Pitchfork Music Festival
(21 Jul 2013: Union Park Chicago)
At some point in time, music festivals transformed from being meeting places for like-minded music lovers to by-products of our binge-happy culture that wants all the things at the same place at the same time. Pitchfork Music Festival began as a gathering for fans of the website and, above all, fans of the bands that the website celebrates, but it has increasingly become a festival where, instead of artists and fans clashing in awkward and amusing ways, as one would expect at a festival where Yo La Tengo opens for R. Kelly, people simply listen to the music.
It’s a pessimistic observation to make, but it’s the type of thought you have when your eyes wander away from a Yo La Tengo guitar solo and onto the crowd: frowning R. Kelly fans in lawn chairs (not festival-approved, mind you) at the front, young teens in the middle frantically checking the Pitchfork Music Festival app in between glances at Ira Kaplan swinging his guitar like Kurt Cobain, and, in the back, the older clusters of friends that enter and leave the festival as groups, rarely talking to anyone they didn’t come with.
Perhaps the hope was that R. Kelly would bring the hungry, hot, overpriced-beer-drinking masses together, but I saw a crowd moving in and a crowd moving out after “Ignition (Remix)”, the first song of Kelly’s set, was finished.
This year, as Pitchfork Music Festival struggled to find, refresh, or maybe just reinvent its identity (noticeable budget cuts were made: the removal of pump-water fountains, much smaller screens for the audience to watch from a distance, and draw your own conclusions about the line-up), I was forced to ask myself what exactly is the appeal of a music festival in 2013, if there is any apart from seeing a lot of bands in the same vicinity?
Sometime between hearing the same verse from Kanye West’s “I’m in It” during three separate DJ sets and receiving the heat rash of a lifetime, I discovered I enjoy music festivals for the people watching as much as the music—and in this category, Pitchfork 2013 may have been the best of the summer festivals. But I also enjoy the random conversation, which was hard to make at a festival where most of the audience was very young and standoffish. Instead of kids who freak out on psychedelics, at Pitchfork you have to deal with kids who forget the importance of water in 90-degree heat and in a crowd of drenched bodies. It’s that kind of festival, and it can be endearing.
I saw children no older than ten at Swans; I saw chiseled shirtless college students dubstep to Rustie; I even saw an elderly man in an R. Kelly t-shirt throw up the devil horns during Yo La Tengo’s set while another older gentleman in a straw hat looked away from the band, toward the audience, with a grimace that can only be summoned by looking at an audience respond favorably to music you can’t stand. And even after a fantastic rendition of “Blue Line Swinger”, it’s that image that will stick with me. It was worth the price of admission alone. It’s just too bad that this colorful cast of characters rarely interacted with one another. Can’t blame Pitchfork for that, but I can thank them for bringing a diverse group of artists and fans together.
If the festival’s directors were merely trying to see how disparate an audience they could summon, the outcome of the 2013 fest should give all the answers they need. But they may be disappointed when they discover that these audiences didn’t come together so much as they simply didn’t intrude on one another, which may be standard at your typical live show but goes against the spirit of a music festival; or at least the festival Pitchfork once was.
Maybe it’s the ideal to watch instead of talk to strangers, but I miss when that at least felt like an option.