The act of partying isn’t just limited to blinding disco lights, a drunken haze and a debilitating hangover the next day. Parties have always been the purest form of escapism, an alternate reality where dancing till dawn is the only task on our to-do list. It’s where we tune out the struggles of our daily grind, possibly so we can grind with a complete stranger on a liquor-laced dance floor. It’s a form of release that keeps us closely bonded to a community of people we may have only got to know through mid-grooving glances. It’s a platform that nourishes our insatiable appetite to discover and devour a vast spectrum of music genres.
Of course, we only truly grasped this deeper meaning in 2020.
As pandemic panic set in early this year, lockdown restrictions left even the most devout revellers unable to access their outlet. Suddenly, substance-fuelled Saturday nights, once spent crammed in dimly lit basements brimming with vibrating bodies, were replaced with Netflix watch parties. Ironically, it's when the world needed that exhilarating escape the most, that it became an unimaginable act.
Yet, the concept of partying refused to shut up and sit in a corner. Over the last year, rave culture has metamorphosed in its attempt to improvise, adapt and overcome the upheaval of the times.
Illegal lockdown raves
Even amid stringent lockdown restrictions across the world, illegal raves reminiscent of the 70s and 80s emerged as a hush-hush alternative to staying shut in. Everything from caves to underground bunkers to forests became nocturnal playgrounds for the young and restless. In the U.K., police identified more than 500 illegal gatherings since March, while similar parties were busted in countries including India, France and the U.S.
“There is a danger involved, yes, but in a way that makes you want to do it even more. Getting away unscathed is the ultimate high,” Sourabh Chaterjee*, a 28-year-old photographer who attended multiple secret raves in Goa, told VICE. He insists that those who attended these raves generally lived alone, and did not buy into the media narrative around COVID-19. “I wouldn’t say it’s a hoax, but we have so many other diseases that also don’t have a proper cure or vaccine, like dengue. We still wore face masks and followed social distancing measures, but it didn’t feel right to give up the happiness, peace and love we get from these gatherings because of this virus,” Chatterjee said.
House party hangs
It wasn’t just the House Party app that emerged as an important form of interaction amid restricted lifestyles. In the new normal, house parties became the lockdown loophole that allowed groups of friends to gather and pause from the constant doomscrolling we’ve all been subjecting ourselves to. These parties were primarily attended by groups of ten people or less, and mainly emerged as a way for people to blow off steam after weeks where time felt fluid. “Without any social activity keeping my energy levels up, I just felt dead all the time,” Anurag Khar*, a 23-year-old business professional from Gujarat told VICE. After almost two months of staying shut in, Khar was overcome with the need to interact with his friends beyond a laptop screen. “About 12 of us met at my house, and to avoid getting caught breaking guidelines, they stayed over. We popped ecstasy and raged to electronic music. It was a big deal because we hadn’t partied like that in months,” he said.
Similarly, many communities chose to move in together in a mutual space, including houses and event venues, where they could safely spend their nights vibing to underground beat scratches in the company of like-minded individuals. “At these parties, you’ll see people dancing, painting on canvases as well as bodies, doing pilates, performing fire dances, and even cooking or selling things,” Aerath Rajeev Radhakrishnan, a documentary filmmaker who moved into an events venue in Goa with his friends during the lockdown, told VICE. Radhakrishnan explained that these community sessions were important to not fall prey to the atmosphere of panic and isolation that initial months of the pandemic had prompted.
Sampriya Bhandare, a 24-year-old designer, also pointed out how these house parties helped friend groups get closer in an age of uncertainty. “It made our crew smaller, and all the obligatory extras were out,” she told VICE. “It was just a few friends meeting at a friends house on a weekend and drinking together. Our parties went from 100 to zero, but it was still better than staying at home.”
But for many, the idea of going to a space filled with unfamiliar faces seemed careless or impossible. So, they turned to virtual reality instead.
Perhaps the poster child of the pandemic, digital raves emerged as the only alternative for partygoers who weren’t comfortable stepping out of their homes to channel their socially starved frustration. From electronic music festival Tomorrowland to indie concerts and artist covers to the world’s most exclusive Zoom parties, the internet became a vessel for VR raves. “It started with simple Instagram or YouTube lives, and then progressed into more production-heavy, studio-based gigs that allowed artists to connect with their audience digitally,” Arjun Shah, the founder and CEO of talent management agency Shark & Ink, told VICE. Shah explained that this scene not only made artists, especially international artists, more accessible to everyone with internet access due to lower ticket prices, but it also helped artists get more creative with their work. “We organised a digital gig where we used home equipment to recreate the live experience. Instead of CO2 guns, we used deodorant sprays, and asked friends or flatmates to throw confetti on the DJ using their hands,” he said.
For many artists who suddenly found their livelihoods harshly impacted by pandemic restrictions, digital raves, through virtual reality platforms like Second Life or games like Minecraft, became a saving grace. But it wasn’t an easy transition, especially for artists familiar with live performances.
“You don’t have the right sound system or an audience reacting to your music, so it doesn’t feel close to the real thing,” Ketan Bahirat, an electronica artist known by his stage name Oceantied, told VICE. “It’s great because it pushes the boundaries, even if it took months to get used to.”
While digital raves couldn’t exactly replicate the energy, feel, touch and sensory aspects of a live gig, for many it was a simple pleasure to look forward to in a gloom-ridden phase.
“It felt as though you’re actually going for a party in which you buy the ticket to the show, get some food and drinks with your buddies, and once the show begins, immerse yourself into this world of virtual reality,” Arjun Sood, a 24-year-old DJ and engineer, who attended a 3D virtual reality festival called Retro Future, told VICE. “This entire experience definitely gave me an adrenaline rush since it felt like we could party freely for the first time.”
In this way, virtual raves substituted the feelings of escapism that people were seeking at these parties.
“Even Zoom parties where you didn’t know 80 percent of the attendees became a replacement and release for the catharsis people experienced on dance floors,” Vansh Panjabi, a 25-year-old content strategist and DJ, who began a volunteer-based quarantine radio show to encourage micro-raves in people’s homes, told VICE. “It’s reinvigorated the scene and helped people expand their music tastes.”
Socially distanced festivals
An LA-based design firm may have created the Micrashell suit to make socially distanced parties seem plausible, but many quickly realised that looking like a Power Rangers reject at a rave probably wasn’t the most feasible.
So, event organisers came up with even more alternatives to make regular music festivals and gigs feel like safe spaces. In Germany, the first socially distanced festival featured ravers grooving within the confines of a demarcated circle while wearing masks.
Similarly, at a music festival in Slovakia, a physical grid separating partygoers with a plastic tape was created to adhere to social distancing.
Open air venues, temperature checks and mandatory face masks emerged as a prerequisite for almost every legally held rager.
A high note
As the scene slowly improvised and adapted to the times, so did the partygoer's choice of drugs. “I would normally do cocaine or MDMA at a party, but for a virtual gig, my friend and I did a stamp of acid. It was really chilled out and we could trip out to the visuals and music without feeling any awkwardness about dancing,” Supriya Sharma*, a 26-year-old marketing professional based in Mumbai, told VICE.
“I’m not a hardcore drug user, but I did enjoy occasionally doing ecstasy or MDMA at a rave,” Simran Singh*, a 24-year-old visual artist told VICE. “But since the scene became a more low-key vibe, I’ve stuck to beer and hash joints to keep me high. Honestly, don’t think I could have gotten through this year without my doobies.”
*Names changed to protect identities