In Which I Attend An EDM Festival and Am Not Horrified

This past weekend was probably the most hilarious juxtaposition of concerts that I’ve ever experienced. One minute I was chilling at a Wilco and Bob Dylan show with dads and old hippies, and the next I was raving it up at the neon-infused EDM (electronic dance music) festival that is HARD Summer.

To put it in visual perspective, here is Saturday:


vs. Sunday:


Yeah, I don’t really know either.

But I swear: It was one of the most memorable weekends of my life.

Of course, Bob Dylan and Wilco were glorious and absolutely everything that the obsessive mega-fan inside of me had hoped for. (Especially when Wilco performed “Happy Birthday” to their sound guy ON MY BIRTHDAY and I pretended they were singing it to me.) It was one of those concerts that is so sacred that your heart explodes. (Wow, please don’t let me say that ever again.) But what I’m really itching to write about right now is HARD Summer – for reasons that are very obvious – and also, like, uhhh, guys, I went to an EDM festival lolwut?

Something you may not know about me is that I’ve always been amused by EDM culture. I genuinely enjoy EDM as a musical genre (although I do have a few issues with it, which I’ll touch on later), and as a runner I am very grateful for its existence, especially when I’m about to collapse running up that stupid never-ending hill near my house. I’ve been observing the blossoming of EDM culture from a distance for a while now, drawing my own conclusions about it based on what I’ve read on blogs, heard from friends, seen in pictures on Facebook, etc. The sociology major/music history nerd in me simply cannot stay away from analyzing this kind of stuff. But it wasn’t until Sunday – when I actually experienced an EDM festival – that I felt like I really understood it and would be semi-qualified to write about it.

For those who don’t know, EDM is an umbrella term for all kinds of dance/club music, such as techno, deep house, trance, dubstep, and breakbeat. Over the years the genre has evolved into an actual “lifestyle,” or an “experience,” through huge EDM festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, Ultra in Miami, and HARD Summer in L.A. Basically, mostly, an EDM show is a massive rave that includes live EDM and light shows and neon glowsticks and nonstop dancing and girls wearing as little as possible and ridiculous costumes and yeah, OK, mind-altering substances up the wazoo (but it’s not necessary to partake in that to enjoy the show!).

EDM has absolutely exploded in popularity as a subculture amongst the millennial/college student demographic. It’s unavoidable, especially as a college student who lives in a bubble of thousands of other college students for the majority of the year. I don’t mind, though. There’s something romantic about youth culture that makes me wanna study it academically and be an active participant in it at the same time. I mean, I only have one chance to take part in the particular youth culture of my generation, and I don’t want to screw that up! When something like EDM shows up in history books as one of the defining cultural products of the millennial generation, I’m not going to be the one who was too highbrow and too cynical back in the day to participate in it. I wouldn’t have any stories for da kids that way, now would I?

Anyway. If there’s anything I’m hyper-aware of, it’s the fact that the popular music of any given decade or era is a reflection of the culture it’s coming out of and whatever happens to be going on in the world at that time. I’d like to think about EDM in that vein. How can EDM be considered an extension of the time we’re living in now? Why is it that we live in a “remix culture” when it comes to music? It’s all subjective, and I can only speculate. The obvious answer is OMG COMPUTERS AND TECHNOLOGY EVERYWHERE AND INVADING THE MUSIC INDUSTRY TOO!!!!!! However, I’m going to take a stab at a deeper explanation. Here’s the thing: Virtually all music, from the postwar pop of the ’50s to rock’n’roll and R&B, is a form of escapism. I’d argue that EDM is no different.

What are we “escaping” from, then? If you place EDM in a historical/cultural context, it’s easy to see that there’s no shortage of issues in the U.S. and the rest of the world right now. For example, as millennials, we’ve lived through an economic recession and are currently witnessing the economic decline of the U.S. The job market is in shambles, especially for recent college graduates. Even getting into college is tougher than it’s ever been, with admissions rates plunging year after year. And let’s not even start with the rising cost of education and how that affects kids of less-privileged backgrounds.

So there’s all that to escape from, and you also have to consider the social issues of our generation that are causing a lot of strife – for example, we’ve got gay marriage/LGBT rights and the terrible backlash we’re seeing now against it all. However, despite the backlash, here’s the good news: Millennials are a global generation, the most diverse to date, and in my opinion, remarkably progressive. I believe that we’re leading these kinds of social movements for acceptance, inclusion, and free love.

Those economic, political, and social issues alone don’t answer the question of why EDM has emerged as the modern day accessory to escapism, though. Perhaps the most relevant cultural phenomenon to my argument is the reign of FacebookTwitterInstagramSnapchatYOUNAMEIT. Smartphones, too. All of these things, from social media to texting, have created a culture in which we have this voracious desire to constantly stay connected with others. We want to share everything about our lives online, and we thrive on the social approval of a “like” or a “re-tweet.” Nevertheless, we have to remember that these interactions happen from behind the glow of computer/phone screens. Maybe we realize it and maybe we don’t, but there’s definitely a feeling of isolation that results when a substantial amount of our conversations are digitally moderated. We are simultaneously pulling each other closer and pushing each other away.

Zedd at HARD Summer
Zedd at HARD Summer. I was in that crowd, can you spot me???? (Jokes.)

EDM culture is our generation’s way of overcoming that underlying sense of alienation. It is how we overcompensate for the lack of social interaction we feel when we’re hidden behind our personal devices.  It is when we come together in a real-life, rather than online, community to temporarily forget all of the world’s problems and just DANCE with each other like crazy to excise the hatred out of the world and promote togetherness.

All of this I suddenly understood on Sunday. After dancing at HARD Summer from 5 p.m. until midnight, I felt like I had run six miles and really just wanted to sit down as soon as possible. But I was also in awe at what I’d just experienced. It was truly a community of people united by the beat at hand, and there was this special energy in the air that you don’t find in many other places. No inhibitions, no judgment, no violence (at least I didn’t see any) – just all-around friendliness and people looking out for one another. I could be embarrassingly wrong, but I’m gonna say it anyways and put a question mark at the end to emphasize my uncertainty and soften the blow in case I am indeed saying something dumb: EDM festivals are possibly the Woodstock of this generation?

That said, EDM culture is not all flowers and roses. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty sexist genre. Somehow it’s believed that females can’t produce electronic music the same way that males can.  Just look at the HARD Summer lineup – totally a guy’s club. (The only female artist I saw perform was Alice Glass of Crystal Castles. She’s the singer, but her male bandmates generate the beats onstage.) Not to mention, EDM culture is a breeding ground for rape culture, dangerous substance abuse (somebody died of an apparent drug overdose at this year’s HARD), and other nasty things… but those are discussions for another time. None of this I am condoning or trying to justify when I cite my enjoyment of the genre.

You probably won’t find me at another EDM festival in the near future unless the lineup happens to be as epic as that of HARD Summer. (I saw Crystal Castles, Breakbot, Zedd, Justice, Empire of the Sun, and Flosstradamus ALL IN ONE NIGHT. And since there were four stages at the festival, I obviously had to miss other exciting acts!) I generally go to shows for the music more than anything else, but I’m always pleasantly surprised when things like good vibes and an aura of community add value to the experience… hence this long and analytical post. In the end, I don’t really foresee myself becoming a hardcore raver. One festival seems quite enough for me.

Though I’m not going to stop listening to EDM on my daily runs anytime soon.

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