The intangible narcotic: What does ‘vibe’ mean, really?

There’s a term that comes up pretty frequently when talking about electronic music events. A search within my interviews (excepts from which are quoted here) and field notes found it mentioned 88 times. Everyone knows what it means, but no one knows exactly how to define it.

Daniel: Vibe is almost a different narcotic of its own. Vibe is… it’s intangible, you can’t touch it, you can only feel it, sense it.

It’s a word I found myself using and implicitly understanding long before I began to think about what it really means. The vibe of, or at, an event can be all levels and qualifiers of ‘great’ and ‘amazing’, or it can be chill, or it can be strange, aggressive, sketchy, even hostile. (Yeah I know. Describing this explicitly is awkward already. Bear with me, we’ll wince together.)

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On the dance floor people move from one area to another, soaking up as many different sensations and feelings as they can. I say sensations because each area has its own vibe, or energy, that can be felt. Participants have described this vibe primarily as a subtle form of communication among people. It is both body language and an intangible energy that is given off by people and can be felt by others. – Brian Rill (2010)

As usual when I’m trying to unpack terms we all take for granted in the rave scene, I feel a little silly doing it. (Trying to define, in academic language, what exactly a ‘bro’ is was one of the funniest things I’ve had to do while writing up my research.) Pulling apart the concept of ‘vibe’ felt like deconstructing a joke – talking about it explicitly ruins what makes it special; its very existence is made of an implicit shared understanding of a subjective experience. The word started to lose all meaning, as it will soon for you if you keep reading this post.

But there was still something bugging me. Some important meaning hidden in the way people talk about it. It seems trivial, but it turns out that the vibe of an event indexes much more than it would appear.

Hilary: So you say the crowd is really important to you. Can you describe the kind of vibe that you enjoy?
Mandy: Um… Open-minded. Uh, I like weird people. [Laughs] Like, a diverse crowd, I think. I can tell when people are there for something other than the music. And then it kind of just ruins, like, the vibe.

Steven: All the frat boys were showing up and pissing on the trees, and it was just not the right community or vibe anymore.

Ali: You get a certain vibe when you go into places. Like, I don’t know, I’m a very intuitive person, I feel like I read people well, and I just know whether I’m like, in a safe place or not. [Laughs] It sounds so corny, but it’s true.

Veld 2015 (219)

What are the things that affect the vibe of an event? The décor, the lighting, the music, the attitude of the staff members (especially security), the size of the event, the theme (if any), the type of clothes people are wearing, the time of day or night, the type of drugs being consumed, and the age of attendees. But dwarfing all of these factors in its impact on the vibe is one key element. Pinpointing and exploring this element became an important focus of my research, as it underlies one of the main problems at raves, particularly the mainstream ones that young and inexperienced people are more likely to attend.

The first event I attended where the overall negative vibe began to stray into very uncomfortable territory due to this particular factor occurred late in July, and it’s a story which incidentally includes some good illustrations of harm reduction in practice. My partner Diego, our good friend Jake and I were at a techno event. Jake had taken three hits of acid, which had made him unusually chatty, though he was also feeling self-conscious and not fully able to articulate his thoughts.

“I’m going to rely on you guys tonight, ok? You’re my guides,” he told Diego and I. I told him he seemed to be keeping it together pretty well. “I have no baseline for what would be considered keeping it together right now,” he responded. I laughed and told him he was doing fine, trying to make sure he felt he had a basis of support for his trip.

The place was still pretty empty. Two girls were sitting on some flat leather seating around a low table in one of the corners. Since there was plenty of room, and my legs were still sore from an event the night before, I went to sit down. The girls whispered to each other and stared at me. I ignored them, but suspecting what was going on, gave them the courtesy of exaggeratedly rubbing my knees and back for effect. Finally one of them walked over.

“This is a private booth,” she said.2015-06-14 00.13.17

“Oh,” I responded, looking at the empty seats. I briefly considered playing dumb and making her spell it out even more for me, but decided on being straightforward. “Can I just sit here for a few minutes?”

She looked unhappy, but was too shocked at my shameless impertinence to argue. “I guess so.”

I could tell she wasn’t going to be able to enjoy herself until I left. Diego, highly unimpressed with her attitude, told me to take as much time as I needed. Her indignance made me think about the purely relative basis of wealth and status. How could she enjoy the exclusivity of having paid for a private booth if it was no longer private? A bottle-service booth so empty that non-VIPs could accidentally wander in and sit down throws the arbitrary and pretentious nature of these booths in their occupants’ face and devalues the experience completely. Despite feeling bad for the type of person whose feathers could become so ruffled at such an absurdist challenge to their power, my own distaste for being asked to leave an empty seat that could fit five people kept me in place. Wanting very different things from the same event, we were both clear examples of ruining the vibe for one another, for very different reasons.

After a few minutes—enough time to preserve my Marxist dignity without causing her glares of annoyance to turn into sad, sad rage—we went to dance. The music was excellent, but I could already tell that the general feeling of this event was not to my taste. I found that I could not face the DJ, as a blinding strobe light was positioned directly above his head. All I could hear was the incredibly loud bass, which is apparently an acquired taste, as I frequently disagree with my musical connoiseur friends Brad and Daniel on the value of being able to hear anything but said bass. The smoke machine was so intense and the venue so small that when I opened the door to the bathroom I actually wondered if there was a separate smoke machine in there as well. Regardless, none of these factors were all that bad, and the venue was unique, so it seemed worth staying.

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With all this stimulation, however, Jake began to feel somewhat overwhelmed. I took him outside for some air and gave him a water bottle that I’d been filling up in the bathroom. I went back inside and wrote down in my fieldnotes to “Google ‘smoke machine toxicity’” which made me laugh at how inadequate the conception of ‘risk’ in the rave scene really is, as I’m considered to be a risk taker. Soon, however, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Jake had returned, looking anxious. He asked me to come help him outside.

In the smoking area, I found out that two young men were accusing him of drugging their friend, who I’ll call Pale Sweat-Face. Seeing that Pale Sweat-Face looked sweaty and pale, Jake had offered him some of the water I’d given him, which they were convinced for some reason contained GHB as well. Apparently, Jake, in his acid-influenced reasoning that communication barriers were all that stood in the way of understanding, reconciliation and friendship, had tried to use meticulous honesty and tell them that since the water had been out of his possession for a few minutes while I filled it up in the bathroom, he couldn’t technically guarantee there was nothing in it, but that he trusted the person who filled it up. I swore to them that it was just water, and that of course none of us would give someone GHB without knowing. I could feel the eyes of the security guard watching us. Pale Sweat-Face had clearly taken something; he looked disoriented and woozy. I was more concerned about Jake, however; this type of conflict can easily set off a bad trip for a person on psychedelics. I knew Jake fairly well and had seen him handle LSD capably before, but three hits is a sizeable amount for anyone, and bad trips can be a terrifying experience.

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I couldn’t place something about the attitude of the young men, however. I couldn’t tell if they were accusing us because they actually thought we did it, or because they were choosing to be intentionally antagonistic and argumentative, something I’d rarely seen in the rave scene but have definitely witnessed from intoxicated men and women many times at ‘regular’ bars. When I realised the latter might be the case, I stopped trying to convince them we’d done nothing, grabbed Jake and went back inside.

We attempted to shake off the unpleasantness by dancing. We reassured a frazzled Jake, still peaking on LSD, that he’d done nothing wrong; he was just trying to be nice and share water with someone who looked like they needed it. He shook his head and gave me a hug. “Reality is so complicated right now,” he muttered.

We were just starting to enjoy ourselves again when a tall blonde man in his early twenties approached me. “Do you want to dance?” He placed his hand on the small of my back.

Being a woman in the rave scene, I had quickly become adept at conveying the body language of thanks, that’s enough, and that is all the interaction we will be having tonight. It is an essential skill and one that all women who participate in nightlife develop in some way. Fending off unwanted advances is unfortunately a standard part and parcel of the experience of women at many of these events. When body language fails, things get even more awkward and you’re forced to try words instead. Words are tough when you’re socialized to never be direct and assertive, though, so these little messy situations happen neverendingly, and they always suck.

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I began to run through the familiar rolodex of conflicting emotional responses to the blonde guy’s question. The heart of the conflict, which most women are intimately familiar with and which is being challenged in contemporary feminist activism, is the perceived need to be gentle in declining a man’s advances, and appreciative of their supposed inherently complimentary nature. How do I say no without being rude? It’s an exhausting and ridiculous question women find themselves asking over and over. We should be asking an entirely different one, but I won’t get into that right now.

“Sure, if you’re ok that my husband is right there,” is what I chose to respond to the blonde guy. The idea behind this approach was that, in the unlikely case that he still didn’t lose interest upon hearing this, it would indicate that he was genuinely just interested in dancing briefly and nothing more, which would be fine.

But Jake and Diego were already intervening on my behalf. Diego put his arm around me and Jake asked the man to back off. Knowing them, I am sure this kind of overprotectiveness would not have happened if we had not already felt an aggressive, unwelcome vibe from the event. I talk to strangers all the time at these things, I am doing research after all. But the whole situation, it seemed, just smelled wrong to them. We hadn’t been meeting friendly, smiling, open people at this place. Why should this person be any different?

Yet I felt no better for not being allowed to deal with the situation on my own. When I told them this, Jake mused reflectively about his instinctive drive to intervene. “Maybe I’m more protective of you because you’re like one of my herd.”

The whole thing felt gross. We eventually decided that the music was not good enough to make up for the aggressive vibe of the event, and decided to go to the after-hours club to keep dancing and attempt to salvage the night (and Jake’s trip). As we turned the corner outside on the street, we saw a group of four young men. One was the blonde who had asked me to dance. The other three were the same men with the ambiguously aloof and hostile attitudes who had sent Jake’s trip spiraling into a bad direction by accusing him of giving one of them GHB. Things clicked into place. I hadn’t even realised they were in the same group. They’d apparently been kicked out because of their friend’s drugged-out behaviour.

Despite having had more than enough of all four of them, I couldn’t fight the mama hen instinct in me to check on Pale Sweat-Face and make sure he’d be OK. I tried to convince them once more that I hadn’t put GHB in the water by showing them one of the business cards I made to give to people interested in my research. “I work in harm reduction, I’m the last person who would drug someone.”

One guy examined my card and looked up at me. “You’re not just being a bitch right now?”

We left.

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The real heart of the ‘vibe’ at an event isn’t the decor, or the venue, or the age of the attendees. Though of course it’s not the only factor (which I hope was made clear by the above narrative), by far the most important one seems to simply be the reason why the men are there. Are they there to dance and enjoy the music, or are they there for basically any other reason? If it’s the latter, it’s going to end up fucking up the night for some or all of the poor kiddos who just want to dance.

Vibe is basically summed up in how the men at an event behave. Towards each other, but particularly, of course (sigh) towards women. Either way, if people don’t feel safe, they won’t have fun. And the only real dangers at raves come not from something inherent in drug use, or from a risk of fires or some bullshit (looking at you, Toronto FD, couldja stop?), but from the unpredictable and self-reinforcing behaviour of some men.

There’s a dance version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (can we call it Agro’s hierarchy of rave needs? Cause I would totally love that to be my legacy), and not worrying about walking piles of aggression when you’re trying to party is right at the bottom. It’s foundational. Talking to people all along the gender spectrum, and digging into their thoughts about the vibe at their favourite (and least favourite) events, it became clear that the comfort and safety of women is the key factor that determines everything else. Right above safety is a lack of judgement from other people. We’re all at these things to get away from the constant social judgements we receive on a daily basis for being the weirdos we are, and play with the arbitrary rules and boundaries about what to wear, say and do that we’re forced to follow in everyday life. When people say, “the vibe of that place is awesome”, what they’re really saying is, “I’m a woman and nobody grinded their dick into my hip at that place even though I was wearing only my bra” and “I’m a guy and I felt like I could hug my male friends without getting hit by a stinky wave of judgemental testosterone from those unsmiling dudes in flat-brimmed hats in the corner”.

Ahhh, bros.

I’m going to continue with this theme in my next post, which will be about gender dynamics in the rave scene. Look at you, just bursting with anticipation over there. Happy International Women’s Day.

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As always, names have been changed and if you think I’m right, wrong or completely full of shit, feel free to let me know.

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