Ultra Music Festival pummeled Miami’s Bayfront Park last weekend, motivating innumerable fist pumps over thirty hours of music, but it was the brief speech by a 53-year-old woman wearing a shirt emblazoned with the letters “MDNA” that has prompted disbelief within parts of the electronic dance music community. That woman is Madonna, who as part of the scorched earth roll-out for her new album MDNA introduced headliner Avicii and incited the overwhelmingly young attendees with the question: “How many people in this crowd have seen Molly?”
Based on the roars and squeals heard on the live stream of the festival, plenty of kids were in on the joke. Molly is winking drug slang for MDMA, the active chemical in Ecstasy, consumed and condemned by many in equal measure. The moment itself is more cringeworthy than jaw-dropping—crowd response up to that point was tepid and mainly concerned with frantic picture-taking—but that hasn’t stopped a wide range of responses. Veteran electronic music critic Philip Sherburne called the reference “just tasteless, the worst kind of pandering.” The consistently apoplectic Deadmau5 turned in a profane rant on Facebook and condemned Madonna’s recklessness and lack of responsibility in a larger Tumblr post. Madonna has already attempted to spackle over the moment, claiming the comment was a reference to the forthcoming Cedric Gervais house track “Have You Seen Molly?”
What’s most revelatory about the situation is the light it sheds on an undeniable aspect within electronic music culture that the major profiteers in its meteoric rise stateside would prefer stayed covered in the corner. The winks used to be less subtle: at the height of acid house D-Mob’s “We Call It Acieed” hit No. 1 on the UK Singles chart, New Order attempted to title their song for the 1990 World Cup “E Is For England,” and Joey Beltram’s legendary “Energy Flash” mutters an incantation of “Ecstasy, Ecstasy.” Even now, such lazy references are hardly rare, practically de rigeur for uncreative producers looking for an easily digestible vocal hook.
What is all this uproar about, exactly? There is perceived indignation at Madonna acknowledging a fanbase that, admittedly, counts many recreational drug users among their numbers. But the moment reeked of desperation, a perceived outsider pandering in the most tactless way, clumsily highlighting the single aspect of dance music that ensures events, the music, and the culture as a whole continually fall under suspicion from alarmists. It was self-serving, a blatantly calculated promotional ploy, but in reality not much different from, say, Swedish House Mafia and assorted others’ repeated deployment of remixes for “Rolling In The Deep,” or Boys Noize opening his set at Electric Zoo this past year with a mechanical robot intoning: “Ecstasy. One for me.” A 15-year-old girl isn’t going to try MDMA just because a 53-year-old woman acknowledges she knows the drug exists.
The usage and language of MDMA is positively associated with the shedding of identity. There’s a reason so many people young and old flock to these events; there, they feel—or at least have been told they should feel—completely free of societal shackles. The repeated refrain of Ecstasy consumption is a celebration of anonymity: “I am rolling my face off.” Madonna wasn’t just pandering; she was co-opting an ideal based on disappearance into a communal experience and slapping her name over it in glitter and look-at-me histrionics.
The publicity played right into Madonna’s hands. More than 150,000 people were in attendance at Ultra, with countless more watching the live stream. Deadmau5’s rant reached five million Facebook users; that anger made a lot of kids at the very least aware of something that they might not have cared about otherwise. MDNA already has a song in the Top 10 and was No. 1 upon its iTunes release around the world. Whether the brief rumbles of disapproval will have any discernible effect in bridging Madonna’s generation gap of fanaticism, however, remains to be seen.