The days were hot and long; the crowds were big and young. But the 13th annual Ultra Music Festival filled its purpose: Stating in no uncertain terms that electronic dance music has found its biggest audience since its inception in the youth of America.
The 150,000 partiers at UMF, the nearly 15,000 at Masquerade Motel, and the thousands who went in and out of Beatport's free Beach Party every day, were there for a single purpose: To listen to music they love with their friends. Which is about as pure a motivation as you'll find in any slice of culture these days.
1. Skrillex (Sunday, Tower of Ultra, 7:30 p.m.)
"I want to do something special," 23-year-old Skrillex (nee Sonny Moore) said toward the end of his second and last set at Ultra. "If you have a girl next to you, I want you to -- respectfully -- put her on your shoulders. This song is for the girls." Then he dropped his bass-bombing remix of La Roux's delicate yet strong "In For The Kill," while countless girls in neon bikini tops and face paint jubilantly threw down from on high.
For a genre that treats its women almost as dubiously as hip-hop, it was a moment; and one more reason why dubstep - and Skrillex, its most passionate champion - might take over the world. His music (so far, just some remixes and an EP on Atlantic, "Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites") matches eardrum-rattling bass drops - so sludgy and mean that dancers can do little more than headbang and stomp their feet - with vocals like the La Roux, a weird hodgepodge that Skrillex and his legion of devotees don't see as weird at all. They treat the connection of anger, dissonance and beauty as natural, which alone might be the most important statement of this UMF.
2. David Guetta (Sunday, Main Stage, 9:05 p.m.)
The man who started it all didn't let anyone forget it during his headlining main stage set on the festival's last night. "You know what they told me when I released this record?" he asked the throng of over 50,000, cutting the music right before the first drop of his 2007 hit "Love Is Gone." "They told me that dance music would never work in America." The crowd hollered, Guetta beamed, and the track exploded - but not the original, a remixed version more in line with the heavy-handed electro sound of 2011. Because let's face it, Guetta is no fool. He set the new standard of uptempo, urban-inflected Top 40, and knows how to tweak it, ever so slightly, to stay fresh.
Flo Rida, will.i.am, and two Tron-looking stilt walkers joined the French producer/DJ onstage, but all he really needed was his music: Hits like "Sexy Bitch," "I Gotta Feeling," and "When Love Takes Over," that worked their magic even on a dirt-covered, tired crowd that had been jacking to decidedly more underground beats over the previous three days. It was almost like they recognized that Guetta was the engine that made the plane fly.
3. Deadmau5 (Saturday, Main Stage, 10:30 p.m.)
The kids who had sweated through the 90-degree day in lovingly created custom mouseheads finally had their moment on Saturday night, when deadmau5 took to his infamous cube and let loose his huge and lush tech-trance soundscapes. If there's one artist the Ultra massive would agree on, it's probably the mau5: His music cuts across all electronic genres, and his story is so relatable - pasty nerd dons costume, becomes superhero - that no awkward beat-lover taking refuge in the subculture could resist it.
Any why should they? The sensory onslaught of the deadmau5 experience is so total that even the uninitiated would have to stop and stare. When he dropped his own "Right This Second" - perhaps one of the biggest electronic anthems ever created, with a two-minute build so anxious and intense that it feels like a rollercoaster climb before a freefall - the earth literally moved.
4. Carl Cox (Friday, Carl Cox & Friends, 11 p.m.)
If 2011 is about new sounds, new blood, and new norms in dance music, then veteran Carl Cox shouldn't be on this list. One of the original superstar DJs, the bald-headed, gap-toothed Cox has been doing his thing with little variation since the genre's earliest days. But that thing happens to be systematically tearing apart every venue he visits. During the headlining slot in the tent that bore his name, Cox proved that not one substrate of dance music can ever truly get old, because it's all in how you curate it. He dropped 10-year-old samples and the vintage Latin-flavored techno for which he's best known, but his set was as fresh and clean as anyone's, demonstrating once more that virtuosity is evergreen.
5. Royksopp (Friday, Live Stage, 8:15 p.m.)
You wouldn't think that a slightly more artful band like Royksopp would be able to command the attention of the young, adrenaline-junkie Ultra crowd. But shortly after they took the stage on the festival's first night, the kids emerged - seemingly from the wooded area nearby, like neon-hued Disney creatures - and swarmed. Singer Anneli Drecker played the parts of Robyn on "Girl and The Robot" and Karin Dreijer Andersson on "Tricky Tricky" - both tall orders - while injecting a Roisin Murphy-like flare for quirky costumes and performance-artist pantomimes. The crowd ate it up, and the band proved itself a true festival force.
6. Afrojack (Saturday, Carl Cox & Friends, 3:30 p.m.)
Ladies and gentlemen, the ego has landed. You can't blame 23-year-old Afrojack for having a swagger: After his Saturday main stage set, he officially became the first artist to play three times during one UMF. But it was his earlier set on the Carl Cox stage that rocked the loudest: Dropping his own "Take Over Control," the super-tall Dutchman inspired a tent-wide singalong, getting the crowd to show as much enthusiasm for a house-flavored vocal as they did all three days. Smirk on face and cigarette in hand, he was ever the bad boy host - a fact not lost on the girls who crowded the tent.
7. Benny Benassi (Friday, Main Stage, 7 p.m.)
Italian electro-glitch DJ/producer Benny Benassi has a big potential hit on his hands, which would be his first since 2003 monster "Satisfaction." And even though the remix that's catching fire isn't his own, that didn't stop him from dropping it during his main stage set. "Cinema," from his forthcoming artist album on Ultra, got the dubstep treatment from the king of the genre himself, Skrillex, who turned it from a heartfelt electro-ballad into a heartfelt electro-ballad carrying a big-ass bass stick. Benassi reveled in the off-the-millisecond mix, even climbing the DJ booth while the crowd sang along. Cutting across all different ilks of parties and DJs, this was the track of the week.
8. Kaskade (Saturday, Main Stage, 6:30 p.m.)
Never underestimate the power of a singalong. Kaskade's fans love his vocals, and they love them even more when they come with a balloon drop. The Chicago-born, West Coast-bred DJ/producer played his "Angel On My Shoulder" while a swath of white balloons bounced out over the crowd, as ethereal and elegant as the track itself. And in the heat and haze of the overwrought Ultra day, there was a moment of peace.
9. Swedish House Mafia (Saturday, Masquerade Motel, 10:45 p.m.)
One of the biggest moments of Ultra week didn't happen at Ultra. Over the Causeway bridge in South Beach proper, the Swedish House Mafia - increasingly powerful DJ/producers Steve Angello, Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso - took up temporary residence in a tent off Ocean Drive. It was just them, some of their favorite DJs (like Armand Van Helden and Calvin Harris), and 13,500 of their invited guests, communing over anthemic vocals, banging beats, and pyrotechnics.
But even next to Ultra's 100K+ swarm, the Masquerade Motel was massive, perhaps because it was more about club than youth culture. When Pharrell took the stage in the party's last moments, raising his arms and facing the video-bedecked DJ booth, where the three dons raised theirs toward him, it was like a baton being passed - hip-hop to dance, at least for now.
10. Avicii (Saturday, Main Stage, 4:15 p.m.)
Avicii's been hotly tipped as "the next Kaskade," and the comparison is spot-on: During his afternoon main stage set, the blonde and foppish Swedish DJ/producer showed a definite penchant for beautiful melodies (like his own "Penguin"), uptempo remixes (Adele's "Rolling In The Deep"), and feel-good vibes, much like the West Coast vocal house king. Another similarity? The dominantly female crowd mobbing the stage, bearing buttons proclaiming "I [Heart] Avicii." Let the war of the dance music heartthrobs begin.