Coronavirus and raves: stating the problem
Over the past few weeks, several news articles have appeared bemoaning the return of raves. From the shocking to the grotesque, some of the articles are characterised by more or less overt condemnation towards revellers, showing morning-after photos of post-rave wastelands. Many of those quoted in the articles lament the irresponsible and careless attitude of the ravers. How dare they flaunt social distancing AND litter?
For decades, rave researchers have stood as commentators on the value and purposes of the scene for young people. In times of Covid, these elements in young people’s lives, connectedness, community and belonging are more integral and important than ever. Through a combination of pandemic threat and nostalgia, disapproval is also being expressed by older generations of ravers, who refer to their raving youth as idyllic, political and respectful of nature.
Nostalgia binds and blinds; it foregrounds a sort of generational conflict, where the old and wise are pitted against the young and careless. This narrative does a disservice not just to rave culture, but also to our ability to understand our current situation. Meanwhile, by focusing on the extreme, discussions in the media have missed out on the meek and mundane, the raves that do not leave a sea of rubbish or violated bodies behind.
The media and the return of raves
Writing for The Guardian, Sirin Kale quotes Jeremy Deller’s understanding remark about the necessity of transitional rites of passage and transgression for young people. She also quotes two old ravers, Alon Shulman and Sacha Lord, who come across as much less understanding.
“If we’re putting vulnerable people at risk due to coronavirus, that’s not in the spirit of the summer of love.”
“You aren’t clubbers, just selfish idiots”
In our current context of extreme contradiction between hyper consumption and austerity, coupled with confused leadership by a government that cannot decide whether to prioritise public health or the economy, that excuses public officials when they flaunt the rules, that decides to re-open pubs on a Saturday, do raves come as a surprise?
Raving during Covid – myth, nostalgia and reality
Beyond traditionalism and nostalgia, there are other issues worth addressing. The first is that the return of raves happened in conjunction with the pandemic. This is not the case, as a rave renaissance has been occurring well before Coronavirus, with raves increasing in numbers and scope.
The second misconception is that raves ‘back in the day’ were peaceful and idyllic. While some may have experienced them as thus, early raves were characterised by plenty of violence and exploitation, which motivated organisers and promoters to move to clubs because they provided further security and safety for themselves and the revellers.
There are many similarities between the early 90s and today, not least the experience and consequences of over a decade of Tory leadership and austerity in the country. With cuts to youth services, a projected rise in youth unemployment, and the closure of many music and social spaces, much of which predates the coronavirus crisis, young people today are left with no spaces for creativity, self-expression and community.
Rave culture: youth expression and social repression
We have seen how the release of pent up frustration can have devastating results in the context of riots – not so much because we don’t understand (and even justify) the frustration that leads to riotous action, but because of the profoundly negative consequences riots have on the people involved, and on social solidarity more broadly, often providing nothing more than ammunition for repressive governments.
An important question is raised about how raves are understood in the public domain, and here we suggest an understanding of them not as containers to focus riotous violence but on the contrary as a necessary release of mounting pressure.
It is possible that this summer’s raves will be a vector of disease and contribute to the spread of coronavirus, but other more socially acceptable and government sanctioned gatherings such as pubs and shopping centres may do just the same. In the meantime, what are the alternatives for young people to come together?
Few jobs are left in a battered service industry that normally employs young people in large numbers; universities will be mostly or fully online, depriving students of physical community spaces. Young people are disproportionately affected by this crisis, and raves are one of the few things left for them to enjoy and look forward to.
How would we feel, as young people, if we were robbed of our ability to celebrate our youth, to express ourselves, to fulfil our rites of passage, of end of school or university, of summer festivals and communal release?
The truth is we don’t know, because we did not experience a global pandemic when we were young, so we simply cannot know how we would have reacted. Some of us might have stayed at our parents and respected social distancing rules, but I suspect many others would have sought ways to celebrate life and togetherness, which raves are at their essence.
At this extremely sensitive time, young people are experiencing multiple deprivations. Reflection, understanding and empathy are needed to challenge one-dimensional narratives.