Reckless Endeavours, Ethics, and Memes — Reflections on the Fraught Side of Raving

Image courtesy of Ivan Cidrian, friend of the author.

At its core, raving has existed in opposition to normativity, and so has electronic music. If newcomers enticed by hard trance remixes of 2000’s Top 40 hits embrace this opposition, it is often done in ways removed from history. As Loren Granic AKA Goddollars, co-founder and resident of A Club Called Rhonda in Los Angeles, stated: “Many of the newcomers are straight/white kids who are very far removed from the LGBT community, despite fist-pumping by the millions to a music that was born from gay people of colour sweating their asses off at 5 AM in a Chicago warehouse.” 

If the role marginalized people have played in the creation and pioneering of their favourite music is ignored, how would people react when told that their fun might also harm marginalized groups? The ethics of lockdown raves have always been fraught, as their repercussions reverberate beyond the people who choose to attend them; meanwhile, data shows that people of colour were more likely to be targeted for attending raves during the lockdown.

For many people the Covid-19 lockdowns were a time of excess: outdoor raves, house parties, illicit gatherings, and drug abuse, all punctuated by the need to be with each other, to touch each other, to smell the sweat, to be enveloped in the messiness. In those moments, raving as protest and raving as selfish escapism were inextricable from each other.

Ethical lines were broken down and reassembled on the spot; if those times excavated for some a blasé individualism, for others they engendered an inner moral cop. “Nightlife in a pandemic,” writes Michelle Lhooq, “is a game of risk calculus—weighing the scales of pleasure vs safety in your sinful heart like Themis before deciding to roll the dice.” 

During that time, particularly in the spring of 2020, which in my case was spent in isolation at my parents’ house in Athens, memes provided a respite from the upending of our collective ‘normal’ and consolidated in me a sense of belonging with a community of people I was only then beginning to know. 

Back then, I was a relative novice, having lived in Amsterdam for seven months and still new to clubs like De School or queer parties like Spielraum. I felt like a part of myself I was just beginning to know was abruptly taken away. During that time, I began browsing through memes. One account, in particular, stood out: kankeritme, who surely was a local, an insider, someone I must have brushed shoulders with during a hedonistic weekend. Ironically, the account fell into a kind of post-pandemic inertia, occasionally being resuscitated for biting dispatches. Kankeritme was special, both because it felt authentic and because it often made us reckon with the more unsavoury parts of clubbing. More importantly, understanding the references made me feel in the know like I had always been there, like I was a part of the community. 

Over the past couple of years, I have been exchanging memes about “degenerate” nightlife habits with friends and acquaintances, archiving the moments of beauty, care, danger, excitement, and cringe in pixels. At the same time, I began to witness the proliferation of another interesting phenomenon.

It’s time to talk about the harness-wearing elephant in the room.

{Is the real subculture the friends we made along the way?}

In Raving media theorist and raver McKenzie Wark takes the reader through the sultry, seedy, and sensual underbelly of the queer underground rave scene in New York. “What makes illegal raves better than legal is that they are illegal,” she writes. If you learned about raving exclusively through TikTok, you might have missed the part about raves having a contested and politicised history. Once history is removed, what is left is a softcore “degeneracy”, a sanitized hedonism, dipping one’s toe in the pool, experiencing the sensation.

The early months of the pandemic were lonely and I experienced a prolonged comedown. To reguate my nervous system (and it was nervous), I decided to go where few millennials had ventured, and download TikTok. My algorithmically curated For You Page took some time to adjust to my preferences, but soon enough it settled on a genre of videos that serve as a visual anthropology of the club and its phenomena. These videos started as sort of trope collections. Here’s how people dance in Berghain. Here’s how tech house bros pump their fists. And so forth. Later on, as we timidly started to trickle out of our homes and back into the world, techno suddenly was no longer marginal or fringe, the videos were tutorials proper, and the instructors were extremely intimidating, somehow both muscular and gaunt, and clad in a uniform that might in the past have signified belonging in queer or sexual subcultures, but now can be easily purchased on Amazon.

Dance tutorials of this kind are not entirely new of course, and neither is their meme-ing. (Does the name Renata Bliss mean anything to you, people???) But there is something uniquely uncanny about seeing a bunch of white people in overpriced strips of fabric repackaged as “rave clothing” offering “lessons” on how to dance in a techno club. 

And don’t get me started on another kind of epidemic—that of party videographers, meticulously documenting club nights and festivals from every angle, capturing the most photogenic moments for the world to see, and propulsive electronic music, including harder and less popular styles, into the feeds of the Anne-Fleurs and Pieter-Jans of the world, who will, in turn, chronicle their own exploits.

If that makes me sound like an elitist, maybe I am.

Alexander Ghedi Weheliye asks, “Given the whitening and cis-hetero masculinization of techno since the 1990s, what might it mean to reimagine techno—both in the limited and general sense—with not only Blackness but also Black queerness and transness at its centre?” Why has techno been unmoored from both not only Black music history but also subcultural queer struggle? 

So, back to the harness-wearing elephant in the room.

According to Dick Hebdige style in subcultures refers to how members of a subculture dress, adorn themselves, and behave in public. He argued that a style is a form of communication that allows subcultural groups to express their identity and challenge dominant cultural norms. Back in 1979, Hebdige believed that subcultures emerge as a response to social and economic conditions that marginalise certain groups, which then use style as a way of asserting their identity in the face of the dominant culture. Punk emerged in the UK in the late 1970s as a reaction to oppressive social and economic conditions. Ripped clothing, safety pins, and other DIY fashion elements were used by punks to subvert mainstream fashion. Items like leather clothing and harnesses also belonged for a long time to a subculture, namely the queer leather and BDSM scene. Walking into a techno club, I am surrounded by young people impractically dressed in fake leather or poking through fishnets, a look that became even more prominent after the pandemic.  

“People, fuelled by the legend of places like Berghain,” writes music journalist Shawn Reynaldo, “have clear expectations of what a night at the club is supposed to be like, and will eagerly dress up to play their part.”

When the signifiers of belonging become so easy to acquire, it becomes harder to identify who truly belongs and who is cosplaying. And when the people are no longer able to come together offline no longer exist (due to large-scale lockdowns, for instance), the circumstances in which a subculture thrives, wilt and whither.

On the internet, you can’t say [redacted]

{The internet has changed a lot since the ‘90s.}  

What happens when the anti-conformist ethos of raving and the clandestine aspects of nightlife are forced to migrate online, largely taking place on moderated platforms? Let’s investigate. 

Some jargon first. According to Olga Goriunova platforms and their internal architecture act as “techno aesthetic arrangements,” which are “able to produce strong cultures, movements or aesthetic forms” and “inform the production of new techno-social tools and arrangements.” Certain digital spaces embrace subversion and certain formats that are conducive to ambivalence.  

When I first began to study fringe online subcultures, I, too, was drawn to what Daniël de Zeeuw and Marc Tuters called “deep vernacular web”, that loosely connected network of forums, imageboards, and platforms that have been linked to both Anonymous and the alt-right. 4chan was anointed the birthplace of meme culture and a beacon of the anarchic, playful, and dissimulative spirit of early cyberspace, that hallowed ground where people were allowed to shed their everyday masks and don new ones, anonymously, seemingly removed from the seriousness of ‘real’ life. 

Even if 4chan exists on a plane different from the social media platforms most of us use, this spirit is very much present in the more niche memetic milieus mainstream platforms, with the difference that transgression is now attached to a discernible username and, potentially, to an offline identity, which means that ambivalent content on mainstream platforms can only survive by leaning hard on its ambiguity.

Terms of service, monetisation, and the attention economy all inform, constitute, and curtail expression. Creators of vernacular content are inventive in navigating platform censorship, and they often circumvent it by adapting their language, to discuss fringe topics without repercussions. Substance use, sex, and other controversial topics are alluded to through metaphors, puns, or emojis. Is this yet another instance of vernacular creativity? Or merely another nail in the coffin of subculture?

Ultimately, these creative ways of outwitting terms of service don’t exist in a vacuum. They point to a nascent steak in a digital culture that skews moralistic, especially when it comes to more fringe topics. Although I will not argue here that random teenagers on the internet are the absolute arbiters of morality, these strategies lend themselves to an infantilisation of public discourse. 

{I regret to inform you that referring to sex as “seggs” is, in fact, cringe.} 

And in a not-so-shocking twist of tragic late-capitalist-platform-economy irony, this creative circumvention is refracted into self-imposed policing, a scrolling Panopticon composed of innuendo and algorithmic anxiety.

In this sanitised landscape, there are of course pockets of resistance, and the obstacles to free expression can lead to playful and irreverent moments of circumvention and creativity in the face of (real or perceived) censorship. 

OK, it’s alt, but is it subculture?

Have the apps bastardised and defanged alternative subcultures? The endless reduction of every niche expression down to a recognizable and marketable aesthetic (Rainn Fisher Quann or Alex reference somewhere) and the conversion of consumption into identity markers have had irreparable consequences.

In the 1990s, disaffected youth turned to the internet, immersing themselves in its murky underbelly, filled with irony, cynicism, and unmarketable filth. These internet denizens spat into the face of commodification, proclaiming, “Why don’t you monetize this?”

In his chronicle of youth subculture before Trump’s election, Dale Beran argues that once subversive undercurrents, from the hippies to the punks to grunge, were without fail defanged, sanitised, and repackaged as trends in America’s malls. 

‘Alt’ is no longer relative to the dominant culture, but another trend that can be easily exchanged. There are no prerequisites for developing a sense of belonging. You merely need to be familiar with the memetic templates, know the clubs, have taken the drugs, and subscribe to the aesthetics.

For those in the know, these references are a wink: have you, too, tried to descend the stairs to the basement while inebriated? Have you too emerged from the cesspool of the Berghain floor into the lights of Panorama Bar like a traumatized soldier returning from the trenches? Have you also met a straight person complaining they can’t get Spielraum tickets? Then you’re part of the community! (Doesn’t matter which community, and this belonging is contingent on the understanding of these words, and not actual engagement with people.)

{Tokens of coolness: Bratz-esque boots to match the inflation rates, phone case covered in stickers to prove you got in, joke about smelling your keys in your close friends’ insta story.} 

Aesthetics and styles are regurgitated and spat out in ever-shrinking 30, 20, and 10-year cycles, distorted and rebranded as microtrends, themselves a pastiche of recognizable subcultures. Before the advent of the internet, the shared aesthetic that provided a vital sense of belonging for marginalised subcultures, from the working-class punk underground to the Black and Latinx queer ballroom scene was more than skin-deep. In the words of fashion writer and critic Alexandra Hildreth writes that “unlike true subcultures of the pre-internet era, as the internet has devolved into a daily habitual practice, it is much easier for one to ‘try on’ different interests and aesthetics and simply move on if the shoe isn’t the right fit”.

The illicit elements of raving are not entirely gone but have largely been subsumed in capitalism’s deployment of what Bauman calls the  “pleasure principle for its own perpetuation.” Certain taboos, like recreational drug use, are acceptable within certain parameters, as long as users “exercise self-control and consume responsibly from the constrained range of options available, in the allocated spaces, during the assigned times designed to remove any ambiguity surrounding place, space, and function,” as Tammy Ayres expressed it.

Such allocated spaces function as “backspaces”, according to sociologist Erving Goffman. Backspaces are places that provide a “liminal licence for people to transgress norms, participate in playful deviance, and present their secret self” (according to Redmon). In these backspaces, individuals engage in activities labelled ‘criminal’ or ‘deviant’ away from society’s or law enforcement’s prying eyes.

Yet deviance has been polished to conformity. Psychedelics are now repackaged as productivity enhancers and Ayahuasca retreats now carry a bougie cadence. Fringe sexual subcultures are similarly stripped off their more subversive elements are discarded, leaving only mass-produced plastic harnesses and chokers worn in sexless festivals with absurd entree fees.

{If you can find it on Resident Advisor, it’s not a rave.} 

In a subculture where it is important to establish a unique identity that distinguishes oneself from the mainstream, how rebellious is it to engage in ‘deviant’ behaviour that merely reinforces an unchallenged allegiance to consumer capitalism?

Everyone’s a meme admin now!

Meme accounts hope to capture, with varying degrees of accuracy, the minutiae, nuances, and epic highs and lows of electronic music culture.   

Who is actually behind these accounts? I can identify two main groups: DJs that hope to squeeze in some self-promotion in between memes about the discontents of the trade (e.g. being paid in drink tickets), the merits of being a DJ/producer or producer/DJ, and balancing partying with working; and dedicated partygoers, who either turn techno/drugs into a principal personality trait or revel in the cynicism only acquired by those who have experienced the most sordid offerings of this lifestyle.

I turn to an expert for commentary. Annebel Breij transcends my little binary, moving fluidly between DJing and meme theory. “I do not like the pressure of “having to promote” myself as a DJ on Instagram all the time (my ego loves it though), and I do feel like my social media presence plays a big part in how I am “perceived” in the industry,” she says. “I feel very conflicted about this at times: I like sharing the music I like, but I detest the competition-driven infrastructure that Instagram offers me for that.”

Ah, ambivalence—one of my favourite concepts. It seems to govern life in our neoliberal hellscape. We simultaneously bemoan and critique the circumstances of our collective existence, while also desiring to find comfort, success, and fulfillment in/despite them, and we are valid to seek both. 

{“We should improve society somewhat.” “Yet you participate in society! Curious! I am very intelligent.”)

Many of these accounts tend toward the sardonic, grimly commenting on the disagreeable aspects of life in the cultural hubs usually exalted in this genre of content—gentrification, inequality, depression, substance abuse. Among more humorous memes attempting to diffuse the seriousness with which many approach techno and its surrounding microculture, we excavate acknowledgments of class privilege, mental health struggles, and harm reduction tips.

{My parents at 26: Buying a house and having a child. Me at 26: Finding a pill on the floor. Let’s not think too hard about this one.} 

Tracks (God forbid we call them songs by accident), become the signifiers of belonging. Backspaces, like the club toilet or the afters kitchen, become characters in a narrative that playfully oscillates between a cheeky confession, a declaration of being “in-the-know”, and a guiltful admission.

{Tips on how to enter Berghain: 1. Don’t try too hard. Rating all the toilets I’ve sniffed. Me: I’ll be sober this week. Me: Experiencing ego death at a random stranger’s kitchen at 7am.}  

Authenticity and relatability have famously risen to core tenets of online self-presentation, and TikTok has opened a Pandora’s box of sorts. These are fraught concepts of course; what Abidin terms “calibrated amateurism” is a more apt description, considering the careful curation that often lies behind photo dumps and mirror selfies. This describes the calculated documentation of domestic bliss by lifestyle influencers but can be just as easily applied to the trend of self-disclosure permeating online content creation the more our social media resemble confessional technologies of the self.

It seems like people are more eager than ever to publicly reflect on what Michelle Lhooq calls the “previously private and highly personal tactics people use to make the world less harrowing.” Despite the waning war on drugs, its repercussions still reverberate globally, yet, scrolling on TikTok, one might easily come across creators, some of them underage, who craft an entire persona around their snorting habits. (One TikToker’s entire page is dedicated to rating club toilets by how well they facilitate, uh, insufflation). Whether or not this is another instance of Poe’s law (“On the internet, satire, parody, and irony are often indistinguishable from earnestness”) is beside the point; clearly, not all digital footprints are born equal.

Most of the time, this content relates to recreational substance use at raves or festivals, spaces that serve to legitimize a habit that adopted by different demographics would likely be treated with greater disdain and suspicion. Drug use has found its place in corporate culture. If the potions of counterculture are being consumed by people like Elon Musk to enhance productivity and induce business breakthroughs, is hedonism the solution?

The recuperation of counterculture is hardly news in 2023. In the digital backspaces, content creators adopt the language of subversion to distinguish themselves from a supposed normative culture. If you’re not basic, you’re alt. If you don’t go to mainstream clubs, you go to raves. And so forth.

Moving to a famously unforgiving and harsh city like Berlin is merely the conduit to an evasive coolness, where six months is enough time for a previously prim and proper 20-something to re-emerge with a perpetual scowl and a fresh slew of neo-tribal tattoos (and an implied, newly acquired mephedrone habit). Camera stickers serve a performative function, no longer just a preventative measure against the incessant documentation of night-time exploits, but a token and an articulation of coolness, of belonging, a playful wink at socially acceptable degeneracy.

{On the metro, at the library, at the bar — I search for these markers on the back of people’s phones; faded signifiers of a shared secret life.}

Forever 21

Floating through the backspaces, digital and physical, I feel suspended in a state of perpetual arrested development. McKenzie Wark has this to say about adulthood: “Working class version: leave school, get a job, have kids. Middle-class version: leave school, go to college, get a job, have kids. And then, I suppose, there’s the rich kid version where you never have to grow up at all.”

If, as she argues, trans people experience a “weird, loopy version of adolescence”, a warped version of this is also true for the kind of immersive clubbing experiences that bend time. I am thinking in particular of what Wark calls “k-time”—the temporality experienced in the ravespace, one which is most intensely felt under the influence, but one that bleeds into the “real” world and which explains why some people never seem to grow up (or grow older—pick your connotations). 

{Come to think of it, clubs feel like high school, if it was managed by Sam Levinson, with its emerging cliques, social climbing, petty drama, and unbridled hedonism. Take De School, a club named after a school and housed in an actual old school building, with rooms aptly named Het Muzieklokaal and Het Kunstlokaal. Perhaps a second chance at high school for people who didn’t have enough fun the first time around.}  

I don’t want to pontificate about the superiority of clandestine versus legal. As my 20s draw to a close, the prospect of embarking on an obstacle course to reach a field or a bridge unfortunately regrettably sounds less and less appealing. Perhaps I am the problem. But if the signifiers of the punks and the goths evoke a sense of rebellion and resistance and a reaction against the flashy consumerism of the 80s respectively, what purpose does the PG-rated, Amazon-bought harness serve as a reaction, if any? And does this supposed rebellion vanish as soon as the wearer takes it off, pops a 5HTP capsule to ease the comedown, and returns to their corporate job, where they proudly boast about their recent exploits until the next weekend’s adventure awaits?

If the essence of raving has been distorted into charging a 20 euro entree fee and dancing is meant to exorcise one’s demons on Saturday night before inevitably returning to their embrace on Monday morning, what purpose do memes serve? Do they critique the discontents of a broken system? Do they normalise them? Or do they merely scream into the vast digital void, begging to signify belonging to some sterilised semblance of coolness?

“I see Techno TikTok not necessarily as the root of the problems of the “dance-industry”, but rather as a symptom,” says Breij. “A symptom caused by the decline of social security, the rise of neoliberal (aka an actively promoted competition-driven, individualistic market and ideology) capitalism, the growing wealth gap (whether this is local or global) and discrimination against ‘minority groups’, the exploding living costs and the ever-growing expansion of the power of social media companies into our private spheres.” 

I can hear some of you sighing: the leftists are turning everything into a problem again!!! Hear her out: “These things cause less room for experimentation, a bigger need for instant gratification, more pressure to promote yourself as a “brand” (rather than building an art practice), and overall a lot less money, space and time to relax, experiment, play, dance, innovate and socialize.” 

Memetic archives of the everyday


I realise now that this essay is dripping with cynicism. As I am writing this epilogue, I am reading Raving once again, and I am reminded of that exhilarating feeling that drew me to this niche of memes in the first place. Before some of us became tired or jaded or just old, we found community, care, and a secret third thing.

That said, I do feel like it is essential to reflect on the shift that the networked dynamics of platforms have emboldened, and what this means for practices that were previously hidden from prying eyes and cameras.

Breij agrees: “What would tremendously help the “DJ world” is, rather than having one’s own social media moment by criticising other people’s social media moments, is reflecting on the roots of these issues”. Like: “Who is actually profiting from this? How can we distribute this more equitably? What societal problems outside of the music scene influence this? How can we, as artists or music lovers, support one another? What and who has helped me to reach the point I am at right now, and what are the conditions in which I can grow in the future? What allows me to expand myself to feel comfortable in the uncomfortable, in the unknown, to appreciate and create (experimental) new things?”

There is a fine line between addressing these issues and miserable techno elitism. “I’ve seen a lot of shade about throwing edits, but in some cases, it does honestly reflect our current time,” remarks Breij: “a dystopian stream of content hinting towards the end of civilisation, but with Britney vocals in the background.”

Are meme creators the historians of the contemporary? Will meme pages be the archives that the (media) archaeologists of the future will use to excavate the present? Long gone are the days during which the virtual and the “real” were separated. Much of contemporary social and cultural life takes place behind our screens, and due to its ephemerality and contingency requires medium-specific tools with which to document and study it. 

From web-specific archives like The Webcomics Web Archive and the Web Cultures Web Archive to the Library of Congress, this need is recognised and tended to. But there is something to be said about the autoethnography performed by meme creators. Memes are not merely ‘artefacts of digital culture’, but contemporary folklore. In their playful vitality, vulgarity, and specificity, memes reflect those aspects of our cultural life that are the most genuine, and often the most difficult ones to speak earnestly or openly about.

Acting as “everyday archives”, memes mediate collective individuation, in the way that they can powerfully distill complex ideas, (sub)cultural idiosyncrasies, and niches. The question is, is the picture of the zeitgeist they capture one we would be proud to hang in our proverbial living rooms?

When I began writing this essay, it felt a bit less extraneous to write about matters that now feel insipid, even profligate. Yet the party, somehow, goes on. When humanity falters in the face of colonial depravity and genocide, can our “trivial” archives of ordinary dissent, joy, irony, and so-called subversion—anchor themselves as something more than toothless entertainment? Do we need them to?


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