Death, grief, and designer sunglasses on an EDM cruise to nowhere

There was also a waterslide.

Photographer James Coletta
February 19, 2019
Death, grief, and designer sunglasses on an EDM cruise to nowhere

The Winchester “Mystery” House is a nonsensically maze-like mansion in San Jose, California. The mansion’s owner, Sarah Winchester — widow of William Wirt Winchester and heir to the firearm magnate’s fortune — had construction workers constantly building elaborate extensions in an attempt to appease the ghosts of all those killed by a Winchester rifle. From the mansion’s construction in 1864 until the widow’s passing in 1922, there was the steady beat of a hammer — an endless rhythm in endless rooms attempting to stave off guilt and grief, its place cemented in the persistent-pulse pantheon. When death is so close, the beat must go on.

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Anyway, I recently found myself on a five-day EDM festival cruise. Before spending four nights on the Norwegian Epic — a 4,000-person-capacity behemoth where the twelfth Holy Ship electronic music festival was held — I watched promotional videos of barely covered butts connected to brilliant smiles, designer sunglasses, and flamboyantly beshorted male groins. After showing said videos to my mom, she looked at me with such pity that you’d think I was the one with cancer. Having gone directly from my ailing mother’s bedside to — God help me — Florida, I was the sole Elmo-esque body type in a literal ocean of young and toned ravers moving their hips to the sounds of A-trak, Zeds Dead, and DJ Seinfeld.

Strictly speaking, these weren’t "my people," but they seemed sweet. The way the crowd interacted with each other reminded me of kids reuniting on the first day of summer camp, the beads and rituals of which I remember fondly. (I didn’t engage with the guy dressed as a large, inflated penis.) There would eventually be over a dozen arrests for drug possession preceding both legs of Holy Ship. On the second leg, one of the sniffer dogs overdosed on MDMA ("We wish K-9 Jake a speedy and complete recovery," the festival's reps said in a statement). Holy Ship has a “zero tolerance” drug policy, but an attendee later assured me later that security was “mostly concerned with weight.” (Meaning the security was concerned with actual dealers more than the four non-prescription Adderall pills I nervously hid in my deodorant so I could hang with the youth.) I shudder to think what twelve straight hours of drinking would result in without the stabilizing influence of pot and ecstasy. It would be like London after midnight.

Death, grief, and designer sunglasses on an EDM cruise to nowhere

Epic's setup is multiple floors of living quarters (ranging between $974 and $1,699 per person) sandwiched between mini city states of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, as well a casino and the upper playground of Deck 15 where one can reenact the happier portions of Titanic. Holy Ship uses the middle decks for late-night, smaller-sized DJ bacchanalia, but the mega-party's up top — two DJs performing simultaneously every night 'til midnight.

The ship's enormous enough that there's barely any bleed between sets. the aft “Spice H2O” stage largely for older heads and the Pool Deck for those preferring the fare of more macho techno, dubstep, and the tragically named “vomit-step.” The most simplistic distinction between the two stages is that the Black Madonna (who I loved) played a Talking Heads remix at the Spice end while Jauz blended Zedd's “The Middle” into Daft Punk's “One More Time" on the other end. There was zero pressure to align with one end of the boat over the other, though the other music writers on board (as well as much of the staff I spoke to) seemed partial to the fare blaring from the Spice deck.

I thought about trying to make friends on the EDM boat — I really did. The young people were as friendly as they could be expected to towards a lone creeper twice their age. There were so many high fives that my hands were chapped by the second day, with dudes in bright yellow caps performatively spritzing strangers at every turn. The real threat to my self-containment was the endless bearded Lebowskis in “Holy Ship” bathrobes; at one point, a guy dressed like Jesus presumably adhered to the sanitary standards of the time of his virgin birth in the manger by offering me a “scritch” from his scalp massager.

Death, grief, and designer sunglasses on an EDM cruise to nowhere

It’s easy enough to pooh-pooh Holy Ship's utopian concept of "family," but once I started speaking to people, possessing a lazy sense of disdain became impossible. Post-EDM breakout artist Mija (whose drum and bass set was a highlight of the festival) gave me a poolside history lesson on the essential nature of communal respect in rave culture, while ten-year Holy Ship veteran and sober raver Nicole patiently explained the community’s mores and rituals while fiercely defending her bottled water from wasted partiers with sticky fingers. She proudly showed off her collection of bangles and trinkets collected over the years, each one signifying a different Ship Fam milestone. When Nicole found out I was a music writer, she claimed her tastes as running to the “basic bitch” Chainsmokers model. Whatever one might think of the music on Holy Ship, it’s not quite that. So asked her why, if she truly preferred “Closer (ft. Halsey)” to, say, “If Madonna Calls I’m Not Here,” she kept coming. Nicole simply referred to Holy Ship as a “sustaining cult,” intended as a compliment that I think I understood.

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Death, grief, and designer sunglasses on an EDM cruise to nowhere

There were some jerks. Amidst the haze of vape exhaust and ocean air, I saw a few shirtless apes drunkenly spilling and abandoning free meatloaf across the dining room floor for kitchen workers to clean up. Later, a frat boy in a "King" hat berated his "Queen" hat-donning girlfriend on a day ferry while spilling his lemonade and vodka, taking a selfie of himself grinning while she stared ahead stone-faced. As someone who’s been punched aplenty but never got the hang of fighting, the mook strain that ran through the festival was distracting, if not an aesthetic dealbreaker. Mija couldn’t help but note there being “so much testosterone”; while Svdden Death was playing dubstep to a packed room, he repeatedly called everyone "pussies" and shouted, “I want to see more fighting. Fuck shit up!” All I could hear was, “Welcome to the OC, bitch!”

As someone who uses “death rock” and “power violence” as music descriptors while maintaining a straight face, I respect the tradition of countless and nonsensically titled micro-genres. It’s enough to respect that the differences are real to the heads, while also grasping that the goal for most strains of dance music are the same: escape at the least, transcendence at best. Watching the international (by way of Nigeria, Lebanon, London, and New York) tech-house/techno DJ, Nicole Moudaber, command a packed room of throbbing souls into joyful complicity was intoxicating; I almost danced, as I stopped thinking about what people were wearing, what I was going to write about what people were wearing, or the visiting nurse gently instructing my mother on the self-administration of her IV. Moudaber’s wild curls reminded me of my mother’s, when I was just a baby and she was still in nursing school. Then, a small black-haired girl came up to me and said, “You look bored.”

Death, grief, and designer sunglasses on an EDM cruise to nowhere

Every night of Holy Ship had a different theme. “Varsity” was as alienating as one would imagine, and “Gold Rush” was taken as a prompt to gild one’s pasties rather than dress like an old-timey prospector. On the last night, there were four women dressed as grannies, complete with white wigs and long dressing gowns. Hungry as I was for goth signifiers, they were objectively the best; in similar guises, the DJs largely just looked comfortable. Two days of the festival were spent on the private island of Great Stirrup Cay — a stretch of time that felt most like a friendless vacation. The incessant sun kept me from hearing the music; I paced the beach, full of self recrimination. I thought terrible, apocalyptic, self pitying thoughts about all these half-dressed kidults sucking down almost-virgin margaritas and affluently squirming on the ocean dirt.

Then Snakehips played “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” and I immediately loved these effervescent life-livers, grinning and whooping and each one themselves a beam of starshine in an expanding universe. To dance, without responsibility or repercussion or reason, is to fully inhabit one’s own body; it’s the purest expression of gratitude to whatever or whoever formed us. Eventually, I retreated to a shaded area to read Lisa Carver’s book-length defense of Yoko Ono; on the ferry back, I saw a man explaining his “Live Your Best Life” tattoo and almost choked with rage.

When I could tolerate my isolation no longer, I made small talk with some staff. In between regaling me with tales of S&M clubs in NYC in the ‘80s, an older security guard told me that he preferred Van Halen: “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the same beat for ten minutes! Not for me.” He enjoyed the skin displayed but claimed that at the country music festivals he worked, the girls flashed their breasts and the music was better. When I told him I was a writer, he told me that Florida papers would give stringers “up to five bills for a really good car crash.” I told him I’d keep that in mind.

Death, grief, and designer sunglasses on an EDM cruise to nowhere

There was a tall, skinny, scruffy fellow with a floppy cap and stringy hair who gave me a nod whenever he passed. I developed a small crush on him, fantasizing about us hanging out and slam-dancing underneath the horizon of the Atlantic, but I was loathe to approach him. What if he didn’t care about d-beat? With some of the Holy Ship camaraderie finally hitting my veins, I introduced myself to him at the casino bar. His name was Arieh, and (of course) he was a merch guy. With shitty hardcore and obscure noise as shared language, we proceeded to throw band names at each other, responding “I know them!” in turn. Finally, references I understood, I thought, the conversation resembling a cool hipster glass of water after days wandering in the Diplo desert.

I asked almost every person I encountered whether they saw dance music as escape or liberation, distraction, or through the history of disco and dance music’s conception by society’s marginalized political. Most people, without hesitation or embarrassment, said “escape.” Which felt strange. It’s hard to describe how odd it felt to be at a music event and not see or hear a single anti-Trump shirt or utterance; the closest was when a Fools Gold DJ played one Dead Prez verse. It’s not like there was a shortage of LGBTQ attendees, and the presence of minority ravers and DJs must not and can not be erased. The truest and finest artist on the cruise, “Sissy Bounce” originator Big Freedia, represents nothing if not liberation and escape at the same damn time. So aren’t people allowed — if not entitled — to a few days where they don’t have to think about it, whatever “it” is? And if that requires paying a month’s rent and entering international waters, well, any publicist selling a punk band will tell you what dark times we’re living in.

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Death, grief, and designer sunglasses on an EDM cruise to nowhere

Frankly, I don’t want escape in this life. I want to think about what will happen to my mother’s spirit when she’s gone, and I want to think about what will happen to my spirit when she’s gone. I do want to think about death and grief rushing in from afar, because I feel like I owe my mother and my God, at least, that. Why should that put me at odds with anything going on around me? An EDM cruise is perfect for contemplating purgatory.

But I went down a waterslide as the sun set and Big Freedia filled the air. I went into a bar made of ice with Mija and didn’t have to pay the $24 cover charge. The bartender was hilarious and the vodka was free, and we were all laughing in our fur-lined capes in an icebox on a floating city. What’s magic if not that? And didn’t I truly enjoy Zeds Dead’s populist genre hopping? Wasn’t I thrilled when Skream played Crystal Waters “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)"? Or when the Black Madonna played Quando Quango’s “Love Tempo”? Even when a DJ played ten seconds of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and I rolled my eyes a bit, wasn’t the momentary communal recognition also thrilling?

Death, grief, and designer sunglasses on an EDM cruise to nowhere

Of course, all my death talk is a pose itself — a bid for unearned depth. Tacky, really. Mom’s cancer numbers are down (as I write this she’s sitting next to me, drinking coffee and making a chore list), and I'm not grieving, just always worried. Isn’t life worth celebrating? It’s not escapist or apolitical to decline to be cruel for four days on a boat — “Respect the ship” as a prayer writ large. The morning we departed from the ship, the line to land was tortuously slow and blocks long down the Epic's deck. A woman in front of me had a tattoo that said “Follow Your Bliss,” and I had no choice but to follow hers as she and her gang, wearing sweatpants and stumbling under the weight of their luggage, made plans to see each other again at the next EDM fest. A pretty young woman in an off-pink onesie was angrily sobbing into her phone for the entire duration of the line. People were reverting to non-Ship Fam life, studiously ignoring her frustration — or maybe they were showing respect, as granting privacy between a girl and the troubles awaiting her return is how it’s done on land.

I texted my mom and told her I was alive and tired, and I’d call her from the city. Off-ship, there was yet another woman crying. This time, a Holy Ship safety attendant was there, kneeling down to assist. As I went looking for a ride to the airport, he was still gently talking to her, presumably to help her find her way home, now that her family was dispersed. In a few hours, the Norwegian Epic would depart again, another four thousand-plus discotequians bearing off into the oceanic booty emancipation of Holy Ship 13.0. I would've enjoyed my escape, but my bar shift was in just a few hours — so with no 808s to distract me from whatever thoughts may come, I went further into landlocked Orlando.

Death, grief, and designer sunglasses on an EDM cruise to nowhere