After the second death in three years at Australia’s Defqon.1 music festival, Charlie Scott started thinking about the first time she encountered the hardstyle electronica subculture.
It was mid-afternoon and the festival was well underway. I was packed tightly between sweating, pulsating Dutch, and thought I was fitting in rather well. I gathered that you just bent your knees and kicked your legs, in alternation, while pumping your fists in time with the music. All with as much aggression you could muster. Then a girl from the bus stopped me. She shook her head, then pointed at her legs. She was saying, “No, it’s like this.”
Hardstyle music is a culture in The Netherlands. It’s a product of the evolution of gabber, a hard dance music genre popular in the 90’s. It’s basically a techno tease, with the intensity build far out-weighing the drop. Last summer I was staying with a friend, Evan Erkelens, in Utrecht, 20 minutes from Amsterdam. Evan suggested I come with him to Rebirth festival, and experience hardstyle culture firsthand. I was intrigued, and quickly agreed to go.
Rebirth was on the other side of the country. Evan and around 30 of his closest friends had hired a bus to get across to the event. His friends were typically Dutch: tall blonde gym junkies. They were frightening to me, as they spoke very little English, and would sporadically break into displays of excitement, in the form of chest pumps, and face-reddening roars. The bus trip was three hours long. I sat watching everybody taking it in turns to use the bathroom, always in pairs.
When we arrived, the lads were charged. One of Evan’s friends carried me from the bus to the entrance gates. I wasn’t sure why. Thousands poured inside the gates of the three-staged event. We made our way to the main stage. It was one in the afternoon and 12 hours of madness had begun.
The first thing I noticed was the way people were dancing. They looked like they were marching, but in a sort of demented rhythm. The floor filled and when surrounded by giant marching, deathly serious Dutch, I fell on the floor laughing. It won me no friends, only blank stares. Unable to explain myself, I made the decision to supress all laughter and try to fit in. Evan said, “It’s just the way hardstyle music moves you. You’ll see.”
It was so different to anything I’d ever seen before. We just stood there for what felt like hours, but was in reality five-to-ten minutes, waiting for the beat to drop. Lasers zipping overhead. Thousands of us. Standing and waiting, agitatedly craving the drop. And when it dropped, marching for our lives, united by panic. For we knew the beat would soon die down again, and we would be left in twitchy readiness once more.
I stayed at the main stage for a good while. But at around six in the evening I was overcome with fear, the inevitable fear all festival goers feel at one point or another. On this particular occasion its onset was caused by my size. I was in a sea of giant Dutch and my head was up to the nipples of everyone who surrounded me. With fist pumps becoming more vigorous, this represented a clear personal danger, so I headed to check out the other stages.
Night had fallen, and the earlier welcoming festival grounds, with food stalls and colourful banners, had grown weird. The ground didn’t seem as stable as it was before, and the lasers made it look like a spacecraft. A girl that came on our bus ran past crying, freaking out. I saw Evan and asked what happened. He said, “Her drink was spiked, and she thinks she’s seeing dragons.”
I kept walking to the second stage. It was comparatively tame. Inside the tent generic house music played. People were dancing slightly more normally. It was calming, it was safe.
And then it got boring. I left and went to see what the third-stage held. I saw Evan on my way. Like a benevolent spirit guide, he warned me, “You don’t want to go in there.”
I went in anyway. On the third stage ‘rawstyle’ – a darker, relatively new sub-genre of hardstyle – played, and some strange things were happening. There was a group of about 15 to 20 people crouched real low to the ground, acting exactly like velociraptors. They had formed a circle and were squawking at each other, and fighting. Clawing at faces, sparring as if from the Cretaceous Period. This tent was too much. So, like Goldilocks, I went back to the main stage: where the atmosphere was just right.
At midnight the music stopped. It was over, and we were all wrecked. We’d only been there for 12 hours, which seems a short time to attend a festival. But the Dutch do it harder and faster, as I had discovered. Thousands exited, quietly, without a fuss, the same way they had come in.
I wished someone would carry me back, but no one looked up to it. As we walked, the odd stray could be seen on the edges of the pathways. Crying, freaking out. There was nothing we could do for them. We kept on walking.
I talked to one of the guys who spoke English, briefly, on the bus home to Utrecht.
“How was your first hardstyle festival?” he asked.
“I’m going to do this every weekend from now on,” I told him.
I never have made it to another one.