Sweat and lights, costumes and hallucinogenic images of Jesus, the Buddha and Krishna projected onto walls or mountainsides while dancers bob and whirl to the constant thump of a bass beat.
These are all fundamental elements of an international music and cultural movement that stretches from underground clubs in New York to open air “raves” outside Hebron, Israel. The movement does not have a single name. Devotees may call the music house, trance, techno or jungle, but a seemingly separate group of musical subcultures are part of a community that seeks to alter a traditional understanding about gender and beauty, race and the body, and increasingly, about consciousness and spirituality as well.
What are these claims? Gender is fluid. Beauty is created. The body belongs solely to its owner. Spirituality is individual and experiential. It collects in the flesh and manifests itself physically as pleasure. It is therefore something that is felt rather than understood. It is universally available, can create world peace, and it has a soundtrack.
“House music, it’s a spiritual thing, a body thing, a soul thing.” So goes a seminal anthem of house, a form of music that emerged from the black, Latino and gay clubs of Chicago and New York. House music itself is not played; it is reconstructed. DJs, the high priests of house, choose previously recorded songs and “free” the melody, vocals or bass from their original structure, reconfiguring them in a recording studio or live on the dance floor using multiple turntables.
Non-musical messages, whether political speeches or Tibetan chants, are selected or “sampled” and dropped into a particular “track” using computerized audio technology. The result is a repetitive, multilayered and highly rhythmic form of music that builds like a mantra, repeating a message continuously as other tracks are “blended” and “mixed” in or removed.
The house scene quickly grew out of its original audience merged with electronic and futurist music scenes in Europe and eventually split into a myriad of subcultures whose only difference may be a few extra beats per minute. For instance, trance is a quicker, non-vocal form of music and has captured a broad international audience. The original House sound has remained dominant in North America, although the current Mecca of house is arguably the Spanish island of Ibiza, which hosts festivals and performances through out the year.
The method of repositioning existing music into something more rich and strange acts as a model that is applied to other aspects of cultural life. Gender roles are deconstructed and individual listeners may turn up at performances cross-dressed or in outfits that deconstruct standard ideas about fashion or beauty. The effect may appear equally tribal or extraterrestrial. Body modification is prevalent. Dancers at events frequently bear tattoos and multiple body piercings; their skin may be branded or bulge in odd shapes, the result of metal implants placed directly under the epidermis.
Such drugs as 3.4-Methylenedioxy-N-Methylamphetamine (MDMA) are prevalent and valued for altering consciousness. MDMA is a psychotropic used initially by psychiatrists to induce a feeling of well being and openness in their patients. On the dance floor, the effect that MDMA creates swells with the swirling rhythms to generate a sense of unity, a feeling that is often ascribed to spiritual origins and one that is thought to be shared uniformly by all the dancers.
As the drug takes hold and the music builds the dancers may cling to one another in a manner that appears orgiastic, but when the drug has lost its effect and the music dies, most dancers relate a feeling of transcendence that is distinctly non-sexual. It is this interpretation—so often at odds with appearances—that creates misunderstandings about the nature of the experience. In Israel, for instance, police routinely break up trance parties — often held in nature reserves — charging that drug abuse is encouraged at such events.
Some of the behavior is clearly intended to achieve liberation by transgressing social norms. “I had to fall from grace, just to find a higher place” one house track intones solemnly. But much of the culture attempts to be merely creative; the intent of the dancers is to create a new style of being, not merely an anti-style. House, trance, techno, all of these musical scenes seek not only to entertain, but to recreate a society of believers. These pretensions are sincere for many of the participants in the movement.
There is an innocence to the desire to change the world through music that is reminiscent of the Western counter-culture of the sixties. However, where previous encounters with these movements were allied to larger political projects, the house scene makes no attempt at specific political action outside of fairly general and naïve desires of world peace and tranquillity. The desire of house is more singular; to transform the individual through music and through group participation in a culture that is transformative, narcotic and liberating.
— By Scott D. Scrymgeour, a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.