The Music Snob in Me Was Wrong About Ultra 2016

“You complete me!” When most hear this bold, tiptoeing-dangerously-on-the-edge-of-creepy declaration of love, the first thing that comes to mind is when Tom Cruise steps up to the plate (get it, because baseball?) and tells Renee Zellweger how he really feels about her in the Cameron Crowe classic Jerry Maguire.

However, after attending Ultra Music Festival this past weekend, I will always think of Nicolas, who told me as much during Richie Hawtin’s incredible set on Saturday. I don’t know why Nick, who was adamant that I know he was born in D.C. and currently lives in L.A., told me I filled an empty part of him that I was never made aware of — after all, other than lighting my cigarettes and dancing in proximity to each other, we really didn’t interact all that much — but what kind of monster would I be to question the affections of a complete stranger?

This wasn’t the only time I’d experienced or observed this random, all-consuming, utterly sincere brand of love during my time in Bayfront Park last weekend. Littered across Ultra, physical evidence of the good vibes permeating the event were on full display: whether it was the countless couples cuddling in the grassy knoll overlooking the Main Stage, the tank-top-wearing bros looking out for one another, or the occasional gross and wet instances of public affection, it was more or less impossible to not feel something resembling happiness over the course of the festival.
For those who have attended Ultra in the past, this may seem like a “no duh” assertion. After all, what else could possibly happen when you put thousands of scantily clad, fucked-up people in a tiny space with nothing but dance music to soundtrack the proceedings? 

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Despite that I am a mostly lifelong South Florida resident, Ultra 2016 was my first Ultra. Growing up a sensitive, you-wouldn’t-understand-even-if-I-told-you kind of high school student, the populism and “lamestream” status of Ultra was something to be resented, not celebrated. We’re all familiar with the various stereotypes of Ultra attendees, ranging from the dudes and dudettes who tell you how much they love electronic music but couldn’t tell you the first thing about New Order or the Pet Shop Boys (a cardinal sin in the eyes of the pretentious young music snob) to the clearly underaged girls sneaking in with their conspicuous, 27-year-old scumbag boyfriends.

Like it or not, stereotypes don’t emerge from a vacuum, and there is something to this interpretation of Ultra’s primary demographic — it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise. But having now attended the festival after years of solidifying and reinforcing my negative opinion of it, I have one thing to say to would-be naysayers and critics: Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Other than the very real threat of drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning, and other dangers inherent to music festivals, the only conceivable way to have a truly bad time at Ultra is to deliberately and willingly act like a cynical bastard. Corny and sales-pitchy though it may sound, there truly is something for everyone; even if you’re not smitten by the likes of headlining EDM acts Deadmau5 or Afrojack, it isn’t as though the overwhelming sexuality of Peaches, Chet Faker’s R&B-tinged croons, and Crystal Castles’ spooky synths are really all that tough a sell.
There's been a lot of talk lately about the downfall of big-room EDM and the Miami nightclubs that have traditionally housed it. A lot of it is true. Dance music is changing (hear that, Miami Herald? Changing — not slowing down), and Ultra is part of that change. 

But Ultra is also seemingly one of the last bastions where Florida concertgoers can dance without fear of reprisal, whether real or imagined. As dance-music venues grow more intimate and trendier, the dance floor too grows smaller and more intimidating. Even at concerts as ostensibly danceable as Wednesday’s New Order show at the Fillmore, one often can’t shake the sense that people are either too self-conscious or too cool to make their innermost emotions physically manifest. Ultra attendees have no such hangups, and it was not unusual to see an entire tent united in uninhibited, carefree movement.

I’ve been very lucky in my life to have attended several large-scale music gatherings, from the hippie-dippy good times of Bonnaroo to Miami’s very own burgeoning III Points. In the face of my strong negative preconceptions about Ultra, as is prone to happen when you spend the weekend with tens of thousands of people just trying to get their shuffle on, I observed more than my fair share of kindness and empathy. I left Bayfront Park with the feeling that, of all the festivals I have attended in my travels — and despite the essential role technology plays in this specific event — Ultra was, somehow, the most human of them all. 

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