The sun was beginning to set when I arrived to the seventh iteration of the Spring Awakening Music Festival in Addams-Medill Park in the Little Italy neighborhood of Chicago, and I’m already running late for an interview with the German/American DJ Markus Schulz. I was late for a few reasons, but the main one was that the media tent was curiously, though hilariously in a tongue-and-cheek kind of way, located behind the porta-potties. This made it quite difficult to find, especially given that the cell service was overloaded with bros in Sixers jerseys, covered in temporary tattoos and ladies in a mix of athleisure, mesh, and body glitter sending Snapchats, meaning the PDF map of the festival from my email wouldn’t load.
Eventually, I did arrive at the guest/media area and sent a text to Markus’s agent, letting her know I had arrived and apologizing profusely for being late. She replied it was no big deal and that Markus would be wrapping up with another interview–his fifth of the evening–in the next few minutes.
The first thing I learned about Markus Schulz is that he has stunning, earnest blue eyes. Real deal baby blues. The kind of eyes that immediately put you at ease and say “I’m an attentive listener”. That may seem irrelevant but given the vapidity I had expected upon arrival to SAMF, this genuine demeanor appeared salient and frankly caught me off guard. Contrary to the molly-hyped, party obsessed animal I had expected to find, Schultz was even keeled and candid in his answers. He told me that he spends about 200 days a year on the road and that the summer festival circuit is especially taxing. Just as an example, he had arrived in Chicago at 5 a.m from Hawaii, where he had also been performing, and would flying out to Houston the following morning, and on and on, jumping back and forth across the Atlantic doing festivals just like SAMF along with a club sets in between. This has been Markus Schulz’s life for over 10 years. He’s 43 now. When I asked him how he held up with all this travel and performance, he remarked that “it’s not as hard as it looks from the outside.” Yet, after this initial response he reflected “that being said, it is a difficult lifestyle. And as we know now, not everyone is able to handle it. You know, one of the things that kind of came through with Avicii was how heavy it is on some people and how some people aren’t able to…kind of…what’s the right way to put this? Make sense of everything.”
Avicii was a Swedish EDM artist who last April was found dead in Oman having cut himself with a broken wine bottle in an apparent suicide. He was 28 years old and had been a rising star, releasing chart toping hits before his death. When the news broke, numerous DJs and producers from The Chainsmokers to Flying Lotus reacted to his passing on social media, expressing their sadness, admiration, and condolences.
Avicii’s passing was not only on the mind of Schultz at SAMF. During Steve Aoki’s set, for instance, a gigantic portrait of the late DJ was projected on one of the monitors. He dedicated a song to Avicii and called upon crowd to celebrate him. This was a truly surreal moment. Standing among the swarm of gyrating, cheering millennials armed with vape pens and Corona tallboys, it seemed an odd toast to a young man who had been swallowed, chewed up, and spit out by very industry and culture in which we were all partaking. This was not out of step with the expression of grief of other DJs. Few, if any, reacted to his death by questioning the culture or industry that may have caused it, with perhaps the exception of Skrillex who remarked on Instagram “This industry can be hard sometimes.” Hard indeed, if by hard, we mean fatal. Granted, it’s impossible to say to what degree the music industry or DJ life lead to Avicii’s death; however, given Schulz’s description of the grind and the scene of SAMF, it is not difficult to imagine how one might become disconnected and purposeless.
Such an existential dread is clearly not an issue for Schulz, who remarked on multiple occasions during our interview that DJing was “What he was put on this earth to do.” To Schluz we’re all part of a “bigger picture,” and through DJing he is playing his role. This spiritual optimism seems to stem from his belief in the “organic connection” he has with the crowd when he performs and that he is affecting them in some profound way. This point was perplexing, given that it is unfathomable how anyone could experience anything like true human or artistic connection in the cacophonous mob of SAMF. For the life of me I could not parse out one performers set from another. Each DJ’s set ran together in a slush of aggressive drum and bass or dubstep, the main differentiating factor being the video art, though this too was mostly a mix of random clips from various 2000s animes or music videos for songs that the DJ had produced.
I want to be clear that I do not blame this on the DJs themselves, nor wish to take anything away from their craft. What DeadMau5, Zedd, Kaskade, and Schulz and so on create in the studio is true artistry; however, I challenge anyone to dispute that in a festival setting all of these artists become homogenized. How could they not? You’ve got 2 huge stages and 3 smaller tents all competing for listenership in a tiny area. Everyone is drinking, there are carnival rides going, there is sound bleed, and everyone is screaming and talking. There is nothing one can do but to play loud and stamp out all subtlety so that some form of your sound can be heard above the chaos.
Despite my cynicism, I did glimpse a small moment of what Schulz may have been referring to as a “connection”, though it occurred in a rather unexpected place: The Silent Disco. I was initially skeptical, typically thinking of silent discos as being a kind of hokey version of a flash mob, but to my complete surprise this ended up being the best part of the festival. As I headed into the pavilion where the disco was being held, I was handed a set of white, wireless headphones. I slipped them onto my head and was immediately plugged directly into the booth of the DJ performing in this small area. I found myself entranced and the landscape of the festival entirely changed. The once cheesy pyrotechnics and videos from the other stages suddenly took on new life and the sunset sky shimmered. It was as if the DJ was pumping her music directly into my brain and it felt intimate and primal and like I could get lost in it. Perhaps it is ironic that the most connected I felt at the SAMF was when most of the festival was blocked out, but in a way this makes perfect sense. The Silent Disco made it possible to hear an artist, to observe the subtleties of the changes in beat, synth, and reference material. You have to hear the music in order to feel connected. It reminded me that this music is not empty and that it was absolutely possible that Markus Schulz could indeed experience that mysterious link between artist and audience.
But hearing the music isn’t what SAMF is about. In my conversations with festival goers, there was little interest expressed about any particular artist. Take Andrew, for instance, who had come from Wisconsin to attend his first SAMF. For Andrew, it’s about the “great atmosphere and people.” When he first started listening to EDM, he couldn’t get into it, not until he went to a few shows and fests. Once these were under his belt, he started liking the music because “it reminded him of feeling of being at the show.” The music becomes a trigger for a particular feeling. He compared it to 1960s and 70s hippy culture when people were “stoners, listening to music, and protesting the Vietnam war,” though he admitted that the protesting spirit wasn’t really present at SAMF. To him, that era was about “peace, love, and unity,” whose modern equivalent in the age of SAMF is simply called “vibes.” Vibes, as far as I can tell, is not unlike the Tao: it’s metaphysically ambiguous, yet all pervasive, and is a convenient catch-all for what is experienced as positive energy. But if you really get reductive about it, “vibes” is simply a product of capitalism. It’s the selling of an atmosphere. React Presents and its parent company LiveStyle are a corporation who specialize in the facilitation of these so called “music experiences” all across the world. Whether you’re in Melbourne, Berlin, Tokyo, or on a cruise ship, you can find nearly identical “vibes” at festivals just like SAMF. Unlike hippy culture, however, there is certainly not a trace of protest or counter-culture. This is best epitomized in a moment when Steve Aoki–in a truly bizarre version of call and response–called on us to “say mayhem when he said mayhem.” There was never a doubt in my mind that there would be zero mayhem at Spring Awakening. The atmosphere had been too perfectly curated by business executives and accountants to be anything than perfectly tame.
Yet, Andrew isn’t wrong about SAMF possessing an indomitable positivity. While SAMF as a whole is a capitalist fever dream, the attendees were really quite pleasant. No one was rude or hostile, the crowd expressed a surprising amount of courtesy toward one another, and a kind of radical acceptance infused the whole scene. Body and sex positivity, for example, was a major theme at the festival across genders. The major appeal of SAMF and other festivals like it is this sense that you can “be yourself,” or perhaps a dialed-up version of yourself, without shame and without feeling unsafe. And so while I cannot buy what Schulz tells me about his life calling and his organic connection with us all, what I can believe in is that the people at the festival did seem to genuinely enjoy themselves and one another. And that’s not nothing. I suppose I just can’t stop thinking about Avicii, hopeless and alone as he died in some hotel room, and wondering, ‘at what cost?’
Reporting by Andrew Meriwether
All photos by React Presents Spring Awakening Music Festival