I sat down at my desk last Wednesday morning, tired, sore, and frazzled from sleeping through my alarm and having to rush out the door. The familiar sounds of my daily life made their way back into my brain and I became kind of sad. I was glad to be home, as I always am, particularly because my back could not sustain another night in our discount motel room bed. But having spent so many days in a row with some of my favorite people on the planet made settling back into the normal groove of things difficult.
As I mentioned in my previous post, we were in Detroit over Memorial Day weekend for the music festival and its related events that we attend every year.
Probably only the folks who have at least a passing interest in the music featured will care about my evaluation, but those of you who don’t might appreciate a glimpse into the subculture where I spend part of my time.
To sum it up: Nothing gold can stay. I don’t think anyone really believes that the accidental beauty of the first few years of the festival could ever last and I don’t think anyone is opposed to change, but there’s a difference between changing and blatantly going down the quickest path to the most possible money, all while spewing empty platitudes about “internationalism.” If the only way to have a festival every year is to churn out such nonsense, then it’s best to let it die gracefully before it’s too late.
People like me and my husband and many of our friends got into dance music in various ways. At the time that we all met, the best way to hear dance music in all of its genres was at raves, which at the time (the late 90s) were already past their prime. Occasionally, there was an all-ages night at a club, but those were never that great. Whatever half-hearted interest that I had in the culture of raving was pretty much gone after about a year and a half of going to them. I liked staying out all night, I liked dancing, I liked hanging out with my friends. I didn’t care for the pseudo-infantile behavior that began to dominate the culture. But, and I still maintain this viewpoint today, just because I think something is dumb, it’s not hurting anyone, so you go ahead and cuddle your teddy bear and suck on lollipops, even though I’m pretty sure I just saw a grey hair on your head.
Music and culture changes and out of the quintessentially 90s and neon versions of house and techno and the like, a new version emerged. One that was more grown-up, deeper. Baby-making music, if you will. Or perhaps just a mature and refined iteration of what came before it. There was no particular culture attached to it. Adults who still preferred to dress like Rainbow Brite were welcome to attend clubs where this kind of music was played, though the spectacle of, “Look at me! I’m shiny and glittery and dancing with glow sticks! LOOK AT ME!” had definitely been replaced by a feeling of letting only the music be the focal point, allowing listeners to truly lose themselves in it and dance and be free. Letting go of the ego and letting the id rule for a bit, if I may draw on my Psychology 101 class from 1999 (gulp).
Going to the festival for the first time was a revelation. Here we were, outside, in the daylight, surrounded not only by people from all over the country and the world who had emerged from rave culture into the same general moment in dance music, but by families and “regular joes” from Detroit, by raver kids whose devotion to moments of a technicolor existence was almost endearing, by musicians of various levels of fame and infamy. Through the awkward adolescence of raves, we had grown up and were comfortable listening to the weird, the deep, the soulful, the rambunctious, the political, the luscious beats of a generation of people, no matter what their age, who were finally comfortable in declaring, “This is the music that I like. This is the music that helps me to define who I am. This is the music that I hear at my most joyful and my most desperate. This is the music that will be played at my wedding, at the births of my children, at my funeral. This is the music that will be played in my next life.”
I had a transformative moment in 2005 when some of the Underground Resistance guys closed the festival on the main stage. They played “Transition,” while images of people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and Albert Einstein flashed behind them. The crowd of thousands around me melted away and I was alone when I heard the lyrics, “Point yourself in the direction of your dreams…and make your transition.” From that day on, I did, freed from the notion that I needed to worry about the uninformed and frightened opinions of people who would dismiss this music as silly and scoff at my inspiration.
Transition or not, my annual trek back has changed a bit each year. The cost of admission goes up, a necessary evil that we’re told is the only thing keeping the festival going year after year. A cost we’ve been happy to pay to support the work of the people from that city who have helped so many people figure out their lives through music. Something else changed, too, though. Artists from Detroit are bumped from better time slots and given lesser areas to play in favor of their more European counterparts, those who make and play the same music that got old 15 years ago, the music that is almost rhetorically composed for the Rainbow Brite crew who fork over $60 for the opportunity to feel like they’re getting away with something. They parade in front of each other, eager for reactions, armed with an arsenal of camera-ready poses, dying for that first moment when someone points and finally, finally notices them. In the background, the music could be Carl Craig or it could be Linda Ronstadt. They would scarcely notice the difference. They pay good money and lots of it for admission and shirts and blinky, shiny things that vendors sell because they know an opportunity when they see it.
This year, nearly all of the Detroit artists were shuffled unceremoniously to an underground stage that, despite the organizer’s best efforts, still sounded like listening to an off-balanced washing machine while nursing an earache. The glittering kids danced outside, in the sunlight, to tracks that they couldn’t name to save their lives, that could very well all be the same record or mp3 for all they know. They formed dance circles, breaking up whatever collective energy had been present on the dancefloor, so that they could stand and watch one person dance. If that isn’t the saddest goddamned thing ever, I don’t know what is.
Again, they are welcome to. I am happy to share that experience with anyone. But I didn’t feel like I was in a position of sharing this year. I felt like I was stuffed in a basement while the higher bidders enjoyed what used to be our moment in the sun.
I don’t want to focus entirely on the negative. We did hear some good music at the festival and even more at the after parties that we attended. The husband has a good round-up of the music that we saw/heard/got down to while we were there. Not surprisingly, his criticism of the unprofessional and/or just plain shitty aspects of the festival management are drawing ire. The organizers had previously agreed to sit down with him for an interview, but later recanted. I, however, as a professional writer, offer up my tape recorder for any statements that they want to make. If people like us, a numerical minority, who are genuinely passionate about the music and the experience of it, are no longer important, dropped in favor of the wealthy and serotonically tweaked, then just say so and we’ll stop bugging you with all of our demands for care and quality and respect.
Aside from the fact that, last Wednesday morning, I pried my eyes open and stared, confused, at the numbers on my alarm clock which read “7:55” aka The Time at Which We Should Be at the School Bus Stop Holy Crap You’re Late as Hell O’Clock, getting back into all of the aspects of life seems to be increasingly difficult every year. Only this past Monday did I cook a meal and pack my lunch. Over the weekend, I got most of the laundry done (but not all of it). There are still several bags of random travel things gathering dust in our entryway. And I still poke around my office, unsure of what I normally do during the hours of 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. I’ll figure it out eventually.