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Arts & Entertainment

Aging Gracefully: Lights All Night 2018, Nine Years In

The annual electronic dance music festival is still a hub of internet youth culture, but where does it go from here?
By Christopher Mosley |
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Aging Gracefully: Lights All Night 2018, Nine Years In

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Being a music festival veteran is a lousy career path. I don’t recommend it. Having traveled to multiple cities, states, and countries for events, I can say that my experience dealing with Lights All Night 2018 was suspiciously smooth. It was the third time I’ve been in its nine-year run and I kept waiting for the catch that never came. The only indication of an organizational bad attitude was a sign at check-in warning not to post your credentials on social media “like an amateur.” It’s a kindly crew that doesn’t act like they’re working on behalf of homeland security even as they check your purse for weapons. It’s a welcome change from people who act like they’re doing some service for the Vatican for giving out a set time.

Lights All Night is the operational equivalent of stuffing several football games, an impossible number of scoreboards, LED screens, and house-sized light sculptures inside a building that was built in the early 1960s. They eat every part of the animal. They use the lot surrounding Dallas Market Hall. They use the pavilion that was some long-forgotten mid-century-modern dream of the post-war era. They deck out the space-age curves with contemporary technology. They take the aged white finned-columns of the venue and light them up with sharply alternating colors. It breathes alien life into the science fiction that our grandparents could not have possibly imagined when they were sneaking smokes in the parking lot during some high school social in 1963.

Those shadowy memories are now screaming on stadium replay with a vaping cast of thousands; every hedonistic lost moment is now big business. Having only attended previous versions of this festival at Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, I can’t express what an improvement this venue is without gushing. It’s lived-in and it has real Dallas style and real Dallas history. Every festival should be here. It’s perfect.

An event of this sort is not without some vice, of course. Various brands have their eyes on getting your kid to vape or drink fruit-flavored liqueur before you can figure out how to tell them they should not. (Don’t worry; they card.) That includes people on the wrong side of their late 30s. The mini cities created by these indulgent marketing teams could change the face of homelessness if they were let loose to do some good in the world.

For what it’s worth, the promotional staff at Mike’s Hard Lemonade is not at a loss for creativity. A tent with a neon-mouthed entrance beckons you to suffer in line to get the perfect couple selfie while electric oven-styled glass tubing cooks your permanent image into your phone. It will look good even if you break up. Once in the tent you are served a shot of Mike’s singular lemonade blend. It’s about as useful for becoming intoxicated as sniffing a vaccination to inoculate your body during flu season.

A wall of disembodied hands hold cans of Mike’s, which comes off as that sort of ominous corporate horror that lives somewhere between self-parody and a complete lack of awareness. The climax at the Mike’s tent is a sit-in for the classic hallmark of all Texas business mixers that take place in bars: the mechanical bull ride. Only this time it’s a shark made of mirrored disco ball squares. The shark doesn’t seem to buck as much as the bull at, say, Gilley’s. A woman in a faux fur coat falls off anyway.

I see a drug-sniffing Narc of a dog at the entrance. He seems to be there mostly for show even though a sign says there are “active canine operations.” Running a drug string on approximately 30,000 ravers seems like a Sisyphean task from the “Just Say No” era. I want to interview the dog—or at least that what my notes say. A recent report says that floppy-eared canines are now preferred for detecting purposes as they are less intimidating. There is no drug dog for the VIPs.

“Free shots!,” a young man yells to his friends at a liquor tent called 99 Brand. Lights All Night has begun.

At the Intergalactic Stage, 1788-L is attempting yet another violent take on dubstep, that hybrid bastardized version of drum-and-bass, industrial, techno, and other music that used to be a punchline but eventually finds its way into respectability.

Kaskade—who once played small Dallas venues like the now-closed Minc in Exposition Park—gave the VIP audience an early set of what he calls his “Redux” material, which means that the 47-year-old guided us through his storied career and occasionally played tracks from the roots of house music circa the mid-1980s. Dance music—and especially dance music at the festival level—is associated with youth culture, but that’s clearly not always the case.

Kaskade enjoys an informed audience that appreciates his actual output as opposed to little pop music tricks like spitting out top 40 that verges on being a mashup when used in the wrong hands. The DJ played his collaboration with the Los Angeles-based singer, Madge, called “Fun.” It sets the tone for the deadpan style used often in dance music:

“I wanna go out

Dress up real nice and find someone

Who’s ready to run

But, most of all

I wanna have some fun”

The eye-roll attitude is heard elsewhere at the festival via the group Anti Up, who give us this gem:

“When does the club shut?

All I want is pizza

I just want some pizza

God, I’m really drunk.”

Who couldn’t relate to this mess? It may seem like an attempt to poke fun by posting these lyrics here, which don’t necessarily work as prose. On the contrary, the flatlined approach to verbally communicating these ancient party sentiments over the relentless bass drum throb was actually one of the highlights of the entire festival. This crowd has a sense of humor and does not take itself seriously. Later, I see a young lady dancing in circles with a plate of pizza balanced on her hand like a cartoon chef on a takeout box. It’s whirling so fast that it’s hard to tell if it’s pizza or funnel cake. When does the club shut?

Now nine years into its reign as the definitive year-end dance party—not just in Dallas, but perhaps in all of the southwest—Lights All Night is likely facing some existential questions about its genre of choice. Throughout history ragtime festival organizers and surf rock enthusiasts and digital hardcore event planners had to face the fact that the hyper-evolution of music never rests and never stagnates. What is the state of EDM when it starts to have its own classic rock sound? The one constant throughout genres this weekend, was that Sinatra-esque ne’er-do-well of rap and R’n’B: Drake.

“God’s Plan” was heard no less than three times this weekend, by three different DJs. Once it was heard twice in the same night. The crowd screamed along as it got to the details about his bed and his mother. Drake is the safest artist anyone can work into a set at the moment, and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

As Lights All Night is a former host of Girl Talk—basically the John Coltrane of the mashup—it’s acceptable to mention that the mashup did enough damage to music that occasionally it feels like EDM sets seem lacking when they are missing some silly Black Sabbath riff. To a mashup fan, your average DJ set must seem like half of the music is missing and it’s usually the good half. There were moments that insisted that rock music stand on its own, which is a tall order in this tech-heavy environment. A “Bohemian Rhapsody” intro that fades into a beat or a section of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” with everyone singing along just leaves one wondering how bland this crowd’s taste is when they aren’t waiting for the drop. Then again, in their defense, just about anything sounds good in an environment this extreme.

Almost anything, that is.

Oliver Tree Nickell is known by the stage name, Oliver Tree. Nickell is a scooter-riding, bowl cut-wearing internet clown who has shrewdly transformed a few select stunts and some fairly slick pop songs to a considerable amount of fame. He is very successful as a member of the newest crop of the living meme/troll rock army that rules its own online niche, along with other somewhat controversial acts such as Hobo Johnson. You can never tell how serious they are or are not being at any given time, and ambiguity is a constant in great art. However, it’s also a bit of a cop-out. If the song sucks, they can just wink that it was all an elaborate joke.

While Nickell is entertaining on YouTube, the prospect of translating that to the stage is not always so smooth. Strip away all the cute video gags and you’re left with a live band that feels like it’s struggling through Sublime covers on a Tuesday night in Santa Cruz. Oliver Tree would be better off just performing sketches onstage with a pre-recorded backing track as opposed to attempting anything approaching “rock,” but don’t tell his fans that. These acts should be music business 101 for anyone trying to “make it” in the contemporary industry. The old methods are dead and gone.

As I’m watching Oliver Tree run through various 1990s pop-isms, I notice a man in a banana costume attempting to promote the aforementioned 99 Flavored Schnapps liquor brand. Never one to ignore a person dressed as fruit in public, I take him up on the offer. I’m asked to present my credentials to another person who grabs my wristband and says incredulously, “Media?” I confirm. “Get the fuck out of here, Breitbart,” he says. There is a bizarre back-and-forth about fake news and the like before he gives the classic male peace offering of “I’m just playing with you, dude.”

It was a bizarre encounter but it did make me consider that the dance music crowd tends to be one of the most diverse and politically hazy in terms of wearing their hearts on their sleeve. Elsewhere in the building was a darkened lounge where row upon row of gamers sat in the dark playing PC games in silence. They were in the middle of an explosion of lights, colors, sounds, costumes, and basically non-stop stimulation and yet their desire was to sit in the dark playing a video game. Lights All Night deserves all the credit in the world for understanding its audience.

That audience tends to skew young, too young to drink in many cases. I spoke with a trio who had driven up from San Antonio. Payton and Maddie were both twenty-years-old and Anton was 19. They bought their tickets three months in advance. When I asked what they like most about the festival, the response was swift. “All the art,” Anton said. “The lights are fucking sick!” They looked like the happiest group of people I saw all year.

Groups of teens sat huddled on the floor in their outlandish costumes like a fluffy version of the apocalypse. The fashion alone is worth the $99—the cost of the cheapest ticket. Astronaut suits, LED shoes, unicorn onesies, and electrical tape adorn the human body in the most perplexing combinations. If you do not, on some level, find this fun, then you must be impossibly miserable. With the exception of maybe a pride parade, Dallas has none of the jaw-dropping spectacles of Mardi Gras or Rio Carnival and this is the closest we can get. In a city where a puffy vest is considered high fashion for the presumably successful man, we’ll take it. It doesn’t always work; neon bow-ties were popular this weekend and they come off like accessorizing for the nervous incel. A woman whizzes past me on roller skates in an outfit mostly constructed from balloons and I was impressed until the moment it became clear that she actually cannot roller skate.

Diplo was Friday’s headliner and obviously drew the largest crowd of the evening besides Kaskade’s earlier set. “I haven’t been to Dallas in a long time,” he says while tearing through a set that covers various parts of his highly influential career, including his work with Major Lazer. There’s more Drake, too, on Travis Scott’s inescapable “Sicko Mode,” which is also heard multiple times throughout the weekend. Diplo’s rise seems almost quaint now, as his poppy mix of dancehall, hip hop, various other electronic deviations mirrored what was happening in Dallas with long-gone weeklies and monthlies such as Top Notch, The Party, and Hot Flash.

There was a time in Dallas where this kind of music was heard pouring out of clubs on Greenville Avenue, before the three-dollar well became the three-dollar oyster at the marble-topped bar. But let’s not get nostalgic.

On the second and final night of Lights All Night, Luca Lush is playing a remix of a Jimmy Eat World hit and I’m wondering aloud why anyone would do that. He also plays a Flosstradamus remix of a Major Lazer song; Diplo is here even when he isn’t. “How many people are drunk tonight?,” the DJ asks the crowd. A moderate response. “How many people are taking drugs tonight?,” he asks. A moderate roar. It has all the energy of a sporting event and the little morsels of pop culture are thrown in just as they are between innings, plays, or walk-up music. Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It” gets one of the biggest reactions of the weekend when it’s played in the Intergalactic Room. Electronic Dance Music is the folk music of the tech community.

I guessed that Gucci Mane would be exactly fifteen minutes late and he was. He left the stage ten minutes early. The rapper packed more in his 35-minute set than most artists do in two hours. He tears through a decade-plus of hits, from 2006’s “Freaky Gurl” to the more recent “First Day Out Tha Feds.” Gucci runs through a song featuring Drake or a Migos song that other LAN DJs might simply place in their set. The anomaly of one legitimate hip hop act in a sea of electronic music could use a little balance.

Lights All Night will turn 10 next year and as such, they will likely be running through their greatest hits. But they have had Tiesto and a handful of other headliners appear more than once from year to year. If 2019 is half rap and half EDM, it might not be the worst idea. Judging from the crowd’s reaction to Gucci, it doesn’t seem like people would exactly complain. It might make everything more affordable as well. For whatever reason, rappers seem to get paid less than electronic acts, but that’s another discussion entirely.

Tiesto performs during Lights All Night in Dallas Market Hall. (Photo by Bret Redman)

Excision and Tiesto close things up with two of the loudest sets you’ll ever hear in your life. It’s planet-shattering levels of bass, completely unnatural and, as expected, the crowd loves it. Dance music culture is often maligned; I received endless amounts of grief from people for posting videos and updates from Lights All Night on various social media platforms. But there is a genuine sense of warmth and community that can’t be completely dismissed here. Who cares if they book the same acts over the years? It’s their own little world.

As the festival was reaching its conclusion, a man named Mike served me a sandwich outside while people danced nearby. He said he spent Christmas Eve preparing food for a crowd in Thanks-Giving Square and that “people were kind of mean.” As for the Lights All Night audience, “Everyone here is nice and it’s been great,” he said. Maybe Lights All Night, however well-attended, isn’t for everybody. Maybe the crowd is a little unusual and their outfits are a little wacky. But they tend to be ridiculously polite and generally interested in accepting others in sharing their collective good time. That’s a lot better than most of the world is doing right now.

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