If I Could Feel Again

It's March 2010 and I'm a junior in high school. Everyone is talking about Ultra Music Festival. It was practically a rite of passage at the private high school I attended in Miami, FL. This is back when it was an all-ages festival and held at Bicentennial Park. The weary administration even had an assembly about it. Partly out of stubbornness and partly out of ironic snobbery, I did not attend.

Deadmau5 was a headliner that year, and everyone, including my easily-impressionable self, was obsessed with "Ghosts N' Stuff," which celebrated its 11th anniversary in 2019. This was one of the first songs that piqued my interest with EDM. Miami private school kids were not my ideal clientele to party with, but I was secretly desperate to fit in and experience this new fad that was EDM. I remember being careful to pronounce his name correctly: "Dead-mouse" rather than "Dead-mau-five" to avoid looking like even more of an outsider than I already felt.

The opportunity to sip the Kool-Aid finally presented itself in the perfect context during the summer before my senior year: a Deadmau5 show at the House of Blues in Boston, where I was confident that I wouldn't run into anyone from my high school, which felt inevitable at Ultra. It felt like the only way to expose myself to this new world was by leaving my straight-edge reputation behind. I was probably too self-conscious, and the only way for me to leave that behind required a space free of the expectations and assumptions of those who were familiar with me. I was goofy and a bit of a dweeb--even a goody two-shoes--and it felt like I never belonged at parties (probably because I was barely invited to them, lol).

Vaguely chaperoned by my friend's older brother, my friends and I spent the first part of the Deadmau5 concert wandering around the venue and asking older men to buy us drinks and splitting the singular drink when one obliged. Aside from making out with a very sweaty boy from the suburbs, I have very little memory of the night, but it was fun because it was different. I didn't make out with boys or drink alcohol outside of friends' houses in the lifestyle I had back home. I was definitely intrigued and eager to expand my music palette, especially since EDM was synonymous with cool where I was from. And I desperately wanted to be cool. But I had no idea how to find this kind of music, so I relied entirely upon my friends. There's a big learning curve.

It's March 2011 and I harass my friend into burning me EDM CDs so that I can keep up with the Ultra jargon. He makes me three: big-room electro-house, trance, and dubstep. My favorite is the dubstep one, which included a song that celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2019: Zeds Dead's remix of Blue Foundation's "Eyes on Fire" -- an iconic song that defined a generation. That might be hyperbolic, but at the very least it was one of the songs that defined my experience with electronic music. This was different. When Bassnectar played this song ten years later at 2019's infamous Freestyle Sessions in Colorado, the entire crowd sang the lyrics in unison as if everyone had a similar relationship with this song.

Flash forward to a few weeks after high school graduation. Zeds Dead is playing at The Fillmore on Miami Beach, which was one of the only venues where I could see this kind of music since my friends and I didn't have fake IDs like our fellow upperclassmen who were frequenting South Beach's LIV and Mansion. I remember being nervous. I wasn't sure yet if I liked crowds or concerts, let alone raves. And I figured this would be different than Deadmau5. I worried that there would be mosh pits and that the crowd would be as aggressive as the music.

It was packed, but people were not aggressive. We danced in the pit and grinded with strangers, which was unusual for me. In a way this music helped me tap into my sexuality, which had been (and still is) completely marred when I lost my virginity to rape at a fraternity party at the beginning of my senior year. I didn't consciously choose to repress the memory; it was a survival mechanism.

There was too much at stake, and I wasn't ready. I was my senior class president, and I didn't get the same score on my ACTs four times in a row for lack of trying. Despite my efforts and accolades, I was rejected from my top two college choices. This is how most privileged kids learn that the world is random and unfair. But I think I skipped a couple of grades because I had already learned that the world is cruel. Rejection does not mix well with rape, but it sure was nice to have a scapegoat for my insidiously toxic behavior.

I'm grateful that I discovered electronic music when I did, even if my taste was superficial. I needed a new world and an opportunity to discard my old identity for a new one because the future I had built for myself belonged to someone else. And that person doesn't exist anymore. I've told my therapist that it feels like there are three different versions of myself. The person I was before I was raped (version one); the rape survivor who used alcohol to cope and dissociate and remain in ignorance (version two); and the person who chose to leave ignorance behind (version three). I did not consciously choose ignorance, but I had to choose to leave it once I recognized that the bliss was hollow rather than divine.

Version two was living between two worlds. Version one got into the best journalism school in the country. Version two should not have gone to college.

It's six months after my high school graduation, and I've barely survived my first semester at Syracuse University. I was hospitalized my first weekend of school for alcohol poisoning, and I continued successfully repressing the trauma by intentionally blacking out at least three times a week. I was also willing to experiment, but my fundamental innocence kept me from nose drugs (for a time) and needles (forever).

I take what I think is MDMA for my first time on a Tuesday night to see Zeds Dead at the Westscott Theater. It's December and my best friend at the time and I walk for 30 minutes in the snow in our neon outfits. I vividly remember Zeds Dead inviting all the girls to dance on the stage, hurling myself over the rail, and flashing the "Z" sign with a bunch of strangers.

My taste in music has evolved since those days, and Zeds Dead's sound went in a direction that no longer interested me. But they are still among the pioneers that Americanized dubstep, for better or for worse. Eyes on Fire always brings me back to that incredible experience of discovering your niche for the first time and wanting to know more.

As I was thrust into a new phase of life, so was the bourgeoning electronic music scene. And I think it's fair to say that we both experienced growing pains. We didn't always make the best choices and at some points we were shadows of our former selves. I used the EDM scene as a platform to party irresponsibly, which left me feeling as empty as the music I was seeing.

But bass music always resonated with me differently. I wouldn't describe it as happy music, and I wasn't a happy person. I needed something extreme to process the extreme thing that happened to me that wasn't blacking out. And Bassnectar's music gave me that outlet.

Bass music expresses the anger that I am unable to access, but where there is anger there is also grief. And my drinking habit managed to eclipse the grief until I immersed myself in the discography of another artist whose first opus celebrated its thirteenth anniversary in 2019: Pretty Lights' groundbreaking "Taking Up Your Precious Time." For the first two times I saw Pretty Lights - at the Times Union Center in Albany, NY - I treated the experience like any other show: as an outlet to abuse drugs and party. And when I did that, I didn't remember or feel my experiences.

It wasn't until I went out of my way to see Pretty Lights that I understood the emotional depth of his music. The Albany shows were a painless drive from Syracuse. Going to Basslights in Hampton, VA required an investment of both time and money. It was the first time I had flown to a show. It required intention.

It was my first multi-night run, and something clicked the second night when I was on acid. I finally "got it." I looked around Hampton Coliseum and realized that most of the audience shared that intention. And whether it was to achieve the intention or not, everyone dressed the same way, everyone used the same slang, and everyone maintained a tacit ethos. I realized that this was much more than a party. And so I started paying attention and learned to distinguish between bacchanal hedonism and substance.

Pretty Lights and Bassnectar are the diametric paradigms of neo-hippie culture, in my opinion. And their music is about finding beauty in the pain and ugliness; they just express it differently, if not oppositely.

I became hopelessly addicted to Pretty Lights after this experience. I started developing my own relationship with each and every song and associating them with different emotions that I wasn't able to otherwise access. It's no wonder that one of his songs is called "Make You Feel." His music doesn't give you a choice. Instead of trying to forget the struggle, his music is about learning how to live with it. It's about what can happen when you allow yourself to feel.

There's a song on his "Passing By Behind Your Eyes" album called "If I Could Feel Again" where he samples a quote from the Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz:" "What would I do, if I could suddenly feel? But that's the whole tragic point, my friend. What would I do?" I think that discovering the answer to this question is at the heart of the Pretty Lights experience. And it's certainly defined the latter part of my decade.