It's Time to Take Decadence Seriously

Decadence, on December 30, 2019, at the Colorado Convention Center.EXPAND
Decadence, on December 30, 2019, at the Colorado Convention Center.
Kyle Harris

It’s easy to dismiss Decadence, the massive two-day New Year’s Eve EDM festival at the Colorado Convention Center put on by Global Dance and AEG Presents.

One jab: The party kids wearing fake fur coats and faux bondage gear and toting plastic sunflowers and LED owls are all style, no substance. They’re just there to hook up, do drugs and take selfies of themselves in disposable cyborg-chic outfits.

Then there’s the anti-capitalist takedown: Global corporations gobbled up the underground rave scene, just like they did Civil Rights-era folk music, late-’60s revolutionary rock and roll, ’70s anarcho-punk, ’80s conscious hip-hop, and every other form of radical music. After all, there’s nothing that capitalism can’t devour and shit out as profit for the 1 percent.

There's the queer takedown: Decadence is another example of corporate EDM’s co-opting of LGBTQ club aesthetics by promoters luring in straight bros wearing rainbow glow sticks, unicorn headbands and inflatable cockhorses.

Also important is the anti-racist, anti-colonial takedown: Most of the DJs are white men pillaging music from other cultures and making a profit off of it, claiming the sounds as their own.

And finally the instrumental-purist's gripe: Those DJs just set up laptops and hit "play." They’re not even making real music.

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But those criticisms, fair as some might be, are also used to dismiss EDM and not engage with what’s interesting about it. That’s a mistake, because there’s plenty worth exploring.

For example, electronic music upends the centuries-old cultural script of chronological time. Notions of beginning, middle and end give way to nonlinear remixes and productions. Many EDM musicians are freeing themselves from the creative prison of the Song.

As for authenticity, the sounds at Decadence were as visceral as the harshest metal. My leg hairs and nostrils quivered at Monday's show, and at times my prostate trembled, the guttural noises vibrating from the speaker acting like a gargantuan Hitachi Magic Wand. The music was more layered than most orchestral compositions. And the palette of sounds was infinitely more complex than what classical, rock or even electro-pop and hip-hop offer listeners.

In particular, Lorin Ashton, aka Bassnectar, who played the prime slot Monday night, creates tones and timbers across the sonic spectrum, many that would sound ugly if played alone. But he put them to use in masterful mixes that forced the audience to dance to uncanny rhythms and paces, resolving tension in bass drops that evoked a T-Rex stampede.

The first movement of his set repeated the word "music," daring people to accuse him of creating anything less. The rest of his set — more than an hour of musical lifts and falls, brutally remixed sounds from genres across the globe, futuristic noises accompanied by projections of sigils, geometry, abstract images and experimental media — rivaled what symphonies and even museums offer.

Yet Decadence isn't without flaws. Few things are as culturally regressive as the cult of the DJ as superstar, the worst of whom flash their names on screens behind them like they have nothing better to offer but “Look at me." Tiësto and Cash Cash were culprits, but Wethan was relentless.

And a Decadence stage has more in common with a totalitarian political rally than a rave. The DJs and producers stand front and center, above the crowd, dictating when we lift our hands. Surely someone as smart as Ashton — who has found ways to resist that structure at Bassnectar’s Freestyle Sessions — could overcome that at Decadence. Yet there we were, hailing our masters.

But some of the political imagery at Decadence was also its strength. Two images in particular stayed with me into the morning. One, at the end of Bassnectar’s set, as he told us how much he fucking loved us, was a montage of footage and photos of immigrants and the Statue of Liberty. It ended with a haunting shot of land divided by the border wall. The image, cut in half by the wall, showed both sides equally, and they looked the same. Borders, after all, are made-up barriers with brutal real-world implications. Bassnectar's music undermines those divisions. The other series of images that stuck with me included "The World Is Ours" repeated in multiple languages during Jai Wolf’s set.

Much of the music at Decadence suggested that all people should upend our limited perceptions of the world. We can rip apart borders. We can mix cultures, art forms and even political systems. We can create, share space, collaborate and move together.

Together, we can declare: The world is ours.

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