A steady August downpour drenched Chicago’s Grant Park on the final night of the Lollapalooza music festival. The rain and the force of thousands of feet had turned the park into a swampy field of splattering mud. The show should have been a flop; instead, it became a frenzied dance party, like Woodstock on methamphetamines.
Some of the dancers wore cartoonish, oversized mouse helmets that bobbed side to side and back and forth. The helmets’ eyes were blank and bulging, their crescent mouths leering grins. They were worn as a tribute to the musician Deadmau5, who was the headlining act that night. Deadmau5 (pronounced “dead mouse”) is the nom de guerre of the Toronto electronic music artist Joel Zimmerman. When he performs, Zimmerman wears his own electronically enhanced mouse mask, what fans call a Mau5head. The helmet looks goofy, but it’s important: it was key in Zimmerman’s transformation from a dance music outsider into a mainstream icon.
Before Zimmerman started appearing in his mask, his style of fast-paced rave music was typically played in a warehouse accessed via a dark alley. As Deadmau5, he fills stadiums. He stands high above the audience in a specially designed, spacecraft-like cube. He doesn’t sing (he hires guest vocalists for some tracks), but operates a bank of computers and occasionally waves at the audience. He’s surrounded by towers of strobe lights and projectors, all flashing in sync with the thump of his music. The audience screams and swoons as if for a rock god.
The devotion of his fans is cult-like: they follow him from show to show, tattoo his logo on their arms and calves, and post thousands of gushing comments about him and his music online. But cults are usually small; Deadmau5’s followers are legion. His fame has grown exponentially in the six years since he released his first recording. He has more than four million Facebook fans, though given the speed at which his following has grown, that number could double by the time this story hits the newsstands. Even his cat, a black and white shelter rescue he named Professor Meowingtons, has become a starring character in Zimmerman’s online universe. (The cat has his own Facebook page and 73,000 fans.) The Lollapalooza gig was one of the biggest shows he performed in a year of big shows. His fall tour will take him to stadiums across North America and culminate in a 14,000-person rave at the Rogers Centre this month.
Mau5head off, Zimmerman resembles many of his fans. He’s pale and skinny, with a collection of tattoos across his neck and arms. He wears ball caps and T-shirts and turned 30 earlier this year. He is often surrounded by a posse that includes childhood friends, managers, his mother, his brother and his girlfriend, Lindsey Gayle Evans, a one-time Playboy playmate. When I first met Zimmerman, a week before the Chicago show, he had a Band-Aid on his cheek, the result of a shaving experiment with a straight razor, and was embarrassed by the tiny wound. Zimmerman’s self-consciousness was strangely sweet—I didn’t expect anxiety from a guy who performs to full stadiums. Later, it dawned on me: it must be nerve-racking to be face to face with a stranger when you’re so accustomed to meeting the public in a mask.