As music journalists, we spend a lot of time trying to piece together words and images that successfully convey what most of us acknowledge simply listening to the music achieves best. Once music went online, though, our jobs of sifting through all the ephemera and arriving at any sort of valuable conclusions became an even bigger challenge. We're looking for Zeitgeist. The Times calls it "registering seismic pop events."
For us smaller guys reporting at the hyperlocal level, covering massive music events in our own backyards is a bit less daunting. We've watched firsthand as homegrown festivals like Miami's Ultra have evolved from a single-day beach gathering in 1999 to a global phenomenon drawing more than 150,000 partiers to downtown's Bayfront Park — making us uniquely qualified to weigh in on trending topics like why the '90s were making a comeback at the festival in 2016 and how we're still falling short when it comes to battling sexual assault at these events.
After closing out its record-breaking fourth edition this past weekend, Tortuga Music Festival on Fort Lauderdale Beach finds itself in a particularly sweet spot. No longer in its infancy, the country-branded music festival drew nearly 90,000 guests over its three days. But unlike some nationally covered fests like Bonnaroo counting similar numbers, Tortuga still retains much of what has made it great from the start: its own singular, completely shameless identity.
Tortugagoers let it all hang out. Fake breasts, natural breasts, cellulite, beer guts, Crossfit abs, bad tribal tattoos, body piercings, and butts in every shape and size comprised the annual festival's crowd. And though there was no shortage of cowboy boots and hats, braided blonds, American flag paraphernalia, and painfully obvious graphic T's, Tortuga has yet to become a caricature of itself. Festival or not, this is simply what these people are.
It's also worth mentioning what they're not. Unlike certain other annual parties on the beach, Tortuga doesn't leave our delicate oceanfront trashed. Instead, they've helped raise awareness and more than $250,000 for ocean habitats through its volunteer program and onsite Conservation Village. While many festivals fail to tell a story about the regional environs they take over (and often decimate) for days at a time, Tortuga was actually founded by local residents and industry veterans with impressive track records in ocean conservation, and its messaging and overarching goal to give back aren't just footnotes to reckless partying.
Despite the profusion of American flags, Tortuga also doesn't shove its politics in your face. Though music festivals are arguably breeding grounds for social and political expression — Bernie Sanders memes and "Fuck Trump" signs have held a big presence at this season's crop so far — the country-music fans at Tortuga this year left their Confederate flags at home, and despite the dominating genre's conservative bent, there was a marked absence of Trump support among the crowd.
Fort Lauderdale doesn't always get a lot right, but in Tortuga, it's managed to craft a music event that captures some of the best parts of who we are. We don't all love country music, but most of us can get behind what it stands for. We love our light beer and our Fireball just as much as the craft stuff. We know how to relax, how to rage, and when it's time to put ourselves down for a nap. And we might not look like the most beautiful people of Coachella, but we rock our own freaky, flamboyant, hybrid style with unbridled confidence.
Without trying to fit into something it's not, Tortuga is attracting thousands of music fans from across the country and the world to enjoy top-rate talent in one of the most naturally beautiful environments, and they're doing it with a clear, well-documented mission.
"Do you still believe in America?" Lynyrd Skynyrd asked of Saturday's crowd as the sun began to lower over the shore and police boats tossed about on the dark blue, six-foot waves. If we could piece together an endlessly looping video of those fans high-fiving, hip-gyrating, and languishing in the sand to the infinite guitar solo of "Free Bird," that might begin to describe the feeling of Tortuga on Fort Lauderdale Beach. It's a bit country, a bit rock, a lot of soul, and shamelessly tacky in all the best ways.