Even if you didn’t know how to get to Spring Awakening, all you’d have to do is follow the people dressed in neon. Cars packed with teens and 20-somethings wearing neon sunglasses, neon tank tops or neon furry boots jammed the roads and expressways surrounding Soldier Field, the electronic dance music (EDM) festival’s venue for the past three years. Frame-rattling bass and futuristic sounds announced each new member in the procession.
The pedestrian tunnel on the south end of the stadium was flooded by a wide, churning current of humanity. Though the crowd was predominately white, there was a decent minority of Latino and Asian festivalgoers, plus a smaller contingent of black attendees. Plenty of girls wore headbands, some with flowers in them, while a few guys wore bandannas around their necks. Were it not for the bass-driven music exploding off in several directions, the scene would’ve felt like the prelude to a riot. Abs were out all around. The guys who could get away with it went completely shirtless, though others proudly had their potbellies on display. Nalgas of all kinds spilled out the bottom of cut-offs and booty shorts. Girls gyrating in next to nothing added to the sexual frenzy floating like an invisible cloud. Everywhere you looked someone wore a random costume – Batgirl, Pikachu, slutty referee, a Spiderman Dead Mau5 head – giving everything the feel of Mardi Gras mixed with Lollapalooza, an electronic bacchanalia held sometime in the not-too-distant future. The haute couture de jour was decidedly a mishmash of eroticism and erraticism.
Jocks, nerds, sorority types and rejects all flowed into the south entrance of the stadium, passing the Uber Silent Disco area where about 30 people wearing yellow headphones bounced quietly with one another. They were cordoned off like dangerous criminals. A few hours into it on Saturday and the stands were dotted with people eating and relaxing while the field was about 80 percent full and still filling up. Famed headliner Tiesto had given a predictably incredible performance the day before to bring the festival’s first day to a close, and now people looked ready to really get into things.
An imposing metal stage at the north end shot up four towers of flame and four separate blasts of fog. Montreal-born DJ, A-Trak, stood behind a mixer at the center, flanked by large triangular shards of screen on either side that projected colorful racing landscapes. The front quartile of the massive crowd jumped frantically, hands raised, like something out of World War Z. The rest were relatively calm and seemed to be waiting til sunset to make their transformations.
I sat in the stands, about 10 rows or so from the field, eating a jumbo hot dog, drinking water and taking in the scene. Beer vendors stalked the aisles and the field like they do at sporting events, which I thought seemed freakishly out of place, though in hindsight I guess it just added to the absurdity of the whole thing. There was the inevitable Guy Fawkes mask, and a beach ball bounced back and forth above the crowd. Someone carried a large cardboard cutout of George Clooney’s head. People waved Chicago flags, Polish flags and even a Honduran flag – because why not? Kids who seemed fresh from their 8th grade graduations smoked cigarettes and had that “Fuck the world” look in their eyes. Innocent yuppies wearing shutter shades and Camelbaks pretended to be about that life, though you could tell by how demurely they moved through the crowd that they were calmly freaking out.
Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of hardcore ravers were in attendance. Throughout the night I was hugged, high-fived and chatted up by more than several devout practitioners of PLUR, an acronym which stands for “Peace Love Unity Respect” and represents EDM’s leading tenet. But with Spring Awakening exploding into one of the biggest festivals of the year and attracting a wider array of people, there were also plenty of assholes who just didn’t give a fuck about the music, much less PLUR. They simply wanted to get rowdy and maybe score some ass. So depending on where you stood in the crowd, the festival was either loving, subversive or douchey. In reality, it was all three.
Australian DJ, Tommy Trash, took the main stage a little after six, beginning his session with a call to legs: “Chicago, are you ready!” The music gradually built up from there, until the bass dropped, which amounted to a music bomb being detonated in the stadium. Most of the crowd now jumped in quasi-unison. A shockwave of hands rose up as though the music had caused a chemical reaction in the human substrate. The surface of the crowd trembled like a sizzling pool of liquid. An explosion above the stage sent a torrent of colorful streamers raining down onto the crowd whose hands reached out for them.
When Diplo hit the stage outside the stadium on the southeast corner of the festival grounds, the crowd’s unbridled (and drug-induced) joy reached fever pitch. Twerking and juking broke out all around, and people climbed up on trash cans and shoulders to get a good view of the lights. Toward the front of the crowd was a dance party, shoulder to shoulder, at least a few hundred people strong, each person dancing both alone and with everyone else, communally. With every bass drop and transition, every whirl and pop, Diplo, a godlike puppeteer, controlled the giant human maelstrom. People danced like their lives had no other purpose, as though music were the most powerful force of nature in the universe.
The most notably feature of Diplo’s set is that it wasn’t on the main stage (where Pretty Lights headlined), which was weird for one of the most popular DJs in the game. Fans still enjoyed his set, which wasn’t hard to do, but the better sound and lighting of the main stage inside the stadium would’ve turned the experience up a few more notches, which probably might’ve ripped a hole in the fabric of space-time. I’m not Pretty Lights didn’t destroy the crowd at the end of the night – his stage name is well deserved. Still, in EDM culture, music and lights are everything, and the best DJ with the best music deserves the best stage and lighting – or, better yet, the crowd deserves it.
For all its detractors, Spring Awakening provides Chicagoans of an invincible age with a perfect kickoff to the long-awaited summer. Maybe the EDM scene has become too mainstream. Maybe it’s become too gentrified, like a few once-special parts of the city itself have. Anything good is bound to grow too popular for its own good, drawing all sorts of newcomers, good and bad. The same could be said of Lolla or Fiestas Puertorriqueñas, the celebration of Puerto Rican culture in Humboldt Park that also took place this past weekend. Large events of any kind are a mixed bag mostly because the human race itself is a mixed bag.
This writer, for one, enjoyed his first time at the festival, and judging by the smiles and excitement worn on most of the faces I saw, plus the complete absence of violence or aggression, I would have to be a total downer to call Spring Awakening anything but a positive experience for Chicago’s young people. Add to all the performances (Kaskade headlined on the big stage on Sunday) the countless afterparties – Diplo’s at the Mid on Saturday, Cajmere’s at Sound Bar the same day, and Kaskade’s at the Mid on Sunday –Spring Awakening weekend represents an orgy of fun and excitement that a city with winters as long and harsh as ours needs. Water-downed or not, it’s definitely worth the price of admission.
[Photo: Spring Awakening Music Festival]