Anything seemed possible in 1999. A heady feeling of techno-optimist excitement mixed with apocalyptic fear peaked that year. The approach of Y2K and rapid expansion of consumer technology spurred sci-fi and magical realist films like Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, and the Matrix, while music videos like Bjork's "All Is Full of Love" and Aphex Twin's "Windowlicker" (both directed by Chris Cunningham) made the future seem as sexy as it was scary. Of course, 9/11 and the Dotcom Crash were just around the corner, but for a moment, a wave of tension that had built up through the decade crested in an explosion of trippy culture.
One of the main pressure valves through which these feelings manifested in reality was dance music. Looking back at footage from 1999, you can see what I mean. In videos from a free rave in Tompkins Square Park that year—a brash explosion of diverse mosh pits—the underground scene's freedom and life is evident. But it wasn't just a DIY phenomenon; these ecstatic moments also popped up in the mainstream.
Over the summer of '99, MTV threw a massive party on Ibiza in an outdoor rock quarry. By the end of the decade, dance music—and the White Island in particular—had emerged as a dominant global brand, far beyond its humble Midwestern roots. With music videos by acts like the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, and even Darude on repeat, it made sense for MTV to engage with the culture directly. The channel booked acts like Paul Oakenfold, David Morales, Faithless, Orbital, the Jungle Brothers and Chicane for an all-night party, which became the hour-long special above. It's a thrilling document, remarkable for the depiction of raving at peak cultural saturation in all its sweaty, blissed-out glory.
Faithless, the legendary trance trio, perform immortal hits like "Insomnia" and "God is a DJ" in front of a frothing audience of thousands. Their live set-up—complete with guitar, drums and even a wind chime—gives substance to their uplifting melodies, and singer Maxi Jazz leads the proceedings with a raw magnetism. He looks like a prophet as he glances beatifically over the crowd and recites the intro to "God is a DJ": "This is my church, this is where I heal my hurts, it's in natural grace, watching young life shape." There's a sacred innocence to the performance, from Jazz's beatific posture to the adoring faces of the crowds at his feet. This is rave as religion.
Our host for the evening—an enthusiastic Israeli VJ named Eden Harel, in cornrows and a cowboy hat—plays the role of the apostle, scurrying through the crowd and receiving joyful testimony from the faithful. "This is the biggest thing I've ever seen!" exclaims a group of cherubic Brits in togas. "Massive!" gushes a girl through gritted teeth.
It's hard to imagine something like this on TV today—the only time dance music appears on one of the big networks is when they trot out Skrillex or Diplo at the Grammy's. A 2017 version of this doc would take place at some mid-brow festival in Southern California, with guys in John Varvatos distressed leather Converse talking about the "vibes" at a Kygo set and jumping in place at a beverage company-sponsored side stage. That's why I find the MTV special so fascinating—our relationship with dance music has changed. In 1999, raves served as portals into the terrifying and entrancing future that seemed to shimmer on the horizon. Now, we're living in that future, and the notion that mainstream dance music could deliver us from armageddon into a socialist rave-topia seems naive. Rather, it's just another tool we have to help distract ourselves from drone warfare and the plight of Lamby and the ongoing social media-driven implosion of American democracy—our civilization's oddly mundane decline.
After sets of trance and hardcore rave from Chicane and the Jungle Brothers, the special culminates with an incredible performance by British dance legends Orbital—keyboards illuminated by their trademark headlamps, they rush through an uplifting set of screaming acid and mind-expanding jungle before ending with a grinding industrial remix of the Butthole Surfers "Sweat Loaf." The song's refrain—"SATAN SATAN SATAN"—feels like an inverted echo of Faithless's hit. Religion and rapture, the sacred and the profane, all mixed up into a potent cocktail of idealistic hedonism under the Mediterranean sky.