Before Mysteryland started, 10 journalists including me took a golf-carted tour of the festival grounds, its dozen stages connected by footpaths through a sprawling North Holland mix of woods, ponds and fields. Years ago, I'd become fixated with YouTube videos of European jumpstyle and hardstyle dancers—picture Riverdance with ankle weights—and was excited to cover a festival featuring many my favorite hardcore DJs, though, as is often the case with my obsessions, I knew the potential moment of my greatest enjoyment had probably long passed, and I instead likely faced a day of conflicted nostalgia and dizzy confusion. Starting at 9AM, we were escorted by tall women with identically curled hair, black skirts, crop tops and ankle boots with bouquets of plastic flowers attached to the back. The tour was led by the festival’s creative director, and soon we’d meet its co-founder, who started Mysteryland 20 years ago to promote Dutch hardcore; for an event that drew a 60,000-strong crowd in a single day, the staff seemed as calm as if it'd happened last week. The golf carts parked in front of the main stage, assembled in front of a lake and adorned with a massive wooden owl with animated eyes. The flower-heeled women served coffee from a picnic basket, and someone showed us a poster of an ecstasy pill not to eat.
We drove a few minutes to a presentation by one of Mysteryland’s bosses, Irfan van Ewijk, in a waterfront restaurant on the festival grounds. By the door, a woman in a bikini and blue body paint crouched on an elevated, cubic cage without bars; about 20 clumps of her hair had been strung up around the top rim of the cube, tied off at the ends like the points of a cartoon sun. She silently posed for pictures, pushing her hips toward each photographer. She was wearing ballet shoes. Inside, van Ewijk spoke about the festival’s mission—to harness ”strategic relationships with A-brands” while “engaging young, cultural, creative innovators” and “having a positive impact with [Mysteryland's] messages,” in order to “create a land of the free… united by friendship.” He and two partners had founded a production company, ID&T, in the early ‘90s to promote their Thunderdome gabber raves, and they’d expanded over the decades to produce mainstream electronic dance events like Mysteryland and Sensation; earlier this year, they sold a majority stake in ID&T to the American company that owns Beatport. Next year, Mysteryland will travel to upstate New York as the first festival held at the grounds of Woodstock since Woodstock. “We think water belongs to everybody,” van Ewijk said, when someone asked about their sustainability strategy. Later, when answering a question about methods for cooling kegs, he forgot the English word for “refund.”
After the presentation, we all went outside and the caged ballerina untied her hair. There were paper hearts attached to each strand, and she handed them one by one to the journalists. We walked between dense, potted ferns to a deck on the water for a vegetarian lunch with van Ewijk. The newly freed ballerina danced casually, and there was an red tent with gold-painted lions standing guard and sand spilled decoratively in front. Three people were supposed to go in at a time, then a tall man dressed like a geisha would close the tent flap and serve them tea, mysteriously. When I went in, I was anxious about expressing enough appreciation and fun to the man in the geisha costume. He poured us tea and said to drink it, and that in a few minutes we’d “experience Mysteryland to the full.” I looked down and wondered, “Drugs?” Afterward, someone said: “They push your sexual boundaries when you walk in that tent.”
The festival began, and within the hour I’d ditched all of the journalists, as well as the newly off-duty ballerina, who with the sexual boundaries guy had apparently developed a mutual crush, him taking her photo and untangling a flower that was stuck in her hair. I had briefly, when I was still with the group, seen Baauer DJ, and felt defeated to have traveled so far to see something so un-exotic—I wanted to find the weirdest shit I could. Someone said to me, “Why do you look confused?” and I quietly walked away.
Nearby there was a man dressed like Death in The Seventh Seal standing on the roof of a many-sided, many doored wooden building, talking in a devilish voice about a freak show inside. I bought a ticket from a tan man in vaguely pirate-like clothes, thinking to myself that I identified with "freaks." Simultaneously, I hoped there would and wouldn’t be a sword swallower. Inside the building, two women danced as if being exorcised, twisting their backs, squatting and tumbling slowly over white-sheeted furniture; one dancer wore a strapless black dress and I thought, “that is going to fall right off,” and it did. The women moved energetically and ambivalently while Death sat on a couch, laughing. The second woman picked up an antler and used it to scrape the ground, then the topless woman climbed on the back of a plastic reindeer and the antler woman humped the reindeer as if she were a man, and sped up and "came" as white lights flashed brightly.
Leaving, I walked fast but aimlessly, feeling guilty about ditching people and afraid of being found again, but glad I didn’t have to talk about the freak show, or hear someone else explain the freak show to a third person who hadn’t been there. Crossing a bridge, I found myself at what I would repeatedly mentally refer to as a "mountain," a sort of four-sided, grassy, tiered, unnatural mound a bit like a Mesoamerican pyramid. Climbing its few-hundred stairs, I saw a man leaning against a handrail in a silver and black Hugo Boss shirt and sunglasses with lenses comprised of a solid plane of black, rectangular plastic. I wanted to ask to take his picture but felt nervous about saying an English word when he would’ve expected something else.
At the top of the mountain you could bungee jump from a crane for €75, and there was a small, windowless venue called Gift Club. Only certain people could get in the club; I think there was a contest. I wanted to go in but, after the freak show, felt nervous about its name being so vague. I showed the door-people my press wristbands and they let me into the waiting area with bored expressions. They were wearing Katy Perry-colored wigs. Two official-seeming photographers were taking Polaroid portraits with “What happens in Gift Club stays in Gift Club” on the paper frames in red ink. What happens, I thought, will be me standing anxiously by a wall. I saw a frowning, 40-something skinhead or ex-skinhead with sun tan lotion blotches and a spiderweb tattoo on his skull, and I imagined my camera being ripped from my hands. I put my camera inside its case and solicited a Polaroid, moving in front of a black wall to convey a subtle mood of isolation.
"Someone said to me, 'Why do you look confused?'”
When the doors to Gift Club opened, I lingered to the back of the entering crowd. Inside was very dark, and you passed through in a way that required fluorescent arrows held by people in fluorescent face paint. A small stage contained a burlesque show in which four women wore approximately 18”-wide fluorescent lips, black tights all over their bodies and fake clothing made of fluorescent tape, like the outlines of a bikini top and thong, and fluorescent pasties. The first song was “Satisfaction.” The dancers peeled the tape away, pretending that it made them nude. When they were done, more dancers in fluorescent stuff did smiling, shoulder-heavy dances to encourage you to dance. Inflatable things bounced over the crowd, including a black ball that was at least six feet in diameter and jiggled claustrophobically between the crowd’s heads and the low ceiling until it popped into a load of confetti, to my overwhelming relief, at its passing.
After the show ended, I went to the side of the tiered mountain facing the hardcore stage—the second largest at the festival—to achieve my long-planned goal of sitting hardcorely, the reason I so excitedly accepted this assignment. It was 4:30PM. My thoughts were enveloped and subsumed by the repetitive, distorted kicks of the genre; I felt no desires, the music so insistent and intensely fast it expressed itself in me as emotional white noise. I focused on an approximately 25-year-old, tan, shirtless guy with a silver chain, two earrings and a Tom Cruise-like face, dancing dramatically on the tier below. If, like me, you’re only familiar with Dutch hardcore dances via the internet, it can be surprising and alienating to see how lazily and instinctually thousands of people kick out their feet and shuffle, and only shuffle. I scanned the crowd—every path and field I could see from the top of the mountain was dense with people—and suddenly felt as if I'd dropped a carton of milk in a grocery store, realizing in slight panic that I was the only one with my feet planted, simply nodding my head..
There are many hardstyle songs that begin, unexpectedly, with spare piano and melodramatic, Coldplay-like ballads, before some remixer introduces increasingly trancey synths at the hook. When the bass and drums would fully hit, I'd feel like I was being resurrected internally in some truer form, somehow purer and as I was meant to be all along.
One man sitting next to me, when the song I've embedded below was playing and the singer said It slips through our fingers like a fistful of sand, put his hand on his wife’s thigh in a way that was slow and romantic. They were ambiguously older than me, and I strongly identified with the look on the man's face, sitting happily while exerting minimal effort. Below me, the shirtless guy bounced in a challenging, dance-offy way with a smiling blonde woman in clothes inspired by the American south, with boots and a USA-print tank top and cutoffs with white stars, teasing him by covering her face in a fold-out fan adorned with the word HARDSTYLE.
It started to rain, and as drops collected on the hood of my jacket, I set out to find shelter. Without thinking where I was walking, moving like a ball bearing dropped on a driveway, I eventually found cover in a patch of trees near the main stage. The owl burped confetti, and it blew out over the crowd. Tens of thousands of people were jumping and pumping their arms to music that sounded vaguely familiar, but less pump-uppy than they were acting, and again I felt disconnected. It rained harder. I heard “Satisfaction” for the second time. In the crowd, a man in a loud button-down shirt pointed a squirt gun at women threateningly. For his final song, Fedde Le Grand played “Wonderwall,” and the next DJ, Porter Robinson, did remixes of M83 and MGMT, and, feeling the main stage was too main for me, I left.
I spied, tucked deep in the woods, near no one, an illuminated purple and blue H shape spinning as a fun light object. I spied a fruit stand and ordered "fruitsalad" from the all-Dutch menu, though, for two or three tries, for some reason, the server couldn't understand the way I pronounced it. As I scribbled in my notebook, someone asked me what I was doing, and I said, “Writing.” “You write such little words,” they said. “Am I in your book? My name is Joyce.” I read the part about fruitsalad out loud, and Joyce said, “What do you think of my pants?” I said, “Ooh, zebra print.” I told her I’d write that down, and she lumbered away. Minutes later, a second person asked me what I was doing (“writing”) and said he and his friend were in the US military stationed in Ramstein, in Germany, and had driven five hours to come to Mysteryland. A woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Where is the house?” Men were pissing in the bushes rampantly.
Tired of being approached, I walked aimlessly until I again found the hardstyle stage, and climbed to a level of the mountain one layer lower than I'd sat before. There were more shirtless guys on this tier. Tom Cruise was still there, bouncing. On the ground, a man snorted cocaine from a plastic bag. Someone who looked younger than me rolled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of the logo for Q-Dance, another production company that puts on hardcore-only events. I thought, “one layer closer to hell.” It rained harder still; when I tried to write, the ink on my open notebook spread out in tiny black floods. I considered that festival-goers may have been questioning me so much because I’d been doing it wrong. I folded up my book and started for the first time to shuffle, alternating legs and pushing out my knees in a persistent march that felt like it belonged to a body that wasn't mine, but felt much closer to right.