I was 16 when I popped my music festival cherry. The event was called Rothbury. If you’ve never heard of it it’s because it goes by Electric Forest now. The trip was a last minute decision. My sister had just graduated from high school and she was dying to go. She knew a group of people headed that way, but none of her close girlfriends wanted to make the journey. Of course, when she got desperate enough, she looked to her baby sister.
I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know anyone on the line-up, except for a few: The Dead, Damian Marley, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. But those names alone were enough to spark my interest. I was keen to go, but as a young teen, I was most worried about what the partying scene would be like. My parents were too. I had never done any drugs before, besides smoking a little bit of pot, and I was terrified that I would be pressured into doing something “harder” than I wanted to. My knowledge about drug-use was coming from middle school health class, and I still had nightmares about skin-picking meth heads and roid-induced rages. I’m sure my sister had a tougher time then I knew getting my parents on board, but after many assertions of the safe actions we would take, we hit the road.
It was a straight 24-hour drive to get to Michigan. As I would learn in the years to come, if you want to get to a music festival, you have to work for it. We drove through the day and night, taking turns behind the wheel. I was asleep when we finally rolled up to the campsites, but I will never forget the image I saw as I opened my eyes. It was as if we had entered into a different universe. Cars surrounded us in each direction, funneling into the field where we would be spending the next four days. We were immersed in a stampede of bright lights and honking horns. People were sitting atop their slowly moving cars, riding them like chariots. There were yells and shouts of joy, the soft hiss of beer cans being cracked, and waves of different music flowing together from thousands of car stereos.
I was sold on music festival life before the shows even began. It was an ocean of tents, carefree fun and damn-good tunes. State flags and tapestries were being hung up as makeshift walls in campsites and the smell of marijuana was drifting through the air. Humans draped in colorful cloth, beaded skirts and feather boas walked the aisles of the campground holding trays of homemade bracelets and pipes for sale.
That wasn’t the only thing they were selling. “Doses, Special K, Boomers, Pills, Molly” were a few of the names of illicit drugs being uttered under people’s breath as they walked by. There were people running through the campsites carry giant tanks of I don’t even know what. They would run, and then drop behind a car to hide from a horse-cop who may be passing by.
“What is that?” I asked someone from our campsite.
“Oh, it’s Nitrous. You know, like laughing gas.”
Some people reading this story would maybe stop at this point. “Ah those no-good, drug-doing, dirty hippies! Events like this are what is ruining our great nation and tainting the minds of the youth!”
Eh, maybe, but hear me out, because the campground was only one side of it. Music and the coming together of different artists and different people is really why congregations like this occur.
It is hard to describe the feeling of a music festival once you get inside. It is as if the energies of each and every person around you have joined together to create a collective force. It is a pulsing, gyrating, intense feeling of happiness. It is the sensation of music surging through your veins; of bass thumping alongside the rhythm of your heart; of stories being told through music; of lives being lived through dance. It is knowing that you have nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, no commitments besides the ones you have made to yourself. Your only job when you are at a music festival is to just be.
There is honestly nothing like it. I wish I could describe it better, I really wish I could, but it is just something that you have to experience to understand. Rothbury was my first taste of the love. It was my first realization of the true power of music. It was the first time I just danced – danced from within my soul. It was the first time I just was.
There are so few moments when you have the time to just be yourself. So few times when stress isn’t a factor and the ticking of a clock isn’t in the back of your mind. There are so few instances when people remember that the present moment is the most important thing to focus on; music festivals are those rare exceptions.
One music festival was all it took for me to become hooked. Hooked on the music, hooked on the experience, hooked on sharing the love. Since Rothbury I have danced my way from Lollapalooza to Coachella, from Wakarusa to Mile High. I have stomped in the mud, dodged tornados, fainted from the desert heat and basked in the sun. I have met strangers who have opened my eyes to a new way of living life and I have learned how to let go of many things that I cannot control.
I had an epiphany of sorts as I was standing at Decadence Music Fest, bringing in 2014. Above & Beyond was playing their melodic set and the LED screens began flashing: “We are the EDM generation.” I looked around at all the people soaking in the music and shaking their asses to the beat and it made me think about what our generation will actually be remembered as.
For a time I thought we’d be remembered as the generation of dub. When I heard Lettuce play at Red Rocks I thought we might be considered the generation of funk. But looking back on my music experiences, I have realized something--we are the generation of it all. Derek Vincent Smith or Pretty Lights said it best when he asked the crowd, “Y’all down with that old-school, new-school, analog, electronic, futuristic, vintage, freshness, keepin’ it classy, f*ckin hip-hop, dubstep, soul, disco sh*tttttt?” We are no longer a generation that can be defined by one genre, one sound, one movement – we embody elements of them all. We are the generation that accepts a blending of all genres. We are a group of a hundred thousand, maybe a million different kind of weird people, just looking for a place to be ourselves and enjoy life.
Maybe that is the message music festivals send to us. Perhaps they are our reminder to take some time out of our busy lives and just let the music invade your brain. Maybe their purpose is to show us that it is okay to be around a thousand strangers and feel totally at peace. Music festivals bring it all together. They make us realize that whoever we are in somebody’s reality, is not necessarily who we are in our own reality. They allow us to take some time out of our hectic lives and live a little bit. They are an experience, an adventure, and a vacation all in one.
As I thought about what our music scene would look like to the future generations, and tried to juggle all the genres and artists in my head, I realized that this generation cannot be squashed into one certain category. We are not one type of music, we are not one type of people, we are them all – we are the music festival generation.