The health rave breaks with party culture by harnessing expenditure to the goal of productivity.
It is six AM. I am in an industrial warehouse in Bushwick. Instead of thin plastic cups of Old Crow and Rolling Rock, the cute, amicable bartenders are serving boutique coffee and nine dollar organic pressed juices. The clientele looks eminently employable. A man wearing face paint is hanging from a rope swing over a foam pit. I am attending my first-ever sober rave. There’s the muffled groove of house music bouncing off of empty brick buildings; there’s the bouncer at the door checking wrist stamps; there’s the high, industrial ceiling with its exposed beams. But instead of ambling past the K-holed zombie waste-oids and afterhours addicts double-fisting Red Bull cans, I’m being greeted by the event’s anointed “hugger” who drapes a plastic lei around my neck and wishes me a good morning.
The dance floor is spring-loaded and a group of scruffy, possible startup consultants sweating in their unbuttoned pinstripe shirts, are bouncing and giggling, arms draped over each other’s shoulders. A couple of wiry thirtysomethings wearing prayer beads and colorful athleticwear are upside down, challenging each other to duration handstands (they must be vegan; I don’t know how else you get that skinny). The dance movement therapists by the DJ booth see me looking out of place and invite me to express myself through free-form improvisational movement; I politely decline.
It turns out there’s an international network of Yoga Raves™ that spans Argentina, Lithuania, and South Africa, plus plenty of general purpose early morning sober parties in cities like London, New York, and Sydney. There are hour-long lunchtime dance parties in Midtown Manhattan, so you can goof off in between shifts. There is a whole world of un-inebriated clubbing to be done out there, a parallel dimension of party populated by the affluent professional class and New Age disciples.
As someone whose average Saturday morning begins with a few hours of chest-rattling techno followed by a daylight stroll home from some forgotten warehouse district, I naturally balked at the idea of white collar health nuts stepping onto my turf. At the parties I prefer to haunt, half the attendees can barely hold down their bike messenger jobs, let alone handle an administrative gig for some socially-minded non-profit. But, masochist that I am, I knew I had to see it for myself before all the burners left town.
“I have a really crazy mind,” said Scotty Lavella, a frequent morning raver, volunteer hugger, self-described health nut, and part-time anesthesia engineer who is currently producing a web-based comedy cooking show. I had gone out for a cigarette and found him leaning against the back of the warehouse, savoring a breather and watching the sun rise over barbed wire fences and cinder block buildings. “My mind can’t be silenced by sitting in a corner sniffing Yohimbe root and sage-ing myself; I have to dance; I have to run. I dance—and my mind slows down.” Like most of the party’s attendees, mindfulness and self care is central to his lifestyle. He doesn’t smoke; he doesn’t do hard drugs; he drinks only occasionally. “I’m totally being present,” he says. “It’s like meditation.”
For the haute creative classes of Brooklyns around the globe, dancing and doing yoga and jumping around on foam mats at daybreak isn’t just a perverse recreational activity—it’s a means of preparing for the workday ahead. “We’ve turned clubbing on its head and promise to wake you up like you’ve never been woken up before,” write the events organizers in their Facebook event copy, making it almost too easy to accuse them of ruining the party for everyone else. “Rave your way into the day!” they say. For others, like Lavella, it’s a way of overcoming spiritual hurdles and sharpening the mind, so you can stay in complete control at all times. The break that the health rave makes with hardcore nightlife culture pivots around that distinction: if the party has traditionally been about losing your mind, the day rave is about finding it. Its aim is staving off oblivion rather than embracing it—and making you a more productive member of society in the process.
The health rave shifts the orientation of the party away from the wasteful pursuit of pleasure, the nihilistic accumulation of stimuli leading up to the inevitable crush of black, towards the constructive goal of making oneself a better person. And if the end of partying is suicide, the ultimate refusal of work, then the day rave has attempted to wipe death out of the picture by positioning the party as a means to healthier living, and by extension, a means to productivity in the service of capital.
Hardcore party culture has always had an ambiguous relationship to labor. In the New York City discotheques of the 1970s, where club culture as we know it first flourished, hard work permeated every membrane of the city’s sprawling pleasure complex. “They completely worked on their bodies like a temple just to fuck it up on the weekend,” DJ Ian Levine told author Peter Shapiro in Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. His description of the culture at the time captures its ambivalent relationship to the looming presence of labor and its successor, death. “Monday to Saturday in the gym, every day, eating healthy, zero body fat,” he says, describing the exhaustive effort that preceded, followed, and in many ways pervaded Saturday night out at the club.
Those partygoers stewed in the liminal space between imminent overdose and obsessive self-optimization. “By the time the [legendary gay club] Saint was at its peak, it was a religion to some people,” he continues. “It was fuck yourself up senseless with drugs because you’d go at midnight and you’d still be dancing at noon the next day.” Recounting the scene at the Continental Baths, where partiers would go to continue their bender after the club closed, he says, “It was something out of a Roman painting—all these chiseled bodies, like Michelangelo’s David, all of them… If you didn’t have a body like that it was embarrassing, because so many of them did.”
But work wasn’t only confined to the time before and after the weekend. The night out works your senses to the point of explosion with its endless stimuli, and it works your body to the point of collapse. Listen closely to the music that grew from early disco and proto-house, and you can hear the taut, toned muscles straining behind the beat; you can see the willowy bodies flexing and groping in the dreamlight of the dancefloor. The diva’s vocals are sped up in a tape machine to match the drums. She’s straining to hit those high notes, a bead of sweat dripping off of her eyebrow.
Discussing the legacy of what he calls “gay disco eroticism,” music historian Simon Reynolds frames the dancefloor as a “gymnasium of desire,” one in which “liberation [is] achieved through submission to a regime of strenuous bliss.” The labor undertaken by disco’s devotees was not simply a means to an end (though a hard body would get you into the club) but a goal unto itself: discipline is the aesthetic, and hard work is the movement. “You better work,” as RuPaul reminds us, though what exactly we’re working for or why isn’t exactly clear.
For historian Peter Shapiro, these co-existing contradictions are part of what gives hardcore nightlife its power. In his discussion of disco as a post-’60s departure from the political language of the civil rights movement, he writes, “Disco wasn’t simply an escape from the language that divided America, it was at the same time an embodiment of the very tensions and schisms that the rhetoric sought to express and resolve. Disco was at once about community and individual pleasure, sensation and alienation, orgy and sacrifice; it promised both liberation and constraint, release and restraint, frivolity and doom.”
Even now, the pleasure-seeking class of full-time partiers in Berlin will tell you that all of this leisure time is actually a lot of work. Ask one of the gaunt, leather-harnessed demi-gods at Berghain for advice on how to keep partying for 14 hours and they’ll likely provide some variation on the following: bring a backpack with snacks and toiletries, dress sensibly, space your drug use out at a reasonable pace, and most importantly, when that moment comes where you hate yourself and you feel poisoned and scared and you just want to go home, power through it and you may come out the other side to reach unprecedented heights. And if you’re really fading, taking a nap for an hour or two in the corner of the club, then get up and keep going. It sounds like workplace advice for a new hire.
Traditionally, the punks and bohemians and miscreants of the 20th century have held that kind of regimentation as a restriction on pleasure: “fuck you, dad”—right? As theorist Diederiech Diederichson writes in an essay about Berlin’s hard-partying cosmopolitan club culture, the opposition is one of “intensity” versus “intention.” In his discussion of the average night out in Berlin, Diederichson provides an example of this binary at work by explaining the difference between dining with friends and going out to the club. “The idea of the evening among friends can be described as one in which the intentions of planning subjects are in every respect highly important,” Diederechson says. He sees the dinner party, as opposed to a night out awash in the sea of sounds and sights you might encounter at the club, as something “set entirely in the world of intentions,” something that requires a “great deal of coordination.”
The idea of waste, excess, and the unnecessary fall into the category of intensity, in that it naturally lacks the calculated mentality of planning, organizing, economizing. “Both [wastefulness] and [intensity]… stand in opposition to intention and focus,” he says, toying with the possibility that partying’s emancipatory potential lies in its refusal to enter into the adult world—the purview of liminal spaces (“romantic margins of leisure, of bohemianism and puberty”). Ultimately, he writes that these distinctions upheld by the hippies and punks—valorizing wasted youth as a rebuff to the alienating force of capitalism—no longer have any truck with the contemporary moment, one “in which the creative class allegedly leads a life that is as creatively intense as it is economically productive and successful.”
What Diederichson is implying is that the party no longer represents a refusal to work, given the ambiguities that have arisen in the leisure/labor dialectic. Historically, however, partying has always been weaponized in the service of work, as Mikhail Bakhtin theorized in his history of the carnival, which extends back to the Middle Ages. He framed the carnival as kind of steam valve with which hierarchical regimes could mitigate the pressure that accumulates under relations of exploitation—ensuring more focused, less frustrated workers and a more stable system of exploiting them. By building “a second world and a second life outside officialdom,” in which “all hierarchical precedence” was suspended, the carnival created a marginal space for transgression outside of the mores of civil life. The carnival allowed for subversion while neutralizing it, and to this day its form is structured by those tensions.
The health rave perpetuates this insidious logic of party-as-steam valve, positioning the warehouse as a “second world” where attendants can momentarily shirk off the repressive mores of civil society. Whereas hardcore party culture is built atop a tangle of tensions and ambiguities—pleasure/pain, health/death, work/relaxation—the health rave flattens that dynamic world into a childlike vision of untarnished utopia. It produces a self-aware facsimile of a familiar form (“let’s play rave!”), one that excises both the pleasure and and the pain of excess. Unlike its more devilish nighttime analogue, the health rave doesn’t require that its proponents submit to a “strenuous regime of bliss”; in fact, there’s nothing strenuous about the experience. By eliminating the hard work and stress associated with an average night at the rave (it only lasts four hours; anyone can get in; nobody’s going to rob you on your way home) it ironically opens the form up to a different kind of regime—the regime of productivity.
The appeal of the event is that it simulates the party ritual while excluding anything that might get in the way of value production. It’s a win/win situation for management: in the party, workers relieve themselves of anger or frustration without endangering themselves through proximity to drugs, unhealthy sleep schedules, or shady situations. The sterilized leisure space of the health rave recalls the smoke and mirrors act of Google’s workplace playground, with its fire poles, slides, and other manchild fantasies. By peppering the work environment with leisure activities and amenities, the regime constructs the illusion of a casual, de-regulated work setting where labor is not only fun but increasingly tied to workers’ emotional commitment to the company.
It is a new kind of Taylorist workplace, in which the scientific pursuit of profit is hidden behind ergonomically designed bean bag chairs, nigiri buffets, and talk of individuality, flexibility, customizability. But, unlike the 20th century’s Taylorist strategies, which set workers in an antagonistic relationship to the efficiency experts who repeatedly demanded more of them, this new approach to workplace engineering makes you think Google actually gives a fuck about your feelings. The Google work/play space, like the health rave, offers a safe outlet to transgress bourgeois workplace norms, while steering partiers away from anything too anti-social—and, by extension endangering the bottom line.
The health rave is a place to freak out, to get swept up in the emancipated spirit; it’ll get you riled up enough to dance like an idiot, to do somersaults and swing on a rope over a bunch of strangers and not give a hoot who’s watching. It offers you an opportunity to just be yourself, unbound by the repressive mores of the world outside. But it confines transgression to a padded room where no harm can be done and where nothing gets in the way of the penetrating force of productivity. In fact it channels nightlife’s wasted libidinal energy and converts it into a force for spiritual, emotional, and physical self-optimization. Rather than wasting the value produced—spilling it like sperm on the floor—the health rave saves and harnesses that expenditure, streamlining the ritual for optimal results.
There’s nothing wrong with skipping the drugs and alcohol. But the health rave is a sign that any leisure time is increasingly threatened by the looming specter of productivity. It is an a propos outlet for the urban creative class, who are always and never working. Even when off the clock, they are overloaded on all fronts, whether it’s the affective labor of keeping up an online persona, the social labor of networking, or the spiritual labor of self-improvement. Historian Nikil Saval calls it “boundaryless labor,” arguing that the rise of micromanaging tools for day-to-day processes stems from a need to reclaim leisure time from the “fragmented attention and overwork” that plagues this generation.
In a cultural moment characterized by life-hacking and self-optimization, the logic of work has seeped into every facet of human life. And thanks to new innovations in bourgeois recreation—spinning classes, life-hacking apps, and now yoga raves—every day can feel like a party, even while we’re being shaped into more productive members of society. So what happens when the torrential force of the party is redirected towards the cause of health and self-improvement? When we don’t know how to waste time anymore, it may mean that work has already won.