The ground was shaking, but the guy in the cow costume and the red-and-white-striped Dr. Seuss hat seemed to be having a good time nonetheless. Dancing with a girl wearing a pacifier necklace, he was all smiles. And he was not alone nor particularly extravagant as disc jockeys on four stages spun records accompanied by images on giant video screens.
Colorful characters have been a fixture in a large downtown park on the riverfront over the past three days. They're part of a sea of piercings, tattoos, dance steps, and pounding bass beats that constituted the third Detroit Electronic Music Festival (DEMF), billed as the largest free music event in the world. The festival, a celebration of beat-driven "techno music," drew people as far away as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan.
For Detroit, being the focus of a music scene is nothing new. Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent hail from here. The motor city introduced the world to the sound of Motown. And the city's traditions of classic rock, garage rock, and rap continues to produce stars such as Kid Rock, The White Stripes, and Eminem. But the techno scene is different. Its prevalence in dance clubs has moved the music and the city on to a more global stage, spreading its influence into Europe and beyond and creating a kind of gritty mythology about the city in those places.
"It just gets bigger. And we hope it continues to grow," says Greg Bowens, spokesman for Pop Culture Media, who put on the event.
For many fans abroad, a pilgrimage to Detroit is considered something close to a religious experience. Techno tourists wander through grungy streets looking in awe at seemingly unexceptional buildings that are known only for their role in the creation of the music. And true techno insiders seek out t-shirts and hats that are stamped with a "313," Detroit's area code.
Shawn Santo, owner of Pure Detroit, a store that specializes in city memorabilia, says her stand at the festival was doing a brisk business in selling anything bearing the logo. "It's the insiders' code for techno," she said. "We generally get a lot of Germans, some from the UK, and we had a guy from Spain in the store the other day."
Ms. Santo noted that her store's website had more hits from overseas than the US. "The Netherlands is first, followed by Australia, then the UK and Japan, and then from within the United States. It's really kind of shocking."
Techno comes in many different forms, and is sometimes measured by the number of beats per second. It's a rhythmic set of driving beats played off against mechanical sounds and textures and often has no instrumentation and no vocals. The DJ, who "spins" for the audience, creates a seamless string of beats and rhythms, one morphing into the next with no noticeable switch from one song to the next. The music can go on for hours without a break.
Standing in the wrong space at the DEMF namely a space where sounds from the many different stages hit the ears simultaneously can give one the sensation of being stuck in a giant factory of sound. Still, it's hard to ignore the power of the sound when it is purer. The old American Bandstand throwaway line "It's got a good beat and I can dance to it," didn't come from nowhere. Linking the right combination of beats together does tend to inspire people to swing, sway, and stomp.
The atmosphere is that of a three-day "rave," the all-night dance parties to which teens and college students flock. When the music at the festival officially ended at midnight every night, the attendees often headed out to countless "after parties."
At one party on Saturday night, for instance, the assembled paid $20 to get down in a dark, empty warehouse-like space to beats laid down by a member of the Underground Resistance, a group of Detroit techno artists dedicated to holding shows with little promotion, not even letting people see their faces.
Undeterred and untired, the crowds were much thicker the next night for the performance of funk king George Clinton.
"This is why I came here," says one girl wearing rainbow bracelets that went from her wrists to her elbows. "The music is great. I'm going to dance all night."
And sleep? "I'll worry about that on Tuesday," she said.