Electric Daisy: Each generation fervently embraces its music
Critic's notebook: Hospitalization, arrests and the death of a teen at Electric Daisy Carnival raises questions about raves. But really, Woodstock and discos weren't so long ago.
The first news that hit my ears about the Electric Daisy Carnival was all positive. Amazing, said friends who'd immersed in the beats and the force field of moving bodies. Dance culture is still so alive. Then came reports of misadventure, including the tragic death of Sasha Rodriguez. A buried loop of pop-historical scenes began playing in my head.
Woodstock, 1969: "The picture I have in my mind is almost of the famous Lautrec poster of the cancan girls with the man's silhouette in front of that, and that just went on for hours and hours and hours, and folks dancing and getting high, and dancing and dancing and dancing all night long."
A New York City disco, circa 1978: "I loathe crowds. But tonight the music and the drugs and the exhilaration has stripped me of all such scruples. We were packed in so tightly we were forced to slither across each other's wet bodies and arms…. I surrendered myself to the idea that I was just like everyone else. A body among bodies."
A San Diego rave, 1995: "All around me, thousands of people dance, grin, and stare at the same time. Most of them look very high…."
These quotes, from Woodstock campground coordinator Stanley Goldstein and authors Edmund White and Dennis Cooper, reflect the long history of chemically enhanced free-form movement as a route to bliss, if not enlightenment, for music lovers. I risk cliché if I trace the phenomenon back to ancient rites presided over by Dionysus, god of wine and frenzy. My point is merely that the mix of music, dancing and alleged chemical enhancement that led to problems for some and delight for many at the carnival was downright traditional.
In some ways, you could even call it retrograde. Dance music-oriented scenes thrive as a kind of open underground within the larger pop world. Live dance music gatherings attract thousands, as the carnival showed, and the sound of the Top 40 is hugely influenced by the DJs, whose beats and mixes form the basis for hits by artists as varied as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and the Black Eyed Peas. (Will.i.am, playing ambassador during a winning DJ set, made the connection clear.) But the wild abandon of pop-loving dancers from teeny-boppers to hippies to mosh-pit punks has recently taken a back seat to far more studied moves.
Concerts by Lady Gaga and Beyoncé have gone from what Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia once described as jam sessions shared with fans dancing "to a half hour tune, and you can even wonder why it ended so soon," to highly choreographed productions requiring such precision that stars sometimes forgo singing live in order to hit their marks.
Reality television shows like "So You Think You Can Dance" and "America's Best Dance Crew" stress the professional and artistic aspects of dance instead of its erotic way of breaking down egos and barriers. Kids start prepping their routines as young as kindergarten, signing up for hip hop dance class and busting moves their parents post on YouTube. Youths in urban neighborhoods have fun making up street dances, but also try to turn them into routes to fame, a la Soulja Boy. In the 1970s, suburbia got loose at disco-fueled key parties; now, the wildest many people get is at the gym, during Zumba class.
We are living in a less than free-form moment. Some may call the new focus on constricting the self and perfecting a pose healthy. Discipline has its good points, but its rise within the pop world makes me long for the balance of a few lost nights under the stars: the revel that dance music still offers its devotees.
My coming of age in San Francisco during the 1980s and 1990s involved plenty of crowded dance floors — at raves, reggae fests, gay clubs, punk shows — and I freely admit, more than a few controlled substances. I'm not condoning the wide use of illegal substances. Street drugs, cut for profit instead of mind expansion, are particularly problematic. Still, I know from experience that a carefully tended trip among loving companions, set to music also designed to break down defenses and heighten sensual awareness, can be sublime. It's always a risk, one that can change you for the worse — or for the better.
I viscerally grasp the fear a parent has when contemplating whether her child might indulge in too much of something dangerous (not just drugs, but sex, noise, crowding into the throng) when she goes to a music-oriented event. But I also wonder how many parents are reflecting upon their own rites of passage, set to different beats, when they think about the Electric Daisy Carnival. Woodstock wasn't that long ago.
-- Ann Powers