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  • Brianna Welsh

The Dark Side of Hedonism


Undoubtedly one of my favorite places on Earth, I planned a trip to Ibiza as a little reunion following my spiritual journey in India. Perhaps not the wisest decision in hindsight, given the stark juxtaposition between a solitary mission of introspection in a humble and impoverished part of rural India, and a glamorous Spanish island with a temporary accumulated wealth greater than the top 1% of America, famous for ecstasy-filled lavish parties and mind-altering substances. Perhaps it was an unknowingly, unintentionally deliberate subliminal prank my inner spirit was playing on me. Regardless of whether I was inspired by a deeper unacknowledged force, the lesson in the experience was glaringly evident.

I would not have been able to anticipate how quickly old habits can re-circuit until I landed in Ibiza. While I was uniquely familiar with the island and not naive of its effects on me in the past, I did not anticipate my ingrained mental state returning quite so quickly. I became unwound, unbalanced, and un-zen, pretty much the minute I arrived at the villa. Turns out environment plays a much bigger role in my mental state than I’d given credit for.

It’s very easy to lose sight of balance and inner peace and without constant practice, mindfulness can be washed under the rug in favor of immediate gratification and materialism regardless of how pure the intention. I suppose this lesson wasn’t really all that shocking, old patterns really do die hard. The other lesson learned however, was a bit more of a surprise.

The Island of Hedonism

The White Isle has been a hedonist’s playground for longer than I’ve even been a thought. It has made its mark on counterculture for more than six decades as a world where traditional social boundaries lay under constant siege and where the pursuit of pleasure is the only objective. In recent years, it’s become somewhat of a Mecca for partygoers, almost like a write of passage for those who attribute value to the dance music industry and enjoy getting sideways on elicit substances. It’s become symbolic for excess - whether its beautiful women, fancy villas, or exclusive parties with celebrity guest lists - it’s ubiquitous, and it’s constant.

The White Isle is sacrosanct for hosting round-the-clock parties, with internationally famous nightclubs famous for their unbridled spirit and ability to connect people from every walk of life. For me, there’s always been something different about it all, something deeper, almost a spiritual shift in consciousness. The people and the music were all that defined the island. You’d have a melding of the minds, an organic convergence of people from all shapes and sizes, all walks of life. Not dissimilar to the heyday of Burning Man. Everyone was part of the place, and the energy felt magnetic. The island has a magnetic force that draws you in over and over again, no matter how many times you leaving claiming it will be your last.

If you so desired (and by no means am I removing myself from this cycle), you could bounce from party to party from the minute you landed until the minute you returned to the airport, with the only disruption being the transportation from super clubs to extravagant villas and back again. Burning the candle at both ends is commonplace, as the fire for life is apparently unquenchable. In fact, I know people that hop on a redeye from New York on a Thursday evening, arrive Friday mid day, and don’t see a bed again until they’ve returned back to Manhattan the following Monday. Everything is possible here, and anything goes.

The Dark Side of it All

Being in Ibiza has such high highs and low lows it can feel like you’ve won the lottery and then lost the ticket on a daily basis. It’s a utopia of free love and decadence, but with a dark underbelly of drug consumption and escapism. To me, the island has always been a reincarnation of the metaphorical angel and devil dichotomy. There seems to be two very distinct visions on the island; with the old school venues championing free love, equality, and exploration, contrasting with the syndicate-owned super clubs focusing on higher prices, VIPs and regulations. This invasion of Hollywood celebrities and mainstream musicians has inevitably brought about a transformation of the attendees and with it, the energy. People aren’t flying over to loose their heads in the center of a sweaty dance floor sandwiched between two flamboyant shirtless men, they’re seeking luxury yachts, expecting access to even private villa parties, and demanding selfies with the island’s hottest DJs. Once considered counterculture, underground and mysterious, social media and celebritydom has raised the island’s profile to the most mainstream of pop culture. Which for us, means an influx of people who really shouldn’t be there. It means the people you’re bumping shoulders with at house parties and raves aren’t there for a pure experience, they’re there for the Instagram story. The “no budget” clientele are brining a whole new dimension to the equation and uprooting that which made Ibiza so historically special - its emphasis on how music draws people together. Carl Cox said it best, that back in the day, “everyone used to go out together when they went out, on the same dance floor.”

Now not to sound too hypocritical here, I must acknowledge my biases. My life has fairly consistently fallen in the category of excess and extremes; I have yet to strike that legendary balance between work and social, minimalism and consumption, health and indulgence. I tend to live my life on each end of polars, depending on how hard I hit it, and then swing on the pendulum back the other direction. I’ve seen a lot, and it’s thanks to my absolute inability to stay in one place, stick with one thing, or remain balanced, and it’s what affords me the firsthand perspective into this peculiar social scene.

It’s been more than a year since I wrote the first part of this soliloquy. Despite identifying for the first time, the darker side of this industry, I still felt viscerally attached to it. I felt a draw towards The Island, and the broader social scene that it represented. I returned a few more times last summer, and again for Openings this year. I won’t pretend like each of those times weren’t among the best of my life, in fact, this year was probably my favorite in totality yet, but each of these trips were accompanied by increasingly more devastating lows. The kind of lows that shake you to your core, that have you reevaluating your entire purpose in life, questioning your sanity, your direction (or lack thereof), regretting your entire existence. It wasn’t until I returned for an extended period this summer, that I truly realized how much of an impression this place was leaving on my soul. When I deliberately removed myself from the vicious cycle of rave to villa to afterparty back to rave, and became more provident about my attendance, those rose-colored glasses began to fade and my eyes opened to a world of darkness that I’d either been gingerly oblivious to, or perhaps willfully blind.

But what I observed over my past two summers there is that it often serves as a place to escape, rather than to enhance. The dark side of the island seems to be divided into two categories: the clingers on, and the escapists. They’re both ubiquitous, and they often overlap.

The hedonic treadmill that cherishes villa entrance and yacht invitations as the utmost signature of one’s “inness”, seemed to disinterest me. The utter desperation for wristbands - as if one’s fate in life depends on being seen inside the latest exclusive villa party - only to be used to deepen exclusive cliques as each stands cornered independently, suddenly felt bleak and petty. It’s a lot like Groundhog Day, the same DJs, clubs, celebrities, plastered on the hundreds of billboards lining the city streets, the same scenesters at every new villa party, year after year. The groupie’s false sense of superiority, the tour manager’s narcissistic tendencies, and the DJ’s imperious behavior only perpetuates the need of all at arms length to feel “included” in the “in” crowd. I suddenly became aware of the saturation of charlatans and interlopers, people who were just keen to social climb their way through the music world, to appear alongside the celebrities, and happily prune off their success.

There are also those who are seeking an mechanism for avoidance from the mundane, from their normal and unrewarding lives. These are the people you find going AWOL. The ones sprawled across the backstages in K holes deeper than general anesthesia. People are trying to withdraw, and the no limits island is the perfect place to emotionally disappear. En masse, these people are using substances and sex and flashy distractions to make today’s problems tomorrow’s. The immediate shot of dopamine from the social credit of being a DJ’s groupie, the serotonin boost from excessive consumption of amphetamines, and the disassociate apathy of ketamine. It’s a series of moral ambivalences and denial of reality.

I don’t want this to sound like an admonition of my observations, as I will always carry respect for the transformation that this little island has had on the world of music and counterculture, and I admire and appreciate those who contribute to its influence. It has been a breeding ground for industry-changing collaborations, and inspiration for creativity unlike many other places on Earth. I love it for that, and I love it for its ability to draw people together. I love it for what it maybe…used to be.

Changing Tides

Coincidentally, as The Island seems to have opened its doors to the social bandwagoners of the world, it has concurrently reincarnated the hippie era, casting a light on a more wholesome and spiritually-centered community. In keeping with the global shift in consciousness, Ibiza has also adapted to offer many outlets to help people tune in to our inner bliss, offering an safe haven for those whose experiences here had previously been focused on tuning out through drugs and alcohol.

From Tulum-esque parties to hippie markets, drum circles, shamanic ceremonies, meditation retreats, and various other spiritual biohacking centers, Ibiza definitely seems to be retaliating against this influx of vapid and callous partygoers. It’s aiming at reconnecting people, both internally and as a community, with a conscience charity focus to help participants feel the change they want to see. It’s drawing some real people, and is in some ways a resurgence of The Island’s hippie roots. The new cool seems to be leaving you hangover-free and feeling inspired, revitalized and refreshed. The best part of all this, is the realization of so many of the good eggs on the island, the recognition that a change is necessary to circumvent the natural direction the island seems to be going in. I’m not over Ibiza, I don’t think I ever will. She and I have had a long love affair, and I’ll never give up on her, but I’m just looking forward to seeing more of what will come as this shift gets its roots.