On Saturday at New York’s three-day dance music blowout Electric Zoo , a young woman wearing a shirt that is positively drenched in sweat down to the middle of her back is dancing like no one is watching. She’s right up against the barrier in front of the stage, pumping her arms, stomping and bobbing left to right, throwing her hands up and into the face of one of the security staff members stationed directly in front of her. He’s watching her flail about and perspire with an overtly judgmental look on his face, one eyebrow cocked in bemused disdain, but his disparaging gaze doesn’t deter her from getting her freak on even one iota. She’s dancing at him.
It seemed as if hers was the prevailing attitude at Electric Zoo, the annual festival hosted on Randall’s Island that brings together many of the biggest names in EDM for one long weekend. All the stereotypes of EDM culture are lived out and beaten to death at the Zoo, as if no one notices that they’re cliches, or as if they don’t care that they are. There are stocky college-aged boys in neon tank tops, scantily-clad women in fluorescent tutus and those furry leg warmers that have never looked good on anyone, twiggy high school girls chewing on light-up pacifiers, and a litany of shirts and sunglasses plastered with slogans like “SEX LOVE AND DUBSTEP” or “HAVE YOU SEEN MOLLY,” and it’s all soundtracked to the endless clamor of synths and drums blasting loud and proud. At Electric Zoo, these hallmarks of EDM are brought to life unabashedly and without reservation, which drives home the organizing principle in EDM culture: Ignorance is bliss.
Festivalgoers at Electric Zoo don’t seem mindful of the aspects of electronic music that tend to drive listeners away and attract the most criticism. They’re ignorant of the reasons other people might find EDM music and culture to be alienating (excessive drug use, insipid phrases splashed across apparel and megascreens, horrendous day-glo fashion choices, very loud and hyperenergetic music, etc) either because they don’t realize how stupid they might look to others, or because they don’t care. A lot of them are like a guy wearing a long-sleeved foliage camo shirt (not even army camo) on one of the hottest days of summer in New York City; he knows he looks stupid and that his shirt is impractical and inappropriate, but thats why he likes it.
Gleeful ignorance is the rule of the game. The screeching synths and skull-crushing midrange bass drops orchestrated by dubstep dons Flux Pavilion and Doctor P didn’t drive people away in search of prettier or more subtle sounds; In fact, the two producers attracted a riotous, crowd-surfing audience that filled the tent hosting the party.
The ironic twist was that, while Flux and Doctor P whipped up a frenzy with jarring hoover synths and remixes of Childish Gambino, the prolific Berlin-based producer and co-founder of the Shitkatapult label Apparat played to a tent where empty beer cups discarded onto the dance floor outnumbered bodies. It was clear that the interest in and awareness of Apparat’s realm of the electronic music world was low, which made his choice to drop “The Hope” by UK dubstep pioneer and Hotflush label boss Scuba all the more poignant.
Electric Zoo-goers were, in general, more enamored with the stadium-sized sounds pumping out of the most colossal festivals, from electronic-oriented ragers like Electric Daisy to all-in-one events like Coachella. Benga, who started as a dubstep producer and DJ at the legendary Forward club nights in London in the early 2000s, played at Lollapalooza earlier this summer before stopping off at Electric Zoo. His set at the Zoo eschewed the stripped-down darkness of his earlier work and focused instead on delivering the kind of “robot fart” noises that have become dubstep’s calling card.
Benga’s set was rife with EDM’s special brand of jubilant, excessive ignorance. As he built the swampy crowd into a humid fervor with all manner of grating, left-field sounds, a pixielike blonde cocked her arms back behind her head, ready to launch two empty water bottles into the mileu. At the peak of the build, Benga cut the track, and for a moment the girl stood with her arms slack, as if confused by the DJ’s choice to halt right on the cusp of an obliterating drop. Instead of the explosion of sound and energy she had anticipated, Benga unleashed the crackling beat and hooting opening notes of “Night,” one of his influential productions from 2008. The girl dropped her arms to her side, a bit deflated, but her disappointment was short-lived, as “Night” quickly morphed into a face-melting remix.
Most of the fans at Electric Zoo thirst for the transcendent power of the mightiest drops and melodies with enough energy to keep them moving and sweating all day long. They don’t particularly care if Benga plays “Night” (or a huge banger remix of “Night”) as long as they can get wild to it. If you pretend not to know that the tortured foghorn-like sounds coming out of the speakers are part of some souped-up version of a much moodier and deeper beat, there’s nothing to miss. And if you stop describing those sounds as “tortured foghorns”—if you stop thinking about what they sound like so much—you can start to feel them. The music is thrashing and obtuse, and the megascreens say cheesy things in huge letters like “CALL IT WHAT YOU WANT I’M A FUCKING ALCOHOLIC” and “WE OWN THE NIGHT,” but if you choose not to care or not to notice, you can rock to it a little, and maybe even enjoy it.
Think about the ignorance involved in fully engaging and delighting in a Skrillex set. The Electric Zoo headliner has become the face of dubstep, and his rise has inspired as much criticism as it has garnered adoration—”brostep” isn’t exactly an endearing term. If you were one of the many college-aged guys wearing a neon tank top, and if you had the gall to raise a fist in the air to pump it, you were pumping that fist in spite of snickering from blogs like Hipster Runoff, derision from underground elitists on Dubstepforum, the scorn of some seasoned producers and listeners, and anyone who is turned off by the overt weirdness of the music or the just-lose-it mentality it inspires.
The people in Skrillex’s crowd waved their arms in the air like they didn’t care, because they really didn’t, and that’s what makes it fun and liberating. All pretentiousness and self-conscious inhibitions go out the window the moment you step onto a dance floor and agree to accept whatever crazy and potentially unlistenable sounds a DJ is going to throw at you. EDM culture is made up of a lot of pills, most of which aren’t all that easy to swallow, but it’s unapologetic and straightforward about being exactly what its critics think it is—namely, hedonistic and at least a little tasteless. Every girl snapping a self-portrait on her iPhone with a pacifier in her mouth, and every guy with a shirt emblazoned with a slogan to the effect of “PARTY WITH SLUTS” embodies the idea that you don’t need an excuse or deeper reason to dress silly and wild out to loud, crazy music. Dance like no one is watching, and don’t give a fuck if they are.