Raleigh Amphitheater
April 21, 2012

The first curious thing about Dayglow is that it happens at night. Walking down Raleigh’s South Street last Saturday, you could already hear the musicthrobbing bass and whooshing synthesizers, syncopated snares and hi-hats.

An unusual number of college students, many missing articles of clothing generally considered compulsory, flitted about in attitudes of stylized sexuality and violence. A swaggering pack of young men in white T-shirts, clearly acting out a Reservoir Dogs fantasy, yelled “Thug life!” at no one in particular. A clutch of young women doused each other with aerosol string. There was something dreamlike about seeing a yellow bikini in the heart of a city, as daylight waned, within spitting distance of the Capitol. An announcer roared profanities over several city blocks, ostensibly hoping to wake the city’s dead.

The epicenter of all the noise and public indecency was the Raleigh Amphitheater, which spattered green lasers against the façade of the neighboring Convention Center. At the gates, the young people were processed, wrist-banded and stripped of their own glow toys, as others were on sale inside. Billed as “The World’s Largest Paint Party,” Dayglow began on Florida college campuses in 2006 and is now professionally administered by Committee Entertainment.

Dayglow President Sebastian Solano has described it as “a fully scripted show with a high level of production that will include theater, art, choreographed performers, and, of course, paint.” Armed with nothing but this technically accurate if somewhat evasive description, I envisioned a sort of youth-cult Cirque du Soleil. But upon arrival, it was clear that we were dealing with a more straightforward propositiona commercial rave catering to hard-partying undergrads.

At 8 p.m., hundreds of people (some daubed with paint from the bottles on sale) swayed in front of a stage where a competent DJ mixed house, trance, dubstep and Euro-pop in front of several flat-screen monitors. A timer ticked down toward something that was going to happen around 9 p.m. The prevalence of gnarled synthesizers in even the most cheerful contemporary dance music made the countdown seem ominous.

Plastic batons illuminated in rainbow colors flickered and whirled. Some people were dressed in pristine white, according to Dayglow’s official rules, though just as many were in flagrant violation. There were rebels in all black. There was a lot of retro sportswear. There were fluorescent necklaces and rings and shades. There were furry moon boots, kitty ears, knit caps with fake dreads, keffiyehs worn with no shirts. There were endless varieties of shorts and skirts and strappy tops, all cut down until they merely suggested their original functions. There was virtually nowhere I could look without violating a child protection statute.

Don’t get me wrong: The kids are all right. But occasionally, there was a disarming guilelessness to Dayglow’s elaborate pantomime, as when I saw the girl with her tank top pulled up just beyond her pink bra, or the stocky boy whose T-shirt flatly commanded “PARTY WITH SLUTS.”

I had been on the grounds for only 15 minutes before a sleepy-looking guy asked me if I had any Molly.

I did not, but felt shamefully proud to still look cool enough to be asked, as I was one of the very few ticketholders in his 30s.

There was ample, if subtle, evidence that this stranger would not have to look far: Although I had no trouble buying a beer with my debit card, an ATM under a festive green canopy did brisk business, indicating a shadow economy of cash-only transactions. The seating area behind the lawn always contained a few people in the withdrawn, recuperative postures of the over-indulged. I watched cops with suppressed amusement half-carry out a young man who had the beatifically blinded expression of the truly wasted. The way his feet grazed and stumbled over the ground gave him the appearance of weak levitation, a broken saint.

“Can you feel the energy building?” the DJ asked. His exhortatory growl sounded increasingly hostile at the night wore on, like the thought of anyone not feeling the noise made him genuinely furious. “Raleigh, where my dirty girls at?”

I had kept to the periphery, but with only a few minutes left in the countdown, I steeled myself, shoved my hands deep into my pockets, and plunged into the heaving sea of barely legal flesh. From the inside, it seemed like there was more tightly clumped arm-waving than dancing. “Raleigh, it’s about to fuckin’ explode!” But what was it?

I was primed for an impossible flood of paint; a big fat metaphor for pointless American excesssomething just a hair short of simply dousing the audience in shredded currency and fossil fuels.When the timer hit zero, the onstage monitors showed a few black-and-white clips from fusty TV showsincluding, bizarrely, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which was never broadcast in black and white. A portentous voiceover delivered a vague anti-conformity message that culminated, “Tonight we live in color.” Lights blazed across the screen. Loads of confetti plumed upward. A pair of corde lisse dancers dangled from the rafters. A person with a giant spiked Mohawk rode over the crowd in a hamster bubble. The music pounded triumphantly. At the pinnacle of intensity … a guy in a raver Tron costume started shooting streams of paint upon the audience from a hand cannon.

It was as anticlimactic as it sounds.

The half-heartedness I had detected in the bacchanalia was, perhaps, understandable. Rave culture originated in places like derelict warehouses, so it transfers strangely to municipal amphitheaters with strict rules, all surrounded by friendly police cordons. Raves were spaces that young people created for themselves. Without moralizing, it gives one pause to really confront the fact that this, by contrast, was created, paid for and booked on college campuses by adults. These grown-ups collaborated to enclose young people in a horseshoe of expensive beer and soft pretzels, shout at them, and then spray paint all over them, for the sole reason that the young people will pay upward of $40 (and sometimes nearly $100) for the privilege.

One point on which the Dayglow FAQ is conspicuously silent is the kind of paint used. Numerous college bloggers have reported mild stinging and persistent staining, without seeming too bothered by it. On an elevated walkway outside of a men’s restroom that looked like it would need to be cleaned with fire, I chatted with a group of 24-year-old devotees of events such as this, who spoke of their attraction to the culture in terms of love and community. They seemed, proverbially, like nice young people.

I asked Evan, who gazed serenely over the grounds with paint on his cheeks, what it tasted like. “Strawberries,” he said, and then gave me a fist bump. But Evan was kidding me. “It’s a little bitter,” his friend Alicia confided, crinkling her nose. Isn’t love always?