Tomorrowland, the World Cup of Dance Music: Review

Zacharie Rabehi
Steve Aoki

Rain showers and cake, courtesy of Steve Aoki, don’t dampen the spirit of the world’s most international EDM festival.

Steve Aoki is standing on a narrow platform, slowly rising above the crowd of over 20,000 before him, a cake in each hand. He goes up and up and up, seemingly unafraid of the increasingly dizzying height (this is the guy who crowd surfs off of balconies, after all), The massive structure of Tomorrowland’s volcano-shaped Main Stage is breathing behind him, with light, fire, mist, and even active waterfalls. His new collaboration with dubstep don Flux Pavilion is building and dropping. The crowd is surging and cheering. And the reported 50 million camped out in front of their computers, watching the YouTube live stream, is anticipating the inevitable. Finally, his bird’s nest stops its climb, and Aoki does it: He drops the cakes, splattering sweet hedonism all over the fans’ heads -- as he does at all of his shows, but never from this height. Waving the flags of their countries, the crowd goes wild.

“[Tomorrowland is] my favorite festival,” Aoki said backstage a few hours earlier. “The amount of pride people have in their country is ten-fold, 100-fold, 1000-fold.  People hold up their flags 12 hours a day, making sure everyone sees. ‘I’m from Nicaragua.’  ‘I’m from Japan.’  ‘I’m from Mexico.’  ‘I’m from Australia.’  ‘Where are you from?’ When I look out there and see that, it’s a really amazing feeling.”

There are dance music festivals, and then there is Tomorrowland. The three-day event (July 26-28) which wrapped Sunday night in the small town of Boom in Belgium is more Olympics or World Cup than concert; a global celebration of electronic music’s uniquely unifying properties, set against a painstakingly produced, temporary world of immersive fantasy. The organizers at parent company ID&T go so far as to replace the grounds’ standard lamp posts with golden, flower-covered ones. They drop fake fish that breathe fire into the lakes, install water jets and fog machines under the bridges, and fill stage areas with live, sweet-smelling flowers. It’s a landscape that flat-out dares you to be cynical. And you can’t be.

While it’s not prohibitively expensive (about $230 for a three-day pass), Tomorrowland is still a privileged experience. Tickets sell out in seconds -- all 180,000 or so of them, plus 35,000 tickets for three-day campground access - so attendance is considered special. One girl wrapped in a German flag smiled ear-to-ear while holding up a sign scrawled in marker: “I AM SO SO SO HAPPY TO BE HERE.” The entire crowd seemed to share that energy and joy.

That’s not to say the festival was immune from the usual terrestrial hiccups: Rain put an early end to the proceedings on Saturday night, when a torrential downpour formed rivers of mud, running down the canyon of the Main Stage and rendering backstage areas impassable. (Tomorrowland didn’t let Mother Nature win without a fight though. Organizers shot supersonic weather canons into the sky, attempting to break up the rain clouds.) By Day 3, even the most courteous crowd drops beer cans on the ground, and occasionally knocks into each other. Changing the names of the stages from day-to-day made navigation challenging, despite the helpful Tomorrowland app.

But such minor annoyances didn’t hamper the creation of several enduring dance music moments this weekend: Aoki’s cake drop. Armin van Buuren dedicating his set to his son, born just a few hours earlier. Avicii playing his global hit “Wake Me Up!” for the biggest crowd of all three days, as lightning lit up the sky and rain fell. Hardwell cementing his international star status with one of the most manic sets of the weekend (and in the following days, the most searched on tracklisting sites). Legends Derrick Carter, Mark Farina, and DJ Sneak rocking a small side tent of faithful househeads. Alien techno god Jeff Mills tearing into a Roland 303 synthesizer, the only way he knows how.

Music is the common language that links the over 214 nations represented at Tomorrowland, but the festival’s significance is greater. For three short days, young people from all over the globe share their national pride, and live alongside each other in peace. That’s more than any annual music event, let alone dance music event, can say it pulls off. If the first U.S. edition, TomorrowWorld in Atlanta (September 27-29), creates even the first strains of that feeling stateside, the transplant will have been a success.