Drugs and art have a lot in common. They are both consumed, they both play huge roles in defining youth cultures, and they are both talked about and interpreted by huge swathes of people who know very little about them.
This article is going to look at one drug in particular. The drug that, for better or for worse, has been powering rave culture and dance music since the 1980s. Ecstasy. Yet we're not going to talk about the drug itself, or the people who take it. Instead this is a look at how ecstasy has been understood in the popular imagination, and how it has gradually shifted from being a "blokey", and masculine substance, to something "girly" and feminine. Tracing the roots, from Gary to Molly.
It is important to state, before proceeding, that the terms masculinity and femininity are obviously fluid, and nowhere has this been truer than in dance music culture. The very fact that this article is going to refer to shirtless men hugging each-other as masculine, should be an indication that we are working within a culture that has a track record for defying the boundaries of sex. Yet this is a consideration of how the popular imagination, with far more traditional ideas of gender, have interacted with drugs and music, so the definitions of men and women are naturally more limited.
In essence, the gender dynamics of the time share a relationship with how we recall the drug in this era. Phrased best by Angela McRobbie, in her essay "Shut Up and Dance", "in raves there can be seen a series of social tensions (including those around gender and sexuality) which are manifest in the aesthetics of dance, music, and drugs which come to characterise the phenomena."
The first sizeable encounter the public imagination had with ecstasy was the second summer of love. A period between 1988 and 1989 when an explosion of MDMA-fueled all night raves seized both youthful imaginations and trepidatious headlines. The era was one of psychedelic tie-dyes and smiley faces, Madchester and the Hacienda, Danny Rampling and Paul Oakenfold.
Masculinity was definitely altered by the arrival of ecstasy. There are stories, after its arrival in England of considerable dips in violence, with many arguing that the drug even influenced the football terraces. As in Andrew Wood's book No-One Likes Us, We Don't Care, featuring accounts from some of Millwall's self-professed football hooligans, "a-huggin' and a-lovin' was the new a-punchin' and a-kickin'", adding, "the Summer of Love had put paid to football violence".
Yet, these shifts within masculinity can't distract from the fact that the initial cultural impact of ecstasy was still typified by men. Take the very example of "Gary", one of the earliest terms for ecstasy, the origins of which rest with former Everton and Liverpool defender Gary Ablett (Gary Ablett = Tablet). Even the pill's name was linked to a bastion of male culture. The summer of love might have turned the lads soft, but the party was still happening on their terms.
The same is echoed by a closer look at Madchester. Again, despite the freedom and loved-up spirit of the movement, it was a male landscape. From the bands, to the DJs, the promoters to the writers, the figures that defined ecstasy's first cultural responses were male. While women were present, they tended to be background figures, occasional fashion designers, high-profile girlfriends or backing vocalists, always playing second place to the poked out tongues and bucket hats of the era's frontmen. To quote Milestone and Meyer's Gender and Popular Culture, "if we take the case of 'Madchester', we can see clear gender patterns in the formation of these new bohemias — men dominate."
So what does this have to do with how society understood ecstasy? Well, this was a period when drug consumption was tied far more explicitly to the artists. While today every producer of electronic music will be aware that their music will most likely soundtrack pill-popping, they seldom reference it — in fact most musicians actively distance themselves from drug use completely, save it lead to a PR disaster later along the line. Madchester, on the other hand, was a time when drugs were embedded into the fabric of the music and the nightlife in a far more explicit way. Acid house, and its subsequent offshoots, were sounds feeding into, and off of, newly discovered all night parties powered by the drug. In this respect the artists, notably alternative rock acts like the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, became the face of this new party culture, and by extension, the face of this new drug.
This is qualified by how we remember rave culture and ecstasy of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Whether it is grainy VHS recordings of illegal parties, or the fictional imaginings of films like 24 Hour Party People, the ecstasy experience as understood on visual terms was centre around men. The raves were, to quote McRobbie again, expressions of "working-class masculinity sweating, shirtless, en masse in a vast hangar." Laddish, loutish men, who were "livin' it large" and absolutely "on one". Shaved heads, football shirts, promiscuity and braggadocio, the aesthetics of the drug were typified by blokes, who despite finding their softer sides were still "proper lads". So, ecstasy played a strange game in the cultural imagination, at once associated with more classically feminine traits of love and affection, all the while embedded in a culture that was visually and vocally male.
So to move forward into the millennium, and ecstasy, or MDMA, is once again in the cultural imagination, but this time it looks different. Let's first briefly touch on the etymology behind the term Molly. Despite now bearing a delicate girl's name, the actual roots of the term are slightly more clinical, being an abbreviation of molecule — specifically a molecule of MDMA, referencing Molly's supposed status as the drug in its pure crystalline form. Yet Molly has been twisted and adapted from this meaning, and has come to stand for any form of ecstasy, be it gumming crystals or popping pills.
Along with the semantic shift from Gary into Molly, has come a change in the face of the raver. The shaved heads and baggy football shirts that littered news reports in 1989 have gradually been replaced by crop tops and pacifiers. Even the male ravers have been feminised to a point — trading scruffiness for toned muscles, clean trainers, and gelled hair. Of course, this isn't actually representative of reality, but the imagined raver now looks more like Zac Efron in We Are Your Friends, than Danny Dyer in Human Traffic.
There are a multitude of other influences that have led to this. The growth of PLUR culture and kandi kids, shifts in rave spaces from darker, industrial warehouses to more being more commonly associated with open air festivals, along with the drug generally being used more people (usage has risen by 84% in the UK this year) have all contributed to the laddish face of ecstasy losing its edge, making way for a softer more classically feminine presence as it has been re-popularised in culture.
Molly's entry into hip hop, has been one of the driving forces behind this re-popularisation. Rappers have been name-checking ecstasy as far back as Tupac, but its influence now has taken on a new significance. Far from being a point of casual reference, the new school of hip hop have embraced the drug as a narrative tool, and key cultural touch-point. While there are the big molly-led moments, like Trinidad James' "popped a molly I'm sweating" on "All Gold Everything", MDMA has slipped into the lyrics of Lil Wayne, Mac Miller, 2 Chainz, Danny Brown, and Makonnen, to name a few.
Yet significantly, this proliferation of its use has been paired with the arrival of the introspective rapper. Kanye West (post-808s), and Drake, are both figures who have taken the genre into softer, more melodic, and more classically feminine territory, and as such have influenced hip-hop to do the same. As part of this process, ecstasy's relationship with music has lost its laddish buoyancy. The emotional core has been retained, but the rogues of Madchester have been replaced by 'thoughtful' or 'conflicted' males. If best summed up in a lyric, Drake raps on "The Ride", "My young niggas popping M's and sipping dirty Jones, problem children that all be repping October's Own". The likely lads, and loved up hooligans, have become "problem children".
Yet this only captures one shade of the feminisation of ecstasy. Another side of the drug's interaction with hip hop has been its characterisation as a date rape drug, perhaps most infamously summed up by Rick Ross' infamous lyric, "Put all Molly in her champagne, she ain't even know it, I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain't even know it." While this line sparked sizeable controversy, it is indicative of a wider trend, attaching ecstasy to the vulnerability of women. To consider another lyric, this time from Kanye West's "Blood on the Leaves", where he raps, "Let's take it back to the first party, where you tried your first Molly, and came out of your body...running naked down the lobby, and you was screaming that you loved me." This scene again confirms the emergence of a new character in ecstasy's story: the young woman, the first time taker, a party girl way out of her depth.
Sadly, this is a particular incarnation of MDMA in the public psyche where art has arguably imitated life. Most, if not all, high profile cases of deaths as a result of MDMA reported both in Britain and the United States have been those of young (let's face it, white) women. While obviously there is another conversation to be had about drug safety (and media bias), victims such as Tayla Woodward, Chloe Wilkes, Martha Fernback, and Brittany Flannigan, have become the faces of a wave of fear, fed by the media and nervously received by parents. In this context, the term Molly has appeared in major articles everywhere from Time Magazine, to the New York Times, the Guardian, to the BBC. Every time, discussions of ecstasy have been accompanied by the faces of young women, creating a constructed social link between MDMA and teenage girls.
Adding to this connection between MDMA and the image of the young female, is the role popular modern dance music, or EDM, plays. Significantly, when talking about a feminisation of ecstasy, it is important to reiterate that this doesn't mean a positive shift toward a more equally gendered understanding of rave culture, far from it. Yet the female form has come to play a more central role.
Whether it is a tropical house mix uploaded to YouTube, a David Guetta video, or even a flyer for a club night, the female body, in all its most crass and objectified glory, has become a central aesthetic in dance music. As this has happened, EDM has penetrated the mainstream consciousness more and more. DJs have become festival headliners, bringing sweeping camera crane shots across festival crowds to national television — teenage girls on shoulders, flower headbands on, hands in the air, waiting for the drop.
Perhaps the final layer to this, is the detachment of the male presence. Where the Happy Mondays were pretty visibly taking ecstasy most of time, EDM superstars will stand stratospheric, a huge distance away from their screaming crowds, watching them gurn from massive stage, before completing the set and leaving the stage. This is understood in Ilana Mountian's book Cultural Ecstasies as a symptom of the 'modern girl culture', where "men produce the rave music at home" but the women are the "insiders". Ecstasy's relationship with popular culture is still vocally male, only this time, they aren't the face of the campaign.
These might seem like spurious connections, or bullshit attempts to find meaning in brown powder, but these links, these cultural codes, are absolutely at the root of how we interact with everything. A social and cultural element as ubiquitous as drug-taking will always be re-modeled in people's imagination, largely by those who have nothing to do with it. And this is ecstasy's story, a drug that despite shaping a thousand different, and wildly varying memories, has in the public eye gone from being a disco-biscuit for the lads, to becoming ketamine's whiny younger sister.
Essentially this evolution mirrors much of what has happened to dance music in the mainstream as a whole, a shift from likely lads to an even more regressive dynamic of a male dominated industry exploiting, or endangering, young women. There has already been academic work that has recognised rave culture having led to a "general feminisation of youth", as phrased by Maria Pini in her work on women in the early British rave scene. Yet specifically examining popular responses to ecstasy, this feminisation is evident, but perhaps more regressive than we'd like to think. Rather than just being a journey of masculinity receding in dominance, it is instead a story of the rise in objectification.
Say Gary, and you'll probably picture a shaved head bobbing fervently up and down in a sweat-drenched football shirt, say Molly, and you can swap that scene for a blonde girl with a bindi and a crop top, flailing wildly in front of Avicii. Whichever way you look at it, ecstasy looks very different to how it did when it first arrived. Which is stupid really. It's the taste that counts.