Ecstasy in Pop Culture: A Highly Subjective Timeline


Remember back in the late ’90s, when people were panicking over the possibility that MDMA was poking holes in everyone’s brain and making a whole generation of teenagers stupid? Well, your ability to recall that moment in time is a further testament to the value of a new study that found users “showed no signs of cognitive impairment attributable to drug use: ecstasy use did not decrease mental ability.” There is some fine print, and it’s not like ecstasy doesn’t have other risks or side effects, but it’s also a blow against drug-related hysteria. With that in mind, now seems like a great time to relive some of ecstasy’s greatest — and silliest — pop culture moments.

First recorded recreational use of MDMA (1970)

Did you know that ecstasy is over 100 years old? MDMA was originally synthesized around the turn of the century and patented by Merck (in Germany) in 1912. Although it was tested on animals in the ’50s, it wasn’t until late the mid-’60s that researcher Alexander Shulgin and a few others began making MDMA and testing it on humans (including themselves). 1970 saw the first case report of recreational ecstasy use — but it wasn’t available on the streets until 1977.

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The world’s first rave (1970)

Coincidentally, the first official “rave dance” took place in New Zealand, of all places, the same year science discovered ecstasy’s recreational use. While the term grew out of ’60s garage rock and popped up every now and then (David Bowie sang about “a crash course for the ravers” in his 1973 song “Drive-In Saturday”), it wasn’t until the late ’80s that it came to describe acid house, warehouse parties, and the entire, pill-popping, Ibiza-loving lifestyle that grew up around them.

The US criminalizes MDMA (1985)

Although it was illegal in the UK by 1977, American ravers enjoyed nearly a decade of penalty-free ecstasy use. When the DEA finally got around to proscribing it in the mid-’80s, MDMA became the first substance to be banned under new legislation allowing the government to fast-track criminalization of any drug it deemed a danger to the public. Although a group of enthusiasts sued the DEA over the decision, ecstasy was still placed on Schedule I — meaning it’s been judged to have a high potential for harm and abuse coupled with no redeeming medical value. (This, despite the fact that it was used for years in a psychotherapeutic setting.) Interesting side note: the first report of an ecstasy-related death didn’t come until after criminalization, in 1987.

Madchester (late ’80s)

Some of the first ecstasy-inspired British music to make waves across the pond came from late-’80s Manchester. Born of post-punk and acid house, the so-called “Madchester” sound encompassed bands such as Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses, and 808 State. The Haçienda was their clubhouse, where neo-psychedelic dance music fueled all-night parties and inspired imitators around the globe.

Primal Scream, Screamadelica (1991)

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of this paean to revelry, the NME compiled a list of the top 50 drug albums of all time — and placed Screamadelica at #1. (Seriously, if you haven’t listened to it, run out and buy a copy now. You won’t be sorry.) Inspired by the late-’80s acid house scene (which, despite its name, was largely MDMA-fueled), Primal Scream’s career-defining LP is like the best hour of the best party you’ve ever been to, somehow exhilarating and serene at once. In an NME interview, frontman Bobby Gillespie called the band’s early encounters with ecstasy “a religious conversion” that “opened everybody’s minds.”

Hollywood obsesses over ecstasy (late ’90s-early ’00s)

It took a while for mainstream film to catch on to ecstasy, but when it did, a rush of pretty bad movies followed. Remember Go? How about Human Traffic? There was Groove and even Rave — and too many more to count. MDMA played a major role in so many dashed-off, turn-of-the-millennium movies about teens and 20-somethings behaving badly that we suspect some memo must have circulated around major studios in 1998 decreeing that ecstasy was the new height of hip.

Generation Ecstasy by Simon Reynolds (1999)

Many books have been written about electronic music and rave culture, but only venerable music critic Simon Reynolds has approached the topic with such a potent combination of deep knowledge and genuine passion. Techno music and ecstasy are so intertwined it’s impossible to place rave at a particular moment on this timeline — but if you want to know more about that shared history, this Reynolds’s book is the first place you’ll want to look.

Time magazine terrifies parents everywhere (2000)

If you were a teenager when Time‘s special issue on ecstasy came out, chances are you were in for an epic parental lecture. The salacious lede to a story about the drug’s mainstreaming gives a pretty good idea about the tone of what follows: “Cobb County, GA., May 11, 2000. It’s a Thursday morning, and 18-year-old ‘Karen’ and five friends decide to go for it. They skip first period and sneak into the woods near their upscale high school. One of them takes out six rolls — six ecstasy pills — and they each swallow one.” Teens! Drugs! Cutting class! And it’s happening in your own backyard!

“The Cigarette Girl from the Future” (2001)

If you’ll allow us a moment of self-indulgent grandstanding, we’d just like to say that “The Cigarette Girl from the Future” by DC quasi-supergroup Beauty Pill might be the most underrated ecstasy song of all time. It’s funny, jittery, a little bit psychedelic, and also a little bit retro-futuristic. To wit: “Discos don’t look pretty from an anthropological perspective/ Watch us rattle in the haze of listless proxy for a pulse/ But what I need, need to know/ Is how much strychnine was in that ecstasy you gave me an hour ago.” Listen to it on Grooveshark, and you’ll see what we mean.

24 Hour Party People (2002)

At a time when the most popular indie bands on the planet were taking their cues from Joy Division, British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom made the zeitgeist-y (and, thankfully, quite good) movie 24 Hour Party People. The film follows Factory Records boss Tony Wilson (played perfectly by Steve Coogan) from the label’s early post-punk days to its later, Happy Mondays and New Order, era at the The Haçienda. And for a few months, every indie dance night in America was full of kids in soccer jerseys dancing to “God’s Cop.”

Lesbians on Ecstasy (2003)

This excellent band of queers from Montreal — their name is a parody of Chicks on Speed — formed in 2003, released their self-titled debut the next year, and took their high-energy show on the road in support of Le Tigre. The electro-pop group made their name with gritty, dance floor-ready covers of artists like k.d. lang. And while the band hasn’t put out a new album since 2007, they did take their show on the road last year, so maybe there truly is a comeback in the works.

Garden State (2004)

How do you know your drug of choice has really gone mainstream? Well, when Zach Braff is chowing it down in a film that suburban teenagers find, like, so meaningful, that’s a pretty good sign.

Fred Tomaselli, Organism. [via]

Ecstasy, the art exhibit (2005)

The art-world establishment got in on ecstasy in the mid-’00s, with a trippy exhibition called Ecstasy: In and About Altered States, at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The group show included a fountain supposedly laced with acid, an “Upside-Down Mushroom Room,” and Fred Tomaselli’s collages — which actually contain pills of all sorts.

Man takes 40,000 ecstasy pills (2006)

Don’t worry — he didn’t take them all at once. But a 37-year-old research subject known only as “Mr. A” did captivate minds around the world when a study revealed that he had taken 40,000 MDMA pills between the ages of 21 and 30. At the height of his use, Mr. A was swallowing about 25 pills a day — making it somewhat doubtful that the apparently harrowing side effects he experienced would be particularly relevant to your average, occasional user. For our part, we’re just wondering how he paid for that habit.

MDMA molecule necklace [via Etsy]

Ecstasy is for everyone: moms, Brazilians, Ivy League kids, etc. (2008-present)

Now that meth has taken over for MDMA as the drug of universal media obsession/hysteria, coverage of ecstasy has taken a turn for the novel. In 2008, an Australian newspaper reported that use was up among the 30-something set — and spun it as a trend piece about crazy divorcées embracing second childhoods. (Never mind that the folks who were in their 30s in the late ’00s were in their 20s in the late ’90s.) A few months later, the New York Times breathlessly seized upon the glamorous tales of upper-class Brazilian teenagers and their hard-partying, ecstasy-fueled lifestyles. Most recently, in December, the media obsessed over five Columbia students who were arrested for dealing ecstasy, among other drugs. Breaking: College students like drugs.