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Marshmello Is EDM’s Masked Hero

At 10:15 p.m. on the first Friday night of December, the line for the Skyway Theater in downtown Minneapolis is wrapped around the block. That’s impressive on its own, but doubly so considering that tonight’s show, headlined by the anonymous bucket-headed EDM phenom Marshmello, opened its doors over two hours earlier—and that the temperature is at the freezing point. Not even a blizzard would keep these fans away — an eyeball estimate suggests the crowd was in the 3,000 range, though the Skyway’s management wouldn’t release the actual attendance. The show sold out almost immediately.

Marshmello’s 2016 has been comparable to Skrillex’s 2010 — a gathering storm that largely eluded the non-dance media spotlight while reeling in fans by the gross. The anonymous producer-DJ, whose management politely refuses all interview requests, has been a constant on the U.S. festival circuit: Ultra Music Festival, EDC New York, Beyond Wonderland, Holy Ship!, the Billboard Hot 100 Festival, Lollapalooza, and—closer to home for the Twin Cities crowd—the mid-August Summer Set festival in nearby Somerset, Wisconsin.

It’s not hard to see why the kids go nuts. A Marshmello appearance is a high-velocity affair even by EDM’s notoriously hyperactive standards. At Miami’s Ultra, for instance, Knife Party and Pendulum played a combined 27 selections, while Carnage (with whom Marshmello made an onstage cameo) cycled through 38. Marshmello played 43 in an hour, not counting blends. And where far too many big-stagers are content with splashing endless variations on their own logos on the screens behind them, Marshmello’s visual style tends toward shameless displays of psychedelic-color overload — not to mention the DJ’s own memorable mug.

Ah, the mask. The Marshmello head is simplicity itself: a white oversize paint bucket with a black smiley-face variant that’s benign but slightly sinister, like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from the original Ghostbusters, with a hint of the killer Santa from the mid-eighties slasher flick Silent Night, Deadly Night. Even Tiësto got in on it by playing an EDC Vegas set dressed like every raver’s favorite campfire treat, though the rumor is that the real-life culprit is Chris “Dotcom” Comstock.

Because it’s 2016, Marshmello’s getup has also inspired online beef. Deadmau5, undoubtedly aggrieved that he no longer had a lock on the EDM-headgear game, tweeted that Marshmello’s fans were a “brain-dead posse of deaf sheep,” prompting Skrillex — whose OWSLA label releases Marshmello’s music — to tell Zimmermann to “Stop being a fucking bully to people.” (Deadmau5 seemingly paid attention; he deactivated his Twitter account not long after the conflagration.) But judging from his new video “Ritual,” Marshmello has taken it all in stride. It’s a shrewd gambit — a screwing-around-with-friends travelogue in which he dodges traffic, pillow-fights till the feathers fly, plays with dogs, and — what’s this? — brings a lonesome Deadmau5 along to dance around a bonfire: fwends forever.

There’s no shortage of dancing with friends going on at the Skyway Theater. As screens full of glitchy rainbow madness go ballistic, people are pogoing all the way up to the balcony. Though Marshmello’s headgear does light up, unlike the Daft Punk or Deadmau5 helmets, it doesn’t have to — making it perfect for fans to emulate. At least three-dozen Minneapolitans either wear or carry around their Marshmello heads. Some are homemade, others clearly store-bought. A 25-year-old blonde named Mandy, who used to work at the venue, walks through the balcony’s very top row carrying the bucket head she purchased from Etsy. (Hers lights up.) “I bought it three months ago, before I knew about the show,” she says, noting that this is the Skyway’s most packed-out concert of the year.

Musically speaking, a Marshmello show is more like a greatest-hits revue than a concentrated dose of a particular style. If you’ve seen or heard a big-name EDM DJ in action, little that the Great White Wonder plays is going to surprise you much. His biggest stylistic tic, in original tracks and his own remixes alike, is the kind of sickly circus organ that recalls nothing so much as late-’90s happy hardcore; not for nothing is his album titled Joytime. An hour into the Skyway set, an equally cloying saxophone part is accompanied on the screen behind him by a cheesy-AF mustached man playing two saxes. But primarily, he throws whatever against the wall, and if it doesn’t stick, fine: He’ll be onto something else within a minute or so.

The heads are hardly the only sign of fan worship here. A Skyway employee stands behind the merch table, selling the remains of opener Ookay’s T-shirts. Seventy official Marshmello T-shirts, plus 24 bandanas, sold out within a half-hour of the venue opening its doors: “It was ridiculous,” he says. And there are a lot more than official shirts out there: Just as common are plain white tees with black-tape smileys. In fact, I haven’t witnessed so many people in all white since the last time I saw Swan Lake. Particularly striking is the young woman with a dyed-white wedge haircut, white jeans, and a pair of white platform sneakers with white Christmas lights in the soles. (This being Minnesota, it goes without saying that the crowd itself was pretty damn white, too.)

When Ookay finishes his set, there’s a few minutes of dark, silent, antici . . . pation. Then, everyone’s favorite new face appears. Playing in front of retina-singeing images of breakfast cereal (needless to say, the marshmallows all have unsettling smiley faces on them), it’s a triumph of branding — not to mention musical dynamics. Sure, it takes less than three minutes for A-Trak’s remix of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll” to appear — a song we heard opener Skidope play less than an hour and a half ago. But it’s moot to carp, and besides, anyone who went dancing to drum & bass in the nineties, where you heard variations on the Amen break all night long, does not get to complain.

Would anybody even care if not for all this kitsch? Probably not. But “authenticity” in dance music, curious as it appears to anyone who still thinks “the album” means dick, plays by its own rules. When a costumed impostor appeared at the Singapore club Zouk in September, its resident DJ Jade Rasif blasted the venue on Facebook for its “complete lack of integrity” and refusal to “do due diligence.” This might sound absurd until you realize that a Marshmello show is a lot more than some guy in headgear spinning music. It’s the full-frontal kandi-kolored assault that people pay to experience, and it can be hard to convey unless you’ve been in its soft white middle. That bonhomie is contagious even if you’re a skeptic. Up in the Skyway’s balcony, where literally everyone is standing on their seats and gyrating wildly, a baseball-capped bro, pouring sweat, eyes pinwheeling, puts his arm around this reporter’s shoulder. “Dude,” he says, echoing something I’ve heard three times earlier, all in different spots: “You’ve got the best seat in the house.”