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If You Hate Calvin Harris, You're Missing the Point

Reports of EDM's death have been greatly exaggerated.

All photos by Timothy Norris

Pro tip: Never sit down for a Calvin Harris set. I learn this the hard way while camped with a friend at the edge of the beer garden bordering Coachella’s main stage, a half hour before the DJ-producer would make his headlining debut to close out the festival’s final night.

Through the fence, we watch fans sprint to join the devotees who remain pressed against the guard rail to stake out spots; within an hour, several will be plucked out and carried away by security, unable to withstand the forthcoming crush of bodies.

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“Don’t you want to stop to get food?” a stumbling blonde asks her friend, who tows her through the crowd hand-in-hand like a mother dragging her kid through the mall.

“NO I CAN’T MISS THIS; WE’RE GOING NOW,” she snaps.

The spotlights overhead are gradually obscured by the bodies closing in around us, the pitchy din of their conversations forcing us to raise our voices to hear each other. The feeling is less of anticipation than high-strung anxiety. A few attempts to strike up conversation with our neighbors falls flat, met with cold, perplexed expressions, as if they couldn’t fathom why I was talking to them, or, more pressingly, why I was not similarly crewed up.

Someone overhead spills—nay, pours—beer on me, and continues talking to his friend. The smell, mixed with crushed grass and b.o., stings my nostrils, and I have to check for a moment to make sure it’s not vomit. It’s not, although in a few minutes I’ll step in a fresh puddle.

The stage dims, signaling the start of the set, and Florence Welch’s vocals for “Sweet Nothing” pipe in a capella from the walls of speakers. For a moment, the crowd tenses in hopes that she might actually be on stage to kick off the set; she’s not.

But Calvin Harris is, kind of. The bass comes in, fireworks go off, and a wall of light ripples outward from the center of the stage across the 360 degree LED panels that are more spectacular, technologically speaking, than anything the main stage has ever offered up, and likely custom built for his set.

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The man of the hour descends in a light-paneled prism, the top of his head peaking out like an Ibiza-toasted Kilroy as the set glows alternatingly red and white-hot around him. This feels important, like something big is about to happen. Alas, things get pretty straightforward from here: Harris takes us through a set of radio bangers like “Sweet Nothing” and “How Deep is Your Love,” dipping in between into pop-coated hardstyle and drum 'n' bass wobbles.

"This sounds like if you took everything in your house and threw it down the stairs," my friend notes. He's not wrong.

For the next two hours, it will be more or less the same ham sandwich set Harris plays in Las Vegas ad infinitum. The bass drops arrive with Pavlovian bravado; I can almost smell the Red Bull and day club chlorine. If it's predictable, it's also as deep into the aggro rabbit hole as Harris has ever gone, inculcating the crowd with bass music largely deemed too weird and sinister to make it out of the post-apocalyptic sidelines of the underground. They bask in its relentlessness.

A lanky girl in shorts and a tube top stomps on the ground, punching the air and spinning towards nowhere in particular. Her friend lies supine on the dirt next to her. I pause, fearing the worst, until she raises her legs and starts kicking the air in time with the music. This isn’t clubland; it’s the hyperbole of Harris' music freed from the confines of velvet ropes, or festival tents, or any semblance of public decorum. From the fringes of the crowd, it’s raging id, unfettered; inside, it’s bliss.

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It’s easy to hate on EDM kingpins like Harris for lack of artistry or button-pushing mundanity. But the fact remains that people are out here for it—tens of thousands of people, as much as any crowd I’ve seen all weekend, or at Coachella ever, writhing and screaming and touching and losing their damn minds.

To critique Harris for his lack of musicianship is to miss the point of his appeal. His fans don’t want to see a star take center stage, or get inspired by a group’s chemistry, or contemplate, well, much of anything. They just want to feel something extreme; to numb themselves inside of a moment. They want to be overwhelmed by waves of bass and LED patterns, and feel their teeth shake. It’s an off switch, or an on switch, depending whose side you’re on. It’s not about him. It’s about them.

We break through an actual wall of bros who barricade the exit of the beer garden and meander through the crowd. Barring a few peacocking shirtless gym rats, Calvin Harris fans are fundamentally not the fans who make it into the Coachella photo galleries, though many may aspire to. These aren’t the well-connected elite observing at a distance from the VIP, the face-painted neo-hippies, or even the EDC crossover kids gloving and flitting about during Jack Ü.

These are the kids in backwards caps and cargo shorts, in flower garlands and cut-offs purchased from H&M’s Coachella Collection in hopes of being mistaken for one of the VIPs. It’s the USC frat boys sporting Class of 2016 robes over their bare chests, the midwestern law students in baseball jerseys, and the newly-minted CPAs who just moved into a suburban condo with their girlfriends. These are the fans who save up all year, who plan the minutiae of their lives months in advance, who are caught between growing up in a culture of instant gratification, and coming to terms with the reality that their real lives will inevitably become more boring, and that maybe that’s okay.

It turns out we’ve been talking about EDM and Coachella all wrong. It’s not a bubble, or something the kids will grow out of, but something to cling to after the epiphany of adulthood: This is it. It will be the only release many of them find all year, and they go hard because it's the only way the know how. Harris is their pied piper. It’s here to stay, and it's absurd to think otherwise.

But this wouldn’t be a headlining set without a surprise guest, and 90 minutes in Harris brings out Rihanna to sing their massive “We Found Love.” She is a vision of fringe and camo, strutting across the stage and goading fans to new tiers of hype between verses. She leaves, and the next beat builds. Daft Punk’s “One More Time” kicks off to a burst of strobes. A shriek ripples through the crowd, frozen for a moment in anticipation that the French duo, a long-rumored Coachella reunion act, might be joining the producer onstage. Could this be it? Are we about to witness The Greatest Dance Music Moment Ever? Is this Peak Coachella? It is not. Come on, Daft Punk would never perform with him. It’s just Harris playing Daft Punk, and it’s fine. We’re fine. We are drunk and high and covered in beer, and we’re satisfied. It's time to go home.

Andrea Domanick is living on such sweet nothing. Follow her on Twitter.