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[whitespace] Mixed Messages

From South Beach to Ultra Fest, Miami presents many faces to the music-loving tourist

By Gina Arnold

'Ultra Fest Is a No Tolerance Festival," proclaimed the little orange signs posted all over the fences of Miami's biggest and most commercial rave, which took place two Saturdays ago. The sign made me wonder if I was heading into a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan or something: 35,000 revelers whose mind-set was rigid on certain points of ideology.

Well, why not? In the last 12 months, Florida has been the sight of many somewhat intolerant situations. Perhaps that's why it didn't surprise me when the first thing I saw at Bayfront Park was a big white rave kid, his blond hair in dreadlocks, wearing a candy-colored beaded necklace that said "RED NECK" in alphabet beads around his neck. Clearly, the messages that Florida wants to send us are as mixed as Ultra Fest's poorly worded flyers.

Of course, what the promoters meant to say was that the rave was intolerant of drug use, but in a state governed by supreme nepotist Jeb Bush, you never really know, do you? After all, Florida is the state where they persecute children with AIDS, where they kidnapped Elian Gonzalez. And it is also, of course, the birthplace of some of the very worst bands and musical trends in the country. The Genitorturers. Marilyn Manson. Limp Bizkit. Creed.

The sad thing is that Florida has so very much to offer. Its weather, its ocean and its landscape--and even some of its architecture--are gorgeous. There is much to like about Florida, not the least of which is the insane clash of cultures on display in Miami Beach: Orthodox Jews and gay men, beautiful Cubans and elderly ladies, all mingling together on the sands of a morning in as motley an assortment of demographic groups as you're likely to see anywhere.

It really is an interesting place, even if it isn't a wholesome one--at least, that's what I thought when I arrived there a few weeks ago for my first-ever visit. After stopping briefly at the world's scariest hotel, I nipped across the four-mile-long causeway that leads to Miami Beach, staring awestruck at the three huge cruise ships hovering like floating skyscrapers, or even the Starship Enterprise.

I was on my way to South Beach, America's latest hoity-toityville, and when I got there, I was suitably impressed. The streets were crammed full of young people--a sprinkling of stray spring-breakers, all fat and loud and obnoxious; numerous gaggles of beauteous gay men; and, of course, masses of girls in tube tops and bikinis.

South Beach also contains every single high-end retail store imaginable--Armani, DKNY, Banana Republic--and a thousand groovy restaurants blaring techno music, their flowered porches full of beauteous ones sipping margaritas. I had a little trouble telling which of the art deco buildings were new and which were just beautifully restored, but other than that the place looked fabulous, like an American Monte Carlo, or a much, much nicer Venice. It was rich, rica, riccissima, and the shallowness of it all made me want to vomit.

SO BACK I went across the causeway to Miami, where I was due to attend the Ultra Fest. Thanks to the excesses of South Beach (and the traffic), I was actually in a highly intolerant mood, but if I was looking for a whipping boy, I was due to be disappointed. Ultra Fest was the first rave I'd been to in several years, and in some ways it was the most enjoyable.

I liked the setting and the hamburgers and even the music, booming out of tents called Electro Kingdom and Subliminal. I enjoyed seeing the kids all dancing to music spun by Pete Tong, Josh Winks and DJ Reza. I liked feeling the beats inside my chest, like a parade getting nearer and nearer. And I liked the breeze that blew off the harbor, and the lovely sunset.

On the downside, the bottled water was five bucks. And the (inevitable) merch booths sold stupid toys: glow sticks, love beads and little plastic aliens and transformers. Now, what is the connection between children's playthings and rave music? Is it, as some pundits have speculated, a deep-seated desire on the part of ravers to recapture the innocence of youth? And if so, how does drug use fit in, seeing as drug use isn't exactly innocent? Because the thing is, pixie sticks and no-tolerance signs notwithstanding, I refuse to believe that at least half that crowd wasn't rolling.

Not that it matters, since Ultra Fest felt extremely safe and nonviolent, unlike most outdoor rock concerts, where the music features hate-filled lyrics and the crowd's drug of choice is alcohol, or worse. Ultra Fest had beer sales, but one didn't get the sense that the whole purpose of being there was to get drunk and puke--which completely separates it from the scene at South Beach, where alcohol consumption is a prime mover of bucks and bowels.

Does that make Ultra Fest countercultural? Maybe in Florida, although I really couldn't tell. I have a friend who's 17 and loves to go to raves, and lately he's been telling me it's all over. Moby's music on commercials, rave wear in Macy's, rednecks at Ultra Fest ... the writing's on the wall. Of course, I've been hearing that for years, but I think that raves are like punk rock or hippie music and that they'll be around in some form or other for decades to come.

Bandwidth Wagon

MEANWHILE, THE FIRST WEEK of April 2001 will go down in history as the week that a lot of the issues surrounding digital downloading came to a head. They weren't resolved, not by a long shot, but at least there was a congressional hearing on the subject, at which Don Henley and Alanis Morissette testified on opposite sides.

Over in the business sector, meanwhile, numerous deals were struck between record labels and E-companies for subscription-type downloading services modeled faintly on Napster. AOL-Time Warner, Sony, EMI, Microsoft, Bertelsmann and Yahoo have all come out with projects this week, and there are plenty more where those came from.

Clearly, someone is crying "Uncle," but who? And more importantly, Why? I'll tell you one thing: I wouldn't buy stock in any of them. At the moment, there are way too many of these services coming down the pike, and they'll probably get trounced by the freebies--and by Tower Records.

The whole situation reminds me of the problems being experienced by Webvan.com, a good solid company that everyone agrees there's a niche for, but which can't seem to make any money. The reason is that, when push comes to shove, despite the inconvenience, most people prefer to go to the grocery store to shop for themselves--to browse amongst the aisles and buy things on impulse; to lovingly handle every flavor of Ben and Jerry's before deciding on Chunky Monkey.

In the end, the same might be true of record stores, where I've logged many hours just hanging out. They say you can hang out in cyberspace, but it's not really the same thing.

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From the April 12-18, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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