When people respond to modern dance music, chances are they are responding to drops. A drop happens when the beat comes back after temporarily exiting the sound design. In drop-fueled dance music, this happens every few minutes — the beat asserts itself, people freak out, their interest wanes, the song breaks down, the beat dissolves and then drops back in, asserting itself all over again, making people freak out all over again. And over and over and over again.
The enthusiastic reaction this emphatic rush of sound elicits feels like science, and it probably is. That's a dance-music cliché, but according to what I saw at Electric Daisy Carnival — a three-day, four-stage electronic dance music festival held in East Rutherford, N.J., two weekends ago — all of dance-music clichés are true. It is tribal and ritualistic, it's uniformity masquerading as individuality, it's skin-deep anti-intellectualism. It's a body high.
And when it's on a nonstop loop for three days straight, it can start to feel a little bit like hell.
Pop is experiencing a renaissance of dance music unlike anything since the days of disco. Not even the early incarnations of house were as popular as it would become a few years ago (and stay — so far). While the ‘90s were marked by one-off or virtually anonymous dance divas like CeCe Peniston and Robin S., it is the superstars like Rihanna, Katy Perry and Usher who are actively recording house music and not passively waiting their midtempo tracks to be given club-friendly revisions.
Those in the crumbling music industry are scrambling for something, anything that works. And given the ubiquity and charts' reflection, dance music really works right now. The current Billboard Top 10 features six songs with a distinct house thump (even Train's track borrows from the tradition). Even better, Cee Lo's "Fuck You" was the only song in the Billboard Hot 100's year-end 2011 Top 10 that wasn't somehow dance-oriented, either explicitly (LMFAO's "Party Rock" at No. 2) or matter-of-factly with a four-on-the-floor pulse in an otherwise more subdued track (Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" at No. 1 or Bruno Mars' "Grenade" at No. 6). More literally than ever, the music world is attempting to dance its troubles away.
Just below the mainstream (and often perfectly happy to revel in it when allowed) is a strain of dance music referred to as "EDM," or "electronic dance music," a designation that signals very little at face value (since the ‘80s, the overwhelming majority of dance music has been electronic). But the label EDM does connote a specific style of aggressive thumping topped off with furiously trancey keyboards. Its downtime is just important as its pummeling – the music is in a constant state of flux between building up and breaking down with the aforementioned, strategically timed "drops" working as a time-release capsule. They're little jolts every few minutes to keep the crowd engaged.
But not even the highest voltage drop I experienced two weeks ago did for me what it did for the Electric Daisy Carnival's adoring crowd. EDM-lite purveyor will.i.am (of the Black Eyed Peas) put it this way in the 2011 documentary Electric Daisy Carnival Experience: "[It's] the largest North American music event ever. What? The underground is bigger than the surface. That's what that tells you." Or maybe it tells you that EDC is where the counterculture goes to die.
At certain times, there is a train that goes directly from the Secaucus station to the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. Friday afternoon was not one of those times, so instead I had to board a shuttle bus with straight-up children. It felt like a field trip. Kids discreetly sipped mixed vodka drinks out of big red plastic cups. One played tinny dance music out of his cell phone that he held in the same arm that was cuffed by a giant rubber bracelet that read "I (Heart) (House) Music." I heard someone describe famed EDMer and Benihana heir Steve Aoki as "just a shithead who's trying to be a DJ with his dad's money." Someone else gushed that the new Tiesto was "so good...so good." I had an urge to poll the passengers on how they were dealing with the loss of Is Anyone Up.
When the stadium came into view after about 15 minutes, people gasped. I heard: "Hey buddy!" "It's so pretty!" "Wow!" "Yeah baby!" "Let's go!" "Fucking psyched!"
EDC has been around since 1997, and was held in Southern California from then until 2010. That year, it moved to Vegas and offshoots have sprung up across the United States. In the past few years, its profile has raised considerably as dance music takes over pop. I can't help but feel like Jersey Shore was a major factor in the movement. (On that show's 2009 premiere, Snooki professed her love for house music. She was somewhat ahead of the times.)
This year, for the first time ever, EDC descended upon the North Atlantic region, in Jersey of all places. (However, this was known as EDCNYC, as East Rutherford is just a hop skip and jump from Secaucus, which in turn is just a hop skip and jump from New York City). EDC is probably best known for its Las Vegas incarnation, which supposedly drew over 300,000 attendees last year. In addition to attracting designer DJs and producers like David Guetta, Deadmau5 and Calvin Harris, EDC offers amusement-park rides (it is, after all, a carnival), a host of paid performers on stilts and in fairy wings to hype the crowd, and numerous deep-fryables. EDC is the Lollapalooza of dance music, but it feels mostly like a stroll on the boardwalk crossed with the prom.
Funnel cake fills the air, as does a sense of naiveté from its denizens: the event is 18-and-over and it really, really feels like it. The attendees gleefully adopt the prescribed formalwear. Girls wear fur legwarmers, plastic flowers (usually of the fake daisy variety – get it?), enough netting on various parts of their body to suggest that Rock of Love girls were style pioneers, and anything midriff-bearing. Guys wear T-shirts with stupid sayings on them or go bare-chested. Suspenders and/or socks pulled up to their knees are optional. Some people suck on pacifiers, but that's the only major fashion carryover from earlier rave culture. Neon is the suggested shade for people of all or no genders. I watched kids (they are all kids) identify each other in Penn Station as fellow EDC-goers just based on the day-glo they were giving off.
I had no one to laugh about this with – I was alone, and doubly isolated as I didn't make any other plans that weekend, figuring I'd be at the festival the entire time. (It was only on Thursday that it dawned on me how masochistic this entire endeavor was.) So I listened to other people's good times. The event publicist estimated that 100,000 people attended in total attended this weekend, and even conservatively, those numbers beat Bonnaroo's annual showing. Wikipedia says 600,000 people are expected for this year's Vegas EDC, which will be held June 8-10. That's 150 percent more bodies than Woodstock.
I received a list of several items of contraband with my press confirmation. They of course included drugs, but also things like pens, sunblock and pacifiers. I was able to smuggle in the former two easily enough by just placing them in the zipper compartments of my bag – only the main cavity was checked. I could have loaded up with drugs of all colors of the rainbow and I would have passed through security after a swipe of a metal detector and a standoffish pat-down.
I entered the gates to find three stages spread across the black-top outskirts of the stadium (there was no stage in the main arena on Friday, but there would be the next two days). I sampled it all, stopping by the kineticFIELD (can asphalt make a field?) to hear Madeon drop a house remix of Blur's "Song 2," as well as cut in parts of the Jacksons' "Can You Feel It?" In the neonGARDEN (not a garden in the slightest), Oscar G played stuff that was less song-y and more "track-y," and subdued, as adequate of an accompaniment to the setting sun as any that I would hear all weekend.
As I traveled from stage to stage, the smell of weed was never too far away, though I would only hear one person attempt to sell Molly (MDMA) the entire weekend. There were constant confetti blasts and a small army of Snooki-alikes, all clutching $16 margaritas. There were also muffin tops and bellies hanging out everywhere – an encouraging sign of true freedom, I thought. A girl walked by and squeezed my ass. It was the most human contact I'd have all day.
I watched Fatboy Slim on the kineticFIELD stage energetically spin slightly funkier variations of drop-based house as he pantomimed cheering and singing along for the crowd. He was his own hype man and seemingly the only person there who really knew how to work the sound system – his set was loud and clear without hurting. I watched a guy in a shirt that read FRAT HAΓΔ, FRAT OFTΣN simulate buttfucking his male friend. Some girls came up to dance up on him, and he simulated fucking them, too. EDC is oddly sexless, and it was the most sensual act I'd see all weekend. I was entranced. I followed his group for a little while until they really penetrated the crowd. Forging a path for the sake of voyeurism seemed like too much work.
Plus, I was getting tired. Dubstep/stadium-rock hybridists Chase & Status took the stage at 9 p.m. and I stayed for about 10 minutes — or long enough to hear them lead a chant, "Where's the mosh pit? Where's the mosh pit?" I didn't care where the mosh pit was. On my way out, I noticed that passing through the venue required being in between stages at times. In those pockets, rhythms clashed in what's known as a "train wreck," which usually occurs when a DJ's beat-matching goes awry. This was a necessary, natural, ambient train wreck, a bit of fixed chaos to last the weekend.
I got out of there as fast as possible.
On Saturday, I took my time going back. The gates opened at noon, and I really wanted to catch Junior Sanchez's 1 p.m. set, as it would include a performance from ‘90s dance diva, CeCe Peniston. Now, I hoped, EDC was speaking my language.
After passing through security with even less scrutiny than the day before (contraband sunscreen, check), I made my way into the actual arena, now dubbed the cosmicMEADOW. (It was no meadow.) The seats were entirely empty and the crowded was spaced comfortably, taking up about a third of the floor in front of the stage. Junior Sanchez's was a loud, grating set that incorporated a barely altered version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
CeCe Peniston took the stage, squeezed into what looked like an all-pleather, all-black ensemble. The sun beat down as aggressively as the kick drums, and she only stuck around for two songs. The second was an EDM version of her hit 1991 "Finally," recently remixed by Sanchez.
"Do you remember the song, ‘Finally it has happened to me?' Well that's my song!" she told the crowd. It made me sad that she had to refer to it by line and not title to get a response. "I'm the original singer of ‘Finally,'" she boasted. "You feel me?" Indeed. It felt like aging. I saw one girl in the crowd singing all the words. We were in New Jersey. One.
There was a guy smoking a joint in the middle of the crowd, an open challenge to EDC's strict substance rules. ("NO Illegal Substances" is No. 1 on their last of Prohibited Items – "NO Drugs or Drug Paraphernalia" is No. 2.) He offered me a hit and I refused, explaining that I'd hoped to experience the festival soberly. He asked how my story was going.
I told him that at 33, Electric Daisy made me feel old. "I'm turning 27 in a month and I feel old here," he said. That made me feel older.
I wandered aimlessly, catching a bit of Cazzette's aggressive set at the kineticFIELD (the humor in the giant foam cassettes the duo wore on their heads was probably lost on the crowd) as well as Cassy's more laid-back stylings in the neonGARDEN, which included rhythms that reminded me of vintage Todd Terry. Cassy's was by far the least populated area and also the best set I heard for the entire festival. Go figure.
All the while people streamed by in a neon, shaded, shredded, fake-flower blur, walking endlessly from here to there and back. When Calvin Harris took over at kineticFIELD, I turned and watched a mass of people pouring into the stadium through the "In" tunnel, and then another mass leaving through the "Out." This much stimulation yields restlessness.
A List of T-Shirts Spotted at EDC
• We came here to party
• Party with sluts
• Come get some
• Dude, we're all high
• I need a drink
• I vote for vodka
• IPOP them pills
• Roll with us
• I love your titties
• I (heart) boobies
• Boobies make me smile
• Enjoy vagina
• Down to fuck
• I love to be on top
• Skilled in every position
• Dirty girls like dirty beat$
• Bass makes that bitch cum
• Swag swag swag
• Fuck swag
• Dance until dawn
• Sleep & eat & poop & dance & sleep
• Cool story, babe. Now make me a sandwich.
Art Department played a set in the neonGARDEN that was dubbier and deeper than anything I heard during the duration of my time at EDC. I recognized the new Inner City song as one of the selections. At the circuitGROUNDS, John O'Callaghan played a galloping set that essentially amounted to a 2012 take on hi-NRG disco. Very cool in theory, but it quickly turned ugly, like the machines had risen a little too high.
I wondered who the most popular person was here, besides the unconditionally worshiped DJs. I know that's missing the point, that this is supposed to be an egalitarian event where all narratives are equal. But someone had to be having the better story, the life that was most coveted in this one-mile radius. This thinking harkened back to my early days in New York in the early 2000's, the time when I went out to clubs the most and enjoyed myself the least, always wondering how everyone knew each other and what it felt to be liked and have a great time. In a crowd, the feeling of isolation has long felt like home to me. I'm a lot less awkward and self-conscious than I used to be, but it strikes me that the profound aloneness I felt as a result of my self-imposed isolation at EDC was a very similar emotional experience to how I've always felt in big groups where there is dance music playing. This is why I usually enjoy dance music all by myself through headphones. It's been that way since I was 12, jamming solo to Black Box and C+C Music Factory. And it's still often that way. The world is engaging with dance music on hugely visible levels, but even when I'm listening to and loving the same Top 40 pop trash as everyone else, I'm doing it alone with my iPod at the gym or on the subway. The illusion of unity is offered, but inessential. Until, that is, you find yourself in a crowd, confronted by just how alone you are.
I know I could have penetrated the crowd and turned on the charm just for the sake of socialization. I interviewed people on VH1 reality shows for years – I can talk to anyone. But what was the point in making friends for a few hours, or a few days? With 20-year-olds? Why bother? To make the MDMA-kissed equivalent of camp friends that I'd get to see when we did it all over again next year?
I sat down on a curb at one point and watched a kid eat a boat full of chicken fingers and French fries. He didn't move to the rhythm at all and stared blankly ahead. "Do you like this?" I asked him.
"Yeah," he said. "I'm trying."
The next morning, I didn't want to go back. The solitude, lack of seating, and over-stimulating everything made me uncomfortable. The point of a rave is to have a good time, and I was miserable. But I couldn't let laziness take hold and give up. I couldn't let Electric Daisy win.
Most people receive the Electric Daisy acts they take in as a concert – people face the stage en masse and move slightly to the music. This usually involves jumping or ecstatic head-nodding. It's basically as close to not dancing as a body in motion can get. Reasoning that was the way to do it, I decided to take in one full set and that would be it. Instead of wandering around all day and chuckling to myself, I'd focus, engage, and then disengage. Completely.
I decided to catch Afrojack's early set. Friend of Paris Hilton and owner of a adorably supple face, Afrojack crossed over in a big way last year when he produced the Pitbull/Ne-Yo No. 1 "Give Me Everything Tonight."
Afrojack didn't start until 6 p.m., so I had some time to work up to it. It was a gorgeous Sunday, and after getting some brunch, my roommate suggested that it was a good day to eat weed. "I really want to experience Electric Daisy sober," I told him. But I had lost my reason why. The people who seemed to be on drugs seemed to be enjoying EDC way more than I was. Maybe that was the way to do it.
So I got really high and sat in my bed for a few hours, and then dragged myself out the door and onto various trains. I listened to the new Saint Etienne album, Words and Music by Saint Etienne, which is a sensitive, multi-song meditation on the veteran band's love of music. I was en route to an arena where everyone was going to dance, no questions asked, and the album gave me life. At EDC, everything was accepted as long as it pounded and dropped. The mass display suggested that taste stopped at "ability to hear."
I got in at 5:53 – just in time for Afrojack. As I made my way over to his stage at the circuitGROUNDS, I heard another DJ shout, "Once again, for the love of house music, make some noise!" I ventured about a quarter deep into the crowd. It was easy. As filled as it was, EDC was a polite sort of packed that was easy to navigate, with tons of pockets of space to be filled (or not). Within minutes, Afrojack's hype man addressed us ("Make some fuckin' nooooooise!"), as did Afrojack himself. The mega-DJ came off as mild-mannered enough to immediately reveal why he needed a hype man. "New York, are you ready for some Afrojack music?" he said evenly. It was as though he were in a library, and not in front of thousands of rabid fist-pumpers.
The music started pounding. I heard zipper sounds and some rapping a la Technotronic. Melodic keyboards sometimes peeked their way in, but they were always somewhat distorted, bad-trippy. Afrojack dropped some "classics," if you will – his own "Take Over Control" (with Eva Simmons), Justice's "D.A.N.C.E." transformed into a trance anthem and a hard remix of the David Guetta/Kelly Rowland global smash "When Love Takes Over." The crowd sang along ecstatically.
I scribbled in my notebook, and people noticed – more than ever, in fact. I talked to an older couple (and by "older," I mean 30's) from Jersey, Danny and Gina. Danny asked me how my day there was yesterday (this was their first day there) and I told him that I just wandered around and didn't do drugs so it was kind of boring. Gina snorted. A young guy and girl passed me and mocked me: She pointed at my notebook and looked into my eyes with scorn and he simultaneously chimed in, "Ooh, better write that down!" Some lanky dweeb in a neon yellow hat basically fastened himself to my side and said, "Whatcha doin'?"
It struck me as out of line and hypocritical that any derision would be thrown my way for me doing me. This mainstreaming of counterculture irons out all the kinks and produces a brand of individuality that you can buy at a Halloween store. I'm not patting myself on the back for being the weirdo, but damn it, in my squareness, my active engagement with this silly cultural thing and my desire to take a record of it, I was the freak. I was the only one writing things down. I had cracked the fucking code and I didn't have to wear a single fur legwarmer.
And that wasn't the only code I cracked, either. I started keeping track of the time between the drops in Afrojack's set. I won't bore myself by averaging all of them, but the number that came up most frequently was about a minute and 30 seconds. Building up and breaking down more or less like clockwork, Afrojack's selection of tunes gripped these people and tossed them back in the exact same way over and over again. They ate it up every time.
I've long mocked the tendency of contemporary dance music to sport lyrics that are only about dancing, a redundancy that fetishizes the music and compartmentalizes it (I miss the '90s when a dance song could be essentially a ballad about love or even broad politics). But I finally got it at EDC: these lyrics that command you to move, dance, get your hands up as the beat does exactly the same, are prescriptions for absolute focus on living in the moment. It's cheesy and trite, but it doesn't seem like bad advice at all. Some little thuggy kid in a baseball hat held his phone up and I looked over his shoulder to read him tweet, "Never want this to end," just before he hit send.
"You guys liking the music?" Afrojack asked delicately. He talked about his next track, a "summer song." "It's nice," he said wistfully, like he was describing a bubble bath. The song sounded like metal melted into points, flying at my eardrums. (I'd neglected to bring earplugs. I may be old, but in all of my days of concert attending, I've learned absolutely nothing.) Afrojack then dropped his own "Amsterdam," and followed it up with his "Can't Stop Me."
"Which one of you motherfuckers is ready to go all night?" he called out, rather respectfully. No one: this shit ended at 11 p.m. And it was a Sunday — a school night.
A beefy guido with giant blue eyes approached, and asked if I was taking a poll. I told him I was just writing about this experience. After a few seconds, I asked him if he was having fun.
"Fuggedaboutit," he said. "It's the Woodstock of our generation."
"You know I fucking love you, New York. That's why I play all the time," Afrojack sweetly told the dwindling crowd. And then he was done. I felt relieved, and hungry. On my way out, I asked a kid wearing black fur legwarmers if they were hot in the sun. "Yes. They fucking sucked!" she told me. I stopped by a Mrs. Fields stand and picked up two cookies and a bottle of water, and then headed for the train. In my head I chanted, "EDC! EDC!" It sounded like a cross between the final line of the Prince of Tides ("Lowenstein! Lowenstein!") and some brainless broish bullshit. I enjoyed the balance.