May 21, 2024

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Redefining Vigilance

“Manufactured Moments” Is There A Loss Of Authenticity On Dance Floors?

5 min read

Is it too easy to bemoan the loss of authenticity? Or does it exist lurking beneath the piles of cash? Harold Heath reminisces, discusses, and considers in this month’s column the lost honesty of dance music.

That Quadrant Park rave video that goes around on social media every few months was doing the rounds again recently. If you’ve not seen it, it’s a few blurry, black-and-white seconds of Liverpool nightclub Quadrant Park going off in 1990.

Honestly, watching stuff like this gives me goosebumps up my arms, a lurch in my stomach and a mini residual white dove tingle.

Once again, I’m reminded how lucky I’ve been to experience nights like that, nights where the atmosphere is so celebratory that it’s like your country won the World Cup, on the same day your party won the election, on the same day your best friends got married, which happens to be Christmas Day, which is also your birthday.

Some club nights really were like that.

These epic moments of early UK rave joy, exhilaration and togetherness have hung over clubland ever since as a kind of measure of what the clubbing experience could be, an exemplar of music/dance/drug synergy.

Three decades later and it strikes me that much of the big business end of DJ/club/festival culture is geared towards trying to recreate moments like these.

The high-end production values, massive imposing stages, epic extended breakdowns, end-of-the-world lighting rigs, synced pyrotechnics and glitter cannons of a major dance music festival are a concerted effort to recreate these kinds of moments of group-dancefloor-transcendence, where an organic sense of shared elation rises up and fleetingly takes over, changing, just for a moment, a crowd full of individuals into a single euphoric-organism, united in sonic rapture. 

The festival stage at Tomorrowland is a perfect late-capitalism example of mistaking correlation for causation

But there’s a huge irony within this effort to manufacture rave moments. Because it doesn’t matter if there’s a lighting rig brighter than the sun, laser-guided drone-mounted LED screens and a massed array of high calibre multi-impact glitter cannons targeted directly at your face: production tricks like these aren’t what create perfect moments of musical and community synergy.

Attempting to recreate dance floor togetherness via all these ancillary parts is like trying to recreate the moment the Lionesses won the European cup by building a massive football stadium, assembling a huge crowd and distributing flags, banners and airhorns.

All those things were present when the final whistle went, but they weren’t what caused the win, and they weren’t what generated the emotion. I have no idea if Bruce Lee was into soulful house, breaks or amapiano, but when he said “It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory”, he was bang on the money.

The main stage at the Tomorrowland festival is a perfect late-capitalism example of mistaking correlation for causation. I get it: clubs, festivals, raves, they are both figuratively and literally, places of smoke and mirrors, where we all buy into a fantasy, and we allow the sensory overload to help transport us, to help us forget our working week worries and to lose ourselves in the music. I get it, and I’ve willingly submitted to these techniques every time I’ve entered a club.

But there’s a sense that much of the current dance music industry simply doesn’t understand that the smoke and mirrors aren’t the sources of the dance floor euphoria, mass empathy and low-level group telepathy that you see in the Quadrant Park video.

The reason why many festival productions are so BIG is that the forces of capital noticed there was money in dance music culture, saw the lights and the spectacle, put two and two together and came up with, I don’t know, minus seven and a half or something. Hence the growth in bloated, overblown events defined by the eye-popping spectacle but with an unavoidable soul-shaped hole at their centre.

It seems odd to need to articulate this but the most wonderful sense of togetherness that can come from dance music culture is generated by people, not things. You can’t artificially generate rave community any more than you can define love, measure the air or capture the moon, and no amount of synced pyrotechnics and Co2 blasts will generate a Quadrant Park circa 1990 vibe.

If we want to somehow create wonderful, timeless, uplifting moments of dance floor communion – and I would suggest that that is an admirable goal – then it’s good to recognize that the most important elements required are people, not things.

You need a dedicated team of DJs, promoters and organizers who are committed to delivering a party purely for the love, the joy, and the fun. And then most importantly, you need your audience, your people: wandering nocturnal souls looking for their musical home, some people who are just like you but who you’ve not met yet.

It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory – Bruce Lee

Find them, create their night and they’ll be the essential factor that makes the event, they’ll generate all the atmosphere, the euphoria and all the tension and release you could ever wish for. The very best club nights I’ve attended were defined by an active audience who participated, who generated energy and who were the stars of the show. And conversely, the worst were the ones where I’m standing in a crowd simply waiting to be passively entertained by another meaningless, high-production-value photo opportunity. 

Your crew will create the night, because they are the night. A sound system, a strobe and a crew who know the score. That’s all you need.

Author Harold Heath
7th November, 2022


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