"What If I Escape with You?": Geographies of Raves and the Utopian Experience
This body of work was designed with sensory accompaniment. Opening each subheading will be select musical and lyrical content from the large repertoire of Electronic Dance Music (EDM) that should guide you as you read that section of this work. Text written in italics represent my own narrative and journaling as I guide the reader through my own experiences.
Introduction: “(You make me) Feel Good, I like it”
Take my hand in the middle of a crisis Pull me close, show me, baby, where the light is I was scared of a heart I couldn't silence But you make me, you make me feel good I like it – Gryffin and Illenium, “Feel Good” (feat Daya)
“Trust me and hold my hand.” Slipping a capsule of ecstasy into my palm, my friend grasped my hand. Hands together, we walked into the festival grounds for VELD 2022, the largest 3-day music festival in Canada hosted in Downsview Park, Toronto. This was the second rave I ever attended, and the first one where I planned in advance to “roll” or take part in using MDMA.
If one had asked me a year prior if I would ever take drugs (or go to a rave for that matter), the answer would have been a resounding “no,” but here I was, a year later fascinated by the spectacle of raves and raving as introduced to me by so many of my gaysian (gay and Asian) friends back home in Vancouver over quarantine. As quite the introvert and a bookworm whose largest act of daring prior to 2021 was having my first sip of alcohol, this was a huge deviation from the norm. After years of being stuck at home and feeling in a mental health slump, what my friends talked about regarding raves as a utopia and as a space to express and explore one’s identity seemed rapturous and something I needed to understand as a gaysian myself. Of course, being a musicologist and historian (AKA a big nerd), I wanted to provide them with an academic answer regarding why they felt utopia at raves. My writing will follow my first “drug trip,” VELD festival and stage design, as well as online comments left by festival goers to illustrate the cultural and social geographies of raves as conducive to utopia. I will then reflexively look at how different intersectional identities experience rave spaces and events to further impress how rave spaces are utopian.
Escape: Creating uto·pia
Before the drugs kicked in, I took a deep breath as I walked into the festival grounds and got a survey of the event space. The term veld is defined as a “flat, open country with few trees” which is what you would see of Downsview Park if you went a month before VELD. Over the span of the July 29th-31st long weekend, the relatively quiet Downsview Park comes alive as 45,000 people flood into the park (see fig. 1 and fig. 2 for reference). If space and place within the scholarship of cultural and social geography is known as an “event,” then raves are the perfect encapsulation as it is a space being created just for an event.
Figure 1 The Main Stage of VELD 2022 at the start of the day. Photograph and permission for usage courtesy of INK Entertainment.
Figure 2 The Main Stage of VELD 2022 by mid-day. Photograph and permission for usage courtesy of INK Entertainment.
“A sacred space, where nature and technology meet. Here, you are home.” The blaring hihats and concussive bass blasting from the concert speakers that reverberates in my bones demands that my body dance. Everything about stage and set design for raves was made to feel otherworldly and a true “escape” from reality. The mythos of raves being a utopian space is vital to the enjoyment of rave spaces for all and this is reflected in the way ravers discuss stage design as being one of the most important aspects and appeal behind going to raves. Keith Negus writes as much in his scholarship when he discusses how music has become the medium in which people partake in social activities in one space. For EDM spaces, music is a mode in which one finds community and space for expression and amid the chaos of daily life. One commenter on the internet forum Reddit succinctly writes and explains how they perceive raves to be different than a concert or a generic music festival.
“I think it's from the music and club culture associated with it. […] Plus the disenfranchised people that started electronic dance music wanted a place different from the outside world that didn't except them. Most festivals are to see the bands. EDM festivals are for dancing and the experience.”
How rave stages and festival grounds are designed to create utopian experiences harkens back to the designation of rave spaces as a mix of “technology and nature.” This consitutes the creation of the “vibe,” which has been the subject of much analysis by musecologists and sociologists alike. In general terms, it is a way of interpreting how spacial design affects enjoyment of music. In the case of VELD, the otherworldy transformation of a veld into a place of high tech fufills this fantasy, coupled with the fluidity in its design and shape over time. It creates a zone where one can be anything, and where one can be free to express themselves under the cacophony of sounds and lights. By daytime, the festival grounds are transformed into a carnival-style setting with ferris wheels and other amusement park features that invoke the childlike innocence and wonder within participants (see fig. 3). There is also a focus on art structures highlighting the natural scenery and beauty of Downsview Park.
Figure 3 The fairgrounds of VELD 2022 at dusk. Photograph and permission for usage courtesy of INK Entertainment.
As day turns to night, the stage comes alive with LED light systems and visuals that swim on stage screens (see fig. 4). The combination between these enable for the music at these events to invoke hope. Philosopher Ernst Bloch elucidates in his book Principle of Hope that music spaces help us anticipate a future where people regardless of creed or identity can exist freely. When enough people join in on the participatory event that is a rave, for a brief moment, utopia can exist. Bathed under the lights of the electric stage, one Redditor summarizes how the stage made them feel in regards to utopia:
“Edm is a niche genre, almost nobody I know [in real life] likes it, so there is a strong feeling of utopia [and] belonging when I go to a show and hear thousands of people singing the same lyrics I’ve been singing alone for months/years.”
Figure 4 The Main Stage of VELD 2022 by night. Photograph and permission for usage courtesy of INK Entertainment.
Scared to Be Lonely: Inclusivity in Rave Spaces
Is it just our bodies? Are we both losing our minds? Is the only reason you're holding me tonight 'Cause we're scared to be lonely? Do we need somebody just to feel like we're alright? Is the only reason you're holding me tonight 'Cause we're scared to be lonely? – Martin Garrix and Dua Lipa, “Scared to Be Lonely”
About an hour and a half after ingesting the capsule of MDMA (80mg), colours started looking more vibrant than I had ever seen them. A feeling started to bubble within me – of joy and euphoria the kind of which I haven’t felt since I was a child. Continuing to hold onto the hand of my friend, he started to squeeze my hand to the beat of the music. Each squeeze grounding me in the space and place I was occupying and with the company that was with me, making me feel safe and secure.
“Utopia,” as my friends described it came into view. I also began to wonder (in typical academic fashion) if the joy I felt was necessarily felt the same way by other people with different intersectional identities. My first experience at a rave was sober and extremely fun, thus I knew enjoyment at a rave was not contingent on drugs and alcohol, but what about other factors like different intersectional identities? Given that an embodied sensory experience is near-mandatory to enjoy and understand raves, it is worthwhile to consider how others enjoy this space as an event.
Disabled actress Zahra Susan Ingersoll described her experience as a first-time raver as life changing. It helped her as a Crip cis-gendered woman imagine a world where her disability did not impede her socially and that she was beautiful and capable of love. “I didn’t know what to expect in the community. […] Its made me feel a sense of belonging, its made me feel a sense of normalcy.” In another example, Bradley Gunn explained that autistic people like him found it a safe space to express themselves and “stim” without judgement and act as their body wanted to as the music coursed through their bodies. Rather than “masking” his autistic behaviour and thus not not enabling themselves to enjoy the sensory experience of raves, Gunn found that within raves he could find freedom from societal norms and develop a healthier relationship with his Aspergers – treating it less as a disease and more as an integral facit of his identity. Likewise, academic studies have also reflected on this idea of accessibility of raves and music festivals to be highly conducive to community and utopia not just disabled and neurodivergent participants, but also able-bodied and neurotypical participants who build a stronger relationship with festival goers of all walks of life, setting the standard and notion that utopia is for all people.
For queer people or people who are questioning, raves allow the space for them to experiment with their gender and sexual identity through costuming and outfit design. In a Reddit post regarding what is socially acceptable to wear at a rave for cis-gendered men, overwhelmingly the comment section demonstrated that the gender binary was something ravers wanted to push against and encouraged other ravers to express themselves in whatever way made them feel confident and happy. One commenter wrote: “Wear girl shit! That’s honestly what I do. I’ll mix and match whatever I feel is comfortable and practical. Raves are no place for gender roles.”
What can be gathered from other experiences from other gender-diverse people as well as disabled and neurodivergent participants at raves is that there is a level of congruency when it comes to how rave spaces enable participants to fully express themselves in a way that other public spaces (such as a public square, library, or beach) would not allow them to. Raves thus to some degree can be seen as highly conducive of self-expression and enabling a bypass of spacial marginalization for minority groups. Being able to liberate the body and mind of societal constructs around sex, gender, sexuality, and disability further pushes and enraptures participants into the utopian space of raves.
Conclusion: Everything Goes On
"Don't try to make yourself remember, darling Don't look for me, I'm just a story you've been told" So let's pretend a little longer 'Cause when we're gone, everything goes on
After what felt like just a few short hours, VELD was over. In the (slightly cooler) Torontonian summer evening I left Downsview Park, hand in hand with all my friends old and new ones that I had made throughout the event. The “comedown” phase of MDMA usage felt like it was already kicking in.
Like a bubble popping, the magic of raves and the space of utopia must come to an end. The utopia created over the span of a weekend influences and effects all attendees in different ways, ranging from affirming their identities to making them fall in love with a part of themselves that they never knew about. This was certainly the case for me. Based on my personal experience sober and otherwise, each rave I have been to has taught me much about myself and pushed me to consider the kind of person I want to be. This transformation of self is in line with the narratives and stories of other ravers as described above. All of these require the stage to set in a way to allow for freedom expression and experience: utopia. While one rave ends and the sadness casts a shadow, there is always another rave just over the horizon. Everything goes on.
Illenium, Gryffin, and Daya, Feel Good (Feat Daya) (Spotify: Seeking Blue/Kasaya Records, 2017), https://open.spotify.com/album/1fP5UnRB0WNWNHSZRHsRCR?si=hzYQoFHHQzuVpArY0TkhJw.  For more information, see: ‘Veld Music Festival’, accessed 14 August 2022, https://veldmusicfestival.com/.  “Roll” or “rolling” is slang for taking 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine which is truncated to MDMA (also known as “ecstasy” when in tablet form or “Molly” when in powdered form). MDMA as a drug enhances your emotional state of being as well as your sensory perception. The origin of the term is unknown, but some interpretations of the term include how the drug makes one feel as if they are “rolling on the momentum of heightened emotions.” For more information regarding the use of MDMA in rave culture as well as academic research, see: Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash: A Journey through Rave Music and Dance Culture, Book, Whole (Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2012), 23–34, https://go.exlibris.link/cdhzdjXW.  When I use the term utopia, I am using it to describe “[an] imagined or hypothetical place, system, or state of existence in which everything is perfect, esp. in respect of social structure, laws, and politics.” See: Oxford English Dictionary, ‘“utopia, n.”.’, n.d., https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/220784?redirectedFrom=utopia. Kaskade, deadmau5, and Hayla, Escape (Feat Hayla) (Spotify: mau5trap, 2022), https://open.spotify.com/track/10oKSzRcwbZsog2uq2gb4b?si=c23dd84d88c44997. Oxford English Dictionary, ‘“veld, n.”.’, n.d., https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/221962?redirectedFrom=veld.  This is significant given that statistics provided by the Toronto Transit Commission in 2018 show that Downsview Park was the 2nd least visited stop along the Toronto Metro Line, averaging 2,500 users weekly. Compare this to the busiest station in Toronto, Union Station which sees nearly 800,000 users a week. See:‘Toronto Transit Commission Subway Ridership – 2018’ (Toronto Transit Commission, 2018), Wayback Machine, https://web.archive.org/web/20190126084925/http://www.ttc.ca/PDF/Transit_Planning/Subway%20ridership%20-%202018.pdf. edc_lasvegas, ‘Presenting #kineticFIELD, Our HOME.’, Instagram Post, Instagram, 24 April 2022, https://www.instagram.com/p/CcwSG8cJiX8/. Matthew Collin, Rave on: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music, Book, Whole (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018), 150, https://go.exlibris.link/0RqmwWGJ. u/landofmold, ‘Half of the Pleasure of a Rave Is the Lighting. Who Are the Best EDM Lighting Technicians/ Visual Artists?’, Internet Forum, Reddit, January 2022, https://www.reddit.com/r/EDM/comments/rsjkla/half_of_the_pleasure_of_a_rave_is_the_lighting/. Keith Negus, Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction, Book, Whole (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), 7–8, https://go.exlibris.link/5V7Z4xZc. u/afterburners_engaged, ‘Why Are Edm Festivals so Different to Traditional Festivals?’, Internet Forum, Reddit, 19 July 2022, https://www.reddit.com/r/EDM/comments/w3d177/why_are_edm_festivals_so_different_to_traditional/. edc_lasvegas, ‘Presenting #kineticFIELD, Our HOME.’ Chris Gibson, ‘Subversive Sites: Rave Culture, Spatial Politics and the Internet in Sydney, Australia’, Area (London 1969) 31, no. 1 (1999): 21, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4762.1999.tb00165.x. Carter F. Hanson, ‘Pop Goes Utopia: An Examination of Utopianism in Recent Electronic Dance Pop’, Utopian Studies 25, no. 2 (2014): 385, https://doi.org/10.5325/utopianstudies.25.2.0384. u/yungneurotic, ‘Substance Use and Culture/Community aside, in What Ways Does Listening to EDM Positively Affect Your Mental Health?’, Internet Forum, Reddit, 2020, https://www.reddit.com/r/EDM/comments/j3rfw1/substance_use_and_culturecommunity_aside_in_what/. Martin Garrix and Dua Lipa, Scared to Be Lonely (Spotify: Stmpd, Epic, 2017), https://open.spotify.com/track/3ebXMykcMXOcLeJ9xZ17XH?si=9df5afe73823467b. Insomniac, ‘EDC Las Vegas 2022 - All Are Welcome Here Trailer’, Video Sharing Platform, Youtube, 12 April 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWRVUoKKfaE&t=41s&ab_channel=Insomniac. The Sober Raver with Asperger’s Syndrome (Youtube, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAzCtahZ4OU&ab_channel=VT. “Stim” or “Stimming” is when an autistic person moves or does an action repetitively when responding to stimuli. For more information, please see: Matt Medina, ‘Flap like a Butterfly; Stim like a Bee’, Embrace Autism (blog), 28 May 2020, https://embrace-autism.com/stim-like-a-bee/#Tags. Brittany Martin, ‘All-Access: When It Comes to Accessibility for People with Disabilities at Outdoor Music Festivals, Accessible Festivals Is Setting the Standard’, Paraplegia News 70, no. 7 (2016): 24, https://go.exlibris.link/ZRh06Pqb. u/Taz988, ‘Mens Ravewear’, Internet Forum, Reddit, May 2022, https://www.reddit.com/r/electricdaisycarnival/comments/v00fyy/mens_ravewear/. Marlon M. Bailey, ‘Engendering Space: Ballroom Culture and the Spatial Practice of Possibility in Detroit’, Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 21, no. 4 (2014): 489–507, https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2013.786688. Porter Robinson, Everything Goes On (Spotify: Riot Games, 2022), https://open.spotify.com/track/3WBRfkOozHEsG0hbrBzwlm?si=402073cb5dd0454a.  As a result of increased Serotonin, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine levels while using MDMA, once the drug wears off, the body enters a “comedown” phase where the neurotransmitters listed above enter a period of desensitization. Common side effects include feelings of depression, anxiety, as well as impulsivity. From personal experience, the effects consist of a strong melancholy. For more information, see: Kelly Allott and Jennifer Redman, ‘Patterns of Use and Harm Reduction Practices of Ecstasy Users in Australia’, Drug and Alcohol Dependence 82, no. 2 (2006): 168–76, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2005.09.009.
Allott, Kelly, and Jennifer Redman. ‘Patterns of Use and Harm Reduction Practices of Ecstasy Users in Australia’. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 82, no. 2 (2006): 168–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2005.09.009.
Bailey, Marlon M. ‘Engendering Space: Ballroom Culture and the Spatial Practice of Possibility in Detroit’. Gender, Place and Culture : A Journal of Feminist Geography 21, no. 4 (2014): 489–507. https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2013.786688.
Collin, Matthew. Rave on: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music. Book, Whole. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. https://go.exlibris.link/0RqmwWGJ.
edc_lasvegas. ‘Presenting #kineticFIELD, Our HOME.’ Instagram Post. Instagram, 24 April 2022. https://www.instagram.com/p/CcwSG8cJiX8/.
Garrix, Martin, and Dua Lipa. Scared to Be Lonely. Spotify: Stmpd, Epic, 2017. https://open.spotify.com/track/3ebXMykcMXOcLeJ9xZ17XH?si=9df5afe73823467b.
Gibson, Chris. ‘Subversive Sites: Rave Culture, Spatial Politics and the Internet in Sydney, Australia’. Area (London 1969) 31, no. 1 (1999): 19–33. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4762.1999.tb00165.x.
Hanson, Carter F. ‘Pop Goes Utopia: An Examination of Utopianism in Recent Electronic Dance Pop’. Utopian Studies 25, no. 2 (2014): 384–413. https://doi.org/10.5325/utopianstudies.25.2.0384.
Illenium, Gryffin, and Daya. Feel Good (Feat Daya). Spotify: Seeking Blue/Kasaya Records, 2017. https://open.spotify.com/album/1fP5UnRB0WNWNHSZRHsRCR?si=hzYQoFHHQzuVpArY0TkhJw.
Insomniac. ‘EDC Las Vegas 2022 - All Are Welcome Here Trailer’. Video Sharing Platform. Youtube, 12 April 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWRVUoKKfaE&t=41s&ab_channel=Insomniac.
Kaskade, deadmau5, and Hayla. Escape (Feat Hayla). Spotify: mau5trap, 2022. https://open.spotify.com/track/10oKSzRcwbZsog2uq2gb4b?si=c23dd84d88c44997.
Martin, Brittany. ‘All-Access: When It Comes to Accessibility for People with Disabilities at Outdoor Music Festivals, Accessible Festivals Is Setting the Standard’. Paraplegia News 70, no. 7 (2016): 24. https://go.exlibris.link/ZRh06Pqb.
Medina, Matt. ‘Flap like a Butterfly; Stim like a Bee’. Embrace Autism (blog), 28 May 2020. https://embrace-autism.com/stim-like-a-bee/#Tags.
Negus, Keith. Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. Book, Whole. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996. https://go.exlibris.link/5V7Z4xZc.
Oxford English Dictionary. ‘“utopia, n.”.’, n.d. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/220784?redirectedFrom=utopia.
———. ‘“veld, n.”.’, n.d. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/221962?redirectedFrom=veld.
Reynolds, Simon. Energy Flash: A Journey through Rave Music and Dance Culture. Book, Whole. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2012. https://go.exlibris.link/cdhzdjXW.
Robinson, Porter. Everything Goes On. Spotify: Riot Games, 2022. https://open.spotify.com/track/3WBRfkOozHEsG0hbrBzwlm?si=402073cb5dd0454a.
The Sober Raver with Asperger’s Syndrome. Youtube, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAzCtahZ4OU&ab_channel=VT.
‘Toronto Transit Commission Subway Ridership – 2018’. Toronto Transit Commission, 2018. Wayback Machine. https://web.archive.org/web/20190126084925/http://www.ttc.ca/PDF/Transit_Planning/Subway%20ridership%20-%202018.pdf.
u/afterburners_engaged. ‘Why Are Edm Festivals so Different to Traditional Festivals?’ Internet Forum. Reddit, 19 July 2022. https://www.reddit.com/r/EDM/comments/w3d177/why_are_edm_festivals_so_different_to_traditional/.
u/landofmold. ‘Half of the Pleasure of a Rave Is the Lighting. Who Are the Best EDM Lighting Technicians/ Visual Artists?’ Internet Forum. Reddit, January 2022. https://www.reddit.com/r/EDM/comments/rsjkla/half_of_the_pleasure_of_a_rave_is_the_lighting/.
u/Taz988. ‘Mens Ravewear’. Internet Forum. Reddit, May 2022. https://www.reddit.com/r/electricdaisycarnival/comments/v00fyy/mens_ravewear/.
u/yungneurotic. ‘Substance Use and Culture/Community aside, in What Ways Does Listening to EDM Positively Affect Your Mental Health?’ Internet Forum. Reddit, 2020. https://www.reddit.com/r/EDM/comments/j3rfw1/substance_use_and_culturecommunity_aside_in_what/.
‘Veld Music Festival’. Accessed 14 August 2022. https://veldmusicfestival.com/.