ARTICLE NATASHA STAGG
So, yes: EDM is here to stay in the United States, and it is our responsibility to not let this make us insane. It's the backing track for the most popular hip-hop, it's the impetus for the growing serious and not serious club scenes here in New York, and it's blasting down every beach on every coast, taking over top 40 radio in hits by familiar divas, but also in tracks by the producers themselves, like Calvin Haris, Zedd, and David Guetta, who all had number one songs on the singles charts this summer. Obviously, the music is catchy, but there's a message in the repetitive dance music, too, and it's a little dark—which gives us hope for this genre's validity. It's about being alone in a crowd, and feeling at home there. In the words of Krewella, "All alone, just the beat inside my soul / Take me home, where my dreams are made of gold / In the zone where the beat is un-controlled / I know what it feels like / Come on make me feel alive." On that note, it makes sense that drugs are linked to EDM, but that's true of all music with any sense of real emotion, isn't it? In order to digest the double-standard associated with this über positive/kind of scary scene, we (V and VMAN's online editor Natasha Stagg and up and coming DJ Emily Gruca, aka (EDM)ily) went to one of the US's biggest EDM festivals, determined to feel the beat inside our souls... and to handle it professionally.
We showed up on Randall’s Island the first day of Electric Zoo 2013 at about 2:30pm and were handed candy (actual candy, not the handmade bracelets that spell out PLUR) and a map of the five-stage outdoor venue. Trees were strewn with lights and paper jellyfish, and attendees who were dressed in bright colors—boy-cut bikinis, Skrillex-glasses, and tutus were popular choices—posed for Instagrams on a rhinoceros statue. Over the hill, a growing crowd wandered towards one of two main stages, where DJs (or “producers,” depending on who you talk to) were already instructing fans to “jump,” “make some noise,” and “show us your hands, New York!” Here was where the most elaborate light shows we’ve ever seen, other than in similarly giant EDM festivals, happened on obscenely large stages, built to accommodate only one or two people at a time. Beneath the spinning strobes, the LED videos, the live text messages to the audience, and over the smoke machines, confetti cannons and firebombs, DJs like Tiësto, David Guetta, Avicii, Above & Beyond and Martin Solveig looked like tiny blinking cursors within flailing computer screensavers.
Madeon, easily the youngest DJ booked, who played Main Stage East on Day 2, looked especially small, in a thin white T-shirt and skinny jeans, but was projected to the crowd via the large screens on either side of him. He had no idea. “So you guys saw when my stuff crashed and I had to re-plug it?” He asks us when we tell him about his expressions during his performance. “I hope it was endearing.” It was, especially since we’d been wondering exactly how “live” these live sets really were. “Half of my gear, like, died, and I had to find new ways to make the track,” he laughs.
You may have heard of Electric Zoo, even if you are not an EDM fan. It’s been in the news recently, because on the third day of the outdoor all-day New York City rave, EZoo was cancelled due to two deaths and at least four other hospitalizations—causes suspected to be related to MDMA—reported on the second day. The two fatalities, a 23-year-old man and 20-year-old woman, had travelled from Rochester, New York, and Providence, Rhode Island, respectively, to attend the festival. The headline-making part of this story is that the third day was cancelled.
The numbers associated with this Labor Day weekend party are too big to wrap one's mind around: We heard there were 100,000 people there (no official counts have been released), and that at least 125 DJs were booked, not including the after parties scheduled throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn each night, after the eleven to eleven o’clock packed days. In a word, EZoo 2013 was massive. In two words, EZoo was massive and expensive. All the artists and production teams scheduled to put on shows for the last day were paid, and the ticket holders were refunded $180. The city of New York shut down the event to make sure no one else was hurt, but to be clear: Putting a stop to a cash flow of this scale is the rarity, not the deaths of the excited, overheated young adults. In fact, a death or two happens at Bonnaroo and a handful of other music festivals about every year, but the shows usually still go on.
“There’s the temperature problems, there’s drug abuse problems… There’s a massive amount of people,” Leighton James of the Canadian dubstep duo Adventure Club, who were scheduled to play the last day of EZoo, tells V. “I don’t want to say it’s a numbers game, but when there’s that many people involved… To be really obscure, I was watching a Louis CK show, and he said something like, ‘There are so many people here, by the end of the month, one of you is definitely going to be dead.’ It’s a little morbid, but there is truth there.”
“We’re not trying to make a joke out of it,” interrupted Christian Srigley, Adventure Club’s other half. “Our condolences go out to the family and friends of the people who died. I understand where EZoo is coming from, to cancel the day.” If you start to read the hype surrounding the drug and/or heat-related deaths of August 31st, 2013, you might start to get a bad taste in your mouth. Raves? Ecstasy? How could we let that kind of thing happen again? But the music can’t be blamed, as mainstream EDM is only in recent years hitting American radio waves in full force, but has been pummeling Europe with its steady 130 BPM since it started, and it isn’t just the PLUR providers and glow stick spinners who like to dance overseas. In fact, the American retro rave scene is kind of a mystery to the bigger DJs.
“The insane neon? I think it’s… fun. There’s kind of a definite community building around it,” says Madeon, the 19-year-old prodigy from France who produced on Lady Gaga’s forthcoming ARTPOP. “It’s fun to see how different it is from city to city. There’re so many aspects of the culture that I don’t really understand. Like, sometimes people are like, ‘Do you want candy?’ and I think they literally mean candy to eat, and I’m like, ‘Sure!’ Then they just give me this bracelet and I’m really disappointed. And they do this whole thing… It’s so complicated! I mean, it’s great, but, it’s new to me, too.”
The British and American raves of the 1990s belonged to a small group of outcasts in underground warehouses. That’s where the candy and the neon flyering comes from, and that’s what’s being rehashed here, during the American resurgence of house, trance, and techno music as heard in pop like Britney Spears’s, Katy Perry’s, Madonna’s and Lady Gaga’s newest songs. The producers playing these festivals, though, are used to audiences in their native countries who have watched EDM grow up from out of those warehouses and into large dance clubs, sticking with it the whole way. Here in the States, some of us are being reminded of this lifestyle again for the first time in years, and we’re getting a little crazy about it.
“The vibe over here is absolutely insane,” said Dutch DJ Sander Van Doorn. “What’s happening over here is exactly what happened twenty years ago in Europe. Everybody is so excited to see the DJ. And the funny thing is, what’s happening right now here, is travelling over back to Europe, so it’s there again, as well… The whole rave culture, it’s cool to see—the fluffy boots and stuff, the bracelets, but you know, it kind of creates a community. In Europe, everybody dresses normal.”
Martin Solveig, most popular here in the States for his 2010 song, “Hello,” with Dragonette—a happy hardcore throwback—and for producing on Madonna’s MDNA, sees the eagerness of American crowds, too. “I don’t want to be mean, with the European crowds, which are amazing too, but everyone understands that this whole phenomenon is a bit newer to America, it started a little bit later than it started in Europe. What I love about American people is that they are so fresh… the energy level is very high. Now, also, this is true for the Australians, and they’ve had it forever.”
DJ Sliink, of Newark, New Jersey, known for the remix of Zebra Katz’s “I’ma Read” that played during Rick Owens’s F/W ‘13 Paris show, and for a remix Alexander Wang put in his S/S ’13 show, isn’t so sure about the rave associations with EZoo, where he played the second day at 11am. “Real colorful. I like it. I seen people wearing like, spacesuits, I seen girls in like, booty shorts, it’s a lot of different styles here...” Sliink plays what he calls Jersey Club, which stands apart from most of what’s going on at EZoo, but the message is the same: forget everything around you, and dance. From the jumping crowds to the air-conditioned media tent we see some contrasts. The artists in the tent are leaning on couches, drinking water, and quietly talking with their managers about itineraries, while the DJs on stage are clapping, chanting and fist-pumping, determined to get a crowd happy for at least one hour. The Prada sneaker-wearing Sliink says he likes the club scene, but, “DJing and traveling the world, it takes a toll on you… I’m actually a single parent. My son will be three September 8th, so I’m trying to be a parent instead of always traveling the world.” Next he shows us a tattoo of his son’s name, Jazier, on his neck, and cell phone snaps of the little guy. For the most part, the DJs we speak to are exhausted, sober, and more excited to be talking about friends and family than drugs and parties, as proud as they are of playing, minutes earlier, to 60,000 dancing fans.
Even Solveig says he’s had that breaking point, where he knew he had to stop pushing himself so hard during sets. “Something happened in a club show, in France, in 2011, where I hadn’t had sleep for a long time… so I passed out a little bit during the set. It was bizarre, and for like a few seconds I was really completely out, and I fell. The music just kept going—that’s the beauty… You always have a few minutes until your next record—but my team was there, they saw it, and they were like, oh my god, you’re in bad shape right now… I took it down seriously since then. You only can take what a human body can take. As exciting as it is, you need to sometimes just turn it down.”
The German DJ Zedd, who also produced some of ARTPOP, was scheduled to play with Adventure Club, Steve Aoki, and dozens more on September 1st, the last night of EZoo. Zedd was coming from Vegas, where he’d played the night before. The night before that was a show in Baltimore. Just three days before New York’s tragic losses, the second Zedd show of a two-night stop in Boston was cancelled after a 19-year-old girl died, and two more people reportedly overdosed at the House of Blues. On August 28th, Zedd tweeted, “Love and respect for those in pain right now. Our hearts go out to you.” And, “PLEASE, everyone… BE RESPONSIBLE!” On September 1st, he tweeted, “I don’t even know what to say anymore…”
The more shows one plays, the less opportunities one has to inhibit his senses. These guys party every night in different major cities all over the world, which means most of their time is spent flying. Often, they are booked for several shows in one day. “We’ll go from like, Los Angeles to Montreal, back down to Texas, and back up to Vancouver,” Leighton James tells us. “It’s harder for the European DJs. [Dutch DJs] W&W will go from Europe to North America, and back to Europe for the next night, and back to New York the next day.” Sander Van Doorn tells us he’s “Pretty much booked full until the start of next year,” having already put Miami’s Ultra, Las Vegas’s Electric Daisy Carnival and Belgium’s Tommorowland (tickets for which sold out in one second) under his belt earlier this year.
Madeon, who got into dance music when he was 11 and started touring professionally when he was 16, has “travelled the world a few times” by 19. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning, 10am,” he tells V, sounding chipper, even after telling us he’s just flown in from Europe. “I’m playing Chicago, and right after Chicago I’m going straight to Montreal. I’ve been to Japan, China, Costa Rica, Australia a few times, pretty much everywhere. I’m going to South Africa and Korea this year, I did the US so many times, Canada, most of Europe…” And… the drugs? “Here’s the thing, and it’s totally true: I genuinely don’t see any drug usage. I’m an artist, and I’m only usually amongst other artists, and I don’t really see what it’s like in the crowd. I sometimes hear stories about people going to the hospital and I think that’s a little bit of a shame. I think there are ways to enjoy these shows naturally. The thing is, I got into dance music when I was too young to party and to go out. As such, I always saw it as a musical culture, and I never associated the rave origins, really. I was kind of naïve.”
In the three accompanying tents at EZoo, smaller crowds (by “smaller” we mean about as large as a standard New York City club) crept away from the glaring sunlight, surrounding equally intricate setups. In the Riverside Fool’s Gold Clubhouse, the more hip-hop centric acts like A-Trak, Sliink and AraabMusik played. In another tent a cylindrical LED show hovered over a booth, and in what we named the Dub Tent, a layered system of cutout screens surrounded the stage, all of them enhanced by 3-D glasses being handed out at the entrance. Food booths served local upscale-casual choices like Roberta’s Pizza and Bare Burger, and alcohol tents served Coors Light for $9 or a bottle of champagne for $200. Just as Europeans have been doing for decades, we fell for the spectacle. And why not? We were naturally feeling the music, getting lifted by the message of “peace, love, unity and respect,” or by the words on the screen behind English DJs Above & Beyond, playing the Main Stage West at the end of Day 1: “Whatever you do this weekend / Remember to say yes more times than no.” Perhaps a few too many of us fresh-faced Americans took that advice too literally.
“In Europe, the fans have a bit more of a refined taste and they won’t fall for the… I don’t wanna say ‘gimmicks,’ but, a lot of the thing that people do in North America,” Adventure Club agrees. “So, you really have to tailor your sets and be mindful… Use a little more discretion, A lot of the champagne-spraying stuff, the ‘get your hands up,’ all that stuff that’s more normal here, people don’t… They’ll get mad at you, in Europe. If you spray champagne on them they’ll be like, ‘Seriously? I’m trying to enjoy your music. Stop fucking with me.’”
“In the rest of the world, we tend to be more divided into genres,” says Madeon. “You’ll be like, a drum and bass fan, and you’ll hate house, whereas here you can play a little bit of everything, and everything is fresh and new. In big festivals people like big recognizable hit songs, so it can be a little bit more commercial in the US. Generally, it tends to be more of a party, which I love, because they’re really going for it. In France, it’s really fun, but sometimes people are a little more cerebral, more analytical.”
EZoo was a big, commercial, champagne-popping party, and it was a really well produced one. And isn’t that so like us Americans? We go big or we go home, and we don’t have centuries of experience to provide any solid foundations. Even so, from what we could see, Made Event did its best to make sure the crowd stayed safe, with plenty of water, announcements about helping your friends and neighbors in trouble, and security screenings. There is only so much anyone can do with a crowd that large and that determined to party. In a clearly imbalanced ratio of men to women, male attendees with whom we spoke were in town from Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New Jersey, and many were recent graduates, amped on coming to the city to party with their frat brothers. We attended an EZoo after party the night of the third (cancelled) day (sold out before even EZoo was, we heard), and noticed then that these people would have come to Times Square or somewhere else if they hadn’t gone to Randall’s Island, anyway.
Despite airport-style security checks, many were selling, asking for, and/or tripping on Ecstasy at the festival and at the club. (A popular T-shirt/sunglass slogan at the fest read “Have You Seen Molly?” and many other shirt messages were more… explicit.) Ticket holders had paid upwards of $180 for one day (many had paid for all three days), and whatever else they bought in preparation. But for some, that meant elaborate costumes involving feathers and beads, while for others, that meant a Camelback and a screen-printed tank top. The DJs, on the other hand, prefer “All black—We haven’t grown up since we were seventeen, still hardcore kids” (Adventure Club), “a custom blazer… It’s kind of my signature” (Madeon), or “a baby blue shirt that goes with my eyes, salmon-colored shorts, and Rivieras… I love them—they are the next Havianas,” (Martin Solveig).
Back in the pit, we see hardstyle dancers, people in rubber masks on others’ shoulders, and swaying girls in bras and shorts, all getting hosed down by security. Like any new craze, we Americans took it too far and partied too hard. Blaming the DJs would be like blaming sugar for your cavities. But at the end of Day 2, we too were completely lost in the music, in the energy of a crowd who—ill-advised intentions or not—simply wanted to get away for the last days of summer, and in a sky of confetti, slowly falling through beams of white light. For the fourth or fifth time, we heard, “if our love / is tragedy why are you my remedy?” and finally felt that meaning: How can something this positive in essence end up so heartbreaking? A sea of hands reached up, and found no tangible answer, only the communally anticipated drop.