It’s 10:30 on a Saturday night at Hollywood’s recently reopened Palladium concert venue. The headliner for the night is techno sensation Deadmau5, whose rodent-headed antics have sold out the venue weeks before doors ever opened. The Mau5 won’t be onstage until midnight, but the venue is already nearing capacity. The bars in the corner are empty, indicating that the assembled crowd is mostly younger than 21, but the main floor is already packed and gently moving to German three-piece Moderat.
In 90 minutes, the sway will turn into a full-on throbbing mass of dancers, but at this more subdued moment, the most obvious activity is on the outskirts of the dance floor, where teens and 20-somethings outfitted with new-technology LED-embedded gloves blink, flash and strobe wildly as they craft miniature sculptures of light in the air. Their arms move in rapid circles, fingers crossing and extending in a miniature ballet of luminescence, while friends and strangers stare utterly transfixed by the display. Onstage, there’s plenty of high-end lighting and video design, but the effect isn’t half as intoxicating as these intimate rituals happening in the crowd. Like almost all other technologies these days, the light show has become personal.
“Much like behind the turntables, it seems to have gone largely from analog to digital,” explains Michael Tullberg, a professional nightlife photographer who has been documenting the Southern California electronic-music scene since the mid-’90s. “Back in the day, there was no such thing as digital lights or hand apparel or clothing. It simply didn’t exist. All the glowing lights were chemical-based — basically glow sticks.”
Photographers like Tullberg helped define the look of ’90s rave culture with long-exposure photography that captured the visual overload found at many of the events. Dancers with glow sticks were obvious subjects, since their kinetic movements left swooping streams of light on the film.
Glow sticks also came to codify a scene that took its share of lumps in the media — and from Congress, which eventually criminalized their use via the 2003 R.A.V.E. Act, claiming that the plastic sticks, originally designed to generate emergency lighting, were now being utilized mainly to “enhance the effects of the drugs that patrons have ingested.” Even if the bill’s sponsor, Senator Joe Biden (D-DE), has moved on to bigger fish, the stigma of glow sticks has remained. “As LEDs started coming along, because they’re not glow sticks, they weren’t tarred with the same brush,” asserts Tullberg, as a way to explain how the new generation of personal light devices has risen from the pile of a million discarded plastic tubes. “Since these are digital, they could be sold in more places. There are more commercial applications, which is why all these LED gloves and pendants have been able to spread.”
“A lot of the new generation is trying to return to that idealism of the ’90s,” adds Chris Estes, a veteran glow-stick and LED user who recently launched his own Web site, LightZombies.com, which is dedicated to selling personal rave lights. He believes that cost has also contributed to the newfound enthusiasm for these toys.
“I was dancing and playing with lights ever since my first few parties, buying two glow sticks, getting fed up with spending $5 a week,” he recalls. When asked about the pricing of the gloves he sells, he takes on a salesman’s tone, “A decent pair of gloves, totally usable gloves that will last you a good six months, [costs] $10.”
It is at home where these light products have gained a second life thanks to a little site called YouTube. In an age in which frivolous human endeavors are captured en masse via webcams, a quick video search for “glove light show” turns up thousands of homemade clips — people practicing their LED maneuvers in darkened bedrooms for the enjoyment of the online viewers.
The question facing many enthusiasts is whether or not this activity will fully cross over into the mainstream. Both Estes and Tullberg are skeptical, given the history of megaclubs adopting rave music but keeping out the culture that grew up around it.
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“They’re trying to keep the music for a monetary gain but not allow the culture,” gripes Estes. “That’s happening not just with rave music, but with R&B and hip-hop. A lot of hip-hop clubs won’t allow any of the hip-hop culture into the clubs except for the music that’s making them money.”
But who cares about Hollywood clubs if the scale of rave-driven events continues to grow into festival-size weekend-long parties? People like Estes will always find a place to practice their craft.
“I find them at 200-person underground events, where one-third of the people will have lights. Then you can go to a massive, and you’ll see a sea of people with gloves and glow sticks. It survives throughout the whole of rave culture.”
To answer the ultimate question as to “why” folks like Estes do what they do — showmanship, art, belonging, it looks cool on drugs — Tullberg offers an astute insight: “There’s the very real sense that you and the music are creating something together. When you’re dancing and you have your body and the music and the glow sticks, all these pieces are coming together and for that moment, you are making something purely your own.”