WTF, indeed. A bucolic cattle ranch in the middle of Oregon seems like the least likely place to find a three-day festival of electronic music, music more closely identified with urban clubs; but, on a July weekend, the Millennial Generation came to the Tygh Valley to get its freak on.
Daniel Zetterstrom photo
The WTF main stage.
One hundred miles southeast of Portland, Tygh Valley saw its population of 224 jump by 3,000 when the What The Festival, or WTF, moved in. Surrounded by rocky cliffs that form a sort of natural amphitheater, the grassy area is perfect for live music, at once extremely secluded and acoustically sublime.
And much like Woodstock, the 1969 festival that set the benchmark for all rock festivals, WTF is not for anyone concerned about sobriety, sanity or good impressions. Women wore flashy pasties or went bare-breasted; men strolled around in their underwear. A slew of festivalgoers were costumed: a girl in a peacock outfit, a group of pale-faced geishas, a man with a “spirit animal” hat. But most settled for a hippie-cum-gypsy look. No make-up, no showers, just handmade dresses, rolled-up linen pants and seldom a shirt in sight.
The sold-out festival cost $180 for the whole weekend, not a bad deal for the big name electronic acts and exemplary location, but still a hefty price tag for the arty vagabonds that comprised a great deal of the festivalgoers. Nonetheless the festival skirted hipster cool and landed in genuine hippie territory, a welcome respite from the usual Ray-Ban and Lacoste-wearing attendees attracted to trendier music festivals.
Cody Delistraty / NBC News
A sampling of the festivalgoers at the first annual What The Festival, a three-day electronic music festival in Tygh Valley, Ore.
Even the food vendors mirrored this "organic" sensibility, and with morning coffee, "regular milk is not an option." The choice? Hemp milk or coconut milk. And likewise, there was nothing regular about this "creative" atmosphere. However, unlike Woodstock, the up-and-coming genre of electronic music set the festival apart, marking it as a musical turning point while complementing the festival’s unique atmosphere.
Electronic music, once associated with abandoned warehouses and drug-addled clubgoers, has seen a huge growth in popularity and commercial success. Known as electronica in the 1990s, electronic music has a set of powerhouses like Deadmau5, Tiesto and Grammy-winning Skrillex and Afrojack, who can each pull in more than $1 million for festival appearances. These performers play at massively-scaled events such as Electric Zoo Festival on Randall’s Island in New York, where 60,000 tickets were sold for more than $100 a pop.
WTF admitted only 3,000 people and its location made it a trek, yet it still managed to pull in top electronic artists such as Beats Antique, Claude VonStroke, Ghostland Observatory, MiMOSA, Gold Panda and Emancipator, all of whom can sell out venues and are highly billed at extremely popular festivals such as Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Coachella. The genre is unmistakably rising, and its popularity among teens and twentysomethings has created a market gap for more events, which WTF happily filled.
While much of the music at WTF was party-friendly and featured “drops” -- where a methodical, rhythmic build-up releases into a bass-heavy free-flowing sound providing catharsis and effortless dance-ability -- much of it was steeped in emotion and personal meaning for the artists.
"I never made music for dancing, for like, to drop into something," said Derwin Lau, aka Gold Panda, an electronic musician from England whose complex sounds have received critical praise. "It’s more about creating an atmosphere, a canvas for you to put some kind of emotion on it, to soundtrack how you feel."
Doug Appling, aka Emancipator, an electronic artist from Portland, sought to provide a sonic escape.
"I just feel like when you’re out here at the festival setting, it’s so much easier to transcend the moment and let the music, you know, take you somewhere else for a moment," he said. "It’s a combination of good people and amazing music set in nature, and, yeah, for three days you can just kind of get loose."
Coming off his special-effects driven set, which attracted one of the biggest crowds of the weekend, Ghostland Observatory’s front man Aaron Behrens, said he loves the feel of middle-of-nowhere festivals like WTF and believes festivalgoers are ubiquitously more "vibe-y," more at ease.
"With these festivals, they definitely help you relax," said the Austin, Texas, native. "The people are way more relaxed, they’re way more vibe-y, they’re way more, I dunno, they’re just in the groove. They’ve been gettin’ loose all day, they’re gonna be loose all night."
While festivalgoers got loose (with the help of various substances), security was rather tight and free love was most often practiced privately. The festival was regulated and well-planned, perhaps taking away some of the spontaneity that the Baby Boomer generation experienced at Woodstock and deeply desired, rejecting their rigid, "go to school, get married, have kids, retire" proposed life cycle. Yet, WTF still maintained a free-spirited feel, and festivalgoers couldn’t get enough of it.
"I think it’s just a kind of a very free environment, you can just be yourself and have fun and no one’s really thinking about it," said Jessica Kazhian, 32, an engineer living in Portland.
Daniel Zetterstrom photo
An above-ground swimming pool was installed for the festival. The hot days and poolside DJ made the pool an instantly popular hang-out spot.
WTF is such a brilliant name for the festival because it’s at once a laughably ridiculous abbreviation for “What the F---" most often associated with ditzy, texting-obsessed teens, but it’s also a name that signals a clear generational divide. Far from any urban area, with spotty mobile phone service and no public internet access, the festival forced one to rely on face-to-face communication.
Electronic music lends itself especially well to a sense of community. A sea of people pulsate to the music, waiting, in unison, for the song’s drop whereupon they can break into dance together, a mass of connected bodies moving rhythmically beneath the starry sky. And while the name WTF divides generations -- linguistic evolution and technological prowess marking a line in the sand between Gen X and Y -- the festival itself held the same sensibilities of decades prior. Whether it’s rock 'n' roll or electronic, young festivalgoers just want to dance and live without thinking of school and poor job prospects and frustrating politics. To make a memory with friends, even if it can’t be immediately tweeted. To not just take a physical vacation to the countryside but a mental one too.
Sitting down by a babbling creek in the early afternoon, just as the day’s first performers were taking the stage, Emancipator’s Appling and his classical violinist Ilya Goldberg, who often joins him on tour, waxed philosophical on WTF and our innate desires.
“At the end of the day we are all the same kind of creatures,” said Goldberg, who is originally from Russia but now lives in Portland. “We all drink running water and (breathe) fresh air and (need) things that make us feel good in this absolutely natural way. Your body really can beat and feel so good, and being that it is a vessel for interpretation of everything else that happens around you, it’s that much easier to take the musical vibrations. To appreciate it, or figure out how you relate to it.”
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