I’ve never been so overcome by the private sector’s ability to make comfortable outhouses. High ceilings, plenty of elbowroom, a perfect shelter from Saturday evening’s downpour. The pitter-patter of heavy rain echoes off of the #2 recycled plastic walls. It smells clean thanks to the exhaust pipe that connects the murky pit to the clean white roof. The toilet paper is still cloaked in tissue wrapper. I may be this port-o-potty’s first occupant since a field representative from Don’s Johns Sanitation Services inspected it on Friday. There’s a coat hook. I can see flashes of brilliant light through the unit’s grated paneling and hear the metallic crashing that fills RFK Stadium Parking Lot 8. There’s no thunder, no lightning, just electric dance music (EDM).
Outside my redoubt is no run-of-the-mill rave. This is Life in Color, the “World’s Largest Paint Party.” Founded in 2006, Life in Color “began as a college tradition [and] has transformed into a world-renowned live concert” traveling to dozens of cities across the world every year to spread the gospel of EDM. It’s been coming to D.C. since 2011 and is now big enough to house two stages, a zipline, bungee jumping, and a Ferris wheel.
“Rain or shine, it doesn’t matter; the only forecast tonight is motherfucking paint,” a man rasps.
“This is the fakest crowd I ever saw, just a bunch of little plurstitutes and bros here for drugs,” house music aficionado Kenny W., 27, tells me when I arrive at RFK. “In case you’re wondering a plurstitute is someone who comes to get fucked up and then gets fu…”
His friend Dylan Skye, 22, puts his Virginia Commonwealth University psychology degree to work.
“People hear the ads on the radio and decide to see what the experience is like—what we’re saying is that it’s not cool to reduce the culture to wearing no clothes and doing MDMA. It’s not about drugs,” he says as two men in green hair dye skip by wearing “Best Buds” t-shirts emblazoned with marijuana leaves.
“It’s a testament to how mainstream house music has become.”
Life In Color is throwing an identical rave in St. Louis on Saturday night, but there is a distinct D.C.-flavor in the RFK lot, an odd sense of bureaucracy.
The stage is blocked off by barbed wire gates. We’re told there will be pat-downs and that we will have to present photo IDs along with our ticket stubs. I produce the two and get ready for my frisk, but the guard says he only needs to see my ticket. Once inside the cage, the ravers walk through three rows of meandering metal barriers before approaching a second checkpoint where they check your photo ID. Then you’re off to a third checkpoint 30 yards away where one guard scans your ticket and another frisks you, groin and all.
It’s enough to drive a man to drink. But you can’t just saddle up to the bar and order a round. You have to go to another line and present your ID to the guard holding the yellow bracelets. When you hold your hand out to receive your prize, he motions to another guard standing at the other end of the 10-foot metal barrier. Only she can give you your yellow bracelet. Now you want to drink two.
It takes a full hour to get settled at the rave and by 4 p.m., it’s pouring rain. The crowd is ill-prepared.
Thousands of twenty-something boys sport identical pairs of androgynous neon faux Raybans, white wife beaters, barb wire biceps, gauge earrings, “ironic” facial hair, bow ties, rosaries, plaid shorts, “ironic” American flag bandanas, Air Jordans and Chuck Taylors, Sperry’s and Tom’s.
Their female counterparts wear white push-up bras, glowing pacifiers, luminous butterfly tramp stamps, white shorts only slightly larger than their pink thongs, white tutus, peacock feather earrings, the same fake Raybans, knee-high stockings, and rainbow furry boots.
For all the goofy outfits, there’s startling uniformity in this crowd. They’re all dressed the same to showcase their disdain for Western business attire. They all dance the same, jumping as the beat drops and responding dutifully when the DJs say “put your hands in the air.” It’s music by mugging. Except it’s not music at all; there aren’t any instruments. Ravers listen to glorified sound effects, computer code, which explains why even the most dedicated fans can’t tell the difference between the DJs.
“I love Showtek. Hey, this is Showtek, right?” a muscle-bound Asian dude says motioning to the stage in front of us.
“Me, too. I love Showtek; his sets are crazy,” two of his friends add. They have no idea they’re listening to Borgore.
This is the “Me, Too” generation. Every ravers spouts the same New Age chatter that EDM provides them an outlet to express their individual identity. When one finishes up, his companion jumps in with “I feel the same way; it’s crazy.”
Not everyone has time to express his individuality. Some of us have notebooks to shield from the rain.
I put in for credentials for the sold-out event weeks ago, but am told the Washington Free Beacon didn’t make the cut. Once inside, I try to stay dry at a canopy housing media cameras. A security guard wearing earplugs dismisses my Virginia Statehouse press credentials because they’re not issued by Life in Color.
I explain the situation.
“Go fuck yourself,” he says.
There’s no cover anywhere on the fairgrounds, which brings me to the fantastic Don’s Johns port-o-potty, a safe haven I’ll retreat to all night to transcribe notes. There I interview three James Madison University seniors wearing chicken, penguin, and banana costumes before returning to the bar, where I meet Melody and her friend Allie (not their real names). They work at a physical therapy clinic and are three months away from enrolling at Old Dominion University where Melody will study criminal justice and Allie nursing. Melody does most of the talking, as Allie is passed-out in front of the concession stand.
Someone from the medical tent soon appears with a wheelchair. They order us to stop giving Allie water. Over-hydration is frequently behind ecstasy-related deaths. Two attendees died at New York City’s Electric Zoo EDM festival earlier this month, while Swiss EDM fans killed two dolphins while raving at a zoo in 2011. Ravers are evidently less responsible than the Juggalos they so disdain.
Allie’s “only had a cup of Smirnoff and OJ,” Melody tells me. The handlers wheel Allie into the tent and deposit her onto a green cot. Nurses from nearby Providence Hospital take her vitals and quiz Melody on her friend’s substance intake. The tent’s back entrance is lined with ambulances from Lifestar, a private company. They’re busy.
“We’ve seen too many and it’s only gonna get worse,” a veteran nurse says. “We either let them rest and send them back out or we put them in an ambulance.”
“She doesn’t need an ambulance, just some sleep,” Melody says. “She can’t afford an ambulance.”
Allie is looking better than most others in the tent.
“Get the fuck off of me,” one female raver says to the nurses. She makes a run for it, but veers into a cot. A quick-handed male EMT in a maroon shirt catches her before she hits the ground but is nearly thwarted when her ripped t-shirt gives way.
Four beefy EMTs struggle to control a petite girl in pink short-shorts and matching top. She writhes on her stomach, arms and legs flailing as the beat drops in the background. They strap her down onto the stretcher, but her limbs continue to twitch. Medical professionals surround her.
Two EMTs open the ambulance doors. She’s smiling. A big smile. She clenches her teeth on the dark, vomit-soaked hair that fell into her face while she was seizing. Her pink chest pumps heavily, sucking in bile-laden fumes. The maniacal smile doesn’t leave her face, even as she howls unintelligible guttural noises as they wheel her off.
“What do you think you’re doing? Press isn’t allowed in here,” the woman with the clipboard says.
I tell her that Melody asked me to stay with her friend while she got her other companions.
Clipboard lady says I can stay as long as Allie’s here, but I shouldn’t be writing. I oblige.
Melody returns with two male friends. One carries a third girl who’s drunk too much. He lays her on a stretcher where she vomits repeatedly. The stages’ LED screens, which previously blasted the crowd with colorful explosions, count down to 7 p.m. when paint cannons are going to slime the crowd. A second spray is set for 9, but Melody’s friends insist they make the first one. The two males soon depart with the second sick girl. She’s in rougher shape than Allie, who is sleeping peacefully.
“You guys go ahead, I’ll catch the next one,” Melody says, as she strokes her friend’s hair.
I head outside the tent when the speakers blare, “Washington D.C. prepare for the paint blast.” Fog machines are unloosed and pink paint rains onto the crowd. White-sheeted angels are suspended from above the stage. Melody and Allie didn’t miss much. I return to the tent. They’re nowhere to be seen.
The woman with the clipboard approaches, bearing a smile as demonic-looking as the drugged-out girl in pink.
“We put her in the ambulance, so you can get out now. Bye-bye,” she says.
On my way out, I meet Dr. Mathias Santos. He forsakes scrubs, and a shirt for that matter, as he assists patients in a pair of paint-splattered shorts. He rouses a passed out attendee by driving his knuckles into the man’s sternum and then brings him to a cot.
“I was here helping out a friend and then saw this guy and wanted to help him out, too. Universal love, you know?” he says.
Dr. Santos is a prodigy—he says he’s a cardiologist at just 24. He came down to D.C. from Penn State where he’s beefing up his pediatrics. He plans on returning to his native Brazil to better serve indigent children. He’s also been listening to EDM for half of his life.
An attendee sprays us with a $5 tube of pink paint. The shirtless genius ditches the interview and prances toward the shooter, a girl in a white tutu and little else.
I wade through the crowd, buy a beer for a Marine lance corporal who says he’s shipping out to Afghanistan on Monday and then happen upon a childhood friend, a Democratic staffer. The most squeaky-clean man I know. A navy vet destined for a congressional run I’ll someday oppose. His white tank-top is covered in sticky slop.
“I’m uncomfortable, cold, and sober,” he says. “I want to go home. Now.”
I’m two of those things, so I propose we leave. His friends vote the notion down. The junior congressman defers to the mob.
I press on past the metal barriers, black-shirted security guards, and barbed wire fences, through the scantily clad plurstitutes and wife-beater bros, away from my port-o-potty sanctum, extortionist nurses, and computer-generated thunder.
There are better ways to ruin clothes.