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The Dialectics Of Dance Music: Festival Season

We talk about festivals. A lot. We’re either going to one, waiting for one, recounting our experiences at one, wishing we were there, watching the live stream, or promising that THIS is the year we will go to that one festival we always miss because of, you know, reasons. When you’re on the elevator, at the dentist, standing in line to get a burrito, and you hear someone mention EDC, Coachella, or Ultra, your ears perk up. The sides of your mouth crinkle into a smile. Those feels come flooding back. You don’t know this person. You might even hate this person under different circumstances. But at that moment, you are kindred spirits.

“Did you see Big Gigantic at Coachella?” you ask. “Hell yeah, did you catch Skrillex and Diplo at Ultra?” they return. “Ah, so good, right? You’re speaking the same language and sharing a lexicon only comprehensible to those who really know what’s up. You are connected by the ineffable experience of the festival. It’s impossible to fully express the true emotional roller coaster you went through, but you both try anyway in what amounts to a secret language. Look at you, complete strangers, gabbing like a couple of geese, holding up the burrito line. If the language had a name, it would be called festival-ese.

The U.S. was slow on the uptake when it came to embracing dance music. I spend a lot of time in clubs around the country, and I still sense the confusion many people feel when deciding how to act when faced with the bottle-service-versus-dance-floor dilemma. We are coming around, though, and I suspect that bottle service will be a relic of an embarrassing older club culture we’d all rather forget. On his online radio show, Drumcode, the elite techno master Adam Beyer makes it a point to discuss the aesthetics of the clubs in which he plays. He has some favorites, and the common denominator between them all is that they are VIP-free. (We’ll discuss this during a future “Dialectics”.)

But, where modern clubbing culture in the U.S. has undergone growing pains, we’ve been doing festivals like we invented them. The U.S. knows how the fuck to Festival. We have a storied relationship with the festival, the center of which, in my mind, is Woodstock in 1969. At no time in the 20th century was dancing and music so crucial, so vitally important for the saving of so many suffering souls. The Vietnam War was taking brothers, sons, and fathers away to their deaths and normal citizens were being labeled enemies of the state. What Woodstock did was turn what might have simply been a gathering of people in a field in upstate New York to a symbolic act of protest against the tragedy of the real world.

People gathered together, worshiped together, and danced together—in no particular order—not with the priests in their houses of religion, but to Hendrix and Joplin. It was an act of sharing in the mutual detriment of humanness and the catharsis of release. It was a ritual as ancient as the earth on which they danced, as ancient as Euripides’ ritual of the Bacchae (with much less public sex and gore). We’ve been trying to mimic that moment ever since, coming close, but never fully hitting the same chords. It is, or course, impossible—times change and so do we—but the need for this ritual remains.

In what might have been a watershed moment for GQ Magazine and their relationship with EDM, they published an article by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, a veteran of the Berlin Techno scene, about EDC Las Vegas 2012. This, of course, was the year the desert winds were so wild they nearly tore the stage to pieces and people had to leave. The article reads like how you would imagine an alien might write home about a visit to the LA Zoo. Despite the obvious cynicism, it had its finer moments, and Lewis-Kraus conceded some important points. After a few perplexing moments where he meticulously documents the range of the outfits worn by festival goers—pasties, bikinis sprouting plastic daisies, body gems and stars and rainbows, scant lacy corsetry a la ‘90’s Japanese tweens etc.—Lewis-Kraus writes, “this is a youth phenomenon that has submitted to the fact that access to knowledge—the secret location, say, of a warehouse party—no longer sets one particular group off as a special vanguard. They’ve forsaken the secret-remote-warehouse culture for the understandable reason that it defines itself by whom it leaves out, and from the standpoint of lunchroom sociology, the speedway feels downright utopian.”

The festival, then, is more than just a place where music is played on big stages. It is more than dollar signs in the eyes of ivory tower executives looking for a piece of the pie. It’s a statement of protest against a world that benefits when people isolate themselves from each other. The Festival becomes a necessary cultural meeting space where people can let their guard down. In the absence of these spaces, festivals are created to satisfy that deep human desire to be seen as an important part of a community. Festival Season is upon us, and there are plenty of reasons to celebrate. We will probably never have another Woodstock 1969, but in the US at least, the festival continues to be there when we need it, and it will continue to define how we schedule our year.

Cover photo credit: Rukes

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