This year will be remembered as the year that electronic dance music officially outgrew the U.S. underground, exploding into the mainstream in a tidal wave of neon-clad twentysomethings desperately seeking that new "it." Many found it over the weekend at Electric Zoo 2012, dressed up in synthesizers and sequencers, buried beneath glowsticks and glitter, masked by LED walls, gutpunching bass and non-prescription glasses.
Since its inception in 2009, Electric Zoo has represented the entire scope of the New York City dance scene, appealing to newcomers and veteran dance music fans alike. With over 100 artists performing over the course of three days, this year was no different. Throughout the weekend, over 100,000 electronic dance music fans descended onto Randall's Island, flooding the normally peaceful city park in a sea of color and bass. Fans from all walks of life braved the sweltering heat with one purpose in mind – to lose themselves in a beat.
Friday marked the first day of the festival with a lineup that featured an eclectic array of artists representing a wide variety of genres. First there was the Riverside tent, where A-Trak brought his highly technical fusion of house music and hip-hop-influenced turntablism. He was preceded by moombahton class clown Dillon Francis and French techno's Gesaffelstein, whose eerie, industrial style acted as the perfect complement to the upbeat jump music of the former.
At Hilltop Arena, Above & Beyond and the Anjunabeats family created a tightly-knit community amid a buzzing wave of white noise and euphoric synthwork. There are few fans in dance music as devoted and dedicated as those who identify themselves as members of the trance family – these are the soldiers of PLUR, the embodiment of the rave culture that is so frequently misunderstood. Before closing out their set, A&B delivered a rousing dedication to the late Neil Armstrong greeted by a congruence of heartfelt cheers – an appropriate send-off to one of the last true American pioneers.
At the mainstage, Belgian producer Netsky energized the crowd with high-intensity drum and bass. Progressive stunners Nicky Romero and Hardwell delivered two flawless performances full of bootlegs, mash-ups and remixes, while dance music-auteur David Guetta appealed to the commercial house fans with a highly-energetic and pop-centric set. He debuted a new track amid a seemingly endless barrage of his own self-produced Billboard chart toppers.
But the real star on Friday was Colorado native Derek Smith, better known as the wildly unique and talented producer Pretty Lights, whose brilliant amalgamation of dub, hip-hop, classic rock and electronica created a dance music-meets-jam band aesthetic to close out the night.
The massive influx of new faces on Saturday marked the true beginning of the festival. The beautiful and charismatic NERVO twins were accompanied by fellow Aussie producer Hook N' Sling to close out their set with their recently released collaboration "Reason." Dada Life's "sausage-fattened" bass lines, party-hardy attitude and cavalier production style launched the crowd into a banana-friendly frenzy, while Axwell paid refreshing homage to his pre-Swedish House Mafia days by spinning a collection of tracks, both old and new.
Over at Hilltop, faux-tennis pro Martin Solveig deejayed a playfully eclectic set featuring everything from his classic pop-house track "Hello" to the heavy-hitting dubstep of Knife Party's "Rage Valley." Martin's playstyle is a direct reflection of his attitude – he's a vibrant, fun-loving Frenchman who effortlessly blends his love of music with his love of life. The crowd erupted when Martin sandwiched the No Doubt classic "Don't Speak" between Tommy Trash vs. Digitalism's "Falling" and Afrojack's stadium-friendly "Replica." Rusko followed suit, springing energetically around the hilltop stage as his distinctive melodic dubstep blasted from the stacks.
On Sunday, a bleak, gray sky cast a looming shadow over the island, a sharp contrast from the scorching sunny days on Friday and Saturday. It was weather well-suited for the darkest and most bass-heavy day of the festival.
Italian producer Congorock's elephant bass nearly blew out the speakers at the Riverside tent before Bart B More's acid house and gritty techno chops drove the bass-obsessed crowd into a frenzy. The still-underage but wildly talented Porter Robinson performed midday at the mainstage, skillfully crafting a set of his self-produced and self-mastered originals, which proved that his comfort behind the decks (as well as in the studio) is light years ahead of his peers.
Always a pioneer of burgeoning genres, Philadelphia-born producer Diplo brought the thumping, off-tempo beat of hip-hop-influenced trap music to the Riverside tent amid a wail of sirens and snare hits. His label, Mad Decent, has been at the forefront of the development of two of dance music's most recent rising genres, moombahton and trap, whose codeine-laced production styles borrow heavily from reggaeton and hip-hop.
While Sunday School devotees closed out the festival with Marco Carola, Sonny Moore, better known as the dubstep wunderkind Skrillex, delivered one of the most memorable sets of the entire weekend, comparable to his much-acclaimed set at Ultra Music Festival earlier this year.
In America, the name Skrillex has become synonymous with the so-called "American dubstep movement" – an oftentimes incorrectly perceived bastardization of dubstep's U.K. roots. Skrillex, perched atop his customized mothership, delivered a slew of his Grammy-winning productions in a wall of bass so massive that it shook the stadium and reinvigorated the exhausted masses. Of course all the Skrillex classics were represented here, including the quintessential productions "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" and "Cinema," as well as a unique bootleg featuring the iconic Fresh Prince theme song.
Veteran producer and turntable technician Alex Ridha, a.k.a. Boys Noize returned to Sunday School this year to deliver a dark and soulful electro-opera, opening with the recently released "XTC" before going full-bore into a wildly aggressive set that showcased both his production prowess and his technical skill. Featuring a track from his recent Dogblood collaboration with Skrillex, "Middle Finger," along with his career-defining hit "Yeah," Boys Noize laid waste to the Sunday School tent with inventive scratching, filter cuts and live bootlegs.
The only way to truly understand Electric Zoo and the dance music culture itself is to experience it – to put yourself dead center, amid the furry boots and driving bass lines. EDM is something you need to feel, not only hear, if you ever wish to truly understand it. Although pop's recent assimilation of dance music has undoubtedly been a catalyst for the genre's explosive growth in the past year, the true cause of its mass adoption is much deeper than some radio play and a few poorly constructed Flo Rida remixes. Dance music, with its four-to-the-floor beat, is a universal language. Even the most rhythmically impaired listener will find themselves swept up in it. That's the beauty of the music – it allows you to lose yourself, even if only for a moment.