“Miami! Are you ready? This. Is. The. Biggest. Party. On. Planet. Earth!” David Guetta, the floppy-haired Frenchman in his mid-40s, shouts as he takes to the stage in front of thousands of delirious, bouncing teenagers in various states of fluorescent undress. As Guetta drops his pop ballad Titanium, Paris Hilton, whose latest career plan is to launch herself as a DJ, gyrates just behind the decks with her Dutch boyfriend Afrojack, one of Guetta’s closest collaborators.
The dramatic, imposing setting of Ultra Music Festival — on the edge of Biscayne Bay and in the shadow of the towering downtown skyline, where the final scene of Miami Vice was filmed — only makes the event more bizarre. During his set, Guetta picks up the microphone to address “my party people.” “It’s incredible what’s happening in the world right now, with our music, especially in America,” he tells the crowd. “I never thought for one minute that this would happen!”
After he finishes, his entourage, including his wife Cathy, Afrojack and Paris, and long-time manager Caroline Prothero, are whisked through successive VIP sections, until they reach their own tiny enclosure behind a velvet rope. Waiters scoot past bearing magnums of champagne with fireworks attached to the necks, as the crowds in the neighboring not-quite-as-VIP section crane their necks to get a glimpse of the group — more of Guetta than Paris. He is the major star here.
Miami has always had a slightly preposterous side, but this week it feels even weirder due to the electronic musical epiphany mainstream America is going through. The previous night, Madonna, never one to miss an opportunity to show she’s down with the kids, took to the same stage with the 22-year-old Swedish DJ Avicii to remind these new converts that there has always been a dance element to her music. “Electronic music has been a part of my career since I started, and I can honestly say ... a DJ saved my life,” she said.
Ultra takes place at the end of the Winter Music Conference, dance music’s equivalent to the Cannes Film Festival, which for nearly three decades has welcomed the world’s electronic music industry to South Beach for a week of bacchanalian hedonism very loosely disguised as work. It’s always a heady, excitable week, but this year there’s a heightened air of expectation. Although dance music was invented here, in the clubs of Chicago, Detroit and New York, it has only periodically troubled the top of the US charts, and for the most part remained a relatively niche genre. But in the past couple of years, electronic dance music — or EDM, as it’s increasingly now abbreviated — has gone mainstream.
Last year 150,000 people attended Ultra. This year capacity increased to 200,000 and it still sold out three months in advance. Dance music artists have also headlined other US festivals such as Lollapalooza, Coachella, SXSW and Austin City Limits — and Identity Festival took EDM on a tour through 20 smaller US cities. Announcing the launch of their new US edition, DJ Magazine rather excitedly proclaimed: “We still need to keep pinching ourselves because the reawakening of the US dance giant after roughly two decades of deepening and deepening slumber is a joy to behold.”
If you’re part of the original acid-house generation, for whom dance music was a genuinely counter-cultural movement born out of dirty raves in basements and warehouses, it couldn’t be a more alien world. Dance music went mainstream in the UK in the 1990s with the rise of superclubs and festivals, but the likes of Ministry of Sound and Creamfields in Britain have nothing on its current commercialization in the US. All week in Miami, planes fly overhead trailing 12m banners advertising new gigs in Las Vegas for Guetta, Afrojack, Swedish House Mafia, et al. Vegas has no interest in alternative music — only in who sells the most tickets, and the casinos that used to court Elton John and Dolly Parton are now scrambling to offer residencies to DJs.