It’s easy to shit on the hot mess that is Ultra Music Festival if you’ve never actually attended it. But it’s even easier if you have.
I say this as someone who understands why Ultra gets so much flak, yet relishes every part of this ratchet festival. At RICE, I’m also alone in my affection for the Ultra scene.
Nonetheless, I decided to take The Most Awkward Guy in Singapore to the festival with me this year. My reason was simple: Pan Jie (PJ) has never been to a music festival in his life, nor is he a fan of electronic dance music, raves, or dancing. It would be like throwing him into the deep end of a pool knowing that he has no interest in swimming to save himself.
Hoping the experience would at least remind him that journalism often requires you to force yourself out of your comfort zone, I also decided that we would not allow ourselves to drink.
In my mind, I gave PJ four hours before he would reach his limit and call it a day.
Or perhaps PJ is just flummoxed by the amount of skin on display.
I recall PJ asking me before we met whether there was going to be any food sold at Ultra.
“Yes, there will be,” I’d replied. What I didn’t add was, “Don’t expect it to cost anything less than the downpayment for a BTO.”
Today, for example, four measly sticks of chicken yakitori cost $10; a bucket of nachos and carelessly drizzled cheese costs $7; a hot dog bun with random sauces and sprinkled nachos costs $10; and a bucket of meatballs costs $15 and some outrage. The worst part of the music festival experience is convincing yourself to sell a kidney just to pay for food that you once made in a microwave oven as a broke student.
For drinks, you can either pay $3 for a 500ml bottle of mineral water or $5 for a can of coke. That day, I spend $9 in total on water, and vow to find a way to give up on my journalistic integrity.
PJ also feels mildly ashamed for having previously spent all his energy denouncing hipster food for Ramadan because what’s at Ultra is “fucking scandalous”.
After eating, it’s still early so we stand around feeling disgusted that we just spent $30 on unsatisfying grub, and trying to look away from one too many buttcheeks.
1) ARE YOUUUUUU REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEADY SINGAPORE
2) PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIRRRRRRRRR! PUT YOUR PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!
3) COME ON, LEMME HEAR YOU MAKE SOME NOOOOOOOOOOISE
PJ is thoroughly amused and I am amused by his amusement. It’s like seeing parts of the world that you’ve taken for granted through the eyes of a newborn child.
Just when I think we can no longer hold in our laughter, the headlining act of the afternoon, Fedde Le Grand, makes a long and rambling speech about why this weekend is particularly special. He references the Trump-Kim summit of all fucking things.
We lose it.
After his absurd injection of an anecdote from Foreign Policy magazine, the subsequent platitudes that emerge fall as flat as the drunk girl we’d witnessed just five minutes before.
They go something like this: “Music unites us all. No matter your race, religion, what country you’re from, we are all part of the Ultra family. I can feel the love, the unity, and the blah blah blah.”
Meanwhile, I scroll through the Ultra hashtags on Instagram and edit the photos that I’ve already taken. PJ stares off into blank space, probably hatching an escape plan. Without the fuzzy lull of alcohol, I realise that boredom sets in much faster.
If you’re looking for someone who truly appreciates every DJ’s heartfelt attempt to engage with a stoic Singaporean crowd, that’s not me. I just want non-stop music.
And PJ just wants to stop the music.
Fashion wise, no matter one’s gender, it’s paramount that outfits reveal (a lot of) side boob. Some of these women wear what appears to be a sad exercise bandage wrapped up and down one leg. This ‘trend’ is paired with skirts so short they may as well be belts.
Among the women, hairstyles typically follow three standards: two Chun Li-inspired buns at the top of their head, two French braids down the side, or a cascading head of pink/blue/green/purple/ombre hair.
There is also enough glitter that it would take at least 10 showers for all of it to be washed off one’s face, neck, arms, and any visible body part. Those who can be bothered sport jewels stuck to the corners of their eyes and across their foreheads, or temporary facial tattoos that read: ‘Extra Bass’.
At this point, if you’re wondering whether the sheen on a girl’s cheek is excellent highlighter, perspiration, or oil, it’s probably all three.
Men, on the other hand, are decked out in tank tops that you can assume were bought in Bangkok or Bugis. Based on how conscious they seem to be of who notices their biceps, you may also jump to the conclusion that these men gym a lot.
If all of this is too difficult to imagine, simply picture a posse of scantily clad women flanked by men who are also scantily clad. Then copy and paste this formulaic clique a thousand times over.
Based on atmosphere, attitude, and attire, Ultra can feel like an exhausting, obnoxious, and vapid scene. And sometimes it truly is.
Any newbie will note that there are always dance moves specific to partying at a music festival. They resemble something halfway between a shuffle and artless jumping up and down. Whatever it is though, PJ is not doing it.
Seeing as I’d convinced PJ to attend Ultra with me, I am torn between ensuring he has a good time, and realising that he doesn’t need handholding and is perfectly capable of joining me if he wishes. I also feel a tinge of guilt for trying to expose him to a lifestyle that’s clearly not his cup of tea.
Perhaps I should have come alone.
Then the beat drops and I lose myself in the next 45 seconds of synths and thumps, momentarily forgetting my inhibitions.
All hopes of my dear colleague feeling the same disappear when I catch him standing on the outskirts of the crowd, fiddling with his phone and taking photos. At one point, PJ places his hands over his face, and I can’t tell if he is bored, in Nirvana, or plotting my murder.
As much as it’s reassuring to realise I don’t need booze to get myself in the zone, I empathise with PJ. Being sober at a music festival can make you feel even more of an outsider than you already do. After all, the governing impulses of a music festival are sex, energy, and ‘letting loose’, all of which strive to connect us with our primal impulses.
Even then, I’m tickled by the thought of how different these glitter Barbies or macho men would be if not for the fact that they were all inebriated.
“Let’s take a few more photos then we’re done,” PJ says.
Timecheck: 7:30 PM.
Eventually PJ and I leave at 8 PM to drink … bubble tea.
People are surprised whenever an introvert (me) who reads The New Yorker or listens to indie singer-songwriters also feels comfortable dancing for hours amongst sweaty bodies to the latest EDM hits.
Someone even once chided me, “Sorry, you are 28. You should be listening to less rabak music.”
Now imagine that same person getting into it without a single drop of alcohol in their system.
And yet, when EDM DJ Avicii passed away earlier this year, an article in The Guardian described his music as a “sonic antidepressant” for the “generation coming of age in the post 9/11 era of perpetual war and economic uncertainty”. To this group, EDM provided “collective catharsis”—precisely what I experienced during fleeting moments at Ultra.
As we leave the festival grounds, I recall one of the platitudes that Fedde Le Grand spouted earlier: “At Ultra, there is only one race, the human race.”
It’s cheesy, lame AF, and made me want to stab my ears. But on the dance floor that evening, for a mere 30 minutes, I felt the sweet liberation of experiencing unadulterated joy in a sea of strangers, all of us refusing to cower to a depressive world that often tries to break us.
Say what you will about music festivals like Ultra and their culture. Or the fact that I, perhaps, was the only one who felt so deeply while everyone else was just drunk, horny, and rocking out.
In a world like today’s, we’re all we need.