Steven Louis once went to Warped Tour.
I recently watched Mistaken For Strangers, a documentary on The National directed by Matt Berninger’s endearingly cretinous brother, Tom. The film itself was arresting and wonderful, and the dopest part was how I did not weep the entirety of my walk home through Brooklyn Heights. I found myself gravitating to one cut in particular, in which Matt performs “Terrible Love” while undulating through his audience, dead-eyed as he’s greeted with hugs and shoulder pats. He makes his way to the venue’s lobby and then completely gives out, convulsing as he shouts, “it takes an ocean not to break” for seemingly nobody but himself.
Perhaps the scene’s affect is seasonal, given the usually joyless economy for live music during the summer: The four-month run from Indio to Randall’s Island and back has become increasingly obligatory for artists’ livelihoods. But this summer, there seems to be a slight shift toward performers accepting that this is where the money is, and actually making the most of it.
This shift corresponds to the apocalyptic summer our world has tumbled through; perhaps it was an adjustment that was bound to happen as that money continues to centralize, budgets swell from sponsorships and exclusivity clauses drive artists away from arranging their own schedules. Regardless, a new element of politics has emerged in the industry.
Radio will still place edits, labels will still hold records they deem commercially unappealing, and tours will still exclusively serve those already down with an artist’s work. But in accepting a cartoonishly large payment to perform in front of – not for – Molly-popping teens of apathy and the like, artists are in fact winning, albeit sloppily for now.
It’s strange as fuck to consider that Lollapalooza had just one sponsored stage in 2005, and didn’t add the EDM-based Perry’s Stage until ‘09. Bonnaroo operated with but a sole Miller Lite tent as recently as 2012. Et cetera. The aggressive commercialization of physical performance spaces is an extremely new development, and like all developments in this industry, an inchoate period of artists getting fucked has to occur before the artists can fuck back.
See: André Benjamin, hastily running through Aquemini while his flower-crowned crowd waits for the legally-ensured performance of “Hey Ya.” D’Angelo, sparring with demons to the tune of gloriously eccentric Black protest songs, on a SxSW stage built by a Samsung company with zero Black people on its domestic board of directors or executive team. Kevin Parker, basking in anhedonia for what he affectionately calls “a fucking hoard of Tarzans.”
Music festivals are one of those things that get weirder the more you lend consideration to them. You purchase a wristband to enter a gated world, forged by sponsors, in which everyone looks relatively like you, is relatively your age, comes from relatively the same socioeconomic enclave and has relatively analogous cultural values. It’s equal parts escapism and dystopia, depending on where your vantage point lies and your tolerance for watching sets while staying alert for stray cocks in the name of Harambe. But this year’s performances just feel different.
Creative minds are inherently more adaptive than corporate ones, and industry phenomena eventually become integrated and accounted for. The crowds in these gated communities are captive, after all, and if you have to perform for throngs that are peeping your set because they held down their prime spots after Flosstradamus, why not have some fun with it?
Someone who comes to mind is Carly Rae Jepsen, who according to several outlets performed a No. 1 single for the first time in the history of the Pitchfork Music Festival, the very same single that has led Pitchfork types to qualify their interest in one of the best acts in modern pop music. Her set was cathartic, commanding and joyously inclusive without ever straying toward novelty. And despite the inundating crowd and critical eye, she used the space to share a stage with Dev Hynes and control an eight-piece band, daunting assignments for even the most self-assured pop stars on home turf.
Or consider this year’s set du jour, James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem, which reunited at Coachella in front of the festival’s smallest recorded crowd for a headliner in three years. The band’s comeback set has been praised all summer for its precision, but what truly stands out is its flexibility: “New York I Love You” turned into a cover of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “November Rain,” while limited encore time was used to shout out David Bowie with a rendition of “Heroes.” Slotted in competition with Jack Ü and Rae Sremmurd, LCD celebrated performative anxieties, nerded out and, more or less, did whatever the fuck it wanted to. Despite a collective discography that has yet to go platinum, the outfit now enjoys more pop visibility and creative leverage than ever before.
Hip-hop shows traditionally incur the lowest production costs and are conversely most beholden to the weight of a charting single, but this summer’s been just as big a win for rappers across the spectrum. Vince Staples’ quote gets bigger despite each smarmy dig at a sponsor, Chance The Rapper is gleefully popping out at every goddamn festival set at an exhaustive pace, and Run The Jewels continues to shred the skeletons of FuckPeople who just recently traded their Rowdy Gentleman’s Regan/Bush ‘84 tank for a Feel the Bern dad hat.
At New York’s inaugural Panorama run a few weeks ago, Kendrick Lamar took the stage before an overwhelmingly white audience and rifled through TPAB cuts with a passion unmatched by anything else I’ve seen this summer. He played “ADHD” twice and spent as much time talking to his funk ensemble as he did his audience, who vacuously rapped along to “Backseat Freestyle” while monitors displayed everything from a dunking Michael Jordan to a scowling Nancy Reagan.
The center panel created an inescapable Black gaze, as Kendrick’s eyes fluttered left to right. The whole thing was powerful and intoxicating, and save for a sing-a-long to “Swimming Pools,” not a single second was dedicated to ensuring that those in attendance were satisfied. There are more uninformed onlookers than ever before at these things, but that in turn means there are more potential converts.
Mark me down as someone who considered the greatest acts of our generation gracing corporately-constructed stages as a purgatorial low for live music. This summer is slowly turning me around. The death of the traditional business model for music careers has made major festivals a necessity, but increasingly clever performances are also making them places for experiment, critical proving grounds and opportunities to claw into the ears of the privileged and the blissfully unaware.
The spaces for intimacy are swelling—from Berninger’s lobby to the Bud Light Red Bull Whatever The Fucking Main Stage—but it’s encouraging to think that as the songs wind down, those that matter most still care.