Ecstatic dances without handbags

Club Cultures
March 29, 1996

With a press release dubbing Sarah Thornton "Britain's hippest academic", her publishers are obviously exploiting the author's undeniable novelty value. After all, here is someone who spent 1988-92 going to raves and then got not only a PhD out of it but also now a book.

Club Cultures is staking out new territory. Up until now, scant academic attention has been paid to rave, the 1990s addition to the Great British postwar youth culture collection or indeed any post-punk youth cult. Thornton traces the prehistory of the genre and why it is that, historically, "dance" - the activity itself and its soundtrack - has always been seen as a threat to "real" music. She then gets stuck into the present.

Her opening chapter addresses the economics of youth culture. The dynamics of consumption, production, supply and demand have long been absent in youth cultural studies - the bulk of United Kingdom output (work done at Birmingham University in the 1970s) has all too often fallen victim to an unhealthy preoccupation with youth fighting the class war. Thornton is indebted to the Birmingham school in many ways, using the old 1970s hangover word "subculture" in a "classless" 1990s way and addressing the role of the media in subculture creation. She analyses the tensions of the elite underground versus the commonplace overground in club culture, terming her investigation of the latter rather sneeringly "why Sharon and Tracey dance around their handbags".

At times, frustratingly, Thornton does not say enough about her own research. In particular, we are told of the night when in the course of her fieldwork, the author pops an "E". It is a blow-by-blow account up until the act itself about which she is noticeably defensive: "I'm not a personal fan of drugs - I worry about my brain cells. But they're a fact of his youth culture, so I submit myself to the experiment in the name of thorough research (thereby confirming every stereotype of the subcultural sociologist)." And then what happens? Where are the insights into just why rave and Ecstasy are so indivisible? I think we should be told.

Thornton has provided an accessible and interesting account of her subject that will be of great use to anyone trying to find out whatever happened to youth culture since the heady days of Dick Hebdige as long ago as 1979. Of course, at times, one can pick faults - her constant references to "clubbers" brings to mind satirical 1980s pop miserablists Half Man Half Biscuit's track Me and My Girl Seal-Clubbing - but Club Cultures is certainly worthy of investigation.

Rupa Huq teaches cultural studies at the University of East London where she is completing her PhD on youth culture.

Club Cultures

Author - Sarah Thornton
ISBN - 0 7456 1442 6 and 0 7456 1443 4
Publisher - Polity
Price - £39.50 and £11.95
Pages - 220

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