[Editor's Note: This past weekend, our colleagues at our sister publications Miami New Times and New Times Broward covered all the action at Ultra, one of the country's biggest EDM festivals. This report is from New Times Broward music editor and EDM festival virgin Ryan Pfeffer.]
Downtown Miami’s 32-acre Bayfront Park is swarming with some 60,000 glistening, glittered bodies. The lights on Ultra Music Festival's Main Stage make the Vegas strip look like the ass of a dying lightning bug. The minimally dressed millennials are dancing like they're mad at the ground, and Snapchating every second of it.
And then there’s you: The poor Ultra virgin, glued to the wall, nervously hiding a semi-erection that you can’t really explain. The bass is making your face itch, and you don't understand why no one seems to find this orgy of sound and vision quite as bizarre as you do. They all seem to be so comfortable. But you? You’re about as comfortable as a sleeping bag made of sandpaper.
But fear not, Ultra virgin. You are not alone. I, too, am an Ultra virgin. Or, at least, was an Ultra virgin.
Before this weekend, I had never been to an EDM festival — or any music festival for that matter. Born and raised in South Florida, I’ve been familiar with Ultra for the last five years or so. Still, Ultra has always felt like a secret I was never in on.
Dance music has its fair share of stereotypes. When we uninitiated close our eyes and picture Ultra, we all see the same things: neon spandex, glowsticks, lollipops, and flesh. So if I was going to pop my Ultra cherry, I was going to try and fit in the only way I knew how.
This is me trying to fit in. I know, I look like Jamiroquai’s sad cousin. Or a psychedelic Bill Cosby. Call me Jamirocry. Or Pill Cosby.
Selected from a thrift store only a few hours before Ultra, my best attempt at raver fashion was so hideous that Joan Rivers might claw her way out of the ground just to call it ugly. I was nervous walking up to the gates of Ultra. Surely, I’d be sniffed out as an impostor. Would they throw me in Ultra jail? I wouldn’t last very long wearing these slutty barbershop-quartet bottoms.
Luckily, I made it inside the fest. And I wasn't detained for looking like the one Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle that they never let out of the sewer. In fact, people were telling me how much they liked my sweater. And I’m pretty sure they were serious. I got more compliments on that Neiman Marcus disaster than Diplo gives himself in the mirror each morning.
There are seven stages at Ultra Music Festival, and my silly hat and I were going to hit all of them until I felt like a real raver. My EDM deflowering was off to a good start, but this newfound confidence would quickly fade.
Smack dab at the center of Bayfront Park, Stage 7 is named after its sponsor, 7 Up. Either that or the Ultra stage-naming team was like, Fuck this, we’ve already done six of these things and there’s cake in the conference room.
Walking up the steps to a triangular dance floor, I felt nervous. I should have been having fun, but I wasn't. It was all too new in the scariest way, like when your friend drags you to a party full of people you don’t know. You want to speak up, but what if they don’t laugh at your jokes? Maybe it’s just easier to sit back and watch, I told myself.
With my sweater-driven confidence boost dwindling, I moved on to the next stage.
UMF Radio Stage
The UMF Radio stage sits on the outskirts of the festival, nestled atop a cozy hill. But if I was hoping to get my groove back, I wasn’t finding it here.
The bass was beating me down. Too scared to dance, and not sure what to do with my hands, I remained a spectator. It still wasn’t clicking for me. These happy smiling people seemed to know something I didn’t.
Did I look the part? Maybe. But I sure as heck wasn’t acting it. Stepping my way over sunburned party people, I fled deeper into the festival.
I was sure I’d find comfort in the Live Stage. It is the closest thing to a traditional concert setting at Ultra. There are stadium-style seats and bands with instruments. The scent of pizza and hot dogs wafts in from the surrounding food vendors. It all reminded me of the first show I ever attended, the Dave Matthews Band.
But this was about as close to Dave Matthews as Juicy J is to the Wiggles. There was still a wall between Ultra and me. It was tall and had abs and bounced with joy every time the bass dropped. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t climb it.
The Ultra Worldwide stage is the butt of Ultra, an inverted U that's perky and loud. It's probably the most intense place at this festival. DJs shout instructions at the dwellers of the dome, like “Jump!” and “Somebody scream!” I was waiting for one to yell “Sit in a quiet circle and discuss the most recent season of House of Cards!”
If this stage was Ultra’s butt, I was currently Ultra’s anus — a wrinkly little hole incapable of producing anything but negativity. My Ultra, sadly, was doomed to fail.
But then something amazing happened on my way to the Resistance stage. I made a friend. She was kind and she smelt like an angel’s shampoo. She showed me the way of PLUR. She was my glittery little PLUR Yoda — the Hoda Kotb to my Kathie Lee Gifford. She was Ploda Kotb.
The PLUR handshake was something I had heard about, but shrugged off. Silly, I thought. What’s the big deal? People just trade bracelets with each other? So what? I used to do that with Pokémon cards. I never had no stinkin’ epiphanies after I landed a Bulbasaur.
And it is silly — until it happens to you. Then it’s magical. Like when you watch the Oscars and moan about how dumb it is while simultaneously writing your acceptance speech and imagining the day when Meryl Streep hands you a golden statue.
The PLUR handshake starts with a peace sign, then merges into a heart, then goes into a sort of hand hug, and finally ends with full-on intertwined finger intercourse. In the end, one PLUR warrior transfers a kandi bracelet to the other's hand. And then, once the transaction is complete, Rick Santorum gets diarrhea. I hope.
Suddenly, everything was different. The air seemed fresher. The music took a detour around my ears and tapped a mainline directly to my soul. I wanted to start a Kickstarter campaign for the color orange! Each new raver I saw was an ally, not an adversary. How could I have ever feared these people? Over at the Resistance stage, I was dancing like no one was watching.
Carl Cox & Friends Arena
When I arrived at the Carl Cox & Friends Arena, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I didn’t even mind when the ceiling started to drop without warning. The me of two hours ago would have fled for his drab little life, but the new me welcomed a rave-tastic death. If I was be crushed into a colorfully sweatered pulp, let it be among Carl Cox and friends.
We’re in this together, Ultra.
By the time I got to the Main Stage, my veins were running rich with positive vibes and my small intestine was dense with PLUR. Or maybe it was the turkey-bacon panini I ate a few minutes earlier. Either way, I was no longer an Ultra virgin. I had made it.
At the end of the day, it was clear that you don't need a silly outfit to fit in at Ultra. You don't need anything to fit in at Ultra. Everyone fits in, and that's the beauty of Ultra. It's damn near impossible to stick out. Go ahead, try. Find the ugliest sweater you can get your paws on. Or raid your dad's closet. But no matter how far you go in any direction, you'll always end up somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. And no one will care.
When I approached a fellow Ultra virgin on the lawn of the Live Stage to ask if he thought I looked like a raver, he nodded. “Yes,” he said. “But, I mean, I could ask: What exactly does a raver look like?” Just 24 hours ago, I thought I knew the answer to that question. Now I'm not so sure.
The only thing the people of Ultra truly care about is having a good time. If you still don't get it, I don't know what to tell you. Save up, buy a ticket, and see for yourself. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go listen to NPR until my ears stop ringing.