Every few months, Sydney Olympic Park and its stadia metamorphose into dark industrial warehouses for one night at a time. Having once bore witness to the soaring heights of human athleticism, these once-proud stadiums are temporarily brought under the brutal dominion of the athlete’s abject and profoundly mediocre inbred cousin: the bro. On these nights, marauding packs of them flood the Park, tanked out on tonics of steroids, MDMA and toxic masculinity. All the while, an insistent bass pulse shakes the ground while grating, dissonant vocals snarl. DJs thrash behind an electric altar and hold these hulking masses in sonic captivity, each digital thud of the kick-drum commanding them to ever-greater heights of violent hedonism. Every pill swallowed, every “yeah the boys” uttered, every transgression committed — each and every one of these epitomises the sordid experience. Yet, while the blinding lasers illuminate every attendees’ face, distended body and Nike TN sneakers, what they more starkly illuminate is the moral vacuity within their hearts and souls.
While clearly exaggerated, this tenor of description would not be altogether out of place within the pages of The Daily Telegraph or other publications of similar import. The stirring up of moral panic in response to the emergence of any alternative subculture is a tale as old as society, and the recent popularity surge of rave culture among the urban Australian youth mainstream has been met with similar hysteria. Although the scene itself has existed in various forms for decades, having originated shortly after the birth of EDM in the 1980s, only recently have raves begun to swell with the same attendance levels and exposure enjoyed by mainstream commercial music festivals.
Since its inception, raving has diversified into numerous motley subcultures, broadly divisible into the underground raves of the ‘free party’ scene, and the more commercialised raves of the distinctive ‘Hardstyle’ sub-genre of EDM. The former often features sub-genres such as techno and psytrance and typically inhabits Sydney’s Inner West. The latter is exclusively electronic, with many of its disciples tending to originate from Sydney’s Western Suburbs. In this way, the two scenes are also divided along geographic and ethnographic lines.
Yet, despite the fact that both scenes offer a largely similar experience, there is a marked disparity in the way they are treated and received, whether by the media or in popular conversation. Undeniably, the commercial hardstyle scene attracts a stigma that can be described at best as unfair, and at worst, prejudiced in some of the most ugly and insidious ways.
This stigma is a reality that Harrison Cox, known within the EDM community as ‘Slendy’, has to contend with. On a given weekend, Harrison might be found dancing to the music at a hardcore event in performance of one of the scene’s recognisably animated dance styles — muzzing, hakking and shuffling, among others. By day, however, Harrison runs a popular Youtube channel called ‘The Slendy Show’. He balances content production for his 50,000-strong YouTube audience with a full-time job in advertising, having graduated from USyd in Media/Law last year. Defying the stereotypes himself, he explains that raving and ravers are predominantly perceived to be “unintellectual and uncultured”, and has often been met with the charge of being “too normal” to partake in the scene by those in university circles.
Third year Commerce student, Lisa* explains that she finds the distinctive dancing style among other things, to be “inane and cringeworthy” — a sentiment which reflects the broader consensus of rave culture as being intellectually vapid. Basil*, a third year English student, asserts that raves consist of “a bunch of dickheads on pingaz (sic) dancing around with their tops off.” Moreover, he describes the music as “just noise” and “objectively tasteless”. As with most stereotypes, these statements reductively present the EDM scene as culturally monolithic.
Harrison suggests that, while drug use is a problem, the media plays “a significant role” in exaggerating the prevalence and dangerousness of drugs at hardstyle raves, which in turn frames the dominant narrative and paradigm through which raving is perceived. In the aftermath of hardstyle raves, hysteria often erupts within the 24-hour news cycle, stirring moral concern about the depravity of young people. Headlines such as “PARTY POISON” and “DEATH AFTER DEFQON” are designed to arouse public obloquy through the association of raving with delinquency and destructiveness. Despite what one might assume from a cursory viewing of his videos, Harrison eschews drug use, instead preferring to actualise his love for the music, the warmth of the community and what he sees as the “inherent ridiculousness” of the experience, with sober eyes.
Tellingly, the underground rave scene, despite a similarly potent drug culture, does not attract the same stigmatisation. To some extent, this may be attributable to the conflation of political apathy with anti-intellectualism. Unlike the underground scene, which is unified by a palpable anti-capitalist, anti-establishment sentiment, the hardstyle rave scene is broadly apolitical. From Harrison’s perspective, the underground scene has always been viewed as the more “enlightened scene”, given its devotees’ resistance to the more “homogenous popularity” of commercial raves and the snobbishness this resistance sometimes entails. Concerningly, there are potentially classist undertones to this dynamic. While devotees of the underground rave scene tend to have benefitted from relative socioeconomic privilege and higher levels of education, hardstyle ravers are often of working class origins, hailing from the eclectic melting pot of Western Sydney. In recent years however, the penetration of raving into mainstream youth culture has coincided with a noticeable change in the demography of the scene.
Previously the ‘raver stereotype’ saw overlap with the Australian ‘eshay’ or ‘lad’ culture — an identity broadly predicated on a sense of socioeconomic grievance with the establishment, urban disaffection and male bonding, sometimes expressed through crime. These were people who felt othered within their own cities, neglected by institutions such as the educational system and the welfare safety net. While this scene and others that preceded commercial raving embraced the capitalistic entrepreneurialism of the ‘hustler’ mentality, they lacked the institutional means — higher level education, support networks and material security — to achieve long-lasting socioeconomic mobility.
Today, by contrast, rave culture in Australia is increasingly populated by higher proportions of university students and people who aspire toward lifestyles viewed as attainable through corporate success. These days, the raver archetype has an increasingly Asian face, with many ravers emanating from immigrant-dense suburbs in Western Sydney such as Cabramatta, Fairfield and Bankstown. According to Harrison, this may be correlated with the fact that “much of the scene has its epicentre in the Western Suburbs”, with major events being held in suburbs such as Penrith. Even prior to the ‘Asianisation’ of the scene, hardstyle raving has “never been perceived as a ‘white thing to do’”, as Harrison notes. Coming from a Greek background, he points out that ‘wogs’ — a derogatory term for people from Southern Europe and the Mediterranean — were one of the first demographics among which Australian commercial raving took hold.
Raving is not the only instantiation of the subculture in which a proportion of this Asianised demographic comes together. The subculture contains an entire lexicon of self-referential ethnocentric stereotypes, including an offshoot of the mythologised American ‘ABG’ (‘Asian Baby Girl’) persona, known colloquially in Sydney and Melbourne as ‘LGs’ (Little Girls) and ‘LBs’ (Little Boys). While used within these circles to parody one another, the labels coalesce around a shared identity — values, style and social conventions — propelled by the advent of social media. Facebook pages such as ‘LGs of Sydney and Melbourne’ and the ‘Muzzing/Chopping Appreciation Society’ are the virtual spaces in which these segments of the rave community interact and thrive, fostering a sense of solidarity through memes and symbols. Incredibly, in spite of a strong digital presence, this niche of the subculture has remained confined to a small subsection of Australian youth, remaining all but impenetrable to the mainstream. You will struggle to find someone outside the 11,000 followers of the ‘LGs of Sydney and Melbourne’ page who even understands the meaning of the term. However, for those that do, it is often a focal aspect of their identity, reinforced in each space — real or virtual — from a gathering at the widely-memed Sanctuary Hotel in Sydney right through to the the next hardstyle rave at Sydney Olympic Park.
A swarm of young faces floods Sydney Olympic Park. Groups decked out in activewear, others in intricate novelty costumes, and more in everyday attire — all converge on the park, united in the communal spirit of the night. While some buzz in anticipation, having pre-consumed substances of their choice, others flourish in total sobriety, subsisting off a deep passion for the music. They hail from all four corners of Sydney and exemplify the whole technicolour spectrum of Australian diversity. Some view the rave experience as a packaged production of short-lived ecstasy; others as a way to locate a shared social or cultural identity. Most are simply here for the music they know and love. Whatever your opinion of this growing scene, raving is — in Harrison’s words — above all, “a licence to not care and enjoy oneself in an environment free of pretence and judgment.”