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Electric Forest is Decadent, but not Depraved

Bennett Sell-Kline/ Marc van der Aa © Electric Forest Festival 2014

By Giancarlo Buonomo, Summer Managing Arts Editor
Published July 2, 2014

“Unlike most of the others, we didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.”
- Hunter S. Thompson, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”

Please forgive this predictable Hunter S. Thompson reference for a “Look Ma, I covered a music festival!” article. I only include it to admit at the start that I was wrong. I figured I would go to Electric Forest as a reporter. While my co-editor Adam covered the music, I would observe the festivalgoers, “the real beasts,” and report on their depraved excesses. There would be me, with my media bracelet and plaid shirt, furiously jotting down notes, and then there would be everyone else — the legions of electro-junkies in funny hats who eat tabs of acid like Listerine Strips. I imagined calling this article “Electric Forest is Decadent and Depraved.”

Most of my preconceptions were based on rumors about Electric Forest; that it was much more than a music festival, that it had the best people-watching ever, that it was trippier than an MGMT video. These rumors were believable, considering that Electric Forest takes place in rural Rothbury, Michigan, specializes in the relatively niche genres of jam bands and electronic music and that the “forest” is an actual forest, so decked out with lights, lasers and shrines that it recalls something from Alice in Wonderland.

In truth, none of the rumors turned out to be false. But now that I’ve returned from Rothbury, and gone over the pages of notes and hours of recordings I accumulated during my time at the festival, I cannot write this report with my original focus. Not because I feel the need to write about the music, even though it was amazing. Rather, because I discovered that Electric Forest is less about the people who choose to come than it is about what this peculiar event allows those people, including me, to become.

Electric Forest is not so much a music festival as it is a four day act of collective weirdness, heavily facilitated by the festival organizers and sustained by a pervasive spirit of community and non-judgement. I began to get an idea of this right when we arrived at the camp grounds. The actual festival area, the stages and vendors, is located on the Double JJ Resort, a sort of Wild-West re-enactment spot heavily repurposed for one weekend every year. The attendees camp out in a complex of fields adjacent to the resort. These fields form a small city during the weekend, complete with named streets and neighborhoods. From my berth at the corner of “Airstrip” and “Maple”, I gazed out upon the expanse. Thousands of parked cars in neat rows, most with colorful tents next to them, filled the once-empty space like a psychedelic Hooverville. These people were clearly pros — many tents were adorned with banners and flagpoles featuring the logos of the classics: The Grateful Dead, Bob Marley, Sublime, all fragrant with years of accumulated incense and ganja.

But it was inside the actual festival, a good ten minute walk from our campsite, that I finally encountered the masses of people. I’d never seen such a dazzling array of outfits. Some attendees were dressed in standard music-festival attire: girls in Daisy Dukes and flower headbands, guys in tank tops and flat-brims. But they were the minority. Some men wore top hats and tight suits like the Mad Hatter, and some girls wore only bikini bottoms with fanny-pack codpieces and painted marijuana leaves covering the tips of their otherwise bare breasts. Others wore Teletubbie or bear outfits, or giant Pikachu heads. One man I passed on Saturday wore only a Speedo and a small silver crown fixed to his head at a rakish angle, while sucking on a large lollipop. Another was so adorned with ribbons, beads and feathers that he resembled an Aztec god.

But the decadence doesn’t stop there. Many festivalgoers carry totems, which are long poles with anything on top. And I mean anything. Blow-up sex dolls. Bill Murray’s face. Simpsons characters. I saw one depicting a cartoon King of Kings, with a Mr. Skin-esque grin, and the words “PRAISE CHEEZUS” in big block letters, likely in honor of the String Cheese Incident’s combined 12 hours of stagetime.

And of course, drugs. They’re an essential part of the festival, so ubiquitous and accepted that one pizza vendor put up a sign that read “DON’T FORM LINES. LINES ARE FOR YOUR NOSE, NOT SPICY PIE.” I’m watching Ms. Lauryn Hill and a guy to my left lights up a joint the size of a Sharpie. I’m raving along at Zedd, and a guy to my right vacuums a good quarter-teaspoon of coke into his left nostril.

This overwhelming amount of, well, everything made me wonder “Is this where all the weirdos gather? Or is this where people gather to be weird?” I’ve concluded that it’s the latter. Of course, I don’t think that Electric Forest is where Mormon missionaries and Goldman Sachs executives congregate to let loose, but I did get the impression that Electric Forest provides a safe environment for ordinary people to abandon mainstream mores for a weekend. A guy in a hammock put it best in a remark to another guy in the hammock strung below his: “I’m going hard tomorrow, because I have to go back to reality after that.”

Electric Forest is not only a retreat from “normalcy,” but also an oasis of kindness and togetherness. Festivalgoers go out of their way to accommodate each other. One girl entered a Port-A-Potty after a long wait in line, only to burst out and run after the previous occupant who had dropped a $5 bill. During a packed performance by Steve Angello, another girl got tired and decided to sit down right in the middle of the crowd. Everyone, even those wildly dancing while rolling, made sure to give her space.

At an event like this, people make themselves vulnerable by dressing in shocking and revealing ways, taking mind-bending substances, and then walking around an environment that is confusing even if sober. To have a good time requires a level of trust on everyone’s part, that their fellow attendees will not take advantage of them, and will even help them out if need be.

I experienced this trust firsthand. On Saturday, I was sitting in the crowd at the Sherwood stage, vibing to Schoolboy Q and taking notes. I struck up a conversation with a couple sitting near me, Nick and Kat from Louisville. We chatted about Electric Forest and why people would come here.

“We’re all here for the same thing: music and good people,” Nick said.

As a red-shirted security guard walked around inquiring whether the numerous people smoking joints had medical permits, I remarked to Nick that I didn’t usually strike up conversations at concerts.

“But at a place like this you should never feel like you can’t talk to anybody,” he replied. “ You can go up to anybody and be like ‘Hey, what’s up?’ ”

At that moment, I saw a friend about 15 feet away, one who I hadn’t talked to in awhile. I immediately leapt up and moved towards her, forgetting that my phone, backpack and notebook were still on the ground next to Nick and Kat. I looked back anxiously, and they motioned towards my things and gave me a thumbs up, indicating that they would watch over them. Leaving your stuff with strangers probably isn’t something to make a habit of. But as Doctor Thompson said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” The going at Electric Forest is definitely weird — I viewed them watching my stuff as a matter of professional courtesy.

Buonomo can be reached at gbuonomo@michigandaily.com or on Twitter @GCBuonomo