Some find this whole affair vapid, onerous, tiresome, and hopelessly absurd. For many, clubbing is akin to watching a B-flick on endless replay, knowing perfectly well how the plot will unfold – a recreational situation that provides, they think, neither for becoming nor development, much less for refinement and perfection.
In their minds, club culture is an escape for those who can think of nothing better to do with their lives. They see it as a refuge for the superficial and immature – to get drunk, high, loud, and stupid, as a prelude to getting laid (if so fortunate); a wildcard for those individuals who have no prospects more urgent than laying in bed the whole next day, feeling like garbage. This is how nightclubs are often portrayed in blockbuster flicks – that is to say when they are not depicted as dangerous mob hangouts, seedy narco dens, and the pockets of brutal violence.
Others view clubbing in theological terms that are just as uncomplimentary – being stuck in limbo, a gray area between heaven and hell, filled with “crowds, multitudinous and vast”, as Dante would have it, describing the first circle of nine in his catacombic Inferno. This sorrowful realm is populated by innocent, even virtuous souls. Yet, they are forever lost. In some other and much darker vision, it is the whole nine yards of perdition – as in the words of a character from No Exit, an existentialist play by Sartre. Unable to shield himself from the scrutiny of others, he exclaims in despair, “Hell is other people.” In the presence of the Other, one cannot avoid regarding oneself as an object, because it is always as an object that one appears to the Other. Clubs are full of other people.
This is the kind of feedback one gets when discussing the findings of a recent survey aimed at figuring out the demographic nuances of club culture. Giving it the benefit of the doubt, assuming that this survey is not in the business of structuring our life choices to suit and further some ulterior self-serving agenda of the pollster, we should just swallow it as a raw fact that 37 is the age when most people consider it “unseemly” to still be going to clubs.
The seeds of this outlook begin to germinate around the age of 31. This is reportedly when people get the first itch to stay in instead of going out, succumbing to the comforts of their digs. However, there is reason to suspect that this trend may have not so much to do with coming of age as with the gravitational pull of digital home entertainment – a sponge-soft power of social atomization, alienation, and isolation that has never been stronger.
In terms of content production and all the technologies involved to deliver it, it is a formidable industry with a zillion-dollar annual turnover that fuels this soft power, making it the hardest of all forces to resist. Getting together face-to-face with friends, let alone meeting strangers in person – if only for the sake of maintaining and enhancing sociality, so central an aspect of our culture and human civilization – has never been so close to impossible. These days, the entertainment machinery does not want people to leave their homes. It needs them inside, apart, all glued to the screens, and endlessly clicking – for more data traffic (or what used to be called “communication”).
Consider it a pure coincidence, if you will: the survey in question was conducted by a retail behemoth selling home electronics and household appliances, pushing anything from toasters to freezers, home theaters, joysticks, Xbox consoles, and gaming chairs. One can only speculate about how well its survey sample captures the views of society as a whole. With its methodology undisclosed (wonder why?), there is always a chance that, by flaunting to the world the results of its survey, the retail giant is urging us to jump on the bandwagon of generalization based on preferences expressed by a group of like-minded people whose demographic profiles are far from general. There is always a possibility that the numbers reflect solely the mentality of online troglodytes devoid of any real-life experience, bereft of social competence, avoidant and critical of anything that does not morph seamlessly into the lethargic atmosphere of their cushy suburban bubbles – the company's most valuable clientele, the customer pool that it seeks to expand by all means. “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”, as one wit once phrased it.
It is the chore of dressing up that keeps the atomized and alienated from going out, apparently. Indeed, why bother? In our digital era, there is always an easier way to express ourselves (or whatever remains of our true selves) – if not necessarily a cheaper one. We are invited to do so with our gadgets and avatars in the metaverse – a shared, blockchain-based online environment where one finds all sorts of virtual establishments, including clubs. This whole domain is illuminated by the rays of wisdom promising to guide us through all the challenges and hurdles of real life – by eradicating all that is real in life: Your avatar represents you. What this digital caricature is wearing makes you who you are. “When you have a piece of clothing, you can go to a party, you can dance, you can show off. It is a status symbol,” Reuters reports, quoting a virtual fashion model who has spent $15K on wearable image files in the last couple of months.
And yet – as another survey reveals – there have never been quite so many clubbers over the age of 40 on the scene, in flesh and bone. Based on the number of tickets sold, New Musical Express reports nearly four million Britons over the age of 45 who attend raves at least once a week. As many as a quarter of those responded that they rave much more often than when they were young. The actual number must be much higher, as the figure for online deals does not account for all the sales and the ways people access these events.
We are talking about the pre-pandemic period here, of course – the time that still holds some meaning and harbors as much hope for the future.
Equally surprising is that this trend is picking up steam against the backdrop of a general decline in the number of official nightclubs. More than half of them closed between 2005 and 2015 in England. The pattern holds true in other places, including the most unexpected: Some 100 clubs have closed since a decade ago in Berlin and another 25 are facing the same fate, all due to gentrification, as reported.
What fulfills demand is the burgeoning number of unofficial spots. We may interpret these subterranean processes in terms of club culture reverting to its original clandestine status, recovering the authenticity lost in previous years to the massification and rabid commercialization of this culture, turning it into an industry. These illicit grassroots entities have been sprouting like mushrooms after the rain, almost doubling each year. They attest to the resilience and vitality of underground culture – a loose and elastic rhizome of unregistered, aesthetically organized, empathetically intertwined, micro-communal formations…
To illustrate the demographic shift in clubbing and its amplitude, one should look no further than a certain Bernhard Enste, a legend in the Berlin nightworld. No further because there is hardly any further in this demographic paradigm. At the age of 72, Enste is pushing the age boundaries of social choreography in clubs on the planetary level. His choreography is quite physical, too.
Better known for his ecstatic style of dancing and luminescence in the dark as “Komet”, Bernhard hails from a devout Catholic family in Mainz, a tranquil picturesque town in western Germany. Nothing in that placid medieval locale, much less in the pious atmosphere of his traditional family, heralded his would-be infatuation with headstrong techno and frenetic nightlife at the age of 51, when he first arrived in the post-wall German capital. In fact, young Bernhard was earnestly preparing himself for life as a missionary, preaching the Gospel to indigenous people around the world. But God works in mysterious ways…
Bald on top, a white shaggy beard, face furrowed with wrinkles, knobbly hands, body sagged like a party balloon, partly deflated, some teeth still intact – all these features are so pronounced it is hard to picture Bernhard in his youth. But he is so much more than just the sum of his weathered parts. All these attributes can easily be bracketed out, for Komet Bernhard is everyone’s best hope for life outside the age box. “I want to feel the vibrations,” he croaks at the top of his lungs and dives into the crowd that floods Berghain, the legendary Berlin club that stands as a temple with its own deities, clergy, and acolytes. It is not that Bernhard has chosen this kind of life, he claims. It is this life that has chosen him. It might be that Bernhard is still living every beat of it very much on the Lord’s errand.
What to make of this individual case in general? For a start, we may want to dwell on the observations afforded from behind the decks on the Sunset Terrace at Scorpios. An Argentinian multi-instrumentalist and music producer who is no novice on the global club scene, Ulises holds that this phenomenon may have something to do with what Sigmund Freud underlined in his seminal paper Civilization and Its Discontents, for one thing. For another, it is what Henry Alford captured in his relatively recent New York Times article The Tyranny of Constant Contact, speaking about the explosion of digital technologies, our struggle to “stay afloat the data surf”, and our artificial interconnectedness attained at the expense of unmediated human experiences and real interpersonal encounters.
This new development tremendously complicates our lives, unfolding on top of the unresolved sociocultural complexities that Freud pointed out back in the 1930s. According to Freud, there is always a tension between sociocultural demands and one’s instinctual drives. The progress of civilization does not necessarily translate into one’s personal happiness – if not to say that one precludes the other. All our cultural and social achievements are the products of a concerted and longstanding effort that is accompanied by a lot of stress: we are not spontaneously fond of work. From the acquisition of knowledge and its methodical application to maintaining relationships with loved ones at home – everything is potentially a source of unrest and anxieties in civilization. And they tend to build up over time, impacting our psychic structures and causing all sorts of neuroses.
What happens in clubs, as Ulises sees it – and what makes them so attractive to adults – is a form of catharsis for all kinds of negative feelings that bottle up inside individuals in the course of their productive and, therefore, stressful lives in the service of sociocultural ideals. He understands club culture in therapeutic terms, as it were – as a way to relieve stress, anxiety, anger, fear, and all the other toxic emotions that erode our psyches and in some extreme cases threaten our very existence.
To Ulises, clubbing is also a formula for immediate and organic human-to-human interaction – the kind of communication where one can read into body language, facial expressions, vocal intonations, and all that is lost in exchanges mediated by the technologies of artificial interconnectivity.
The new sociology of clubbing, this demographic shift towards a higher proportion of people over 40, is best explained with reference to the fact that this culture and this particular cohort are coevolutionary phenomena. The evolution of each is due to their mutual symbiosis. It is precisely this generational cohort that is primarily responsible for begetting and shaping this scene back in the late 80s and, simultaneously, fashioning itself over the years in response to this development, moving from innocence to wisdom.
We can forever debate the precise origins of club culture – pointing to various influences, stretching into the infinity of cultural history. But club culture is indisputably the product of certain breakthrough technologies that allowed musicians to experiment with new ways of producing music and equipped deejays to pitch that music to the public in novel ways, prompting hosts, in turn, to devise new platforms to accommodate these new forms and new audiences. Just as indisputably, this culture is the manifestation of certain new visions and ethos that held no huge primacy before the 80s. It took its philosophers to articulate the movement in terms of new values and principles, all rooted in the ideas of aesthetic sociality and empathy for others – whoever they were: in the spectrum from black to white, from gay to straight, from young to old...
In this light, it is rather preposterous to regard this saggy and wrinkled cohort as alien to club culture, as a bunch of oddballs who have failed to grow out of it. After all, it is their culture to the core and it is from this culture they draw much of their positive identity as a generation. Picking a category from the conceptual inventory of popular sociology, here we are dealing with Gen Xers who, deflating physically, just would not give up mentally and spiritually.
Sandwiched between Baby Boomers and Millennials, this generation is taken to be identified negatively as a rule, through subtraction of attributes – in terms of mere indifference toward the values espoused by the predecessors and in terms of randomness, ambiguity, and inner inconsistency vis-a-vis its successors. It is the generation that in its heydays was frantically seeking ways to snap out of its materialist milieu, hiding in the void from getting caught in the crosshairs of marketers, targeted and brainwashed by politicians, lured by the mass culture into living a normal life.
Unfit for pursuits within the existing social structures (which themselves were falling apart), unable to clearly define their goals in life, uncertain of what they wanted, they nevertheless knew perfectly well what they did not want – marriage, career, money, more stuff, success, status… In any case, they didn't fantasize about all this as much as their callous, narcissistic “greed is good” yuppie counterparts did.
Rave culture is that rock upon which these idealists have built their X utopia. In each other’s company on the fringes of society, they have plowed the desert ground and planted the garden of their own dream – the dream of perfect sociability, infused with joy, free of social conventions and artificialities, and open to all kinds of souls. This is their secular model of paradise, their existential heaven on Earth, here and now; the enclave of amplified freedom, love, and harmony; the sphere of recognition, inclusion, self-expression, and immediacy; a promised land for all those who believe in life before death. No gods can expel them from it. For if there are any gods in this realm, it is them – its creators.
To make sense of club culture, this realm is best understood as the universe of potential spaces – as spaces of limitless interactive possibilities and playful experimentation, offering restorative detachment from the so‑called serious (competitive, if not confrontational) activities, providing for radically different, more human-to-human encounters and more meaningful relationships to be formed on this basis.
The concept of potential space was first articulated by Donald Winnicott, a psychoanalyst who was influential in the field by virtue of his exploration of the processes that govern one’s psychological development in relation to other people. The way we relate to others in adult life, the level and quality of our social interactions, is largely determined by our relational experiences in infancy. In his analysis of these experiences, Winnicott distinguished between games/gaming and play/playing. The difference between these two notions is of paramount importance for understanding the dynamics of club culture and the reasons for its broad appeal in recent years.
Games imply fixed rules, as in sports. Games are inconceivable without rigid normative structures. Their rules must be learned and followed in strict compliance, while the slightest violation carries the risk of disciplinary action, often disqualification, in some cases for life, for a transgressor threatens the very existence of a game. Indeed, as soon as the rules are broken, the game is over.
Hence, the game of “football proceeds in profound seriousness”, says Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens, his seminal study on play. This game is intense and the more it bears the character of competition, the more fervent and combative it gets. Some games are more playful than others – those games where the rules are concealed from participants, where their discovery is part of the game itself, as in the card game Eleusis. But there is also pure, or free play, where the act of playing requires nothing but some imagination, preferably uninhibited. Playing nurtures creativity in ways that gaming in blind conformity with rules cannot.
Games are forms of sublimation of human instincts – the ways we channel our aggressive energies into creative activities. In highly competitive scenarios, they are sometimes forms of displacement that just intensify our aggressive impulses, harming ourselves and hurting others. On the contrary, free play is none of that – it offers sheer and unending pleasure for all. And conversely, we play only when we really feel like playing, which makes the process much more exciting, absorbing, and wholesome. Free play, a type of interaction that eschews pragmatic ambition, is enjoyable because it amplifies the feeling of health, as Kant would explain it.
Ballet is a game of sorts, with its norms for perfect grand jetés, pirouettes, fouettés... And this is what one finds delving deeper into this game: “Perfectionism has been linked to depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia, and suicide. There is sadly not enough help provided by the industry.” Whereas what we call the dances of transcendence – the kind of choreography that dispenses with rehearsed regularity of patterns – are nothing short of playful engagements, intuitive and free-form.
If games are public, such as spectator sports that fill stadiums and confine millions to screens, the unstructured playful activities that characterize experiences or journeys in clubs are personal and very special. They are all about what transpires between the participants alone. As opposed to games, playing is not for display and analytical scrutiny. No one is placing a wager on the outcome. The laws and customs of everyday life fade in importance for their duration.
These playful interactions are often shrouded in mystery. As in childhood, the allure of play is enhanced by the fact that it is kept secret. The secretiveness and singularity of play are most noticeably pronounced in the habit of dressing up for raves – always in an outlandish way. This is where the unconventionality of playing reaches its climax. The most important freedom is the liberty to reject the version of yourself that is expected by others and to invent your own persona – if only for a short time. It is a peculiar kind of concealment. Inside the circle, it speaks more than it hides from the outside. As Oscar Wilde once said, “A mask tells us more than a face.”
This temporary disengagement from all that is mundane, habitual, generic, and preconceived is what makes clubs so unique as cultural institutions; so unlike other establishments set up for strictly regulated games of competition and operated according to the protocols of seriousness concerned with perfectionism by all means. This is what makes clubs so necessary in the institutional spectrum of culture as a whole – as potential spaces full of interactive possibilities and playful experimentation; attractive to all manner of cool cooperative critters, coming together across the boundaries of class, race, gender, sexuality, and age.
Club culture, as we know and love it, is their invention and Gen Xers are here to stay enjoying all their birthright privileges. In fact, from the perspective of what is soon to be dubbed Generation C (where C may also stand for the avalanche of digital Content, the system of ever-vigilant Control, metadata-driven Consumerism, Comfortable solitary home Confinement, vicarious, second-hand Consciousness, and the kind of Connectivity that effectively disconnect people and atomizes society), they might be the last cohort to grow up with freedom, independence, real human interactivity, face-to-face intimacy, direct life-experiences, and the luxury to try things on their own.
We live in the hope that the code name will unlock simply and in no way other than as Club Culture Continuous...