This was originally published on a Substack account. I found that system a bit clunky, and would rather have my writing all in one place, thus this repost.
What I remember of 90s culture, the moments I lived through consciously, can be seen as a reaction one way or another to the political upheavals of the previous decade. A certain manic energy emerged to capture those susceptible to it. This rush precipitated legendary music scenes, techno dominating in Berlin and jungle in London, which still capture our imaginations. It offers us a model for understanding our current moment, as the rapid distribution of vaccines is taking us out of the pandemic cloud that has settled over the past two years and into the unknown. Unlike these events of musical history, the manic energy that precipitated them could emerge everywhere all at once. We have been as if in hibernation, and we need to be ready to seize upon the moment. Two novels can help us understand what’s to come and how to approach it with the right mindset – Rainald Goetz’s Rave and Two Fingas and James T. Kirk’s Junglist.
Rave is the great utopian novel of the techno world. Here, techno is the substance of which every earthly pleasure is made. Goetz’s protagonist, Rainald, describes the feeling thus:
“I forgot how to talk
How to walk and speak
And I am toward
Flying into the air
The energy of the music and of the scene is enough to make one forget oneself completely. In Goetz’s world everything in life is revealed on the dancefloor, amid the sweating bodies, the drugs, and the ever-present thud of the bass. It is life changing to be swept up in the current of such a vibrant and active musical scene.
“You walk into a place like this, and the effect hits you there and then: Euphoria. As if you had NEVER felt this before. As if there were no such thing as the history of happiness.”
Something similar is experienced by the protagonist of Mia Hansen-Løve’s film Eden, Paul. The first time he hears Frankie Knuckles’ “Whistle Song” completely changes the course of his life, as he is drawn uncontrollably into the embrace of the nascent French garage scene. When the moment is right the music and its environment are impossibly alluring and energising and the moment is a world-changing event after which nothing is the same again. But these moments don’t come out of nowhere. The secret ingredient to the Berlin techno scene in particular is the socio-political context from which it emerged.
After reunification, many abandoned, semi-ruined buildings were taken over by young people to organise illegal, non-stop, multi-day parties. Factories, bunkers, beautiful urban ruins have been repurposed as halls of pleasure for young people who have hitherto lived in the shadow of the wall. These places were the fertile ground on which the techno scene could thrive and which gave inspiration to Rave. It’s fitting that the club scene there was born in such liminal spaces, as it is a liminal space between shifting socio-political paradigms that starves people of their spiritual sustenance, and which produces the conditions under which art becomes truly, unconditionally necessary to sustain life. The soul always craves beauty and escape, and none more than the soul that has been starved.
Rave, unfortunately, is skint on the context. Rainald is too busy trying to score drugs, chasing sex, dancing, and sweating to worry about anything else. When he begins ageing out of the scene, he complains that everyone has turned to concerns about their families or posturing about their academic “posts and positions. The Academy. Applying for posts and taking positions. Pay grades for adjunct, assistant, full. Illegitimate fields.” He’s annoyed that these earthly problems have taken priority over the drugs and the non-stop partying. And everything comes to an end, slowly. This kind of disappointment about the scene ending (for him, anyway), is just emblematic of his privileged position. There is no word of the external world in Rave except a few to laugh at the regular families who look at the ravers with disdain outside the club in the morning. There’s no word on the history of the music, where it came from. It’s all a bit edgy.
This isn’t to say that Rave doesn’t give us something interesting and important – it certainly does. The novel captures, better than any other that I’ve read, the sheer electricity and magic emanating from the scene at its height. Rave can get away with ignoring the context just by the force with which it draws us into the club. And this is an important lesson for us. With the inevitable influx of energy as we regain our social skills after months of lockdown and avoiding seeing our pals, there is the possibility we too will be swept up in current like this. And while naivety like this is a privilege, with a lively enough scene one hopes everyone could enjoy such a privilege, if briefly.
Goetz gives us a model for the kind of utopianism and optimism that a scene can create for us. It can feed the soul in all of the right ways and give purpose to those of us adrift in the brutal reality of living through the capitalist destruction of the planet. That, at least as far as Rave goes, Goetz has a blind spot for the factors that influence how a scene comes together and the way in which culture always emerges from somewhere can be forgiven. I appreciate the beauty and energy he conveys in his work, and in that he is unparalleled.
A different model, and perhaps an antidote to the privileged blindness of Rave, is to be found in Two Fingas and James T. Kirk’s novel, Junglist. Like Rave, it gives us a sense of the meaning that belonging to a scene at the height of its cultural moment can give to us. It follows a group of young black men from a London housing estate as they go about their weekend and reflect on life. Much like in Rave, their driving force is music. In the very beginning the authors tell us about the feeling of “the flow of sound hanging thick in the air, crowding in and out of your lungs, becoming the oxygen you breathe.” And the protagonists time and again lean on the music to get through the day, as counterpoint to their hopes and dreams in life, as the background to all of the significant moments of growing up. In all of its guises, music – all art, really-that comes at the right time to the right people has a magical quality that can’t be found elsewhere.
The two books present two very different ideas of what a scene is. Where Rave is purely utopian, and perhaps melancholic about the moment’s passing, Junglist is explicitly political. Goetz is blind to the subversiveness of the culture he’s writing about and its revolutionary potential. His protagonists are all far more concerned with themselves than with the community from which the culture emerges. Yet, a scene, as a coming together of people necessarily has to consider itself politically. As Two Fingas and Kirk write, “Jungle is and always will be a multi-cultural thing, but it is also about a Black identity, Black attitude, Black style and outlook. It’s about giving a voice to the urban generation left to rot in council estates, ghettoised neighbourhoods and schools that ain’t providing an education for shit.” Which is to say, for them, jungle music gives voice to a community that has been overlooked by political powers and is about preserving and protecting that community. The music, as they say, is about giving a voice to Black youth who are otherwise disenfranchised – even if it is a multicultural thing. Just because everyone is welcome, does not mean that there aren’t some basic conditions attached about respecting the scene’s foundation, such as respect to those who created the space and who need it most as a form of spiritual sustenance. And while I don’t want to write much about appropriation (nor am I qualified to), it’s obvious that abandoning any sort of historical awareness of one’s context risks destroying the very community which one is attempting to appreciate. Commercial interests are always quick to take over the aesthetic qualities of the scene without any of its substance, sanitising it and making it “safe.” Not to mention of the harm that can come from blindly taking on the aesthetics of another culture.
As a whole, I take Junglist to be an ode to exactly the communitarian values that nurture and support any nascent scene. Here, the music and the community aren’t merely a vessel to hedonistic self-gratification but are an important mechanism for resisting the oppressive forces imposed by society. Armed with the strength this can give, the community becomes charged with a revolutionary potential for change. While Rave is the perfect phenomenology of what it is to be caught up in that kind of creative and social moment, Junglist teaches us about how to take sustenance and support the scene, while at the same time teaching us how to be aware of the social and political context from which it emerges. The unprecedented nature of our time means that we need both the utopian hedonism of Goetz’s idea of Berlin and the sensus communis of Two Fingas and James T. Kirk’s London.
I think it’s interesting that both books are focused on music scenes that emerged from an extended period of political and social tension. My hope is that as we all breathe easier with the pandemic (hopefully) subsiding, we will enter a similarly fertile and beautiful cultural moment. Given world’s already rich musical tapestry, I think my optimism isn’t ill founded. My hope is that ultimately we can write, as Goetz put it, our own “history of happiness,” one that won’t be founded upon appropriation, but rather, one that will celebrate fully whatever community that brings it forward.