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Critically consider the relationship between the media and dance music culture in Britain after its take-off in 1987

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Critically consider the relationship between the media and dance music culture in Britain after its take-off in 1987.

The dance music phenomenon that occurred in Britain after its take off in 1987 can be

seen as a great youth movement, that, took Britain by storm and affected the lives of

many teenagers. Following its take off, to present day, dance music has cultivated into

a huge commercial industry with dance tracks being aired on radio as much as being

used to be played in nightclubs, where it all began. This essay anticipates suggesting

that it was the role of the media that turned dance music into such a huge

phenomenon, even though the majority of its coverage was negative at first, arousing

a moral panic within Britain, brought upon by the media, by an anxious government.

The negative press helped catapult the dance music movement into full scale, the

reasons why will be explored further in the essay. This paper will concentrate mainly

on British newspapers influence in relation to the dance music culture, and the

subculture theory of Sarah Thornton, who, argues dance music to be a subculture, that

would cease to exist without the aid of the media. Without it, the subculture is

nothing. Whilst concentrating on this theory, this essay, will, however, compare and

contrast other researchers theories, whilst chronologically leading the reader through

important events between the media and the dancer music culture after its take off in


Britain’s dance music culture is said to have taken off on 1987, as, it was in this year

that three unknown men returned to Britain, their homelands, from what was meant to

be a cheap holiday. The holiday, however, actually turned into a completely new

experience or way of life even, not just for them but also for the rest of Britain that lay

affected there after. It was a holiday they will never forget, for when they were there,

they experienced a completely new culture. They discovered that, unlike Thatcherite

Britain, (that was currently suffering a depression) Ibiza had everything only dreams

were made of; sunlight, and two new materials dance music combined with ecstasy,

and if they could not bring home with them the sunshine they made it their jobs to

bring the other two.’[1]

 Jonny Walker, part of that group explained ‘it was really such a genuine, wonderful

experience that we‘d had that we all wanted to bring that back and share it with other

people…we wanted to do go on and on and on.’ [2]Sticking to their plans, they brought

in a completely new lifestyle to Britain, by opening clubs playing the new eclectic

dance they had so enjoyed in the Mediterranean sun and introducing Britain’s

clubbers with ecstasy, beginning a new youth culture movement, acid house.[3]

In the summer of 1987, destinations such as Ibiza were popular for young people to

travel to, in order to escape the dull, grimness that was Britain. Not only in

Thatcherite Britain had the eighties seen massively high unemployment and inflation

but working class confidence was shattered with events such as the defeat of the

National Union of Mineworkers and the limiting of the welfare state.[4]

Indeed, growing up in the eighties would have understandably been a tormenting

experience. Not only was there the threat of long term unemployment but the miseries

going on through society must have had a great impact on each individual. However,

it is not always that easy as to explain the ‘acid house’ culture as a form of rebellion

towards society. Although the acid house phenomenon will go down with history

alongside all times great youth movements such as punk and hippy that occurred in

the decades before, acid house culture was different. One way to look at this is by

studying Dick Hedbige’s theory of subcultures. In Subculture: The Meaning of Style,

Hedbige offers the reader a theory understanding subcultures, in which the trend of

acid house can be understood. Hedbige suggests that

Style in subculture is, then, pregnant with significance. Its transformations go ‘against nature’, interrupting the process of ‘normalization’. As such, they are gestures, movements towards a speech which offends the ‘silent majority’, which challenges the principle of unity and cohesion, which contradicts the myth of consensus[5]

Quite rightly the acid house movement did challenge the authority of the government,

which will be explained further on, however, unlike the punk movement that occurred

in the 1970’s acid house did not stick a middle finger up to society, by creating its

own rules and regulations and developing its own ideas of how to live life. In fact, it

did quite the opposite, it accepted life as it was, but created its own way to deal with

it. That was, weekend escapism, the yearning to feel trouble free and connected to

others for two days a week, but returning to its weekly struggles come Monday. As

Antonio Melechi put it, ‘Acid House pleasures came not from resistance but from

surrender.’ [6]

Indeed, Hedbige’s theory of subculture in relation to the acid house phenomenon does

not seem to fit. Not only within the style of the subculture but by his suggestion that a

subculture strives to survive with all the outside pressures. Hedbige’s theory is that

subculture groups struggle against outside relations such as the media, in order to

keep themselves going and to remain an outside group. What theory does not seem

dated, on the other hand, is that of Sarah Thornton who, describes subcultures as

groups that are formed with the help of the media. The media helps construct the

subculture from the beginning and furthermore keeps the trend going.[7] To understand

Thornton’s view in relation to acid house one must look at the relations the media had

with the trend. In 1988 the tabloid newspapers published headlines such as “Ban this

killer music”, Acid house killer” and “drug crazed acid house fans.”[8] At the point of

these headlines, Thornton suggests that this is when the fad had really became a craze.

The coverage that the movement had been given had made people become aware of

the fad, that then grew to become a phenomenon, suggesting that subcultures “become

particularly relevant only when framed as such. Derogatory media coverage is not the

verdict, but the essence of their resistance.”[9] Contrary to Hedbige’s theory that, at the

point of the headlines, the subculture would have become subversive. That, the media

becomes important to subculture only at the point of incorporation, that is when

record companies would catch up to the idea and exploit it through marketing


Another subculturist theory that is used understandably to understand subcultures, but

Outdated, is that of Stanley Cohen. Reporting on the seaside rifts between the mods

and rockers in the 1960’s, Cohens research shows that it was in response to the media

that panic that the riots occurred. Although Thornton’s research was made after

Cohen’s, says the same thing, Cohen’s is somewhat outdated dated due to the fact that

he explains how the media can make a subculture function, but does not give

explanation to how the media keeps a subculture functioning. [11]

Thornton, on the other hand, digs deeper into explaining a subculture by also looking

into subculturist publications. These, she explains are the elements in which a

subculture keeps on functioning. Thornton names these elements as ‘micromedia’;

information that reports on the subculture. In the case of dance music these were

flyers, pirate radio stations and magazines- published primary in relation to the dance

scene. Without these the tabloid media would not have been sparked off in the first

place. Therefore the media takes an active role in creating a subculture as much as

supporting it.[12] 

From the tabloid press, what is clear is that there was an extreme moral panic about

the new acid house culture craze sweeping around Britain. Regarding a craze of

muggings that swept through Britain, in the early 1970’s, Stuart Hall, suggested that

the media panic that surrounded the issue at the time was a result of a social deterrent.

That, the media, sensationalized the actual statistics of the attacks in order to conceal

the real social problems that were occurring such as crime and unemployment, which,

the government were failing to control. Therefore, the media is playing the role of the

hegenomistic device within society. As Stuart Hall put it “the media tend to reproduce

the definitions of the powerful’,[13] that being the government. [14]

Stuart Hall’s theory rather fits in to the 1980‘s Thatch rite Britain, where as

mentioned a number of social and economic problems were occurring. By the middle

of 1980, the economy had thrusted into full-scale recession and the actual scale of

unemployment reached unsurpassed figures of 3 million. Leading a government of

Monetarism values, Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, found herself under a lot

of pressure in this period, as her beliefs had started to fail her. In order to run a state

with her belief one must concentrate on reducing any government arrears. This meant

taxes were raised and as much government spending reduction as possible was put

into place. It was a deflationary policy set to extreme, and although at the deflationary

policies began to work, economic growth lowered and the requirement for aggregate

demand fell too. When the recession did occur, the government was being highly

criticised, and widespread pressure was upon them to change their policies. Sticking

true to her word on the 10th October 1980, in response to qualms of the matter,

Thatcher famously quoted ‘You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning!’[15]

Indeed, the first lady did not turn and she governed Britain until 1990 battling the

criticisms and pressure from not just the public, but within her party too.[16] The acid

house movement in the late 80’s if one was to go on Hall’s view, was, sensationalised

as not just a deterrent to shy people away from failing government policies but also

because aspects of everyday life were failing Britain, such as crime being on the

increase and rises in fuel prices.[17]

Exploring Hall’s idea more thoroughly one begins to notice a pattern. It was

Newspapers such as the Sun that contentedly splashed the headlines with hard-hitting

words that attacked acid house culture, a newspaper that changed track from Labour,

after the 1979 general election. Indeed, a newspaper that endorsed the Margaret

Thatcher government. On the 12th October 1988, however, on first reaction to acid

house they described it as ‘groovy and cool’ and even began to market its own smiley

t-shirt range. Just a week later, nonetheless, in reference to taking ecstasy, the sun’s

medical correspondent published ‘You will hallucinate. For example, if you don’t like

spiders you’ll start seeing giant ones… Hallucinations can last up to 12

hours…There’s a good chance you’ll end up in a mental hospital for life…If you’re

young enough there’s a good chance you’ll be sexually assaulted while under the

influence. You may not even know it until a few days or weeks later.’[18] Justifiably,

then, it seems clear the press were beginning to use scare tactics to warn about the

dangers that went alongside the new movement of acid house.

If, Hall’s view is correct, that the media was acting as the hegenomistic device within

society, it is evident that, the press was certainly being noticed. For example the

clothing chain Topshop, dropped its smiley face logo, which incidentally was the

face, or symbol of acid house. Clubs such as the famous ‘Spectrum’ closed for a while

in order for it to look to the media that it was noticing its solemn reviews about drugs,

and from the confusion of ‘acid house’, (where some of the press literally thought

acid was the popular drug of the time) Top of the Pops even banned all tracks that

contained the word acid. [19]However, on July 4th 1989, the acid house scene invited the

media to notice it when Clare Leighton, just sixteen, died at the popular Hacienda

club through taking ecstasy.As a result of this, many nights closed down and

eventually by the end of1989 the commercial value of acid house was lost, therefore

much less media attention. Nevertheless, this is not where the story ends. Acid house

did not die, it just gave itself a rebirth, and returned underground. Contrary to

Hedbige‘s suggestion that after commercialisation a subculture is spat out, after being

a long time chewed.[20]

Being forced to be rejected by the mainstream, the acid house phenomenon grew from

a London based phenomenon to a youth movement that become a nationwide

underground movement., as many clubs were required to decline the acid house craze,

what grew out of this was the  rave scene. ‘If a place couldn’t be hired legally, then it

would often be appropriated for the evening through either a friendly estate agent or,

failing that, a crowbar.’[21] As Kristen Russell put it, ‘The tabloid hysteria against Acid

House in late 1988 dispersed the Acid House style but not the spirit’.[22]Raves are

defined in the dictionary as ‘An all-night dance party, especially one where techno,

house, or other electronically synthesized music is played.’[23] Raves were parties

organised outside of London, by the public, usually held in places such as

warehouses. During the late 80’s raves were really beginning to pick up.  Combined

with the consuming of ecstasy, more and more of Thatcher’s youth were becoming

involved in the acid house craze that was criticised by the press so negatively. That is

the reason that when raves began to pick up, organisers found themselves having to

expand their premises, moving from industrial estates to out on the countryside.[24]

Establishing Thornton’s view that the media’s attention helped expand public

popularity to the dance music movement. ‘Acid house, a dance music club culture

which mutilated into rave after sensational ‘media’ coverage about drug use’.[25]

The summer of 1989 was known as the outdoor rave scene. ‘A rave was an idealized

version of clubbing.  It was not about visiting some purpose-built venue; it was about

creating somewhere new; it was about building a city for a night.  A club had a place

in space and time, but a rave was made of possibilities.  A rave existed in the minds of

people who danced together.  Without them it was nowhere just a field off a

motorway exit.’[26]   With this, however, again came attacks on the dance music culture

by the subcultural press. By 1990 the rave culture was increasing, clubs had also

caught onto the hedonistic idea of raves and began to organise their own in order to

cash in on the action. This led to the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act 1990.

An Act to increase the penalties for certain offences under enactments relating to the

licensing of premises or places used for dancing, music or other entertainments of a

like’  [27]The act was designed to give licensed venues harsher restrictions and to shut

down any rave. However, proving again that the more the authorities got involved the

more the public grew stimulated interest, the act did not stop the raves even though

the police struggled very much to do so. On the contrary, as in May 1992 in

Castlemorton Common police estimated 25,000 people to be gathered at a rave, there

are even suggested reports that that figure was much higher. Headlines such as

“hippie’s fire flares at police” and “New age, New laws” [28]followed the days after,

establishing that the government were now using new scapegoats. The blame for

thousands of people from all kinds of different backgrounds meeting together was

shifted on the ‘hippies’. George McKay, claims that the types of people who attended

these parties ranged from ’employed, unemployed, politically aware or just wanting a

good time; black, white; male and female, urban and rural youths; old hippies, punks

and hells angels; new age and traditional travellers; road protestors and squatters’.[29]

Again, if McKay is correct in his research of the diversity of people involved in the

rave culture, one can use Thornton’s theory of subculture to understand the dance

music movement. Using Bourdieu’s concept of ‘distinction’, Thornton describes the

‘cultural capital’ within dance music as not how high your class status is but maybe

through being involved with the scene technically; i.e. a DJ, a recording artist, or

somebody who has exclusive knowledge towards the scene. Therefore, the social

hierarchy of a subculture does not depend on class, and as a result the mixing of social

cultures, like with the rave scene, determining their own rules and guidelines

towards social hierarchies is completely credible. [30]If this is the case that many

different cultures were meeting up to have fun cheek by jowl, it would be

understandable to assume that the Conservative government did not like the idea of

social groups such as new age travellers intermingling with various other cultures of

society. This is no more apparent when examining the aftermath of Castlemorton

Common, which sowed the seeds to the Criminal and Justice public order act, to be

introduced to parliament. The act was extremely complex and after two years went

through. One of the outcomes was new age travellers being forced out of unlicensed

sites and dealt with severely.[31]

Not surprising that leading up to the act, headlines such as ’Hordes of marauding

locusts’ and ‘These foul pests must be controlled’, were published regarding these

travellers. [32]Section sixty three of the act allowed the police the authority ‘to remove

persons attending or preparing for a rave….The act further states that “land in the

open air” includes a place partly open to the air’ while “music” includes sounds

wholly or predominately characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive

beats.’ [33]

Hill, just like Stuart Hall looks at the situation in a more political view, suggesting

that the reason there was such outcry from the government towards raves is because of

the threat these parties posed on those who voted for the Thatcher government. The

fact that many of the raves were taken out from the city into the countryside caused

great worry for the conservative government as, a lot of their support came from the

home counties of England. Suddenly these raves had been transferred from the normal

and expected off urban areas, onto the respectable rural areas. Knowing votes could be

lost, the Thatcher government knew that something or other had to be done[34].

The Criminal and Justice public order act, eventually  resulted in the forcing of parties

back into licensed venues, relying on fragmentation of the music in order to help it

keep going, but resulting in the birth if the ‘super club’. Names such as Cream,

Godskitchen and Gatecrasher began to appear, taking dance music to a whole different

level. The dance scene therefore ‘fragmenting into a number of smaller club-based

scenes which spill over into low-key DIY events centred around house parties……as

new styles have been developed and promoted in different cities and regions around

Britain, has also contributed to the fragmentation of the original dance music scene into smaller, more localised scenes.’ [35]

In conclusion of this writing, it seems undoubtedly clear that the newspaper press did

contribute to the growing occurrence of dance music. The more the press wrote

negatively towards the scene, the more it was being noticed, and as mentioned in the

essay, sometimes negative press is just the incitement needed in order to rebel or feel

the need to go against society. A phase that a youth movement sometimes craves to

experience. As Sarah Thornton sought to explain in her research, the government

needed a way to tackle a problem, which was drugs and simplified the problem by

associating the music and the people involved with it. The reason why the problems

so desperately needed to be tackled was so that any unwanted political crisis within

the government could be veiled, making dance music number one priority in social

matters, inadvertently creating its growth.    

[1]  Brewster and Broughton, Last night a DJ Saved My Life, The History of a Disc Jockey, (Grove/Atlantica,2000),303

[2]  Sheryl Garratt, Adventures in Wonderland: A Decade of Club Culture, (Headline Book Publishing,1999), 102

[3]   Brewster/Broughton, Last night a DJ Saved My Life, 393

[4]  William D. Rubinstein, Twentieth Century Britain: A Political History, (Palgrave. 2003), 323-330

[5] Dick Hedbige, Subculture, the meaning of style, (Routledge, 1981) 18

[6]  Antonio Melechi, The Ecstasy of Disappearance, (Avebury, 1993), 37

[7]  Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital, (Wesleyan University Press)

[8]Raiford A Guins , Popular Culture: A reader,(Sage Publications Ltd 2005)383

[9]  Thornton, Club Culture, 137

[10]  Chris Barker, Cultural Studies, (Sage Publications, 2003), 391

[11]Becker Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers.( St. Martin’s Press, New York,1972) 9

[12]Thornton, Club Culture,117

[13]  Stuart Hall/Charles Critcher /Tony Jefferson/ John Clarke/ Brian Robert ,Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, (Palgrave Macmillan)57

[14]  Hall, Policing the Crisis, 56-58

[15]  Unknown, 1980: Thatcher 'not for turning', <http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/october/10/newsid_2541000/2541071.stm>[Accessed 10 March 2007]

[16]  Unknown, Economics, <http://www.economicshelp.org/2007/03/uk-economy-under-mrs-thatcher-1979-1984.htm>[Accessed 10 March 2007]

[17]  Government Research, A Century of Change: Trends in UK statistics since 1900, 21/12/1999,<http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp99/rp99-111.pdf>[Accessed 10 March 2007]

[18]  Matthew Collin, Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House , (Serpent's Tail 1998), 77

[19]  Collin, Altered State, 77

[20]  Simon Reynolds, Generation Ecstasy : Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture,Routledge,1999), 109

[21]  Brester/Broughton, Last Night a DJ saved my Life, 400

[22]  Steve Redhead, Rave Off: Politics and Deviance in Contemporary Youth Culture(Avebury, 1993) 127

[23]  Farlex Inc, The Free Dictionary, 2007,< http://www.thefreedictionary.com/rave>, [accessed 11th March 2007]

[24] YouthNet UK, The Rave Timeline, 2007,<http://www.thesite.org/drinkanddrugs/drugculture/drugstrade/theravetimeline>[Accessed 11th March 2007]

[25]  Thornton, Club Culture, 9

[26]  Brewster/Broughton, Last Night A DJ saved my Life,398-399

[27]  Crown Copyright, Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act 1990 (c. 20),1990,  <http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1990/Ukpga_19900020_en_1.htm>[accessed 11th March 2007]

[28]  Alan Lodge, Raves Dance, Parties etc, <http://tash.gn.apc.org/hist_5.htm>[accessed 11th March 2007]

[29]  Alan Mckay, Diy Culture: Party & Protest in Nineties Britain,  (Verso, 1998) 193

[30] ken Gelder, The Subcultures Reader. (Routledge 1997), 11

[31]  Mckay, DIY Culture,193

[32]  Alan Lodge. Raves, Dance, Parties etc

[33]  Alan Bennet, Popular music and youth culture, (Palgrave Macmillan,2004), 75

[34]Bill. Osger, Youth Media,(Routlege,2004), 88

[35]  Bennet, Popular Music, 73

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