“The Last Dance” documentary: the origin story for modern EDM festivals

I often lament eras I didn’t exist in. The early 2010s rave scene is definitely one of them.  Le Liu’s documentary The Last Dance, released Friday, January 25th on YouTube and Vimeo, is a beautifully-made film that tells the story of Electric Daisy Carnival, Los Angeles – what led to it’s rise and downfall.

The Last Dance tells the whole story – not just of music and lasers and fluffies and Kandi (although, if you watch the documentary for nothing else, watch it for the glorious early 2010s rave fashion), but of the groups and individuals who worked to make raving safer for everyone, a topic that most EDM festival documentaries fail to touch upon.

last edc la lineup
The stacked lineup for the last EDC event in Los Angeles

The documentary opens with footage and descriptions of very early rave scenes. Before the large scale festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival came into existence, the electronic music scene flourished in warehouse parties. The footage in the documentary of these parties is not at all unlike footage in the films I was shown in middle school health class to warn students about the dangers of ecstasy.

If early renditions of Electric Daisy Carnival were the Wild West of EDM music festivals, 90s warehouse raves were an exploration of a new frontier. With the conception of an entirely new form of partying came the advent of widespread ecstasy use in the United States, and the hysteria that often joins the rise of the use of a certain kind of drug. What started out as a small gathering of a bunch of weirdos who liked electronic music (and I say “weirdos” in the most positive sense of the word possible), soon became a preferred topic of discussion in the media. Much of the media took a highly negative stance, focusing on the dangers of ecstasy use and how it tied heavily into rave culture – a scene that was initially confusing and strange to mainstream audiences. Raves were widely demonized by the media, seen as drug-infested all-night parties, with the positives of the welcoming environment that allowed people to be themselves overlooked.

While the war between the media and raves raged on in the early 2000s, some groups like DanceSafe, a nonprofit organization focused on harm reduction in ravers, and inevitably found themselves in the center of the debate. Groups like DanceSafe would set up a table outside of rave events and test people’s drugs for them to see if what rave-goers thought they were going to take was what they actually had. And then they would give the drugs back to the raver. This was, of course, controversial.

dancesafe

The debate that existed around these drug safety organizations largely mimics debates at the center of media attention today. As an intern for a healthcare company, I wrote a thoroughly-researched blog about safe injection sites, facilities created to reduce overdoses in drug-using populations. The debate surrounding these facilities today is strikingly similar to the one surrounding harm reduction for ravers in the early 2000s. One side argues that people will continue to use drugs, and putting in measures that allow them to do so safely doesn’t increase the use, it just increases safer use. As one DanceSafe coordinator in The Last Dance states plainly, these initiatives are about “not forcing morality upon drug users,” accepting that drug use will still occur but ensuring the users are treated as human beings and aren’t forced to learn a dangerous lesson for their actions just because society doesn’t agree with them. The other side argues that these programs and facilities encourage use of potentially dangerous and harmful drugs and that we should be encouraging abstinence above all else. The latter was often the stance the media took in the early 2000s with regards to ecstasy and continues to take with regards to safe injection sites today.

The media and abstinence advocates in the early 2000s often claimed science was on their side. What was really shocking was that much of the “evidence” used by the media to fight against rave culture was a sham. One highly publicized study conducted by doctors at Johns Hopkins that claimed that multiple consecutive days of ecstasy use could lead to later development of Parkinson’s disease was later thrown out after it was discovered that doctors gave the animals used in the trial METH instead of Ecstasy. Just a minor whoopsie, obviously. Another doctor showed a high-contrast image of a brain scan of a heavy ecstasy-user made to look as though the user had holes in their brain, supporting the notion that ecstasy use turns your brain into swiss cheese. Obviously neither of these claims were substantiated, but that didn’t stop them from fueling the hysteria. This is not to say in any way that drug use is completely harmless and should be treated as such, but it is dangerous to cite untrue claims to scare the public instead of educating them.

oprah brain scan
An image of the brain scan used on Oprah and MTV to prove ecstasy created holes in brain.

Drug policy formed during this period was largely harmful to harm reduction as a result, creating policies such as the R.A.V.E Act which, despite its deceptive name, was counteractive in keeping people safe at raves. The act allowed authorities to target promoters and venue owners over the sale and use of illicit drugs and considered the presence of glow sticks, Kandi, and even bottled water as indicative of such drug use occurring.

The most dire effect of the R.A.V.E Act and its successors was that the drug education and safety services and organizations like DanceSafe were not present at events where they were most needed. When rave culture experienced a Renaissance in the 2010s, the use of ecstasy rose once again but this time without measures in place to ensure that people knew what they were taking and were being safe.

The documentary goes into a bit of Electric Daisy Carnival’s personal history, with its early days as a relatively small event in Southern California, to it’s growth in the mid-2000s, to the now-infamous EDC LA 2010 which catalyzed the movement of the Electric Daisy Carnival from the Los Angeles Coliseum to it’s present day location in Las Vegas and began a discussion surrounding the safety of modern raves.

main stage edc la
The Coliseum during EDC Los Angeles. The glowing orb on the left is the main stage.

The 2010 Electric Daisy Carnival attracted more festival-goers than the event had ever seen in the past, with over 187,000 attendees entering the Coliseum for the event. Los Angeles and national media covered the event heavily, with some even approaching the event with the positive tone (special shoutout to the one reporter who was totally vibing with the attendees). Many purchased tickets to the event, but many more jumped the 8 foot chain-link fence that surrounded the Coliseum to get in for free. Perhaps my favorite part in the entire documentary is when Lil Jon got on stage and shouted at fence-jumpers to stop jumping the fence. Even with the powers of Lil Jon on their side, the efforts of the security guards to keep fence jumpers at bay were fruitless.

fence jumpers
Footage of fence jumpers at EDC Los Angeles on the news

Inside the over populated Coliseum, conditions were unmanageable. There were few bathroom facilities, especially near the main stage, which led to several attendees using anywhere they saw fit as their bathroom – gross. Water was hard to come by, and so was food. Still, those interviewed for the documentary remember their experience at the lost EDC Los Angeles fondly. The set up was perfect – with the main stage in the center of a massive venue, inviting attendees to listen to and view the acts perfectly from several vantage points.

In the end, it was scandal and corruption in addition to general bias against a culture many on the outside considered built upon illicit drug use that brought Electric Daisy Carnival in Los Angeles down.

There is, however, a silver lining to this story. Although unable to implement the recommendations to keep EDC safe at the Coliseum, festival organizers were able to implement what they learned from EDC LA at EDC LV. Water stations are readily available for attendees to refill their bottles whenever they need it, allowing them to stay cool and hydrated in insanely high temperatures. On-site medical staff is widely available and extremely attentive at EDC Las Vegas, which helps to reduce the number of people needing transport to the ER and fatalities. Groups like Project #Opentalk, the baby of DanceSafe, Insomniac Events and a few other like-minded organizations, provide a safe place for attendees to talk openly and without judgement about safety regarding sex, drugs and other issues facing ravers. Early ravers and organizations like DanceSafe laid the groundwork for what has become routine safety procedures at large-scale festivals.

project-open-talk-560h
Some members of the Project #Opentalk organization, one of many groups helping to keep ravers safe. Image from Insomniac Events website.

Furthermore, the movement of the Electric Daisy Carnival in Los Angeles to Las Vegas launched EDM festivals into the mainstream. Some lament the days of raving passed, where the sub-culture remained on the DL, with only hardcore EDM fans attending raves. I would argue that the migration to the mainstream is a good thing. EDM festivals are positive places where people are encouraged to express themselves without judgement and meet new people – the world could really use a little more of that.


The Last Dance is now streaming on Vimeo and YouTube

Sign a petition to amend the R.A.V.E Act here!

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