Even though it is on Labor Day and it is called “Made in America", this fest has nothing to do with manufacturing jobs. Instead, this is Jay Z’s vision of a new – or renewed – sense of patriotism.
Jay Z and Budweiser brought the Budweiser Made in America (MIA) music festival to Philadelphia's Ben Franklin Parkway for the fourth Labor Day weekend in a row, on September 5th and 6th. The MIA brand has returned to Philly alone now -- the MIA concert in Los Angeles last year was apparently a one-time deal. With two more years under a contract with the city, MIA will remain a Philly Labor Day institution for the near future. This year, Beyoncé and the Weeknd headlined on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter has been clear in his love for the festival, not only with the cache of being hip-hop icon Jay Z's favored city, but with the infusion of income from 64,000 people each day (it was only 45,000 in previous years) on a weekend when many Center City residents clear out and hit the Jersey shore for the last time of the summer. Now, adjacent to the MIA stages are several high rise apartment buildings, several catering to more elderly clientele. I am not sure how Nutter can keep appeasing these guys but... oh, well, I guess.
The festival sits between Philly’s skyline and the foot of the stairs of the massive Philadelphia Museum of Art. The two biggest stages (out of five) oppose one another and acts alternate so one is always playing. Walking down the Parkway Saturday afternoon, I found it was at points barely passable, but it worked. There are booths, a bar, a hair salon (?). There is a towering swing ride. A grassy area next to Park Side Place apartments is turned into a frenzied club scene, packed wall-to-all as Botnek and other deejays work the crowd. Next is the Tidal stage, where Jay Z’s new Tidal music streaming service is streaming lo-fi rockers Bass Drums of Death, and they sound great. Finally, there is a skate ramp and the Skate Stage.
There were 60 acts at this year's MIA including rock, hip hop, R&B, EDM, jazz-influenced acts, etc. Jay Z has only performed once, and didn't perform this year. Wife Beyoncé Knowles headlined for the second time in four years. In years past, a major rap or R&B headliner has gone one night and a major rock act, the other.
I caught the Struts first, a rising band and the latest iteration of British glam rock. They were a fine choice to kick a festival off. They effectively dared the crowd to not enjoy them and they had the songs and the skills to back it up. Singer Luke Spiller not only lead singalongs but taught the crowd choruses on the spot. I happened to catch up with the Struts backstage. My burning question: Why do Brits get glam so well (Bowie, etc., etc.), and Americans do not (eh, Poison?)? Guitarist Adam Slack explained that while Americans may see glam as a ”bit of a novelty or a bit of a joke... I think it started in Britain so we take it a little more seriously. And I think the British accents makes it more, eh, pompous, and that’s why it really connects.” Spiller added that the British, and specifically the Welsh, have “a decadent taste... and to be glam is like a form of showing off.” So there you have it.
Rapper Earl Sweatshirt of the now defunct Odd Future hip-hop crew led the crowd in a spirited and highly profane shout-along regarding sexual intercourse and freckles. Chicago rapper Vic Mensa veered from rap, to covering Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit", to soulful slow stuff. Formerly day glow-attired hip-hop legends De la Soul, the year’s Rap Golden Era representatives, took the main stage. Group member, Dave, suggested that probably not everyone there even knew who they were, but when they got to “Me, Myself, and I", the entire crowd came alive, clearly showing otherwise.
Philly upstarts Hop Along brought a powerful set on the Skate Stage. Acclaimed lead singer Frances Quinlan was compelling with some at times raging fierceness-meets-complex-modern-rock. The Weeknd kept the R&B love vibe going to the end of the night with songs from his about to be number one album, Beauty Behind the Madness.
Another group of upstarts are the fresh-faced youngsters from Minnesota, Hippo Campus. They are firmly in the Afro-pop track, with a singer with a big voice, radiant three-part harmonies, and a lot of band chemistry. I got a chance to chat with them, as well. Guitarist Nathan Stocker explained that the quickly rising band’s lives have “been pretty non-stop. We haven’t had too much time at home since March.” Though only a couple of years out of high school, Hippo has already played on Conan O’Brien, received major press, done SXSW, and toured with some major acts.
The bandmates all went to the same performing arts high school in Minnesota, and singer Jake Luppen bragged of his performance in Oliver Twist and some “mean” tap dancing skills. Actually, though, some of that music theater training pays off—he is a pretty dynamic singer with a powerful voice.
The meaning and theme of MIA is interesting. It is pretty clear what “made in America” means to Budweiser, but what about to the counter-cultural leader, Jay Z, a guy who made his name eschewing America’s traditional, i.e. corporate, and legal channels, and instead came up selling pharmaceuticals on the streets of Brooklyn and Newark before breaking out in the music business?
Oddly, even though it is on Labor Day and it is called “Made in America", the fest has nothing to do with manufacturing jobs. Instead, this is Jay Z’s vision of not only a multi-cultural America, but a new -- or renewed -- sense of patriotism when at times the word patriotism has been equated with shaming someone into wearing an American flag on their lapel or whether you fit into a “traditional” stereotype of “America” that may not be as relevant in diverse urban areas, in particular.
In the Ron Howard-directed documentary on Made in America in 2014, Run DMC’s Darryl “DMC’ McDaniels’ summed up his view of the festival, and really Jay Z’s, as well, saying, "Music succeeds where politics and religions fail.” Jazz opened people up, rock and roll crashed boundaries, and hip-hop continues to meld cultures, in the spirit of Afrika Baambata's vision of “Planet Rock". That’s not to say that MIA necessarily captured all American's feelings, either, something I was reminded of when one rapper on the Skate Stage gave a shout-out to “El Chappo".
On Sunday in the main stage, budding 20-year-old, electro-pop star, Halsey, embodied that multi-cultural theme. Between songs, Halsey told the crowd that her parents were there, from relatively nearby Newark, New Jersey, and that she wanted to bring them out and thank them for their support. Halsey’s dad is African American and her mother is Caucasian. Halsey explained how her bi-racial upbringing impacted her, in that her dad listened to the best rappers of the time, and her mom to the top rock bands, and what a gift that was to have such broad cultural influences to draw from in her own career. This led into “The New Americana” and the line “Raised on Biggie and Nirvana, We are the new Americana.” You could probably throw Wu Tang and skateboards into that particular mix, as well.
Much of this up and coming “millennial” generation, and more than any previously, was indeed raised in a true hip-hop/indie rock melting pot. Looking around at a massive and chilled out crowd that was probably 50/50 or maybe 60/40 African American-to-white, it was moving. It was moving because it was true.
On Saturday, Philly’s own star, Meek Mill, still hot with his once #1 album, Dreams Worth More Than Money, was about as popular as anyone on the bill but Beyoncé. Mill scarcely finished a song as he ran one into the next, in an extended medley. No one in the crowd... 50,000?... did not seem to care and most everyone semed to know every word. Mill brought out superstar girlfriend Nicki Minaj, to the crowd’s delight and she sang and Mill performed “All Eyes on You". Mill brought his really cute little boy out to bust some moves.
Mill soaked in the local love and at one point declared, “This is North Philly.” Now, to appreciate the irony of that statement, you have to know that North Philly, where Mill grew up, is probably as tough and as poor as any neighborhood in America. To declare that an area as overlooked and often seemingly abandoned b the rest of the world as North Philly could also exist at the base of the Art Museum in the middle of Center City is somehow, well, pretty damn funny, but also a strong declaration.
Death Cab for Cutie
Toward the end of a long, hot, dusty day, Mills’ closed out his heavy and hard hitting, North Philly-inspired set at 7:30. Instantly the second stage started with melodic and standout indie rock band, Death Cab for Cutie, from Seattle. Much of the crowd had to do little more than turn around to see Death Cab, or maybe turn around and walk a hundred feet or so. Again, the juxtaposition of North Philly with these really sensitive (and talented) white guys from the Pacific Northwest, seemed like a mistake -- like the equivalent of the Blues Brothers at Bob’s Country Bunker, or something.
Death Cab seemed too slow and too slight for this fest. At first, anyway. They continued into some of their extended, atmospheric jams and were at times mesmerizing. As strong and aggressive as Meek Mill’s set had been, and as long, hot and dusty as the day had been was, it actually seemed precisely the time for soothing songs like “When Soul Meets Body” and the surging closer, “Transatlanticisim". Death Cab was actually an ideal complement and right on time. It was time to regroup and get ready for superstar headliner, Beyoncé.
The beloved Ms. Knowles opened with the slow version of mega hit "Crazy in Love" from the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack. From there, Beyoncé brought her slew of hits and female empowerment message, going back to her Destiny’s Child years. It was all, of course, set to a hyperkinetic, fine-tuned dance show. Knowles further quoted noted feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and, timely enough, MMA star Rhonda Rousey.
This year saw plenty of successful and acclaimed rock acts, but none of the major, arena-filling variety of years past (e.g. Pearl Jam, Kings of Leon). A failure of the festival promoters or a sign of the times? Is it rock’s slow, aging “death” or is the genre, like others, simply fragmenting into lots of great sub-genres but without all-encompassing, central figures? Time will probably tell, but the lack of balance did seem to weaken the overall theme. Still, Jay Z and the Made in America festival is going as strong as ever -- it expanded by 50% (45,000 paid to 64.,000) and still sold out well in advance -- and it will be fun to see it where all it goes in the future.