Friday, September 1 through Monday, September 3
Better than: This.
“You know I know how/ to make them stop and stare as I zone out/ the club can’t even handle me right now/ watching you watching me I go all out.”—Flo Rida, “Club Can’t Handle Me” feat. David Guetta
That lyric is key for contextualizing the competitive bombast that consumed both music and crowd this past weekend at Electric Zoo. As an ideological signpost, its puffed-up self-awareness synthesizes much of what the festival offered in the way of electronic dance music, or EDM—a bland catch-all term for steroidal sonic booms. While the aggression of dubstep and the tentacles of trance flex increasing influence on pop, the live context for such big-tent dominators has become a series of structurally simplistic, predictable, relentless peaks. All the artists charged with sustaining a consistently bonkers atmosphere makes for an ultimately homogenized festival. Most of the things to love about dance music—revelation through rhythm and extended repetition, delayed catharsis, basking in the blissful unknown—have no place in an environment that demands a constant blare of stadium-sized tunes.
Likewise, to be faceless in the crowd at Electric Zoo is to miss the point, but the constant desire for distinction only results in a jumble of neon and exposed skin. Dancing is not enough. People jump, stomp, and roar as if the whole crowd—110,000 combined on Randall’s Island over three days—is eyeing each other’s every move. Having fun is good, but having demonstrably more fun than everyone else in attendance is even better. The hedonistic urgency of “RAGE” has replaced “PLUR” as modern American raves’ catch-all declaration. Any moment not raging is a moment wasted. Moderation translates as timidity, restraint as cowardice. The crowds at Electric Zoo never tired of “making some fucking noise,” and the noise was always “fucking.”
Conspicuous consumption, the type that sits the center of high-roller club culture asserting itself in Las Vegas, was also in large supply: A “Platinum Experience” cost $1,199 for three days; VIP tables could be purchased for up to $2,250 per guest. A flush group of eight could potentially spend eight grand just to experience the festival, extramusical expenditures and your very own bionic David Guetta not included.
It’s a testament to Electric Zoo that I had a surpassingly good time, despite the general grey-scale predictability and perpetual anomie of the attendees. Over 25% of the lineup were repeat artists from 2011; Tiësto and David Guetta returned as headliners and Skrillex capped a huge year by jumping from a midday set to closing the festival on the mainstage. But for every set of maximalist mush cramming in as many trance swells, dubstep guzzles and house shouts as possible, there were enough performers, particularly in the Sunday School Grove, who electrified through pacing and laser focus. Most sets had a least one moment of defensible satisfaction, and throughout the weekend a few overflowed with such successes.
The shuttle bus to Randall’s Island was soundtracked by pan-flute versions of “My Heart Will Go On” and “Amazing Grace,” although those quickly subsumed by rumbling bass the instant doors opened and attendees stumbled out. Aside from the Sunday School Grove, the smallest tent sequestered on the far side of the festival and curated on Friday by Luciano’s Vagabundos crew, each of the festival’s other four stages emanated some variation of defiant wobble. The stages at Electric Zoo are aggressively branded, with whole days given over to labels like Dim Mak or Fool’s Gold. A foray into the Fool’s Gold Clubhouse on Friday meant hearing shoutouts to the label three to four times per set, or seeing a hype-man bouncing around wearing a Fool’s Gold brick like a Green Bay Packers cheesehead. At Sunday School, a stronghold of comparatively underground bookings, the stage was made up to resemble a glowing white school bus, DJ at the wheel, with headlights pointed towards the audience.
While the production value was sky-high, the sound was muddled and consistently sludgy. The depth of bass impact on the main stage, however, was suitably enormous, like Zeus chugging the ocean in a single gulp. Netsky’s drum-n-bass briefly broke up the whooshing monotony, inserting laces of piano and vague exhortations from warped divas into the drilling. Security guards flanking the stage acted as hypemen, sporadically spraying the crowd with cold mist and usually focusing on bikini-clad girls. Gesaffelstein’s hyena electro was an odd midday fit but received cheers for every drip and cackle, making brief forays into acid and breakbeats. Dillon Francis got an equally rapturous response for his strutting and tenuously melodic set.
Nicky Romero even had the trash collectors mock-grinding as he showcased new collaborations with Calvin Harris and a comparatively stark remix of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” his transitions sounding like the last-second gurgle and whine of an draining bathtub. Lounging barefoot on the uncrowded, not-yet-trampled grass, Romero was an unchallenging, fun respite from most of what surrounded him on the main stage, far more palatable than Hardwell’s Daft Punk tributes or Laidback Luke’s inclusion of “Eye of the Tiger.” When the regrettably deathless “Pon de Floor” yelped from the Fool’s Gold Clubhouse, people literally sprinted to join the scrum.
A man with voluminous chest hair shaved to resemble a bra was getting down at Sunday School for Robert Dietz, who ushered in sunset with a rhythmically luscious set slithering with disembodied vocal samples. Following Dietz was Reboot, the German producer whose delayed drop of Daniel Bortz’s aching bootleg of James Blake’s “Limit To Your Love” brought Sunday School to its knees in 2011. Reboot accomplished a similar feat this year with a roiling remix of Nina Simone’s “Fever,” her yearning shouts putting every other anonymous female vocalist belting throughout the day to shame. I had been at the festival for nearly eight hours, and it had taken a remix of someone dead nearly a decade to get me truly sweaty.
The Chilean-born Luciano has lately experienced backlash to his vastly successful weekly residency at Ushuaia in Ibiza, charged with commercial pandering in his sets and bringing bottle-service crowds to the island. Like most other swashbuckling DJs in the now image-centric dance music world, he has a sufficient cult of personality to have the crowd ensnared before dropping a single bassline. With a defiantly ramshackle mixing style, he massaged the tent with slippery bass and the first funky percussion all day. While a faux forest glowed menacingly behind the tent and trees wept strands of neon, Luciano elevated polyrhythms over elephant squeals and teased out small patterns mischieviously until they dominated the mix. A remix of M83’s “Intro” was enough to make you consider Anthony Gonzalez’s potential as a dance floor siren, and a rapturous remix of Global Communication’s planetary classic “14:31” turned the ambient track into a weapon, elongating a brief loop over snaps of tense strings and slabs of piano.
David Guetta did exactly what one would expect from a mainstay of spit-shined, soaring pop. Guetta has compared his focus to that of a Jedi, but his scattered “mixing” and presumptive fade-outs to encourage singalongs (they rarely materialized) prevented even a modicum of catharsis. His lyrics are focus-grouped for maximum reach; no matter how much melisma the vocalists deploy, they are rarely believable. When Guetta closed with “Without You,” his collaboration with Usher, confetti and pyro poured out in unison, and though the crowd erupted it was with more than a hint of obligation. The festival ended promptly at 11:00, and when finally unlashed from kick drums, the enthusiasm of wandering festival-goers with dilated pupils refocused as zombie hordes post-infection, only with more neon and empathy.
The once-fresh grass was already an ugly shade of brown on the second day of the festival, and mugginess enveloped the crowd like a wet towel. By the entrance, two men were surrounded by a phalanx of security and ordered to empty their pockets. They complied and turned up assorted tinfoil and tissue. One of the guards aggressively prodded, “Why do you want to put this shit in your body on a hot day like today?” The materials were destroyed and the men left to wander, clearly relieved.
Saturday was a time for dancing away from the main stage, with a murderer’s row of international DJs booked to play the perfectly paced Sunday School Grove, which weaved through slow grooves, rat-a-tat hip-hop, rave-y progressive, and furious techno over the course of the day. These DJs were more comfortable playing four or five hour sets than the brief times they were afforded, performing for a sparse crowd of devoted fans aching to escape the throbbing elsewhere.
Opening with Butch’s “Big Futt,” DJ Koze matched the sweltering weather with queasy beats, making the most of a no-win situation by getting the crowd suitably sweaty. Amongst the refracted rhythms and sideways horn stabs was a tremendously timed drop of Blaze’s “Lovelee Dae,” the cheery assertions momentarily capable of overshadowing the weather. Koze’s tribal jazz segued into Claude von Stroke, the San Franciscan producer and Dirtybird label boss, merging whoops and Neptunes-inspired metallic boom-bap in a surprisingly hip-hop-heavy set. Extraterrestrial accents could be heard next to drum-n-bass classics like Ganja Kru’s “Super Sharp Shooter,” and each rhythmic shift from slo-mo to frantic pulses were welcome ear cleansers, inspiring grinding and collective stankface.
After Claude von Stroke I relaxed, and five breathless, shirtless guys sat down at the picnic table. Once seated they inquired about my notebook, and after introducing myself the group of 23-year-olds—Wilbur, Jay, Jared, Chris, and Brandon—told me that they were all either a) on LSD b) on MDMA or c) all of the above. They ecstatically agreed to an interview, which was a jumble of information. Who were they there to see? “I don’t really know any of the music.” “Dude, that’s a terrible answer for the rest of us.” Why did they come? “The music is good, but it’s really about the partying.” Isn’t the festival an expensive party? “Yeah, but if you go to Disney World that will cost you a couple of grand and it’s nowhere near this much fun.” Why do they enjoy dance music? “Everyone’s nice. And if you’re not nice, fuck off.”
Riding on a wave of enormous hype, and perhaps sensing the sun and heat beginning to warp a few brains, Maya Jane Coles capitalized with a adrenalized, spooky set. Twisting the mood from fierce to joyous in a snap, the spacious progression didn’t go much of anywhere but was a thoroughly enjoyable plateau. Her own productions earned tremendous reactions, but the highlight was an unreleased Sneak remix of Zebra Katz’s gleefully profane “I’ma Read,” with the infectious promise of “I’ma give that bitch some knowledge/ I’ma take that bitch to college.”
Sasha looked eminently comfortable on stage, the dutiful professional who has made of career of listening to music and melting minds with his findings. The first portion of his set was bleak locked grooves and expectations deflated at inopportune moments, but tunes gradually became more alien and entrancing. Transitioning into trance with a humane twist in the form of a lovely remix of Hot Chip’s “Flutes,” and Kompakt hits like an extended instrumental of Kölsch’s “All That Matters,” his latter half could have served as a a soundtrack for a progressively bloodier battle between humans and extraterrestrials, where heavier artillery was gradually brought in and funereal tones commemorated those lost in combat.
Chris Liebing, responsible for some of the hardest techno around on his own CLR Recordings, closed the night with punishing techno that sounded like Hannibal crossing the Alps. Playing against an unholy trinity of Above & Beyond, Benny Benassi, and Steve Aoki, the amiable German drew a loyal crowd that willingly submitted to his jagged mixing techniques. Exploiting deep plunges of the sound system, it was physically demanding, frequently beautiful, and slashed through with brief satanic gargles and cackles. Swerving and revelatory within a stark framework, Liebing was an inspired choice as a closer, leaving the crowd exhausted.
Despite sticky weather that made being outside feel like being inside someone’s mouth, hordes of people continued to descend on Electric Zoo’s final day. Skrillex’s diminutive shadow loomed; it seemed people had been talking about him all weekend long. Without prompting, a security guard ogling a couple of vibrantly attired characters turned to me and said, “This shit is like reality TV to me.” Security was all around a pleasant bunch, including Terrence, the jovial Sunday School guard who, as the weekend wore on, became increasingly comfortable strutting his stuff to wild admiration and cheers. Another guard, who wished to remain nameless, said he appreciated the music and the people: “Everyone wants to be a party animal,” he said. “It was a little more reserved and classy, but the environment reminds me of Studio 54. But anyone can get in. And the women dance better here.”
“My name is Z-Trip, and I’m the alternative today!” After that outsider proclamation, Z-Trip played the most blatantly commercial set of the weekend. In a span of ten minutes, you could hear The Throne’s “Paris,” the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” Guns N Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win,” and Missy Elliott’s “Get Your Freak On,” an ungodly mashup of whinnying dubstep that made Girl Talk seem subtle. The pandering made sense, though—people come to these festivals because they want to celebrate the familiar.
Innervisions label head and Berlin hero Dixon opened the best set of the day with Mano Le Tough’s gasping, incendiary remix of Roisin Murphy’s “Simulation.” Known for brave beatless forays and emphasis on emotional house, Dixon’s shifty mixing introduced barely contained vocal tension and technicolor agitation, linking long washes of rhythm between dreamy soundscapes like Ame’s remix of Underworld’s “Crocodile” and some sultry rework of Frank Ocean’s “Lost.” When he slowly unfurled Ry & Frank Wiedemann’s “Howling,” he proved that anthems work best in the singular—it was a mushroom cloud of communal longing enveloping the dancefloor.
Tiësto’s ruthless branding extended to his Super Bowl halftime-ready live show, which was perfectly adequate but emotionally neutered. His celestial trance is totally impersonal and generally overwrought, but successfully so. His set was like a 3-D movie that shoots for immersion but ends up just making the audience feel cross-eyed.
Skrillex’s hair is just as stringy as it was last year; his fans are just as rabid, his stagecraft even more exorbitant. Closing after Tiësto should have been a coronation, but his set offered little to grasp beyond bellicose bedlam, the musical equivalent of doing serious lumber work after chugging multiple Four Lokos and beginning to think you can converse with the chainsaws. I wouldn’t say I’m a Skrillex fan, but I respect his savvy: After 36 hours of indomitable dubstep the crowd might not remember individual tracks from the miasma, but they damn sure will remember a mock X-Wing Fighter puking pyrotechnics. Skrillex’s set gnarled up the muscles in the back of my neck, and I apparently wasn’t the only one. As he snarled and trounced over subtlety, the crowd could be seen streaming away in droves.
Critical bias: Notice how I spent nine hours straight at the Sunday School Grove on Saturday?
Overheard: “He, like, throws wedding cakes at the crowd and he, like, has an inflatable raft he crowd-surfs in.” “Whoa. Dude, we can’t miss that shit.”
Random notebook dump: Considering practically every DJ was foreign, what exactly is accomplished by the many shirts trumpeting “USA: Back-to-Back World War Champs”?