Welcome to our new series: Vibegeist reflections. In this series, our thinktank members reflect on the spirit of the age through music, movies and more. In this episode, Sebastiaan and Arief look back on their summer packed with festivals and wonder what the resurgence of rave can tell us about our times.
Lo and behold the renaissance of rave music. The combination of lockdowns and gloomy world outlooks have provided the perfect breeding ground for this resurgence. Feelings of liberation were alternated with slumbering social anxiety that has given way to both rapturous parties and furious protests. It was an excessive summer full of contradictions. As individuals we merged into ecstatic crowds, inspiring a feeling we had missed so much in the past two years. As social crowds, we became more divided than ever, returning to business as usual after a spark of solidarity in the early days of Covid.
To us, the revival of rave points to the rise of playful nihilism, by which we mean a new ethical “mood” or “vibe” (Grundstimmung) that will be an important characteristic of the roaring twenties ahead of us.
This playful nihilism has two faces. At worst, this nihilism of mostly younger generations degenerates into defiant behavior and world denial. A neostoic ethic that is more preoccupied with surviving turbulent yet meaningless times and having a good time than changing society, which has become a hopeless endeavor in every way. A form of passive nihilism that will lead nowhere as there is nowhere to go. Mark Fisher has dubbed our age the age of the slow cancellation of the future, and especially younger generations are sensitive to this (lack of) ideology. Rave until the grave.
This Zeitgeist resembles that of the uncertain ‘80s and matching subcultures such as punk. The rave scene also originated in this socio-economic milieu in the UK and U.S. and is now making a comeback. With a housing crisis, roaring inflation, geopolitical tensions, and widespread climate worries, we see a return of themes such as decay, despair, and the idea of "no future". In our current era, this implies that rave culture helps young people to cope with uncertain times and the feeling of powerlessness.
Comedian Merijn Scholten does an excellent job of portraying this worldview and showing us the ugly side of playful nihilism. In his parody of spoiled but eco-anxious zoomers, he envisions a generation that seems worried about the state of the world but has become unworldly as well. They rave and microdose to forget the troubling times.
That rave culture can undeniably become superficial is intrinsically linked to commodification. Raves always helped younger generations forget but also united them in protest. However, after the first era of rave culture in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, raves quickly evolved from small parties in abandoned warehouses and empty buildings into highly commercialized mass events.
The Netflix documentary Trainweck: Woodstock ‘99 perfectly shows this transition. The festival undoubtedly exploited American kids by hiring large-scale rave promoters. With nihilistic bands such as Limp Bizkit and Korn, and the masculine American Pie high school attitude of many attendants, the rave culminated in enormous mayhem, with multiple cases of sexual abuse and extensive vandalism. Woodstock ‘99 displayed rave culture in its most destructive form.
But not all raves end up in rage and denial of reality. As Nietzsche put it: “if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” At best, playful nihilism is a form of “active nihilism” that sees nothingness also as the moral openness to a new order. Then it is about embracing and "rebranding chaos" and making party protest productive, not destructive.
Thus, in which category do we place the current resurgence? Do we perceive more destructive or constructive elements in contemporary rave culture?
Let’s get back to the beginning of this decade to better understand the roots of playful nihilism and answer this question. The roaring twenties began with a false start: the worldwide quarantine. The first lockdown of the pandemic was a huge social experiment and many fantasized about a new post-Covid society. Responsible consumption and “staycations” would be the cornerstones of a sustainable society. More time for close friends and a healthy work-life balance would make us healthier and happier.
Fast forward to 2022 and this first lockdown already inspires nostalgia. Many of us have fallen back into old patterns and picked up life exactly where we left it. The queues at airports are unprecedented and we are still glued to the television as streaming giants launch their new flagship series (e.g., House of the Dragon and Rings of Power). Moreover, the war in Ukraine and climate worries have made us forget Covid rather quickly (for now).
But most of all, we have found our way back to bars, festivals and nightlife en masse in this long hot “summer of love”. As frequent guests and readers of festival reports, what struck us the most was the comeback of rave, especially in (underground) music scenes.
Altogether, this has forged an ambiguous worldview now spreading across Europe. At the same time, inflation is soaring, Eastern Europe is at war, drought is everywhere, and forests have gone up in flames, beaches are packed and festivals are booming. Thus, the long hot summer has formed the backdrop to both forest fires and sultry festivals. This ambiguity of our world is setting the stage for the new widespread mood we call playful nihilism.
In addition to this socio-cultural background, the lockdowns themselves provided the perfect conditions to relive the early days of rave culture. Not surprisingly, the illegal rave scene flourished during the pandemic. In open fields, abandoned buildings, and under bridges, people rediscovered the power of raves. Maybe it was born out of necessity, but rave culture thrived. As in the good old days, locations were often hidden and invitees were updated at the last moment to reduce the chance of being caught.
The boredom of lockdowns was not only a stimulus for illegal raves, but also gave rise to new internet hypes such as "meme techno" or "TikTok techno". Anonymous online producers, with names such as Vieze Asbak, Gladde Paling and Natte Visstick, used the lockdowns to produce heavy drum and bass, techno and hardstyle tracks mixed with absurd and ironic lyrics. Just chuckle and rave seems to be their motto.
The popularity of YouTube star Marc Rebillet rose as well during the lockdowns. With his nihilistic yet incredibly adept performances, he has created an enormous fan base. His improvised DJ sets and remarkable collaborations have been lifesaving for many fans and are exemplary of what we see as playful nihilism. For instance, take a look at this 19 minute long "alarm clock".
But not everybody participated in these illegal undertakings or watched Marc Rebillet with a bag of chips on the couch. Therefore, the summer of 2022, with Covid restrictions increasingly lifted, was the time for the underground and online rave scene to go mainstream. DJs that had played at smaller illegal raves were now booked by big clubs and the organizers of large-scale festivals. For many of us, this summer of 2022 made up for a lot. Having been isolated for so long and with nightclubs and festivals almost fully absent for two years, it is not surprising that younger generations needed to make up for lost time.
The “knaldrang” (a very strong urge to party) was immense and we wanted to lose ourselves in massive crowds. This summer, rave culture embraced trance, garage, UK bass, and other genres to bring swarms of sweating people to new heights and long-enduring peaks.
A lot of DJs and bands felt this need for audiences and did everything to whip crowds into a frenzy. Rave acts were very successful at festivals such as Down the Rabbit Hole and Lowlands. Veteran Lowlands performers The Opposites evoked rave vibes during their show with hits such as Dom, Lomp and Famous, but especially Goldband was the success story of the festival season.
Their breakthrough can be linked to the rise of playful nihilism, as their music truly meets the spirit of the age. The band combines uplifting rave beats with nihilistic lyrics and clever climax-building. Not afraid to mix up genres and styles, in the track Requiem they even pay tribute to punk. During the chorus one of the band members points at the audience while screaming “Iedereen gaat dood, en jij ook, en jij ook, en jij ook (everybody dies, and you will too, and you will too, and you will too)”. Also, drug references are prevalent: in their hit record Witte Was, they repeatedly sing “waarom is coke zo duur, waarom is coke zo fucking duur (why is cocaine so fucking expensive)”, displaying the normalization of cocaine use by young people. Although references to drugs are anything but remarkable in music, it is more the sense of banality that gives it this uncomfortable and familiar nihilistic feeling.
In the dance scene, the popularity of rave made DJs such as Job Jobse and KiKi fall into favor. Their setlists blend ‘90s trance with rave anthems while spicing it up with some modern twists. It is no surprise that they now often headline festivals and have earned themselves strong reputations among ravers.
Even punk and metal bands were more prevalent than usual at a festival like Lowlands, with bands such as Hang Youth showing a new generation of punkrock emphasizing protest over demolition.
The summer has ended and the question now is whether rave culture will persist or slowly fade. If only lockdowns and lifted restrictions caused this uptick, then rave would be something temporary, not so much a symbol of our Zeitgeist.
However, we believe the ecstatic behavior of partying crowds cannot be fully explained by this and point to the myriad of cultural drivers we discussed above. The renaissance of rave was already underway before and especially during Covid and therefore hints at long-term societal shifts.
To a certain extent, music genres simply come and go, as all hypes do; in the last decade, disco thrived in European underground music scenes. But to us, the nostalgia of ‘80s and ‘90s rave music points to more than the cyclical patterns of hypes. The renaissance of rave does’t merely seem to be about putting reality in brackets for a weekend or bypassing restrictions but more about a coping strategy to deal with the complexity of the roaring twenties.
We often feel powerless in a globalized world that is too complex to grasp, let alone change. The feeling of stumbling from one crisis into the next, not to mention the looming climate challenges, are causing social anxiety and climate worries among many young people. If burnouts and major depressive disorder defined the previous generation, climate depression and social anxiety disorder perhaps characterize the current one.
These social pathologies of the roaring twenties demand new ways to cope with distress and to alleviate symptoms ranging from boredom and hopelessness to anger and anxiety. The discomfort of powerlessness resulting from a world facing multiple systemic crises simply demands a coping mechanism. Troubling times make us want to forget and rave becomes a medicine and defense mechanism in disturbing times.
In this sense, there is always protest and protection in rave culture. To begin with the latter, we live in an uncertain and chaotic world and we rave to forget. Rave culture serves as a means to the ends of security and stability, just as ‘90s rave culture was a way to deal with meaningless life and dull white-collar jobs.
However, while protection is self-directed, protest is world-directed. Although often only silently and latently, there is undeniably protest in contemporary rave culture. If the playful nihilism of the twenties is able to not only neglect the world but transform this neglect into a renewed world order, rave culture will have the potential to vitalize social movements of all sorts and enforce change. We can definitely find glimpses of constructive playful nihilism in Hang Youth, Marc Rebillet and Vieze Asbak. Let’s hope their creative minds and growing fan base will contribute to unlocking the potential of rave.
But if playful nihilism deteriorates into world denial, fueled by the anger and fury that is caused by widespread desperation, then this decade will be characterized by more rage and social turmoil than we’ve so far anticipated.
Moreover, commodified festivals have removed the rough edges of the illegal rave scene (again) and transformed it into mainstream rave culture, making it a mass product that we can consume on a sunny Saturday. Gen-Z love their vegan burgers in between rave episodes. This success makes rave culture accessible and could enhance its potential but could also be its demise.
Woodstock ‘99 was an overly commercialized festival. Miraculously, there were no deaths. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about a concert last year by Travis Scott, who also calls his followers “ragers”. The day had already gotten off to a bad start with hundreds of people bursting in without tickets, but ended in true tragedy when ten people were killed after a crowd surge.
Thus, it remains to be seen whether this summerly uptick of rave culture will revitalize the New Order or degrade into an uncontrollable frenzy. Time will tell if chaos will swallow the sun or shape new worlds. In any case, we believe rave and rage are here to stay and will define the vibegeist of the roaring twenties ahead of us.