How I Learned to Love Tiësto

The Waste Management Phoenix Open is billed as the “People’s Open,” but how do you get the Old Town crowd to the green? You book the what many consider the “world’s greatest DJ” to spin on a Saturday night: the Dutch record producer Tiësto.

As someone who enjoys and writes about live music, I struggle with the idea of going to see a DJ. When you look on the stage, all you see behind the light show, slick video displays, and smoke machines is a guy in a t-shirt with a laptop and headphones. That's no way to display charisma and presence. DJs didn’t have to spend years learning how to play guitar. They spent days learning how to use an editing program on their Mac. When did remixing your record collection qualify anyone to headline a music festival, let alone be the musical entertainment for a golf tournament?

If the movement of the multicolored phallic symbols ever slowed down, Tiësto would transition to a beat that would wind them back up.

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The world disagrees with my assessment. Electronic dance music (EDM) is one of the fastest growing genres in music, and Tiësto has been on the top of the game for around two decades. He’s played the Olympics and the DVDs of his shows are bestsellers. These questions I'm asking sound like I’m diminishing what Tiësto tours the world doing. If there was anyone who was going to help me settle my internal musical conflict, it was going to be the man who has won a number of Grammys with his output.

As I gazed upon the crowd of polo shirts and golf pants clutching glow sticks in their hands and moving them to the beat, Tiësto could control the movement of the crowd better than your favorite rock band could. He knows how to take crumbs of comfort food and lead a crowd to a more challenging dish. He took snippets of hits any audience knows and loves, such as Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” or Jade’s “Don’t Walk Away,” and used them to get them moving to his rhythmic beats. Most of the time I liked it. Sometimes it resembled the loud soundtrack to a Michael Bay action film. The bass would hit so deep it shook my esophagus. It was never boring.

I've interviewed DJs in an effort to learn why they're more than just guys with sound files, a computer, and a dream. They’re aware they’re refashioning an existing product and attempting to turn it into something new. Unlike a rock band with a setlist filled with an arsenal of hits, they have to act fast if the crowd isn't reacting in the way intended. In order to achieve the desired effect, they have to use their knowledge of their music to give the people what they want.

Tiësto has an uncanny ability to think on his feet and get an audience excited. The glow stick held by the girl in front of me that nearly missed my face isn’t meant to be an annoying souvenir. It’s a conversation starter. Glow sticks indicate movement to a DJ. Frustrated with Miller Lite showers and the constant encroachments of my personal space, I moved to the back of the venue and noticed how Tiësto was able to keep the crowd moving for two hours. If the movement of the multicolored phallic symbols ever slowed down, Tiësto would transition to a beat that would wind them back up. I noticed a crowd member who looked suspiciously like Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck out for the count halfway through the set. If he couldn’t keep up, then Tiësto is doing something right.

Tiësto's finale showered the crowd with seizure-inducing laser lights and multi-colored confetti. Heading out toward my shuttle bus, I realized why I have felt the way I do about DJ culture for so long. Being a DJ is something that almost anyone can do. It takes someone with an ear for rhythm, the ability to gauge an audience, and skill like Tiësto to do it well. I realize now it's more than just pressing a button. If the transition isn’t smooth, the crowd will know something is wrong and turn on you. This is what sets apart your ’80s night DJs on your local oldies station and pros like Tiësto.

Let’s face it: anyone who can fashion Adele into a good dance track deserves some respect, right?

Critic’s Notebook

Last Night
: Tiësto at the at the Coors Light Birds Nest in Scottsdale, the musical entertainment at the Waste Management Phoenix Open

The Crowd:
The addition of glow sticks and black lights gave the Coors Light Birds Nest the look of the room where the dildo fight between Seth Rogen and Zac Efron in the movie Neighbors.

Overheard in the Crowd:
“This is when the real party starts?” — guy who was waiting with me at the empty parking shuttle stop before the show.

Personal Bias:
I didn’t dance at the show. That had nothing to do with Tiësto’s ability as a DJ, but my rule to not drink in excess at shows I cover. 
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil