Review

EDC opens in Vegas to 110-degree heat and existential questions

What's the right mix of freedom and safety? And what if freedom includes some darker, off-EDC-brand feelings?

On top of a row of rusty shipping containers at Electric Daisy Carnival, a couple of burned-out cars were covered in graffiti. In the light of a nearby fire in an oil drum, one message in white paint stood out. It was a short, profane gesture of displeasure at the police. (It shares its name with a popular N.W.A. song.)

This art installation was an unexpected note of anger at what is usually one of the most intensely optimistic events in music. EDC, an electronic dance music festival that draws 400,000 fans to its three-day takeover of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for acts like Calvin Harris, Kaskade and a rage of underground sounds, is usually saturated with uplifting slogans about music fans coming together.

But this brief moment of discord suggested that there’s a new tension between the cheerful anarchy of a good rave, the actual anarchy that any event of this size is going to generate and a pained national mood that dance music -- once a refuge of outsiders seeking escape and rejuvenation -- has struggled to reckon with today.

That graffiti wasn’t the dominant mood at EDC (even if a touch ironic, given law enforcement’s recent interest in EDC’s parent company Insomniac over its old arrangments with the L.A. Coliseum). In fact, organizers generally went out of their way to emphasize the inclusiveness and kindness of dance music culture. Before the fest, Insomniac promoted a new initiative, #WeAreWideAwake, designed to get fans taking about risk-avoidance, and to look out for patrons who overindulged. A crew of friendly, neutral “ground control” staff patrolled the field helping weary patrons without the veneer of policing.

That’s a worthy goal, especially given the 110-degree heat in Vegas this week, and the deaths of fans at EDC last year and, most infamously, in 2010, when the event was still in Los Angeles.

But as a giant billboard overlooking the grounds declared, “You Are Free Here,” it was worth asking: What’s the right mix of freedom and safety at a major music festival surrounded by 134,000 people? And what if that freedom includes some darker, off-EDC-brand feelings?

On the fest’s opening night, the heat was rough, but spirits were still high. EDC has sometimes struggled to absorb the intense fandom that created the electronic dance music wave of the last decade. It’s getting a bit better -- Insomniac’s shuttle system was more expansive, though it sold out quickly. A revamp of the grounds made navigating easier and viewing more pleasant.

Some glitches remained. Cab drivers are growing averse to taking patrons to EDC, and after being turned down by a half-dozen drivers, this reporter had to bribe a cabbie with a $70 advance tip on a $40 ride just to get to the grounds 17 miles away. But on the whole, if you kept your patience and avoided the huge enter-and-exit crunch times, it was relatively smooth sailing once inside.

Logistics are just as important as music at EDC, because the real attraction is your fellow ravers in all their silly, neon splendor. A good thing too, because musically, this year’s fest was largely drawn from acts that have played EDC many times before (headliners like Kaskade, Martin Garrix, Steve Angello and many others played as recently as last year).

As mainstream EDM goes in 2015, the music did its job, but without too many surprises. Kaskade played light and friendly with his dreamy, hook-driven house; Dutch teen phenom Garrix had a major-headliner competence and pop-star stage presence. The trap-dubstep combo Yellow Claw sprayed ridiculous rap beats over footage of air-cocking shotguns and softcore lesbian porn (naturally, fans loved it, and turned the Speedway bleachers into a sea of grinding skin).

The ‘90s staple Fatboy Slim credibly updated his big-beat sound with harder edges for younger crowds, who are already repurposing his era’s signifiers like acid-tripping smiley faces and Hawaiian shirts. Carl Cox and Loco Dice, each fixtures of the more dangerous and moody ends of house and techno, held court for five hours as they socked their octagonal tent with tracks that felt like cold steel on a hot Friday late night.

But more than a concert, EDC is a barometer of mainstream dance music’s mood, and right now it seems to be hovering between a pointed hopefulness and a slow recognition that the crowds are getting restless.

What for, exactly, is hard to say. Maybe for something fresher in the music, or a real transcendent escape that doesn’t feel quite so on-message. Maybe, in some corners, there’s even a hunger for the biggest American music phenomenon of the 2010s to engage with (or just relieve) the tensions of race, class and futility rending America apart now.

At EDC, the oil-drum fire was fake, but maybe the heat was real.

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