Spring Awakening, the three-day electronic dance music festival perhaps you heard un-cha-un-cha-un-chaing last weekend, its bass thumps rattling the traffic that crawled north along Lake Shore Drive, has established itself in just three years at Soldier Field as a key Midwest rallying point for EDM (electronic dance music). Its biggest stars are achieving a degree of household recognition — past performers Skrillex and Calvin Harris quickly became Lollapalooza headliners — and its rising stars, such as Benny Benassi and Kaskade, are on their way. If you know nothing about EDM, this festival is becoming an EDM smorgasbord, DJ Times editor Jim Tremayne told me, a one-stop shop for a music that's cast off its antiquated DJ-and-two-turntables image.
And therefore, a perfect spot to watch an entire culture lurch into the mainstream.
For instance, among the heartwarming family moments I witnessed at Spring Awakening — OK, the only heartwarming family moment I witnessed — was a father and son from Naperville, watching the year-old Las Vegas DJ duo Caked Up work its Friday crowd into a sweaty, bouncy, arm-pumping frenzy. The dad, whose name was Andy Griffin, looked like an Andy Griffith. His son, 12-year old McLean, was wiry and wore a fishing cap. He looked either intimidated by the spectacle or enraptured, eager to join the circus.
"First concert!" Andy shouted, beaming with pride and bemusement, pointing at McLean.
From the stage, a DJ shouted: "Everybody (expletive) drop!"
Andy smiled sheepishly.
They stood at the edge of the crowd, alongside one of the three stages that ringed the grounds outside Soldier Field (the mainstage was inside the stadium, parked at the Chicago Bears north end zone). McLean tapped a foot and watched silently. He seemed reserved. I asked him why he wanted to make Spring Awakening his first concert. Over hair-vibrating bass, he said he liked the lights, the crowds, the loudness.
From the stage: "Are you (expletive) ready (expletive) Chicago to (expletive) get (expletive) up, (expletive)!"
Was McLean scared?
He was in love.
"I'm scared," Andy offered nervously. "Isn't it a little early to be this crazy?"
A man in a flying-squirrel costume danced past. Followed by a woman in a panda hat, a bikini top, a pair of silver hot pants covering nothing and fluorescent orange fishnet stockings under black woolly boots that looked like the legs from a gorilla suit. I turned and ran into a shirtless fat guy in a Speedo and a top hat.
Yes, Spring Awakening — aka Ibiza by the Lake.
There was music — roughly five dozen DJs from around the world, some of whom brought guitars and keyboards (and keytars), many only a thumb drive and a laptop to jack into a sound system. But as EDM has grown into a business poised in a curious spot between concert, spectacle and dance party, so goes Spring Awakening, which is organized by Chicago-based promoters React Presents and feels like a celebration of a genre in hyper drive — expanding musically, contracting culturally and gentrifying, all at once. The crowd, with respect to the 90,000 people estimated to attend, had both the friendly, spacey vibes of a Grateful Dead show and the boundless energy of a Roman orgy. They could have been the set up for a joke:
So 30,000 Joni Mitchells walk into a stadium, meet 30,000 strippers and dance with 30,000 frat guys ...
And yet, walking the festival grounds, hearing the beats, the manipulated whines, the DJ shouts, it all sounded so coordinated and seamless, you would be forgiven for assuming every stage was playing exactly one song. Which, depending on how you see it, is either a lack of imagination or a community in sync, responsive to the spacey, rangy abstraction of jam-band psychedelia, attuned to seismic eruptions of sound and repetition. Moving from one stage to the next, I heard each of these, shouted live or in a sample loop:
Eat, sleep, rave, repeat, eat, sleep, rave, repeat
Bounce, bounce, bounce
I got that dope in my sock, I got that dope in my sock
Join me, join me, join me