To bastardize a favorite quote by the greatest Atlantan of all time, the arc of the festival season is long, but it bends towards repetitiveness. Certainly, that would be the experience of anyone at TomorrowWorld this past weekend, September 26-28 in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, outside of Atlanta—that is, if they had attended any other dance music festival in 2014. In the six months since Ultra in Miami, dance fans of the northern hemisphere have had no shortage of options when it comes to where to hear the world's top DJs and spend their hard-earned cash (so much cash), so if the American version of the venerated Tomorrowland wasn't offering a unique musical experience, it's not as if there has been space on the calendar to create one.
Still, the best thing about TomorrowWorld, now in its second year, wasn't the DJs or the records they played, nor the upcycled motifs of promoter ID&T's creative team. It wasn't even the stunning setting in the hills of northern Georgia, parallel to none in terms of lushness beauty. In fact, even if TomorrowWorld had nothing else going for it, it has, without question, one of the best, broadest and most positive crowds in all of dance music.
Due in no small part to a festival-wide 21+ age restriction (Martin Garrix was never without his escort), the TomorrowWorld crowd is calm, cool, and self-regulated. Rather than the EDM frat party its older European sibling is and World's location in SEC country could easily lend itself to, the ravers of Chattahoochee represent a scope of diversity that defines the 21st Century American South. TomorrowWorlders—150,000 strong over three days this year— are racially diverse, gender-balanced, and stylistically varied. Fist-pumping bros bump shoulders with shaggy-dressed hippies as booty-short-wearing southern queens co-mingle with the animal-costumed ravers and functionally naked girls and boys of all shapes and sizes. There are more rainbow pride flags waving above the TomorrowWorld festivalgoers than at any other North American dance music festival and the flag bearers themselves run the gamut from bears to bulls, lipsticks to lolli-lickers. All of these citizens of the World, from across the country and the globe (though many if not most from in and around Georgia and neighboring states), were there to get down at the field of ravedom.
How or why this redolent crowd has descended on a horse farm in Chattahoochee is an enigma greater than the loyalty to the festival's dated branding. The lineup of TomorrowWorld is indistinguishable from that of any other big festival and accordingly, the music played (particularly on the Main Stage), is so uniformly unchanged, not just from other festivals this year but from festivals over the past three years. "Calling" and "Reload" were both played more times than they should have been (which is more than once given the age and saturation of both those tracks). A-Trak's remix of "Heads Will Roll" is great, but once in a weekend is more than enough, four years after release. "Seven Nation Army" should not be on the playlists of David Guetta and Steve Aoki. The same could be said of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the inclusion of which in any set is no longer clever or ironic.
The truth is, if you're on the Main Stage, you're playing less for the crowd in front of you and more for the audience at home, watching on the live stream. Be it W&W doing their best Armin (he wasn't there anyway), Tiësto in his gold-epauletted jacket (stylish, Tijs!) or Nervo incorrectly addressing the crowd as Tomorrowland (oops!), the people before them were mere hand-raising props, there to show the world just how turnt up they could be. With few exceptions, the results followed a law of diminishing returns.
One such exception should be carved out for Guetta (who must have been white-knuckling the ride on those Georgia country roads to his redemption after the much-discussed Tomorrowland Weekend Two incident). Despite a track selection that matched that of his peers on the same stage, Guetta played his best festival set in memory. Hair down and guns out, he aggressively and seamlessly mixed while assertively adding snare rolls, filter sweeps and samples to his set proving that he is capable of not only being an excellent DJ but a natural showman.
Elsewhere in the festival, better music could be heard even if the solid programming at stages by labels like Black Butter, Anjunadeep and Minus didn't draw the crowds they deserved at varying points in the day. Some concepts were misleading, like the cute but inaccurately named It's A Trap stage but it's the pointlessness of Saturday's Belgian stage that can't be overstated. Paying homage to the festival's homeland is all well and good, but it's not as if the American-dominated crowd came away with a better sense of the Northern European nation after hearing its DJs play versions of Duke Dumont and MK records. Similarly, the Visit Flanders tourism booth probably won't be able to claim in increase in travelers to Ghent in the coming months.
How the festival came from Belgium to Georgia in the first place is something of dance music lore at this point. The Belgian owner of a horse farm in Douglas County's Chattahoochee Hills reached out to Tomorrowland's Belgian and Dutch organizers hoping to lure them to his expansive property to host an American version of their popular event. Aromatically, a horse farm is equivalent to Tomorrowland's site on a swamp in Boom, Belgium, but the hills of Georgia make for a much more vibrant locale. While the event's first iteration in 2013 was essentially a critically acclaimed but under-attended proof-of-concept, year two showed strong growth and continued organizational mastery, even if the hippy-dippy imagery of butterflies, pinwheels, hopes and dreams comes across as even more out of touch than it does at home in Belgium.
The same could be said of Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, whose placement on the Main Stage between Aoki and Skrillex on Saturday night only further underscored ID&T's bias towards artists they manage, not the talents of the DJ duo who is even less popular in the US than they are in their home country of Belgium. When they appeared on stage with Garrix the next night to play Armin van Burren's "Ping Pong" together it was an awkward display of EDM thirst on their part, not the teenage superstar's.
What is most lame about the TomorrowWorld concept is that it regurgitates its renown Main Stage from the previous year in Europe. Rather than wow festivalgoers with something brand new or at least something they only saw on the live stream eight weeks before, the big reveal upon arrival is a letdown as it appears as though it takes 14 months to move a single stage across the Atlantic.
Like Tomorrowland, TomorrowWorld makes good use of its natural environment, tucking stages into wooded areas and nestling others around ponds and other bodies of water. At night, the effect of lights and sound is enchanting as cool breezes guide ravers to roam across the sprawl of the grounds.
For all its vastness, stages were oddly clumped together, creating potentially opportune moments of significant sound bleed. For instance, if you really liked Jack Beats and Dillon Francis who were playing on the OWSLA and Mad Decent stages respectively on Saturday, you could stand in a relatively large area between them and hear both Jack Beats and Dillon Francis at the same time and decibel. ID&T would be wise to take a few tips from SFX sister company Made Event and up their sound game to be worthy of their meticulous stage design.
These are the sort of criticisms that can and should be made of a company that is planting its flag all over the world as the Wall Street-traded EDM conglomerate and is building its portfolio on the backs of fans who hand over big money to walk through the festival gates. Is TomorrowWorld a good festival? Yes. Has it relied on its past achievements rather than reinvent itself and develop new concepts, in design, music and experience that could push dance music culture forward as it dazzles its fans? Yes. Should it do better? Yes.
Still, it's the warm embrace of Greater Atlanta offered a better explanation than any as to why this festival should exist there. Southern hospitality is deep, abiding and real as seen in the kindness of food vendors, high-fiving security guards and dancing traffic directors. An afternoon of smiles from the festival's support staff makes you wonder why anyone bothers with events in places like Miami, Las Vegas or New York City, even if the transportation options of Greater Atlanta leave more than a few trains, buses and road signs to be desired.
In a state where a symbol of the Confederacy still lingered on its flag into the first few years of this century and U.S. Senate candidates like David Perdue can still run abjectly racist TV commercials in 2014, the dream of a new kind of future isn't always evident. In spite of the occasional Native American headdresses donned by white people, in the faces of the crowd at TomorrowWorld, one can not only see festival culture's impact but a generation that is in and of itself an oasis of freedom and rave.