Rave’s Heterotopian Ideals:

Sonic and Social Spaces in post-Thatcher Britain

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Rave was a phenomenon with togetherness at its core. Physical togetherness in how spaces were filled and bodies interacted; musical togetherness in the shared musical experiences and collaborative act of DJing; and social togetherness, post-Thatcher when society’s fractures ran deep.  

Rave, as a huge collective of drug-fuelled music lovers, was the ideal space for heterotopia to thrive. In its essence, Foucault’s concept of heterotopia is a theoretical extension of escapism, as a physical and spatial representation of a utopia. Heterotopia is a theory of ‘other’ space: worlds within worlds which mirror yet simultaneously disturb the normalised spaces around them. It enables the individual to inhibit a short-lived temporal realm of ‘what might be’. Raves provided destinations of escapism, which heterotopia subsequently inhabited. 

The creation of ‘other’ spaces provided temporary escapes from the hardships of post-Thatcher everyday life, which was the political backdrop to rave culture. In the aftermath of Thatcher’s rule, social alienation across all of society was rampant, but particular hostility was felt amongst youth subcultures in response to institutionalised attacks on expressions of individuality. Thatcher’s divisive mantra ‘there is no such thing as society’ underpinned her praise of moral absolutism and entrepreneurialism. Thatcher oversaw two major recessions in Britain; in 1979, 13.4% of the population lived below 60% of median incomes before housing costs, whereas by 1990 this had increased to 22.2% (12.2m people), with huge rises in the mid-1980s.

Thatcher’s neoliberal ideologies, which championed individualism, sharpened class divisions. Yet, the subsequent social outcomes produced new-found aspirations to understand the possibilities of working together in the 1990s. Born was a post-Thatcherite social curiosity to understand the capabilities of collectivism.

A brief glimpse at the history of rave reflects this new-found emphasis, collaborating on different social and musical levels. The kinds of music which filled raves derived from house music, conceived in the US and brought to the continent via Ibiza. The Ibizan music, dance and drugs package provided a world far from normality for the everyday Brit. This became symbolic of an abstracted reality, the ‘real’ being the physical locations representative of capitalist Britain, and the ‘abstraction’ being the embodiment of euphoric temporal emotional spaces in such locations.

The sounds of house music migrated from some of the most iconic British venues of the 90s (Hacienda, Shoom, Project) into larger abandoned spaces, and saw the start of the reclamation of disused industrial spaces. The empty warehouse and abandoned factory was more than just a space which increased the venue capacity; it was also a potent symbol of Thatcher’s demolition of industry. The illegality of appropriating such spaces, as well as the subversion of their intended daytime physical use, established rave as a space for British youth culture ownership. 

Much like Foucault’s heterotopia, Hakin Bey’s theory of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) asserts that the TAZ is a liberated area “of land, time or imagination” where new forms of human interaction can be explored and experimented with. Through the production of temporary spaces, the TAZ enables the evasion of formal structures of control and capitalist formats. In the 1990s, the new-found ownership of industrial spaces was highly symbolic, reinforcing the sense of agency through occupying venues which traditionally represent the capitalist structures ravers were trying to temporarily break free from. In the case of rave, the usage of vast physical space and the navigation of human bodies in that space is imperative in creating a miniature utopia.

Although the garms and tracks we flex today may not have shifted much since the 90s (or rather, have come full circle), the way in which we access music certainly has. Live electronic music events engender spaces of heightened tactility, occupying a shared physical and emotional space, which cannot be translated through the solitary headphone experience.

Ethnomusicologist Luis-Manuel Garcia explores the tactility of sound in EDM, which ‘offers an important sensory-affective bridge between touch, sonic experience, and an expansive sense of connection in dancing crowds’. The phenomenon of vibration involves continuous oscillations of mechanical energy as they are absorbed, amplified or dampened by their material surroundings. The impact of vibration can be understood as a physical activity, such as movement or force, as well as an exclusively sonic one, as texture or sound. It is the latter that Garcia focuses extensively on, directing attention to the sounds of EDM that resonate with the ‘heightened haptic experience.’ 

Large shared venues, such as those claimed by ravers, enable what Garcia describes as the haptic impact of beats and the timbral evocation of flesh. Beats embody the sound of impact, adding a visceral dimension to the live experience of music: ‘EDM thematises physical contact through its preponderance of percussive sounds, which serve as sonic indexed of real-world objects striking, rubbing, and vibrating’. The ubiquitous bass kick, often four on the floor, creates a shared, pulsating percussive experience, supported by the MDMA experience. 

The multi-modal listening experience is a sonic act, absorbing the tracks and mixes, but also has a direct, corporeal impact as beats are in themselves tactile. Steve Goodman’s notion of bass materialism presents the idea that the sonic experience reinforces feelings of unity, arguing that where low-frequency sounds ‘bleed’ across an array of senses such as touch and hearing, a heightened sense of fullness and human connection is generated. In support of Garcia and Goodman’s theories, the synaesthetic component of MDMA’s effects enhances the unique physical experience of low frequencies, which can only be captured through mega sound systems or large speakers, like those used at raves. Rave music’s mirroring of the MDMA experience, with rhythms and timbres expressly designed to enhance Ecstasy-based sensitivities, united ravers in their transcendence of everyday life.

Whilst the raver revels in the enactment of togetherness, the headphone listener’s experience is far more insular, in part as the frequencies experienced by the solitary listener are rather obviously far less powerful than those at raves. The communal act of appreciating music involves more than merely enjoying the music playing; it also involves the shared tactility which enhances the listening and dancing experience.  In the case of rave, the sonic facilitates the social: with post-Thatcher Britain’s increased interest in the possibilities of collectivism, the optimum conditions for such unique musical experiences were created. 

That’s not to say similar experiences to rave’s heterotopic spaces do not exist in the present day – take the modern nightclub, or the silent disco, where large numbers of people are unified by the same musical experience. But, crucially, the social and political landscape of the time provided the historically unrepeatable backdrop to rave. 

The amalgamation of vast venue space, drug culture, electrifying musical development and politically charged British youth culture created the perfect space for heterotopia to thrive. But, above all else, rave’s occupation of heterotopic spaces engendered an unrivalled sense of tangibility and realness. Both the tactility of the musical experience, shared as part of a wider collective, and the visceral realities of post-Thatcher Britain created a sense of oneness which has since, and most likely will remain, unmatched by any other musical or social collective.