Things started off well. Watching the people in Columbus head towards The Mansion was like watching water trickle downhill: they came in streams, two and three and four at a time, merging at intersections into larger groups, pulled as surely as if by gravity. Once inside, I made friends—talking to one couple about pro cameras, then helping another girl decorate herself with dollar store glowstick bracelets. On the actual dance floor, a group of kids cracked a glowstick open and began gleefully fingerpainting themselves and each other. I was close enough that my clothes were covered in luminescent spatter as well; it was all in good fun so it was all right.
The first set of DJs, Attak, started a little after nine and held on for closer to three hours. In short order the room filled, and the sound system’s ringing smoothed out to invigorating. I remember laughing with the people beside me about how the hairs on our arms were lifting—either from bass or airflow, we couldn’t tell.
The downturn marker was the dancing clubtramps. While trying to get a decent shot of the openers, I suddenly found myself staring up the ass crack of some spastic chick in furry legwarmers and glitterdot underwear. Needless to say, I was not impressed. I understand the demographic for this show skewed heavily towards male. I understand that finding dancers who know how to do more than a half-assed undulation or wide-legged shimmy would be a little harder than finding ones who are willing to strip down and wriggle repetitively on stage for a club full of strangers. I also understand that half-naked girls are a gimmick frequently used to keep a show/advertisement/business afloat when it doesn’t have the balls, spine, or heart to stand on its own. This doesn’t mean I had to appreciate them—especially when every bit of actual dance instruction I’ve had makes me want to scream at them, “For fuck’s sake, you idiot, do you want to nuke your back?”
A friend who was further back in the crowd laughed when I told him as much. “Yeah,” he said, “you should’ve seen how many girls in the audience got all serious-faced when the strippers came out.” I hadn’t noticed—I was busy trying to take pictures as some tiny drunken female, all elbows and eyeliner, groped at the dancer while shrilling, “Isn’t she CUTE? Isn’t she CUTE?”
The crowd’s feel was of waiting for something to happen—and while Attak put up an admirable front, the connection was simply not there. This was when things started to get nasty. Ravers overwhelmingly are a happy, friendly group—so when they started shoving and throwing glowsticks at people, I quickly got the impression that things weren’t quite right. As an example: At Skrillex’s show in Pittsburgh, a girl near where I was standing went to the bar and came back with multiple cups of water for everyone in our immediate area. At this show, the people wouldn’t even let you move to get out. The well-meaning ones were still there—looking around as if wondering what the fuck they’d gotten themselves into, asking each other when Skrillex would come on—but amidst the hard edges and hostility of the main floor, if you didn’t shove back you’d get trampled.
After a slew of rumors that Tommy Lee hadn’t even shown up yet, he and DJ Aero came on at around 11:45. Their set wasn’t bad . . . but once again, the connection was not there. People bobbed, scowled, continued to shove, and—if the increasing pressure from all sides was any indication—got more impatient. It certainly didn’t help that Lee & DJ Aero played a few of the same tracks as Attak. Mid-set, I found myself making comparisons to Ohayocon’s “rave”: The guys there, who have day jobs and who go up for the fun of it rather than for a big commercialized tour, could play off of & move a crowd better than this. When one of the major highlights of a set is people making shadow puppets with the stagelights, something’s just not right.
I feel the need to mention this: It wasn’t that the early sets were bad. They were just something I’d never seek out on my own—fairly generic house variants that paled even more in relation to Skrillex’s much harder & heavier dubstep. And without someone on stage trying to direct the crowd’s energy—someone who drops more than a bland set of same-old-same-old, someone who shows passion for what they’re doing, someone who gets up and acts out rather than occasionally waving and/or wolf-whistling—all the little things blended into a perfect storm of potential clusterfuck, and the crowd responded by becoming increasingly ugly. They threw handfuls of glowsticks at the DJs and the dancing girls; their shoving and churning became more sharp-edged and bellicose. The bouncers were on edge, as if waiting for something absolutely dire to happen, and broken glass crunched underfoot across most of the dance floor. I finally gave up my spot towards the front, squeezed my way through the crowd like the world’s crankiest watermelon seed, and wrangled my way into the VIP area, where I caught my breath, wiped thrown water and glowstick luminescence off my camera, and reflected that this might just be the absolute worst show I’ve ever attended.
Then the miracle happened: Skrillex got on stage.
I don’t know if he’d somehow improved since his Pittsburgh show, or if he caught on to the crowd’s mood and realized he needed to turn it up a few more notches. I do know that it took me until halfway through his first track—a remix of My Name is Skrillex that he said he’d finished only a few days before—to realize the dancing underwear girls were gone, then to realize the people around me had stopped shoving in favor of bouncing.
In just a few minutes, he’d completely turned the crowd’s mood on its head. The man has stage presence in spades, there’s absolutely no arguing that—and here he worked it for every ounce of its worth. He danced and jumped incessantly, he smiled near-constantly, he engaged the audience continually, he sang along and shouted at the crowd until they sang as well. He made it unquestionably clear that he was having fun, and he was out to drag everyone there along with him. Even when he nuked one of the front speakers, there was barely a hitch: some waving, some pointing, a guy to my right screaming, “Not even funny!” . . . and then up again, at the same frenetic pace.
The first time I saw Skrillex perform, I stood and stared and repeated, “Oh my God,” over and over. I’ve had a couple months to become familiar with his work since then; I didn’t expect to relive that experience. But sometime in that hour and a half he dropped a perfectly demented bassline and wrung the words out of me as surely as if I’d never left that spot in front of the stage in Pittsburgh. “Oh my God,” I said—then laughed at myself, and repeated it for good measure.
And this time I was able to tell just how much he works the songs over on the spot—blending the original tracks into a delirious mix of bass, glitch, and fucking gorgeous. He threw a number of new ones at us, including a particularly giggle-inducing creation that sampled Vanilla Ice’s Ninja Rap from TMNT 2. And if that wasn’t old-school enough, he kept the crowd bouncing with Montell Jordan’s This is How We Do It (’95) and Kris Kross’s Jump (’92)—which seriously, I didn’t even know I remembered Kris Kross until I heard it. Towards the end he spliced the three main mixes of Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites together as smoothly as if he’d planned it even before the CD’s release, and his stage dive (and subsequent crowdsurfing) took him almost to the back of the room, upright, passed along by the cooperating hands of people who two hours before had been ready to go for each other’s throats.
Afterward, my friend caught up with me, his eyes huge, his expression that of a person who’s just survived a near-death experience or had a religious epiphany. “OhmyGod,” he said, the words colliding into near-indecipherability. “Thatwassogood. Sooooogood.”
I grinned back and nodded, because I understood. “He’s in Baltimore in June.”
He winced a little—that’s about an eight hour drive for him. “I don’t know if I can make that.” But by the next day he was considering it. I’d expected as much—and with any luck, I’ll be there too.