We were supposed to arrive at Randall’s Island in New York City for a final day of electronic music that never came. Throughout Sunday, engineers prepared to disassemble stages on which some of the world’s leading electronic artists should have been playing. Instead of identifying Armin van Buuren and Avicii, my ears detected machinists and forklift operators.
A collection of tablets believed to be ecstasy (known as MDMA), which might have otherwise fit into an empty pack of gum, brought about the deaths of two young adults, hospitalized several others and prematurely ended Electric Zoo. Tens of thousands of fans streaming to Labor Day’s electronic rave woke up to the unfortunate news on their Twitter feeds. Despite electronic music’s automated and computerized nature, human emotion surged profusely in the aftermath.
Our crew of five congregated in the small rented apartment in Queens which we had used as a home base for the weekend’s event. Leading up to it, I was looking forward to expanding my musical horizons. I had done the background reading on the artists, and listened to the albums as well as the viewpoints of other fans. In a dimly lit and muggy room, sympathy, frustration and bewilderment fluctuated within us for several cycles until we finally arrived at lethargy. For many, the concert represented a significant chunk of summer wages put towards accommodation, transportation and food. The atmosphere resembled that which follows a destructive flood.
As a neophyte to the electronic concert scene, I took refuge in the expertise of my fellow concert chums. My friend James, a student music artist with an electronic-heavy repertoire often hired at Yale events, sagged on the futon. “People are looking to heighten their experience and find creative ways to get substances through security,” he explained to me. The lyrical lingo describing the use of ecstasy in popular culture misleads concertgoers about the destructive capacity of the drug. With softened synonyms such as “Molly” or “disco biscuit,” it grants the possibility of a more invigorating musical experience. It is not uncommon to find a subversive chapter of dealers who roam concert venues offering questionable hallucinogens to attendees caught in the moment. Dr. Danielle Ompad, an epidemiologist at NYU, stressed to me that users often have no clue what they are ingesting: “It is not always clear that the pill that was purchased is always MDMA.”
Leading into the weekend, I had fully expected to see substances, and pockets of individuals who used them — to deny this would be to deny the reality of an electronic concert. But I thought there was safety in numbers. No concert that attracts over 100,000 visitors could ever be canceled. That version of affairs lay outside my realm of possibilities.
Just prior to Electric Zoo’s cancellation, a concert in Boston hosting a techno band saw three reported overdoses from ecstasy, with one resulting in death. College campuses aren’t insulated from the growing prevalence of the drug either. As one acquaintance told me at the dining hall: “Let’s just say that Toad’s isn’t the only thing popping on a Wednesday night.” The illicit nature of ecstasy inhibits an accurate estimate of usage on campuses, but according to the Justice Department’s website, nearly 10 percent of incoming freshmen will have tried ecstasy at least once before even having stepped foot at their respective colleges.
The decision by the New York Mayor’s Office to cancel the final day of Electric Zoo highlighted the inextricable link between illicit substances and electronic music for me. The logic now flows: If there is an electronic concert, then there will be ecstasy. Vice versa, there cannot be an electronic concert without users of ecstasy. This is almost an inherent fact, not a personal belief.
The strong response to Electric Zoo will repel moderates like me who fluctuate between music styles. Prior to my descent upon New York, I was really excited to broaden my musical knowledge and investigate emerging artists. Instead, the events have cognitively distorted my attraction to electronic music and made the genre less accessible. Sunday’s twist will nurture the intimidating image I have of rave culture and harm what was once a growing attraction to the scene. It will take some time before I feel comfortable venturing off to an electronic music fest or fully investing in EDM artists. It is not a rational reaction, but the reinforced stigma of raves remains looming in the back of my head.