The Clevelander hotel on Ocean Drive in Miami has a rooftop bar… (Gonzalo Villota for The…)
In a couple of weeks, hordes will descend upon Miami again. It seems people are always mobbing Miami — for international art fairs, for Martin Luther King Jr.weekend, for sporting events, and of course, for those famed beaches, which always seem overwhelmed with bronzed bodies in tiny swimwear.
But this crowd — as many as 200,000 over three days — will come wielding glow-sticks, furry boots, designer drugs and paraphernalia promoting their favorite superstar DJs as they descend on the Ultra Music Festival, the largest electronic music festival in the United States. The event begins March 23 and is a much more popular bacchanal than the Maryland festival dedicated to the same genre, Starscape.
Much as the Cannes Film Festival previews the year's best in film, Ultra is a primer on what's coming up in electronic music. It's where last year I first saw the Australian dance band Empire of the Sun, which later played the Virgin Mobile FreeFest in Columbia. This year, the hugely popular DJ Avicii is a headliner months before he'll be the marquee performer at Maryland's Sweetlife Music Festival.
"It's a good excuse to get away and go drinking and just be a dance music community," says the Baltimore house diva Ultra Nate, who has been going to Miami since 1989 and will be a performer at the Winter Music Conference, the professional confab that precedes Ultra.
The festival is just another reason to get to Miami, a city that is at its best, really, when it's overflowing with people. On those rare weekends when nothing's happening, it almost feels like it's nursing a major hangover, just biding time until the next bender.
I visited Miami in December for Art Basel, another one of its signature events and the biggest art fair in the country. Miami is always shrouded in hyperbole — the most hyped basketball team, the dirtiest politicians, the biggest hauls of confiscated cocaine. And the city wears it as a badge of honor. Its nickname as the Magic City is fitting, because despite all the seediness associated with it, Miami seems to have been blessed, as if sprinkled with fairy dust, with a patina of star quality.
"It is not somewhere I think I could live in full-time, but it is one of my favorite places to visit," says 24-year-old Baltimore artist Michael Farley. "I love Bauhaus, international style, art deco and mid-century modernism, so walking around South Beach is amazing."
There's plenty to hate about Miami — it's a city where class inequality is on almost gaudy display, where homeless people are begging for change just steps away from expensive clubs. But it's also charmingly oblivious to social issues. It's a place where you get to forget, at least temporarily, about political squabbling, culture wars and global warming, and just go dancing with only cheap margaritas as sustenance.
"I think part of what is so relaxing to me about being in Miami is the ability to not care so much about the socio-political issues that I care so much about in Baltimore and most cities," says Farley. "In general, most people don't want to have a 'deep' conversation at your typical Miami club."
During Art Basel, collectors, celebrities and celebrity art dealers had overrun the already atomized Miami Beach and turned it into an even zanier zoo of flashbulbs, velvet ropes and liquor company-sponsored parties. Endless conga lines of people waited to get inside parties and clubs.
On Saturday night, my last night in town, the Shelborne Hotel on Collins Avenue was a perfect snapshot of all the insanity. The hotel was not hosting the most exclusive party that night — the Delano Hotel had the pop-up club Le Baron and a Brazilian-themed, poolside party for the solemnly serious art-mag Visionaire. But the Shelborne was easier to sneak into, which meant that the only celebrities there were those in life-size portraits on the walls of the hotel's mausoleum-like lobby. Not to be deterred by celebrities' absence, attendees instead posed with the pictures, snapping up photographs of photographs.
It was a great moment to witness because it captured the two sides of Miami's personality — wealthy and aspirational, shallow and earnest, always unapologetically tasteless.
I had arrived two days before, when the official fair was already in full swing. Though it is commonplace to describe Miami as a nightlife capital, the day is the time to explore the hodgepodge of excellent galleries and cheap restaurants — there's the Rubell Family Collection, in Wynwood, a former Drug Enforcement Agency warehouse that used to be filled with property seized during the city's drug wars in the '80s and is now a temple of Andy Warhols, Richard Princes, and Keith Harings. Until the summer, it's showing an exhibit of mostly new work by young artists called American Exuberance.