From Deadheads to Headbangers: How Countercultures Create Community
Courtesy: Electric Forest/ Insomniac Events
Electric Forest’s lineup has always been a little different than that of your typical dance music-focused festival. With names like The String Cheese Incident and The Disco Biscuits gracing the roster year after year, the event leans away from being a pure rave through its added focus on jam bands. And in addition to pulling in dance music giants like Odesza, Kygo, and Zeds Dead, there are also groups — like electronica rock band STS9 — who fall somewhere in between.
The merging of music styles at Electric Forest results in a unification of fans and — one might think — cultures. However, attendees of Electric Forest tend to share a similar set of values, whether they come to see dance music, jam bands, or a little of both.
Rebecca Adams — a sociologist, researcher, and lifelong devotee of original jam band, The Grateful Dead — attended the event in 2009, when it was still operating under the name Rothbury Music Festival.
“I remember noticing ‘Oh, these people are hippies, too,’” Adams says of the dance music fans that gathered at the Michigan venue. “These are the same people. It’s just a different cohort."
And indeed, in 2021 you wouldn’t be hard-pressed to find a raver sporting a Grateful Dead tee at a festival. While the cultural overlap is especially prominent among the younger generation of music fans, there have been similarities between the genres — and the communities that have formed around them — almost from the beginning.
“Rave music is kind of continuing on the psychedelic rock tradition, in certain respects,” says Sean Nye, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music who specializes in dance and electronic genres. “It kind of has that heritage. 1967 was the summer of love and rave culture kind of comes up with that legacy, probably even from the Grateful Dead legacy in some ways.”
Both music communities emerged from subculture: dance music from gay and Black communities in 1980’s Chicago and Detroit. And Deadheads from San Francisco’s 1960’s hippie culture. Both types of music developed on the fringes and were not always respected by fans of other music genres, but the communities that developed around dance music and the Grateful Dead grew to be strong, tight-knit, and even familial.
According to Adams, the improvisational nature of the Grateful Dead’s music created this unique fodder for fostering community.
“People don’t know what to expect at each show, so, at least in the old days, they were afraid to miss a show,” Adams says. It brought people together repeatedly and gave them a chance to form friendships with each other.”
Such is also the case with dance music. It’s common for DJ/producers to preview new music exclusively to their live audiences or even drop unreleased tracks that fans can only expect to hear in the live setting. This element of the unknown keeps both music audiences hungry for more.
Additionally, the very structure of a dance music event is conducive to exploration, which allows audiences to have a new experience at each rave.
Jake West for Insomniac
“Bigger events and festivals have multiple stages, which allows for that kind of improvisational thing,” says Nye. “You might just be wandering around and there are enough artists where you can’t really catch up with everyone and so you might just suddenly discover someone that sounds interesting. It allows for that kind of adventure experience that’s connected with discovery and freedoms.”
Whether it’s the ad-lib quality of the music or the ability to make impromptu decisions that affect your live music experience, both ravers and Deadheads describe a feeling of otherworldliness when they’re at a show.
“Many Dead scholars, including myself, have written about Dead shows as secular rituals where you’re a little bit different when you come out the other end,” Adams says. “Rituals generally create what’s called liminal space, where the norms of the outside world fall away and everyone is equal and therefore capable of having a shared experience and really connecting.”
Whether it’s been written about or not, dance music creates this experience, too. It can be seen everywhere, from the outrageous, costume-y clothes that can only be worn at a rave, to the whimsical, fairytale-esque décor that commonly adorns larger festivals, to the friendships that are formed between dance music fans regardless of where they call home when the rave is over.
“When you go to a show, it just feels like you can be yourself and you don’t have to follow any of the guidelines society makes us think we have to follow,” says Mathew Peterson, a veteran raver who produces music under the alias Cheechmo. “It just kind of feels like a separate family.”
Adams describes the same familial bond among Deadheads, recalling how younger members of the community checked up on her during the height of the COVID lockdowns.
“I’m an older person and during most of COVID I was pretty locked down,” she says. “Surrounding me was this community of young Deadheads who were checking on me. I hired them to do my yard work and we totally shared in our losses and our experiences, helping each other in that I had the resources to hire them and they had the skills to help me with whatever I needed.”
And not only do both genres create a space ripe for music lovers to bond with one another, but there is also a strong connection between artist and fan. This can be seen in the fervor with which devotees travel to shows, and also in the way that fans identify themselves. Grateful Dead followers, of course, adopted the name “Deadhead,” which Adams describes as “core to her identity,” noting that for her, “it’s not just about the live music experience, it’s about being a part of the community.” Dance music listeners have created labels for themselves too, by putting clever spins on the names of their favorite DJs or aspects of culture associated with a specific artist — think Rezzbians, Illenials, and Excision’s Headbangers.
“The experience of being on the dance floor and responding to the DJ’s music create its own specific form of fan base,” Nye says of this phenomenon. “It’s perhaps a slightly more intense interaction between artist and audience, or at least it’s different.”
But while the unique qualities of the music and surrounding cultures drew fans in, it may have been the associated stigma that made the communities so strong.
“It is a sociological truism that when there is stigma, it reinforces the group solidarity,” Adams says. “Back in the day, there was a lot of stigma and people didn’t like the music. You were pretty much considered not very bright about music if you liked the Grateful Dead.”
Dance music has also faced its fair share of stigma. Both groups have not only battled against a lack of understanding surrounding their respective experimental sounds, but they’ve also been continually held back by reductive and over-simplified views surrounding music-associated drug use.
“What’s curious about musical cultures like these is that you get a fair amount of reporting that is so focused around drugs or counterculture or deviancy that you’d wonder if people even realize that music is being played there,” says Nye.
Most ravers can tell you all about the disapproving looks they’ve garnered as they’ve made their way — in full costume — to a venue. Or how often, after telling a new acquaintance about their affinity for dance music, they’ve been asked to talk about all the drugs they’ve tried. And according to Adams, even she — a respected University of North Carolina Greensboro professor — faces the common Deadhead stereotypes.
“I went to a Dead show in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was renting an incredibly expensive hotel room because it was the last one available,” she says. “When I got back from the show, I had two friends who were planning to drive back to New York that night. They just wanted to come up to my room to eat before they started driving, but the hotel would not let me take anyone up to my room because they weren’t going to let Deadheads pack a room.”
Adams also remembers not being seated at a restaurant because a member of her party had dreadlocks, as well as an instance when a gun was held on her while shopping at a convenience store because it was assumed that she and her friend planned to rob the shop.
“This is where the solidarity comes in. When you met another Deadhead, it didn’t matter if you were there when someone was discriminated against, what mattered was that you knew if you were talking to another real Deadhead that they already understood.”
The persisting stigma shows that these communities still have strong ties to their respective pasts. The founders and key players in these music genres were relegated to the fringes, whether it was due to their political beliefs, skin color, sexual orientation, or simply not conforming to the societal standards of the time.
And while both genres have made their way to the mainstream — and are even trendy today — their foundations in subculture were the perfect recipe for these groups to become what they are. The roots of struggle are part of why these communities are so similar — and so special.