The closing-night festivities of Sundance Next festival had everything you would want in an indie film fest. Hip hotel? Check. Neon branded red carpet? Check. Overbearing advertising from a car company that offers to trade you free popcorn for all of your personal information? Check. Beautifully dressed young adults clad in plaid shirts and flowery dresses drinking cocktails in the lobby? Check. A full-body Oculus Rift experience that turns the viewer into Superman on the balcony? Check. Jungle’s debut album on the stereo? Check. An ’80s-inspired DJ battle to conclude the evening? Check.
Did I get to enjoy all of these things? No. As a DJ-battle virgin sent to cover her first such event, I was trying to imagine what that would entail. I was hoping for swords or ninja stars. Perhaps a formal challenge with a swipe across the face with a leather glove. At the very least, a verbal torrent of abuse about the respective DJs mothers’ physical appearances and lack of skill would be required. How would I know if the battle was over? Would there be finger cramping? Did they call “time out” for finger cramps and let their pit crew work on them, massaging the digits back to life? Perhaps one would collapse from sheer fatigue. Did the winner get the loser’s record collection?
No, it turns out that’s not what happened. What happened was this:
The evening began with two hideously violent movies, one short and one long. The first, called Fuckkkyouuu, was modeled after an old-fashioned monster movie. The score was by Flying Lotus, and in the film, two nude lovers turn into monsters and are slowly ripped apart either by childbirth or by stakes in the ground. The second one, called Turbo Kid, was a low-budget apocalypse movie reminiscent of Mad Max, except there were no cars, only BMX bikes. What they lacked in engines, they more than made up for in blood. Heads were chopped off, a man’s intestines ripped out by a bike, torsos of corpses stacked on top of living men, and there was a kiss under such a fountain of blood, the heroes needed an umbrella to stay dry. Needless to say by the end of two hours, my bloodlust had been sufficiently slaked. I didn’t need the DJs to fight anymore. I’d be satisfied with a polite thumb war.
As soon as the films were over, everyone raced to the front of the theater to watch Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi duke it out. There was a 15-minute intermission before the DJ battle began. A red clock counted down on the red velvet curtains of the stage. As the numbers wound down, the crowd was nearly beside itself with excitement counting down the last 10 seconds as if it were New Year’s Eve. And then the curtains parted…and…there were two dudes behind a turntable drinking beers, joking, and having a good time.
I couldn’t believe it. There weren’t even two competing set ups. Just Chaz Bundick and Alan Palomo, politely switching places whenever they felt like the situation called for it. One would DJ, while the other would drink a beer and bob along to the beat. I’ve seen more violent tea parties.
Neon Indian was up first in a black-and-white striped shirt. The set featured a lot of ’80s-esque pop, inspired by the wardrobe of the feature film. Pixilated rainbow streams vibrated off the walls as the bass pulsed through the room. At the beginning, more people were content watching the set through the cameras of their phones, happier recording than grooving, which seems to be the way of the world, but after 20 minutes, people grew bolder. Blue and red strobes flickered as the temperature rose. Two girls with long hair were the first to climb the stage.
The all-female dance party lasted for five minutes before and the dams burst and the whole front row decided to mob the stage. A lone security man in a dark suit looked like this was the worst day of his life as he tried to keep the flood off the stage. No one could see anything. Soon the stage was just a wall of dancers with their backs to the crowd and camera phones and cameras in the air. Everyone was facing the DJs as if some sort of ritual sacrifice was happening on stage, and who knows? Maybe a chicken was offered up to the dance gods. There were too many people to tell. In the midst of the crush, the DJs were unfazed. Within a couple minutes, they had the dancers organized in typical bar mitzvah choreography, waving their hands in the air like they just didn’t care. Either Bundick or Palomo yelled over the crowd, “This is like teaching an aerobics class.” It was like watching one, too: a really hip dance class with tropical rhythms, robotic beeps, old radio call signs, and soul singers.
Eventually the security guard managed to call for back up and the mob was dumped back into the theater. A movie theater really doesn’t make for the best dance hall, but the crowd at the Ace did their best. Grooving on top of a floor was littered with popcorn and sticky beer, the dancers gently swayed in between seats and made do with the space they had. And at the end of 45 minutes, Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi politely signed off without so much as one wedgie.
Lessons learned: Reporting on DJ battles is incredibly dull. No one gets slapped. Tickle fights are more exciting. Recommendation: Next time you’re invited to a DJ battle, put on your dancing shoes, get drunk, and get your groove on.