Me and Diplo
I’ve just crossed the footbridge from East Harlem to Randall’s Island and the warning trembles of bass hit my poorly-chosen Converse hightops. Three days from now, even though I will have doubled up on socks to stave off blisters, the lack of ankle support will have caught up with me and even bobbing to the beat will leave me with a pained grimace. Maybe the shuttle bus would have been worth the extra cost.
Sick of the sun already and excited to get to the music, I outpace other attendees headed the same direction. A pair of girls giggling about their strain of weed hush up as they notice me gaining on them. One calls out.
“Are you a cop?” She has a slight Russian lilt and Daisy Dukes.
“No. Why do you ask?”
“You’re by yourself!”
“I’m meeting some friends inside.” Her eyes follow me, baffled, as I overtake the duo.
“I like your piercing!”
Her friend chimes in with approval of my skin-tight cutoffs. I give them my regards and keep power-walking.
It’s my second time at Electric Zoo. Randall’s Island, a lush parkspace hanging in the East River that hosts golf lessons and an athletic complex, takes in thousands of people each Labor Day weekend for this electronic music festival. The party is only in its third run, but has grown by a day each time. Up until a few years ago, the U.S. could only find above-ground raves in Los Angeles, (probably because its the only metropolis with year-round rooftop pools and a little more money than Miami.) The East Coast needed a center for dance culture; a fenced-off field with four tents scattered about, plus a main stage set on the asphalt at the far end.
After scanning my neon entry wristband at the gates, I go to get a second wristband for beer. The attendant, barely paying attention to me, puts my driver’s license into a handheld device not unlike a thick Palm Pilot. It beeps, she pulls out my ID, and laughs at the results.
“What do you think this means?” She holds the device up to me.
Its screen has gone haywire, displaying a glitchy barcode in lieu of verification. Now we share the laugh and she ushers me past. Drinking beer, or cocktails, or wine, (I shudder,) sounds like suicide with the September sun overhead, but it’s nice to have the option.
The guidos take advantage of it. Musclebound, shaved heads, they carve out circles wherever they dance and, without spilling a drop from their solo cups, unleash moves capable of breaking the thinner bones of bystanders. On the other end of the fest-goer spectrum would rest the hula-hoopers. Since they can’t perform in the scrim of the tents, they choose to drift around the open field and groove to the coalesced ambient beat that hovers over the whole festival. (I don’t know if they actually see any of the DJs.)
Everyone else falls in the middle. A backwards-capped Southern boy wearing plastic shades from his last frat formal bounces alongside a curly-afroed California surfer in board shorts, a teenage couple makes out next to the 40-something married couple (also making out.) Snatches of Slavic speech can be caught in passing. The crowd is more pale than anything, but other races can be found. Ravers, such a defined subculture in the 90s, have let their fuzzy boots and candy-striped bracelets and glowstick goo melt onto anyone who wants in.
I’ve just moved into my apartment, and so my roommate’s parents take us out for brunch before I head out for the second day of the show; the first is over and everything smells like dust. Over Bloody Marys and omelettes, these middle-aged Western Mass doctors ask me about the appeal. By their own admission, they’ve never heard of anything like this.
“So… The DJs just play pre-recorded songs?”
“Sure, but there’s a certain amount of, ah, manipulation. And a challenge in choosing the correct tracks … To keep people engaged.”
“Okay, I think I get it…”
“I just really love to dance.”
They all smile at me, roommate included. “That sounds like fun!”
It is fun. Inside the temporary chain-link fence of the festival, whatever restraint that keeps us from dancing down the sidewalk to the tune of our latest iPod obsession is banished. You know those Youtube videos titled “SASQUATCH 2011 DUDEBRO DANCES OUT OF MIND TRIPPING HILARIOUS” and feature a circle of bemused concert-goers holding perimeter around a dead-eyed, puffing partyer who flails with the energy of a tased octopus? A guy who only sees the beat and flops his limbs instinctually? At any point in E-Zoo you could spin 360 degrees and spy five instances of viral video gold. There won’t be any gawkers though, and as you get closer to the stage, more participants achieve a level of bizarre. It’s easy to say that a low-hanging haze of MDMA, sweat, and hallucinogens will do that to a crowd, but the unchecked dancing and general drug-use are both symptoms of a over-arching sentiment: nobody cares here.
Most of the time. I’m in a tent later that day and a scruffy dreadlocked dude wearing a black bandana over his head and gloves with light-up fingertips is wandering through the crowd, looking for other people to entertain. Throughout the set I notice him with various new friends, putting on his light show and presumably blowing minds. Then he falls over in front of me. It’s not a collapse, his body remains straight up and down, and my first thought is a prank or something else silly. Then I see the foam at his mouth and how tightly all of his muscles have constricted. One anonymous girl jumps to action and pours water down his throat. (Is that a good idea? I have no clue.) Others run to one of the security stations at the edge of the tent. I leave immediately. Maybe it’s selfish, but I figure that watching a man die will ruin my weekend. There are no deaths reported after the festival, but an epileptic would not be at a function where every light is set to strobe, (nor would one own light-up gloves,) so I don’t know what the issue was. As an older blonde holding a solo cup of wine put it to me just outside the tent, “he was probably just really fucked up.”
I find it difficult to stay with my friends. JR wants to meet with that Jersey co-ed he grinded on, Abe has to wait in the twenty minute line for water, Victoria gently hunts for drugs like a pig rooting out truffles, and I need, need, to see Diplo. At a bar or a club, this split in motivations would see hand-wringing ensue, but now I can say “Free condom tent in an hour and a half, we’ll meet up then and there.”
At one of these divergent moments, I’m left dancing next to Shawn, a squat friend of a friend of a friend who I met that day and have not spoken to since then. He has an unlimited supply of Marlboros kept in his almost-dry shirt pocket, and, at particularly huge moments of sound, dons his plastic shades and wavers front to back, bouncing his shoulders to the rhythm. Waiting until a lull, he slaps a sweaty twenty into my palm and tells me that he’ll hold our spot in the crowd if I go buy as much water as I can carry. I come back with eight cartons and push my way back to Shawn, whispering “sorry” as I step on every foot.
The following Tuesday, first day of class, I keep an eye out for neon wristbands.