Lessons we never learned from rave culture

From a talk by the author of 'Discographies', Jeremy Gilbert, given in a Signs of the Times seminar at The Union Tavern, London

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You're a lad out with his mates on a Saturday night. Just imagine going for the first time to a crowded noisy place where, if you bump into a bloke or chat to his girlfriend, he's more likely to hug you than to hit you. This was the kind of space that ecstasy culture made possible in the early Nineties, and for a lot of people it was an extraordinary liberation. What was really so amazing about many dance clubs at that time was the effect ecstasy and house music had on straight men. You didn't even have to take the drug yourself to notice the change.

You're a lad out with his mates on a Saturday night. Just imagine going for the first time to a crowded noisy place where, if you bump into a bloke or chat to his girlfriend, he's more likely to hug you than to hit you. This was the kind of space that ecstasy culture made possible in the early Nineties, and for a lot of people it was an extraordinary liberation. What was really so amazing about many dance clubs at that time was the effect ecstasy and house music had on straight men. You didn't even have to take the drug yourself to notice the change.

Traditionally, going out at the weekend for young men and women had been an experience charged with anxiety. The atmosphere of potential violence that tends to infuse any large gathering of drunken men ­ and the crudely predatory sexuality which straight men in such situations tend to display towards women ­ were taken for granted as perfectly normal aspects of leisure culture.

Raving changed all that, largely because it was seen as an essentially communal and asexual activity. Writers from Irvine Welsh to Simon Reynolds have commented on the tendency for ecstasy to encourage a sensuality that is described as either typically "feminine" ­ tactile, mobile, polymorphous ­ or simply asexual.

There was nothing inevitable about this. It was only a specific conjuncture of particular forms of music, particular ways of using drugs and implicitly feminist ethics ­ which had been permeating ever more deeply into popular culture since the 1970s ­ that created the rave as an asexual space, a space in which straight men could experience a challenge to conventional ways of being male, not as something frightening or moralising but as something intensely pleasurable. This was rave culture's great unsung political achievement.

It didn't last. The Happy Mondays, those prophets of UK rave, had already proved that you could be an E-head bloke and be as sexist and homophobic as the next guy, and it was they who provided the template for the new lad of the Nineties. Preferring pills and Britpop to acid house, the new lad set out to prove that you could be as hedonistic as any raver and still be a male chauvinist git. And prove it he did.

More depressing still was the reinvention of club culture for the 18-30 crowd. It was at exactly the moment that superclubs like the Ministry of Sound and the big Ibiza operations decided they could make lots of money out of dance culture that we started to see soft-porn club babes become the favoured cover stars of the dance music press. And as the breweries moved back into the club scene, UK garage emerged as a culture which, despite the excellence of some of its music, encourages a totally conventional attitude to gender and sexuality.

The re-sexualisation of the dance floor spelled the end of feminist rave. Today, teenagers who are interested in experimenting with gender roles and queer ideas are more likely to be into heavy rock than hard house.

What can we learn from this? Where Nineties dance culture turned the dancefloor into a proto-feminist space, it did so largely by constituting that space as simply asexual. Like the new man of the Eighties, rave boy never got from dance culture ­ or anywhere else ­ the one thing he would have needed to turn himself into a grown-up feminist man: an ethical language within which heterosexual male desire can be expressed and articulated in a non-sexist way.

It's no wonder that when that desire came to the surface again, as it was inevitably going to in the end, it did so in the retarded, infantile, pre-feminist form of the man behaving badly. Only a much broader and more explicit popular feminism is ever likely to give young men such a language. But if we're ever looking for a real-life model of how to make feminism fun, then we could still do much worse, even today, than to look to the ecstatic pleasures of the rave.

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