The 400,000-odd people who flocked to Las Vegas last month for the Electric Daisy electronic dance music (EDM) festival probably didn't make much of its name. Clad in sparkly tutus, neon spandex, glittery bikinis, and enormous furry boots, they came to dance, to gaze starry-eyed at the LED graphics, and to enjoy the warmth and communal spirit of the crowd—not to question the unlikely juxtaposition of electricity and daisies.
But the tension at the heart of the growing electronic music movement is manifest in the festival's name. Electronic music festivals like Electric Daisy, Electric Forest, and Electric Zoo celebrate a culture of warmth, geniality, and flowers on the one hand, and a musical tradition of impersonal digitization on the other. The Raver's Manifesto, an anonymous document that outlines the electronic music movement's core tenets, epitomizes this apparent inconsistency: "the thunderous, muffled, echoing beat was comparable to a mother's heart soothing a child in her womb of concrete, steel, and electrical wiring," it proclaims. The music that gave rise to P.L.U.R.—"peace, love, unity, and respect," a doctrine that underlies much of the American EDM scene—is at once tenderly maternal and brutally mechanical.
Why is it this music—which has seen an unprecedented surge in attendance in recent years, with the Ultra Music Festival in Miami boasting between 50,000 and 60,000 attendees each day—that has occasioned such an explicit celebration of human connection and community? "Rave culture, despite all the negative attention it receives about its ties to club drugs, is really about togetherness," a raver gushed to me.
But electronic music often lacks the spontaneity of jazz or hip-hop, which lend themselves more easily to improvisation. (DJ Deadmau5 recently scandalized critics when he confessed that his "live" performances consist of premixed sets: "we all hit play," he titled the gloomy Tumblr post.) And it usually lacks the plaintive human voices that grace sappy pop hits. Yet, it is electronic music, heralded by The Atlantic as "the new rock," that has triggered the resurgence of old-fashioned, hippy-dippy sentimentalism.
The question of why EDM has prompted the second coming of flower-power is complicated by the music's origins, which have often invoked futuristic and post-human imagery that seems to clash with contemporary festival culture. The 1970s German electronic band Kraftwerk, one of the most important forerunners of contemporary electronica, made albums with names like The Man-Machine and Computer World, while American techno originated with a group of Detroit artists who called themselves Cybotron and produced tracks like "Cosmic Cars" and "Cyber Ghetto." Juan Atkins, a founding member of Cybotron and an important DJ in his own right, once likened the sound of a synthesizer to "UFOs landing on records." A few years later, Detroit DJ Richie Hawtin, widely credited with instigating the second wave of Detroit techno, adopted the persona of the robotic Plastikman, a pale, otherworldly figure with cold, glowing eyes.
In keeping with this tradition, contemporary electronic music artist Skrillex embraced his role as a pioneer of new, intergalactic frontiers, christening his 2011 tour "The Mothership." According to his sponsor—Red Bull—he emerged this year from his "Mad Scientist Laboratory" (a womb of concrete, steel, and software) to embark on a 2014 Mothership tour. He is pictured wearing glasses that glow like computer screens on the tour's promotional poster.
Recent festivals have been quick to adopt a similar aesthetic, billing themselves as forums for technical innovation: Sonar in Barcelona is an "advanced music and multimedia art" festival, while the Movement festival in Detroit offers "an interactive technology center featuring the hottest gear in the industry" and "several art displays to stimulate the senses.
But electronic music has a softer side, with historical roots running just as deep. Participants in the 1989 Love Parade in Berlin, an early prototype of the modern music festival, half-marched and half-danced through the streets of the city, agitating for "Friede, Freude, und Eierkuchen" (peace, joy, and pancakes). Set in a divided Germany, the event could not help but carry political undertones: It was a self-aware plea for unity (and, evidently, love) in a fragmented city. American rave culture quickly followed suit, embracing P.L.U.R, an ideology popularized by New York DJ Frankie Bones and his 1990 record "P.L.U.M.," "The Peace Love and Unity Movement." The touchy-feely fuzziness, partially MDMA-induced, of today's rave culture was just a short step away.
If EDM has such contradictory and distinct origins, what accounts for the happy convergence of sappy and cyber at the contemporary festival? It would be easy enough to ascribe this unlikely marriage to the effects of drugs like ecstasy and molly (MDMA)—and undoubtedly, P.L.U.R. owes some of its popularity to pill-poppers and their drug-fueled euphoria. EDM has always had an intimate relationship with aptly named "club drugs," which have yielded a number of highly publicized deaths throughout its history. But if we accepted this ready answer, we'd be left with another question: Why is this the music that has prompted its following to take so many feel-good drugs? Why don't the crowds drowsily nodding their heads at acoustic rock concerts reach for a similar fix?
One explanation might be the genre's utopian leanings. EDM's aim is not just to create a few tracks or a set, but, rather, to devise elaborate alternatives to contemporary culture. Richie Hawtin's record label, Minus, for instance, has been described by interviewers as a "vehicle for an aesthetic" rather than an exercise in strict music-making. In his Reddit AMA, Pasquale Rotella, founder of Insomniac Events and promoter of Electric Daisy, expressed a similar sentiment, explaining that the purpose of his festivals is to inspire ravers "to connect with their inner self." In another interview, Rotella emphasized that Electric Daisy is "really so much more" than a concert.
For a musical movement, EDM's aims are ambitious and expansive, not unlike those of rock 'n' roll in the '60s and '70s. "Festivals are kind of like an escape," one electronic music fan told me. "It's not just about listening to the music … really, it's about the notion that you can do whatever you want while you're there without any reasonable expectation of repercussions or judgment … what I mean is that it's a place where you can feel comfortable." The authors of the Raver's Manifesto, whoever they were, agree, casting electronic music events as a refuge for the downtrodden in an otherwise hostile world:
somewhere around 35Hz we could feel the hand of God at our backs, pushing us forward, pushing us to push ourselves to strengthen our minds, our bodies, and our spirits. Pushing us to turn to the person beside us to join hands and uplift them by sharing the uncontrollable joy we felt from creating this magical bubble that can, for one evening, protect us from the horrors, atrocities, and pollution of the outside world.
This explains the scale of the modern music festival, not so much a glorified concert as full-fledged spectacle, integrating the aural, the visual, and the cultural to create a comprehensive site of discontinuity with external expectation. Festivals like Electric Daisy are about the music, but they're also about the active creation and maintenance of a counter-culture, about the indulgence of a communal fantasy. By attending festivals, ravers tacitly agree to participate in the project of realizing P.L.U.R.: They agree to bring an ideal, albeit short-lived, world to life for the span of a single weekend.
The fanciful element is not lost on festival organizers and promoters: With names like Mountain Oasis, Tomorrowland, Isle of Dreams, and Dancefesttopia, festivals worldwide frame themselves as temporary wonderlands. Where more traditional concerts and performances are a continuation of everyday social relations, successful electronic music festivals function as breaks or disruptions. Embracing cyberpunk while promoting love and harmony, festivals are spaces of strange possibilities. They are explicit in their rejection of the values and the logics of the outside world.
This is the key to reconciling the conflicting imagery that crops in the electronic music world—the bleak post-industrial warehouse parties packed with smiling dancers, the outpourings of love set to a series of electronic bloops, the electric forests and delicate daisies—without just attributing it to the effects of molly. The parade of cyborg figures—first Kraftwerk's "man-machines," then Richie Hawtin's Plastikman, now Skrillex in his futuristic glasses—marching through the history of electronic music draw on technological resources to enhance rather than eliminate our humanity, using technology as a means of intensifying our sense of connectedness to our fellow humans. They aren't post-human so much as hyper-human.
In a society of doomsayers and chronic unpluggers prophesying The Singularity and other digital disasters, ravers comprise one of the few communities to consistently imagine a positive place for technology. Electronic music festivals function as partially realized fantasies of self-improvement, booming right through to morning, hinting, if only for a night, at a utopian future.