. We thought we looked great. But, looking back, we were just objectively wrong. We were skinny and pimply faced and wore some of the most unsexy, straight-up-stupid-looking clothes imaginable. Today’s average “raver” looks like an underwear model. And by underwear model, I mean underwear model at work. Pretty much half the girls there were just wearing bras and panties. The other half were wearing bras and butt-cleavage shorts. The dudes are all yoked-out Abercrombie-looking bros in tank-tops; the sort of “normal” that was the antithesis of everything we were about back then.
Which is the real difference between then and now. Undergroundness. And I’m not talking about just in techno (now called EDM), which has obviously exploded in popularity in the past five or six years. I’m talking about in everything. The loss of “Undergroundness”—for better or for worse—is probably the single biggest change to happen to youth culture since the advent of social media, and it’s so rarely talked about. For the first couple years I was going to raves, most people in America didn’t know what techno even sounded like. How would they unless we played it for them on our Walkmen? I would go to a break-in, all-night warehouse party with music from the future on Saturday, and on Monday I’d sit in class next to kids that didn’t even know raving existed. Our style, our dances, our music, our lingo, our drugs—they were just that: ours. It’s hard to describe to a young person today what that “undergroundness” or “ours-ness” meant to us back then, but I’ll tell you, it meant a lot. These were borders we guarded like our (social) lives depended on it.
I talk about this a little in part one of the short story (see last week’s issue online), but the rave scene was probably the last underground subculture that will ever exist. Because it was the last fully fleshed-out subculture to emerge before smartphones and social media, which are underground-annihilators. Today, people can mix and incorporate things at unprecedented speeds and the good music that’s out there is really, really good. Culture is fluid and opensource and unifying in really positive ways. But it’s impossible for a subculture to incubate before it’s everybody’s. That’s just the way it is.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that because it’s “everybody’s” it’s actually “nobody’s.” The kids at this Bassnectar show were pumped-up fans, and they were rocking it. They knew how to party for sure. But—at the risk of my voice sounding creaky in a “back when I was a boy” kind of way—there was a magic in children making up secret worlds that only we inhabited. To me, that was the magic of my youth.