[10 September 2013]
For the second Labor Day weekend in a row, rapper/business magnate Jay-Z and Budweiser produced a highly successful two-day music festival, Budweiser’s Made in America Festival (MIA), right in the middle of Center City, Philadelphia. Over 30 acts were featured, with Jay-Z’s R&B superstar wife Beyoncé headlining Saturday night and veteran alt-industrial act Nine Inch Nails doing so on Sunday.
Again, MIA boasted a solid lineup across four stages (two being primary stages), consciously selecting strong acts from a variety of genres, including electronic dance music or “EDM” (e.g. Calvin Harris, Deadmau5), R&B (Beyonce, Miguel), rock (Gaslight Anthem, Queens of the Stone Age), and rap (Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis). Acts ranged from the new and out-there (Empire of the Sun) to the classic (Public Enemy). Location-wise, it was an idyllic urban setting on Philadelphia’s parkway, anchored on one end by skyscrapers and on the other by the majestic Philadelphia Museum of Art. The weather was summertime—hot but good—and some 50,000 folks enjoyed a ton of music.
Even though this was its second year, the specific “Made In America” theme is still a bit unclear and Jay-Z himself has not been that clear, although he and Ron Howard have a documentary on last years festival airing on Showtime in October. A call to bring manufacturing back to the U.S.? Don’t we wish. All American acts? Not even. Some of the biggest were from France, Canada, Scotland, the UK, Australia, etc. Yes, Jay-Z and Kanye West had a song last year called “Made in America,” but that hardly explains the marketing of an entire ongoing festival.
There are lots of seeming contradictions. Jay-Z is a proud, Yankee-hat wearing New Yorker, though he has strong ties to Philly, having signed numerous Philly rappers to his Roc-A-Fella Records lineup (Freeway, Beanie Sigel, et al). It is unabashedly corporate-run—Budweiser Made in America Fest—yet it is also the black, from-the-streets rapper Jay-Z that is in charge of choosing the acts and putting his own brand on the event, as well. It is a socially conscious event raising money for United Way and, last year, promoting the Obama campaign. On the other hand, and as an op-ed on Philly.com pointed out recently, not everyone appreciates Jay-Z and similar-styled rapper’s thuggish lyrical themes and rampant use of the n- and b- words, either. Even the diversity of the acts can be seen as a rainbow coalition of music—or a shrewd marketing maneuver to maximize ticket sales. I mulled over all-of-the-above as the show went on.
What is much less in doubt is that the MIA is a running success. With the ongoing Roots’ Picnic every June on the Delaware River and the now also Roots-hosted, and VH-1 televised, Fourth of July blow-out every year, Philly has a new tradition of a summer full of music fests. Normally the summer is when Center City empties out as residents go on vacations and to the (real-life) New Jersey shore. This festival is a bit loud for residents still in town, but it seems to be finding its niche.
The two primary stages were close enough that the audience could simply turn around and walk a few hundred feet to see a new act, and the bands went off every 45 minutes like clockwork. It was a young, extremely easy-going crowd, and as diverse as the wide array of acts. The crowds were a bit much at a times, primarily when the second stage acts were simply too popular for the space, as was especially the case with rapper 2 Chainz and DJ/producer Deadmau5, making moving around extremely tough. Still, it was high-spirited and tension-free everywhere I went.
Saturday started with British DJ, Redlight, on the second stage where most of the EDM acts performed, while indie-rockers Walk the Moon kicked things off on the main stage. Another early stand-out was three-sister group HAIM, who brought an indie rock-gone-tribal set. The three (plus a drummer) closed out by grinding out some wild blues guitar riffs and then with all four members on drums. Popular rapper A$AP Rocky was 20 minutes late, which stood out like a sore thumb given the fest format, and it seemed to throw off his set a bit. Though apparently Rocky was on “rap time”, he did apologize to the crowd, and fan favorites like “Wild for the Night” and closer, “F**kin’ Problem”, went over well.
In the early evening, Empire of the Sun fascinated. They might best be described as the fusion of a resurrected Aztec empire, Tron, rock guitar, an electronic dance group, and an updated, ‘80s synthesizer pop sound. You have to love a band that goes all-out, and songs like “Walking on a Dream” and “Awake” are undeniable.
New York rap group Public Enemy is arguably the most important rap group in history and were recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are best known for helping reign in a golden era of rap in the late-80s with their genre-changing blend of complex sampling, sonic power, and forceful, politicized vocals, and along with their more recent music, it still sounded as fresh as ever. Even better, they now smartly incorporate live guitar and drums. Group MC Chuck D and “hype man” Flava Flav called on Philly rap legend Schoolly D for a bit and then brought some of the only political messages of the weekend. Both Chuck and Flav voiced support for Trayvon Martin and death row inmate Mumia Abu Jamal, and then called out the governor of Pennsylvania for refusing to assist the City of Philadelphia in a school funding crisis. Public Enemy’s classic agit-rap “Bring the Noise” was right on schedule as they pushed audience goers to communicate with their politicians and to raise money. Chuck D even brought out a laid off Philadelphia school counselor to address the crowd herself and to describe the impact of the cuts.
French electro-power pop stars Phoenix performed under the lights on the main stage and delivered one of the standout performances of the weekend. Phoenix has slowly cultivated its sound and songwriting over the last decade with its garage rock meets world pop meets synthesizers style, making the group one of the more influential, and now one of the biggest, in the world. Phoenix emerged from the smoke and lights to open up with the propulsive opening track from its latest album, “Entertainment!” The group sounded excellent, brought a lot of energy, and clearly is at-ease with its now standard mega-crowds. The set drew heavily from the band’s 2009 breakout album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and closed out with frontman Thomas Mars diving into the crowd for some crowd surfing. When Mars came back onstage, he spiked his mic a couple of times like he had just scored a touchdown, and rightfully so.
The first night finale was Jay-Z’s wife, best known simply as Beyoncé. The big surprise of the weekend was that Jay-Z did not show up to perform with his wife or anyone else—presumably that will add some intrigue next year. His wife is the undisputed reigning queen of R&B and probably of pop in general, and the reasons are pretty apparent. She is stunning to look at, she commands the stage, she can dance with anyone and even with her intense, almost frenetic style, she can simultaneously sing with astonishing power. Beyoncé came out sauntering to the front of the stage in what at first looked like a teddy, before opening with her girl-empowerment hit, “Run the World (Girls).” Later Beyoncé announced, “Now y’all are watchin’ the Mrs. Carter show.” Along with five female and two male dancers, Mrs. Carter ran through her highly-polished, highly-energetic set that crammed action into the hour-and-a-half headline slot.
If there is any complaint, and it is a mild one, it is that Beyoncé’s entire set is so tightly choreographed with her dancers and every little thing she does — and even the standard, “I love you Philly!” shout-out—that it can all feel a bit stifling. Still, Beyoncé is a force and she was in top form. At one point, she had changed into a lime green, Tina Turner-style fringed dress, and her second-to-last song was a partial cover of Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You”. The bottom line is that Mrs. Carter can do it all and then some.
On Day Two, energetic neo-soul group Fitz and the Tantrums and surfy-punk (and late addition) Wavves got the energy back up, again. Mrs. Carter’s sister, Solange, continued to carve out her own career with a loose, coffeehouse-soul vibe, while the breakthrough heartthrob this year was the genre-blending R&B singer Miguel.
Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar was preceded onstage by his Black Hippy crew—Jay Rock, Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q—who were all fine but the main stage crowd wanted Lamar, one of the best and most socially conscious rappers going. Kendrick played songs off his widely-acclaimed 2012 album good kid, M.A.A.D., including the single, “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” (a heads-up: aside from the b-word in the title, it’s not otherwise misogynist, like one might think).
Seattle rapper and DJ duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis performed to an appreciative crowd on the second stage. Macklemore wore a former Phillies’ baseball jersey, John Kruk’s for those keeping score. The pair performed their hits “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us”, and Macklemore made a short speech before playing the popular pro-same-sex marriage anthem “Same Love”.
Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa and crew brought their brand of feel-good, pro-weed-lifestyle tunes. Anthems like “Young, Wild & Free”, are about as upbeat and innocuous as any pro-illegal drug song you will hear. Kalifa also performed his 2011 hit “Black and Yellow”, and his Philly-born wife and celebrity model, Amber Rose, was by the stage.
The last DJ was the popular Scotsman Calvin Harris. At an EDM concert, DJs often produce the music on-the-fly, but still, you cannot see much happening. That is not, however, to say that the top performers, like Harris, do not move their crowds, lifting them to crescendos or letting them back down, or otherwise form strong bonds with their fans. The whole point of EDM, obviously, is to make people dance, and if you are actually dancing, it doesn’t matter so much what the DJ looks like, although they tend to have elaborate visual effects, like Deadmau5’s warped, oversized mouse helmet and matching robotic jack-o-lanterns. The EDM acts were popular and have the fastest growing fan-bases.
More traditional rock occupied the main stage for a bit, thought it was a relatively smaller crowd given the fest’s focus on other styles. The Gaslight Anthem, the proud New Jerseyans, are a strong veteran act with a strong following and are perhaps best described as Bruce Springsteen-meets-Social Distortion. Their set was an update of pure American roots rock and punk. Queens of the Stone Age, originally from California, have been one of the premiere hard rock acts for over a decade and with an often rotating roster of hard rock luminaries. One constant is the guitar, vocals, and consistently solid songwriting of Josh Home. QOTSA opened with “My God Is the Sun” and closed out with “A Song for the Dead” in a fine and often pulverizing set.
At least at first glance, Nine Inch Nails might be a slight surprise to headline. They are indeed a widely-respected band and have sold millions of records, but in recent years they have not occupied the limelight like they did in the ‘90s. This was essentially the blueprint last year, too, in having an established alt-rock act to hold down the second night’s headlining slot. Last year it was Pearl Jam, although Pearl Jam’s fan base has always remained enormous. Still, given the rise of EDM, Nine Inch Nails might connect the ‘90s to the now as well as anyone.
Led by singer and songwriter Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails is a team of four of the heaviest synthesizer musicians, armed with some chainsaw guitars, all dressed in black. Reznor himself is about as intense as vocalists get. When he sings that he wants to “f*** you like an animal,” you tend to believe him. Reznor is still jacked-up and along with the black muscle shirt, he looks about as intense and as intimidating as the music can be. NIN began with strong new material, including opener “Copy of A”, and built the crowd up to their best known hits, “Head Like a Hole” and “Terrible Lie”.
At some point over the weekend I thought I came up with an answer as to where Jay-Z is coming from and what the theme of MIA really is. It must be a strange time to be a mega-rich, socially conscious black rapper. A black man is finishing his second term in the White House, yet the City of Philadelphia just had to take out a controversial $50 million loan to make sure public schools started for what are predominantly black and often lower-income kids. So many contradictions. Then I recalled the last election campaign season and the recurring theme that middle-class and above, straight, white, Christians (and possibly fundamentalist Christians) comprise the “traditional” or even the real America.
Of course, a whole lot of Americans do not fit into or subscribe to all of the above categories. Further—newsflash!—a lot of minorities and others have had difficulties in embracing everything that is supposed to be patriotic about being American, as well. Macklemore mentioned it in the context of gay rights when he said, “There were a few times in my life where I haven’t felt proud to be an American. That’s fact.” Chuck D had a similar but more piercing sentiment, while also acknowledging his African American heritage, when he first came onstage and declared, “We ain’t made in America, but we’re made in Philly!”
Hence the conundrum. Can the white and non-white, racially progressive, pro-gay rights, middle and lower middle-classes embrace a notion of patriotism as much as any other Americans? Jay-Z thinks so, and for the second year in a row, he was right. A festival like this makes visual and undeniable a couple of things. First, even reformed street hustlers like Jay-Z can become respected, corporate icons. Second, while it is a given that white kids have fully embraced African American artists, now more than ever, if a white rapper is good, genuine, and respects the genre (and as one example, Macklemore passes the test) it is utterly unremarkable that an equal mix of white folk, African Americans, and Latinos will all groove to his set and sing-along. There are also loads of black kids at the hard rock shows, as well—not that it shouldn’t be that way, but certainly it hasn’t always been.
One is left to wonder what Jay-Z will continue to do with his corporate clout and see how all of this shakes out. For now though, it was a fine weekend in Philly.