Distancing #36: Live at Ultra Music Festival Miami 2017


Distancing? I’m dissociating. I can’t bear nostalgia, so I’ve been listening to music I think of, fondly, as disposable—mostly at night, alone, trying to wring something out of downbeat days. Disposable as in useful: adrenal, flossy, forgettable. 

A highlight of this exercise has been a YouTube video of a performance by Zedd, a thirty-year-old electronic musician and DJ, at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami in 2017. I learned about Zedd a few weeks into shelter-in-place, while anesthetizing myself with the “Home Tours” section of the Architectural Digest website—MTV Cribs for the unabashedly middle-aged. Like a hungover broker, he gave a halfhearted tour of his mansion in Sherman Oaks, a $16 million glass canister with minimalist furniture and a Skittles dispenser, and claimed to have purchased the house because of the copper pot filler in the kitchen. (“If somebody thought about this, they probably thought about other things, too.”) I had never seen a pot filler before either, which was the video’s first revelation for me. The second was that I truly knew nothing about the culture of EDM. 

The Miami set opens with something like an extended cell phone ringtone, as the audience is treated to the first flickers of what will become an ecstatic, extravagant showcase of state-of-the-art stage-lighting technologies. Within minutes, people are pogoing and licking the air. Even the lights on the adjacent Intercontinental hotel are in sync. A building nearby flashes A-R-C-A-D-I-A, like an unfinished acrostic. Someone waves a full-size Israeli flag. Someone else tosses up a pool float shaped like an alligator, and people push it along overhead like a crowd-surfer. “Miami, are you guys having a fucking good time or what?” Zedd asks. The crowd is ninety percent pupils. Everyone looks annihilated by pleasure. It’s easy to experience this viscerally, even from a desk chair three thousand miles away and three years in the future: it feels like a bodily split, an exit, transcendence. It’s the opposite of how I’ve been feeling in my own skin lately. 

One night, just for fun, I watch part of the concert at quarter-speed, and it’s nothing short of apocalyptic. 

Zedd isn’t much of a performer. Onstage, it’s just him and his laptop, like he’s doing homework at a Starbucks. I think this is nice: here in San Francisco, it’s just me and my laptop, too. He’s attentive and gentle on the console dials, like he’s touching a nipple for the first time. Occasionally he erupts into frantic calisthenics. When a remix of Starkillers’ “Bitch Ass Trick” segues into a remix of “Billie Jean,” he looks smug and a little shy, caught in the act of having durable taste. The way he dances to Michael Jackson reminds me of a cat standing on its hind legs, but when the song flips to a Calvin Harris remix he loses it again, hopping around behind a hedge of flares the height of a duplex. When Alessia Cara joins him onstage for a duet, he looks thrilled to have some company. While she sings, he stands at the edge of the stage, pointing in different directions with the relieved air of someone who’s just bumped into a friend on a layover and asked her to watch his bags while he pees.

I thought I was chasing serotonin, or amnesia; what I needed was dumb joy. I’ve broken my own rule of disposability and have listened to “Zedd – Live at Ultra Music Festival Miami 2017” from start to finish possibly a dozen times. At first, the only thing I associated with watching the video was watching the video. This felt like a triumph, a loophole: it had nothing to do with my life. But then I realized that the set, which cycles from song to song at TikTok velocity, actually did remind me of something: a brief period of my adolescence when I was friends with an upperclassman who made meticulous, perfectly timed “power hour” mix CDs—sixty songs in sixty-second fragments, Smashing Pumpkins followed by the Beatles followed by Biggie, LCD Soundsystem, “Tubthumping”—which we listened to while taking shots of malt liquor, one per song, in the basement of an apartment building in downtown Manhattan. The association made me spiral. I had a crush on this friend, and would listen to the power-hour mixes some mornings on the subway to school, to feel closer to him. This wasn’t the issue, though—I was homesick for New York. Maybe the Zedd thing was just that I wanted to be young again. Maybe it was a signifier for all the things I’ve never done and probably never will do. But I don’t want to be young; I want everyone else to be. One of the cruelties of this moment, in which time feels pooled and suspended, is that time hasn’t pooled at all. There’s no suspension, no credit, no foreseeable relief, and I’m terrified of losing people not only to the virus, or to its externalities, but to time. 

Toward the end of the set in Miami, at the height of a remix of Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” Zedd nods his head, scratches his nose, and glances quickly at his laptop. Then he gestures toward the crowd, a sort of come-hither move, and raises his arm in a salute, preparing for the drop. People are behaving as if they don’t know where this is going, but maybe the predictability, the certainty, is the point. The night has a narrative, the bounds are predetermined. There’s something safe about this, a certain freedom when you know what’s coming. The beat drops and there are literal fireworks. People scream with achievement. I’m projecting on everyone, but the crowd looks genuinely moved. Zedd jumps with his arms up, like it’s the first three minutes of a HIIT class, like he’s Christ, like all of this is new for him. He looks like the loneliest, happiest man in the world. 

— Anna Wiener
San Francisco, day 71

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