It’s 5 p.m. on Friday, and while I would normally be wrapping up the workweek and preparing for the weekend, I am, at this time, on another planet. I’m surrounded by 65,000 people, and nearly everyone but me is wearing furry boots and body glitter in places one's normally warned against applying anything sharp or granular. My partner in crime and I have dutifully investigated the scene and shimmied our way up to the loudest and most elaborate area of them all. Like the rest of the crowd, we’ve had our arms streaked in Day-Glo swirls at the Secret refresh tent, and the combined effect is that of an alien species of young, technicolored party people. We blend right in. Well, almost. My companion is just a little bit older than the rest. I'm pretty sure that I am the only one with her grandmother in tow.
I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit this, but the idea to bring my 82-year-old grandma to Beyond Wonderland, one of the biggest EDM (electronic dance music) festivals in the country, arose from a truly deep stalk of my Facebook page. I’d scrolled far enough to strike upon some selfies taken at Electric Zoo circa 2008 and felt instant, surprising pangs of nostalgia for my 18-year-old, less-jaded self. I’m wearing a saggy gold bustier and too-tight tutu in the shots, but not even the terrible outfit could dampen my enthusiasm. (I'd show you, but I really can't bear it.) It was my first rave of that scale, and the virginal joy on my face is palpable. Looking at that dopey grin on my computer screen, I wondered if I could reconnect with the version of myself that didn’t care about tempering excitement to seem cooler. What I needed, I decided, was to find a festival first-timer to live vicariously through. The problem? A reported 32 million people attend a music festival each year. A quick search of my Facebook friends proved that most even have their own version of my shameful tutu-and-bustier photo album. Enter the one person in my life who fit the bill: Grammy Annette.
Convincing my grandmother to join in this adventure wasn’t hard to do because she is famously kind and open-minded...and because I didn’t give her any details about what I’d signed us up for. I think I actually described EDM as “kind of like free-form jazz but a tiny bit louder.” A tiny bit louder. Still, this massive lie of omission felt okay-ish until we actually arrived at San Bernardino’s San Manuel Amphitheater and I had what can only be described as a bad-granddaughter-induced panic attack. Before we could even see the venue, I felt the first ominous rumble of notably un-jazz-like bass vibrate through the car. As we parked, hundreds of people in thongs and pasties passed us toting signs with messages like “Come Twerk With Us.” “What’s twerking?” Grammy Annette asked. “Wow, look at that weird tree over there!” I responded. In my head, I began drafting an email to my mom, apologizing for exposing her mom to such millennial garbage vocabulary. Keyed up as I was, I practically lunged between my grandma and the pierced, neon-haired boy who shyly approached us as we queued up at the entrance gate. “I just wanted to say that it’s awesome that you’re here,” he said, ignoring the human wall I’d made with my body. “I wish my grandmother would come to one of these things with me.” My grandma laughed and gave the boy a gentle and, well, grandmotherly pat on the cheek.
Still wedged between their torsos, it occurred to me that Grammy Annette has probably been on this earth too long to be scandalized by some friendly kid with a home dye job. She traveled the world and raised her four daughters to embrace feminism and tolerance way before my generation took up the cause. True to form, she cheerfully whispered, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many bare butts in my life,” before striding down the hill that led to the main stage. Looking back, I should have realized that encounter was a good indicator of what was to come. In case you never have the pleasure of finding this out for yourself, let me just tell you that when you deliver a grandmother to a bunch of raver kids, they will lose their shit. We’d hardly cleared the gates before a neat line formed, poised to hug Grammy Annette and transfer homemade beaded bracelets onto her wrists in an elaborate handshake ritual.
“See, it’s all about PLUR: peace, love, unity, and respect,” a girl in a metallic purple bodysuit explained to her. “First you make a peace sign with your fingers, then you make a heart, then you put your palms together and trade bracelets. If it’s okay with you, we can hug after, too.” As Grammy Annette’s arms grew thick with beaded bracelets, I actually got a little teary, which is a very weird feeling in the presence of blaring EDM radio hits. Who were all these gracious teens and early-twentysomethings, and where did they come from? How'd they manage to behave so differently than the hoards of strangers I stood in line behind at coffee shops or rode the subway with every day? I’d spent weeks worrying about rowdy bros trampling us on their paths to the front row and mean girls making snarky comments. Instead, I had the unique honor of watching various members of the crowd turn away from the stage to explain to my grandmother just how much they loved their community and why. These people had saved up for tickets and travel, spent days stringing bracelets to share, and — above all — seemed to diligently practice the radical inclusion they preached. EDM fans generally get a bad rap, but I found it impossible to feel anything but deep appreciation for the people treating someone I’ve loved and admired my whole life like a queen.
“So what’d you think?” I asked Grammy Annette, hours later. The night was still in full swing, but we'd wandered away to rest our ears among the twinkling vendor tents. “It’s like visiting a country I’ve never even heard of, a country where everyone is nice, even to people who aren’t the same as them,” she said. Before I left Grammy Annette’s Palm Desert bungalow for my real life in New York, she let me choose a bracelet from her collection to wear home. We performed the PLUR handshake we’d learned, and I promised myself that I’d use the beads as a reminder to try out the nonjudgmental attitude the Beyond Wonderland crowd holds in such high esteem. If my grandma is down with PLUR, I am too.