By MATTHEW ORMSETH
It’s not about the drugs, she says. I’m in the car with a friend, and she’s telling me about another rave she’s been to. As always, it was out in one of those starved, barren counties — San Bernardino, Riverside, Clark — whose want for revenue outweighed the surety of a handful of drug overdoses and dehydration deaths; as always, it was hot, and as always, it was too crowded. But this one, she assures me, was special.
We’re talking about proposals to ban raves, proposals that have picked up steam after a rave in August in which two attendees OD’ed.
It’s not about the drugs, it seems. It’s not even about the music, either. From what I’ve gathered from conversations with diehard festival attendees, the kind of people who consider the monthly installation towards the full $400 price of an Electric Daisy Carnival ticket an unavoidable necessity up there with the gas and water bill, what brings them back year after year is a search for human connection — face-to-face, real-life connection.
We live in a world that is frequently not the one in front of and around us. We walk around with headphones and Bluetooths jammed in our ears; we wait for the bus, for a haircut, for a meal to arrive, with our gazes buried in our laps, the receptacles of that sacred object from which all our social interaction stems from. We talk to 10, 20 people in our phonebooks every day, but rarely to those actually around us. When faced with the unfamiliar, we shrink back, whisper frantically to our friends with our thumbs. I don’t know anyone here. Or, Talk to me so it looks like I’m doing something.
We still have real-life friends — we haven’t yet retreated into cyber-surrogacy — but we’re getting there. We prefer the selectivity that electronic interaction permits us — we can take the time to revise a text or email many times over, carefully honing its nuances and intimations before pressing send; we can choose to respond when it’s convenient for us, or once we’ve thought of something witty or insightful to say.
You were wearing a white dress, eating a watermelon, and from Los Angeles… The missed connections forums for Electric Daisy Carnival and Coachella are the haunt of the lonely and regretful, a wide-open bazaar for last-ditch efforts to reestablish fleeting interactions and romances in passing with many sellers, and little buyers. Few, if any, of these shots in the dark ever draw a response. Hey Mel. It’s Alex. The one with the James Franco smile. And you with [your] crystal heart that I’m attached too. I hope you hear my voice.
Like lost-dog fliers, stapled to the telephone poles of cyberspace: I met an angel while waiting in line for water…At some point I mustered up the courage to talk to her but because I was in line I didn’t get to talk to her much. We did click though. I found out she came from Seattle. She gave me a quick nudge that she had to leave and that it was nice to meet each other…I gave her my number. I hope I typed it in correctly because I have yet to get a text from her. I really want to talk to her again.
They’re looking for that connection, looking everywhere. They don’t want it to exist for only a weekend out of the year, in the middle of a desert that might as well be as distant as the moon. You looked like an angel, twirling outside Mojave (a stage at Coachella music festival)…we grabbed hands for a few seconds and I felt electricity. Find me. And they’re hoping someone else is looking for that too. Find me. Find me.
In her now-legendary “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” essay for The Saturday Evening Post, which detailed the hippie subculture centered around the Haight-Ashbury district in the ’60s, Joan Didion writes, “Anybody who thinks this is all about the drugs has his head in a bag. It’s a social movement, quintessentially romantic, the kind that recurs in times of real social crisis.”
I’m not saying the rave culture, and their credo of PLUR — an acronym for Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect — is pushing for anything. There are no calls by performers at EDC or Hard Summer for administrations to end wars or occupations; if festival-goers have any interests in political activism, they’re not on display. In some ways, the rave scene represents much of what the hippies disparaged and mocked — mass conformity, experience sold as a commodity, big companies cashing in on music and the arts.
But what the hippies and the ravers do have in common is that both movements were birthed out of a longing for human connection, a connection born out of face-to-face, real-life interaction, an aspect of our lives that has been circumvented by the cyber-revolution, but never replaced. Young people now and young people 50 years ago want and need a space to gather, a space to meet each other, outside of the ugly, stifling awkwardness that dictates so much of the real world.
Like the Haight-Ashbury of Didion’s time, raves are “quintessentially romantic.” They’re for people looking to forget their inhibitions, if only for a little while. The drugs do help in that respect, although it’s foolish to assume these festivals — though gatherings, I think, is the better word — are just bacchanals shot through with amphetamines and hallucinogens. If the kids going to raves really just wanted to get high, they’d skip the price of admission and stick to house parties. (Think of all the MDMA you could buy with 400 dollars!)
They’re going to these gatherings, and they go back to them year after year, because they’re lonely and they’re tired of the state of constant alienation that they’ve found themselves in. They are, like the hippies of Didion’s San Francisco, in the midst of a “real social crisis.”
I’ve written much of this piece in the third person, and it might appear as if I’m trying to exempt myself from my generation, its quandary of cyber-communication, and its desire to connect. I’m not. I’m guilty of whipping out my phone in the unfortunate scenario of arriving to class before my professor, rather than talking to the girl next to me. I’m guilty of raising an eyebrow at the guy who asks if he can sit at my table in the dining hall, and shuffling my chair a few inches away from him once he sits down. I live by the same sad rules of selective communication as the rest of us, rules that answer to mistrust and self-consciousness as their higher authority.
I’ve been to Coachella, and for those three days, in the middle of an expanse of desert somewhere past Indio, I felt that same joy, the thrill of being able to talk and dance and laugh with people whom I’d only just met. It was one of the happiest times of my life. And at the end of those three days, it was over.
I’m definitely in one of those post-rave depressions, she says. I’m in the car again with my friend. Apparently, after a rave most attendees feel a peculiar melancholy. Perhaps it’s withdrawal from the drugs. Perhaps it has something to do with dehydration. Or maybe it’s just that they’ve been pulled back to Earth by the laws that govern human beings as ineluctably and essentially as gravity. She’s no longer in that brief bubble that opened up in space and time, outside of and exempt from those aforementioned human-governing laws. Laws like “stranger danger.” Laws like “I don’t ever text first.” Petty, inane little laws, but laws that dictate much of what we do and say.
Nocturnal’s coming up though, she tells me. Nocturnal Wonderland, held out in San Bernardino, is another rave, this one held in September. Until Nocturnal comes around, she’ll just have to live with a glimpse — now a memory — of what life might be like if we were not all so afraid of each other.
Matthew Ormseth writes from New York. He can be contacted at email@example.com.Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.