'I Sing the Forest Electric': The Subcultural Divide in EF2014's Music

Brian Spady/ Electric Forest 2014

By Adam Theisen, Summer Senior Arts Editor
Published July 2, 2014

Friday night at Electric Forest, Ms. Lauryn Hill, The String Cheese Incident and Zedd performed consecutively on the same stage. For an idea of how strangely those artists fit together, imagine watching a triple feature at a movie theater of “Do the Right Thing,” “Forrest Gump” and “Spring Breakers.” It was the same on Saturday night, with hippie jam-band String Cheese being sandwiched between the reggae of Stephen Marley and EDM star Steve Angello.

The cultures of most music festivals can easily be described with one or two adjectives — urban Lollapalooza, rural Bonnaroo, glitzy Coachella — but what was most interesting about Electric Forest was that two entirely different subcultures coexisted, without ever really having to cross paths through the entire weekend. There were the hippies who came to smoke and drop acid (or whatever is was that was that people were calling “acid”) and see the jam bands (traditionally the most disrespected, most uncool kind of band), and there were the EDM kids, who mostly seemed college-aged and came to take Molly and party like the farmland of Rothbury, Michigan was one gigantic frat house.

Our first real encounter with anyone at the festival came as we were still in our car, waiting to get in. A woman probably in her 20s came up to the open window. “Have you guys seen Cheese yet?” she asked. “Nah, but we’re excited to.” “Right on, so you haven’t had, like, an ‘Incident’ yet. I’ve seen them six times already. They’re my favorite band in the world, and I’m trying to see them again tonight.” She asked us for money to help her buy a ticket, but when we told her we didn’t have any cash, she stayed extraordinarily positive. “That’s all right, ‘cause I just need positive vibes, and just knowing that you guys are sending me good energy and feelings is gonna help me out.”

If you try to talk to any “serious” music fan about the relevance of The String Cheese Incident, he or she will likely laugh in your face (before this weekend, I would’ve done this, too, if I’m being honest). Jam bands, as a whole and almost without exception, are thought of as goofy and toothless. Critics think of jam bands and they hear echoes of 10-minute wandering guitar solos and picture an older, granola munching fanbase. But while “the establishment” may immediately dismiss them, to many people, The String Cheese Incident is the biggest band in their world. Our North Dakotan neighbors at the camp site, for instance, had traveled all the way to Michigan to see “Cheese and whoever else.”

I was ready to see what all the fuss is about. On Friday, after Ms. Lauryn Hill showed up late (as usual) but still put on a thrilling, energetic performance, Cheese went on stage.

Frankly, I was bored. Maybe I had set my expectations too high, maybe I should’ve listened to them beforehand to know what I was going to hear, but the band just seemed average to me. I decided that the specialness was in the minds of the fans and not in the music, so I left and wandered the festival.

When I got back to the stage where Cheese was still playing, though, I was intrigued. The band was in the middle of a fiddle solo, which usually doesn’t seize my attention, but something about the energy of the crowd excited me. As they kept playing, I waited out the parts where I had previously gotten bored and listened as they slowly but surely built up into towering, awesome crescendos. The String Cheese Incident is just a band that you need patience for, I decided, and resolved to see them again the next day.

The Saturday String Cheese show was amazing as a pure spectacle, as a concert and as a sociological experience. Cognizant of and prepared for the music’s slow build, my expectations were met and then exceeded as the technically proficient group serenaded the crowd with its music — part country, part rock ‘n’ roll. More impressive than the band, though, were the fans. Not only was this the first festival experience I had ever had where everybody could breath freely in his or her own personal space, the Cheeseheads were unself-conscious and non-judgmental. Many were shirtless, many were wearing tie-dye, and everyone was doing his or her thing, dancing in a loose, dorky, swaying sort of way while smiling and just being chill. When the band took a break halfway through, we all sat down in the big field, and I could really tell how much of a community we were. All of us cross-legged, talking and gazing at the lit-up stage with anticipation for the show to resume. It reminded me of my hometown of Livonia, where every year on the last Sunday in June (the same weekend as this year’s Electric Forest, in fact) we finish off our annual fair (“The Spree”) by sitting on blankets in the outfield of a baseball diamond and watching fireworks.

To my delight, not five minutes after the band retook the stage, fireworks started exploding behind them, while an apparently video-game-themed jam resulted in a floating model UFO, stuffed Pac-Man and Pac-Man ghosts being held on fishing rods above the crowd, giant inflatable Mario coin cubes and (I kid you not) a full-costumed reenactment of the original “Donkey Kong” video game on stage while the band played. Ridiculous? Yes. But the kind of sensory-overload what-the-fuck kind of display that no one will ever forget. The perfect end to the incredible show came when Ms. Lauryn Hill joined the band for a round of universally beloved covers that ranged from Stevie Wonder and The Beatles to Bob Marley, closing with “Could You Be Loved?”

However, at least half of the festivalgoers did not attend Cheese’s shows, a fact that I noticed when I stuck around at the same stage to see Zedd on Friday and Steve Angello on Saturday. The crowd seemed entirely different: younger, packed-in tighter, wearing baseball caps and tank tops. This was the college crowd that had come for pulse-pounding EDM, not old-hippie rock.

Unlike, jam bands, EDM is actually considered cool. Many will tell you it’s the cutting-edge of modern music, and it’s mostly unconcerned by extra frills like guitar riffs or piano solos (or even vocals). EDM artists know that all their fans want are catchy hooks to dance to, and that’s exactly what they give them. Whereas the jammers took acid and smoked pot to loosen up, these fans took Molly to totally intensify the experience. They sweated, pogoed, threw glow sticks and flipped out in excitement for every new laser beam that accompanied a drop.

While Steve Angello was a little too purely electronic for my personal taste, Zedd put on the kind of all-out 110-percent show that prospective festival-headliners dream of. Mixing into his set repurposed vocals from pop hits as well as his own smashes, Zedd punctuated every bass drop with a flash of lasers or jets of smoke firing from the stage, to the glee of the crowd. It was a 90-minute onslaught of fun, danceable, energetic electro-pop beats, and it was just what the crowd wanted.

Electric Forest catered to both subcultures by scheduling its artists against each other. At all times, one of the main stages would have a more modern, younger artist, while the other main stage would feature an older act (for example, ScHoolboy Q and Damian Marley played at the same time). Thanks to this setup, the EDM-loving, Molly-taking fratstars and the jam band hippie stoners could ignore each other, with each group enjoying its own music with its own people. However, these two groups had one big thing in common. When you really got down to it, neither was really there for the artists. EDM, with the exception of Skrillex and maybe a few others, has eschewed the typical instantly-recognizable rock-star status that usually comes with musical fame (it’s why Daft Punk insists on wearing those helmets). Would you really recognize Calvin Harris or Steve Aoki if you saw them on the street? No. As talented as they are, in the end, they’re just mediums to deliver the hooks and effects that fans want. On Saturday night, I noticed that The String Cheese Incident was the exact same way. The fans didn’t truly care who was up on that stage. They were just there for the music and for each other, dancing and sweating and tripping and rolling and smiling and instinctively just having fun.