Drugs and Dance Music Culture

Drugs and drug use are an integral aspect of electronic dance music culture which has flourished worldwide over the last 25 years. For millions of people across the globe, the consumption of dance music also entails the consumption of psychoactive substances, some legal as with alcohol, some only recently or yet to be criminalised as with ‘novel psychoactive substances’, and some strictly prohibited as with MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly).

International research on drug use prevalence and use patterns and trends consistently identifies dance music club-goers as having the highest rates of any drug use amongst their peers. Drug use patterns and practices (including abstention) have been shown to differ according to regional and demographic variables, dance music genre, and venue/event type. Particular drugs and patterns of drug use are ‘differentially normalised’ across dance music culture scenes, with what is deemed ‘acceptable’ use spatially and temporarily organised. Drug use associated with dance music culture is typically but not always restricted to weekends or other ‘time-out occasions’, with ‘the clubbing holiday’ and dance music festivals recognised as key times/spaces for prolonged use of intoxicants.

As dance music culture has changed over the decades, so to have related drug ‘fashions’. The classic ‘dance drug’ ‘ecstasy’ – the street name for MDMA – remains synonymous with dance music culture, although ‘amphetamine-type substances’ (ATS), depressants, and hallucinogens are also used. Ravers or ‘clubbers’ have broadened their ‘polydrug’ repertoires to include ‘club drugs’ such as ketamine, GHB/GBL and most recently, ‘novel psychoactive substances’. To offer an example of the latter trend, for a brief period in the UK the stimulant mephedrone featured heavily in dance music clubbers’ drug repertoires, only to all but disappear in the wake of its criminalisation in April 2010. Most recently in the UK concerns have arisen around ‘contaminated’ ecstasy pills containing PMA/PMMA which can be dangerous to clubbers’ health, with charities and user group movements being at the forefront of campaigns to keep clubbers safe.

In the meantime, as ecstasy pill purity levels surge and MDMA in powder or crystal form (‘MD’ or in the US, ‘Mandy’) is once again perceived as “cool” by some young adults, the ‘persistence of ecstasy’ continues, just as all music and drug relations constantly ebb and flow. Indeed, the histories of drugs such as LSD, ecstasy and ketamine are intimately intertwined with the global phenomenon of dance music culture in all its myriad of localised forms.

Work from within some Public Health traditions emphasises potential risks and harms of alcohol/drug use in dance music spaces and focuses on reducing these ‘dangers’ (i.e. the club health model) where better information and education is understood as key. Club Health – a well established ‘sub-discipline’ – is situated within interdisciplinary research on the night time economy (NTE), with dance music spaces located in a broader concern with interpersonal violence, criminalisation, stigmatisation and surveillance, particularly of leisure spaces frequented by clubbers, with ID scans and sniffer dogs a familiar sight for many dance music fans.

Ethnographic methods have also been deployed to explore crime, deviance and trangression in the NTE, highlighting the pivotal role that alcohol, drug use and drug-distribution play in sustaining the dance music ‘industry’. In this body of work, power and the production of ‘evidence’ from an often limited pool of professional ‘expertise’ is considered. Dance music scholars have also drawn on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and others to examine in detail the processes and practices of formal/informal control, self-regulation and socioeconomic, cultural and chemical inclusion/exclusion apparent in dance music culture.

Within electronic dance music culture research we have increasingly come to understand drug use as an aspect of capitalist consumer societies where for example, commodifed “rave experiences” are sold to young adults invited to enjoy a “controlled loss of control” in regulated spaces. Whilst some make considerable commercial gains from such dance music events, those caught up in regulatory and criminal responses to alcohol and drug use pay a heavy price for their ‘commitment’ to a dance music scene, leading some writers to suggest that our prohibitionist regime amounts to the criminalisation of a cultural form. On occasion the pleasure of engagement with dance ‘brands’ and what are opaquely framed as ‘base’ desires, the seemingly nihilist intent to become extremely intoxicated for example, have been dismissed as meaningless hedonism pertaining to dance music cultures’ in/authenticity. This belies society’s ambivalent relationship towards drugs and their role in the production of any cultural form, from art to literature to music to dance. This ambivalence – fascination within and repugnance towards – any drug users in these cultural spheres is most viscerally felt in relation to those ‘made visible’ and rendered ‘immobile’ through demonisation but also reification (the club drug death ‘victim’).

Some club drug users are profoundly engaged with perceived established social norms and values, with research highlighting how dance music are far from apolitical, with drug policy change for example the concern of many dance music culture participants. It is also worth considering fashion and body politics when exploring dance music cultures’ enduring and complex relationship with drugs. Smiley symbolism and outward displays of ‘dubious behaviours’ – clutching a water bottle, drinking ‘to excess’ – sit uncomfortably with the ethos or aims of some dance music cultures, whilst ‘commercialised’ spaces may resent the ‘outlaw’ status their customers’ drug use endows them with. Of course many dance clubs and dance event promoters and owners have to take the expected ‘zero tolerance’ stance towards their customers in order to remain a going concern.

In mainstream media portrayals of dance music culture, drug-taking is largely framed as wholly irresponsible in the face of perceived ‘risks’, most definitely illegal given global prohibition regimes, and most probably ‘immoral’. Here drugs are positioned as malevolent ‘agents’ and their users, often through historically resonant racialised and classed figures of the “dope fiend”, “evil E pusher” or the “binge drinker”, are positioned as the ‘Other’, even “the enemy within”. Drug taking is at times understood as a contested ‘problematic’ undertaking which disrupts, somehow ‘spoils’ or even has the potential to ‘ruin’ a dance music scene; the advent of ketamine in the free party circuit and the North of England after-party scene in the mid to late 2000s being two examples.

Drugs occupy an ambivalent position in dance music culture. It is perhaps unsurprising then that many pivotal texts on dance music cultures remain relatively silent on drugs. This brings us to those “brave few” who have approached drugs in dance music cultures as but one, albeit crucial, aspect of participants’ complex nuanced engagement with dance music culture, with for example drug use being explored in the context of intense encounters with those also committed to a scene. Postgraduate and early-career stage researchers have undertaken fascinating single or multi-sited ethnographies of dance music cultures in order to capture how mobile music consumer subjects circulate the global flows of dance music happenings (see for example Dr Bina Bhardwa’s emergent work using mobile methods), and how they are in turn implicated in the global production and consumption of drugs. Here drugs and drug use are positioned as crucial to a scene’s ‘vibe’, vitality and endurance.

We have also seen increasingly recourse to understanding how drugs as ‘technologies’ or as ‘mediatory agents’ shape and are shaped by the embodied emotional experiences of participants in dance music culture. These experiences can for some be profoundly “life-changing”, for others less so. Indeed it is the potentialities of dance music culture as being both subject to, and an agent of, social change that often engages us. Dance music scholarship has for example mapped improvements in health and wellbeing through participation in post-rave club culture; enjoyment in the expression of musical affiliation through situated identity work; and continuity and change in the re/making of ‘alternative’ spaces for dance music collectives. Open access academic journals such as Dancecult have showcased work to better understand multisensory electronic dance floors and to value electronic dance music as a cultural form. The disruption of the concept of ‘drugs’ through work deploying and critiquing Actor Network Theory (ANT) has also opened up another critical space for those studying drugs and dance music cultures, with Contemporary Drug Problems publicising and publishing pioneering work on this approach.

It really is an exciting time for club and club drug researchers, with a growing recognition that dance music cultures are here to stay, and are in fact going from strength to strength (the recent explosion of Deep House in the UK is but one example!!). As the next generation of researchers immerses themselves in mapping and debating the global phenomenon of drugs and dance music cultures, I feel excited and indeed thankful as I am sure we can look forward to more fascinating and illuminating studies from dedicated people for whom dance music really matters.