The Performance of Summertime and Regional Identity at Bumbershoot

Summertime is a fleeting, unstable commodity in Seattle. Seattleites themselves tend to express a seasoned toughness when it comes to the rain and lack of sunshine that Seattle is known for. They will often scream with embarrassed laughter at the mere suggestion of using an umbrella, and boldly assert that walking in the cold, pouring rain for indefinite periods of time poses no problem for them whatsoever. Seattleites clearly see this as a point of pride, daring you to doubt their endurance regarding precipitation. Outsiders who have spent little or no time in the Pacific Northwest often express horror and morbid curiosity regarding what they imagine to be a legitimately foul climate that no reasonable person would tolerate of his or her own free will. The truth is that the weather in Seattle is really not that bad. Things can get a bit dark and gloomy in December and January, but compared to many other places in the United States (I’m looking at you, Midwest!) the weather is really very pleasant.

But the Seattle summer is very short, and it comes quite a bit later than it does in more southerly climes. So when the summer does finally show up, and the Pacific Northwest cashes in on its annual rainfall, Seattle can be a glorious place indeed. During such times, Seattleites enjoy idling in public parks, airing out their blindingly white, somehow chalky legs, and squinting their eyes like subterranean rodents emerging from their burrows. They drink large quantities of beer and grin smugly to themselves, confident in the superiority of their regional identity. Nowhere is this languorous, blissful performance of summertime in the Pacific Northwest more extravagant than at the annual Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival, which has taken place in Seattle Center, home of the famous, ever-phallic Space Needle, every summer since 1971. For months prior to the 2013 festival, which look place Labor Day weekend, Bumbershoot plastered the greater Seattle area with advertisements on city buses, billboards, and newspapers that read: ‘It’s not often the entire city has the same vacation plans.’ This sense of a communal vacation that Seattleites take not to get away from their home, but into the very depths of their sense of home, is clearly what the folks at Bumbershoot are shooting for. At Bumbershoot, Seattleites pat themselves on the back with enough force to crack vertebrae, reinforcing their sense of civic and regional pride, saying to one another over and over again: this is who we are, and right now we are at our most perfect.

To say that Americans tend towards narcissism, self-absorption, and mindless consumerism is a truism that barely requires mentioning, but the multi-day summertime festival provides an opportunity for this general tendency to be kicked into high gear. In his hilarious, devastatingly brilliant essay about his trip to the Illinois State Fair, “Getting Away From It All While Pretty Much Already Being Away From It All”, the late, great, sorely missed David Foster Wallace describes the basic logic that underlies fairs, festivals, and other special events in America, particularly regarding young people:

Plus maybe this sense of the world as all and only For-Him is why special ritual public occasions drive a kid right out of his mind with excitement. Holidays, parades, summer trips, sporting events. Fairs. Here the child’s manic excitement is really exultation at his own power: the world will now not only exist For-Him but will present itself as Special-For-Him. Every hanging banner, balloon, gilded booth, clown-wig, turn of the wrench on a tent’s erection—every bright bit signifies, refers. Counting down to the Special Event, time itself will alter, from a child’s annular system of flashes and sweeps to a more adultish linear chronology—the concept of looking forward to—with successive moments ticking off toward a calendar-X’d telos, a new kind of fulfilling and apocalyptic End, the 0-hour of the Special Occasion, Special, of the garish and in all ways exceptional Spectacle which the child has made be and which is, he intuits at the same inarticulate depth as his need for a nightlight, For-Him alone, unique at the absolute center.[1]

Jeepers creepers, now that’s what I call getting your point across. Wallace suggests that special events heighten and magnify the American child’s narcissistic delusion that everything exists for his or her benefit; the fair, celebration, or multi-day popular music festival allows us to revel in the hyper-realistic grandeur of a culture already designed for our everyday overstimulation, but now it is designed to truly blow our circuits, for our total encapsulation in special fun and entertainment. According to Wallace, people on the East Coast retreat into nature and solitude during their summer vacations as an escape from their mostly urban environments; he juxtaposes this with the rural Midwestern desire for crowds and communal rituals as a method of recreation. Wallace writes:

The real Spectacle that draws us here is Us. The proud displays and the paths between them and the special-treat booths along the paths are less important than the greater-than-sum We that trudge elbow to elbow, pushing strollers and engaging in sensuous trade, expending months of stored-up attention. A neat inversion of the East-Coast’s summer withdrawal. God only knows what the West Coast’s like.

Indeed; what is the West Coast like? And the Pacific Northwest at that? I will attempt to grapple with this grim question as I immerse myself in the Grand Summertime Spectacle that is Bumbershoot 2013. On his trip to the Illinois State Fair in 1993, David Foster Wallace brought with him an individual that he refers to simply as Native Companion; a friend of his from high school who still lived in rural Illinois where Wallace grew up. Native Companion, Wallace felt, provided local insight into Midwestern culture that was no longer available to him after years of East Coast living. I am not a native Seattleite, having grown up in an intensely rural part of Northern California, so I am grateful to have my own Native Companion on this journey; my intrepid and vivacious photographer Katie DeMar. Her keen eyes and can-do attitude lend an air of confidence and professionalism to this outing that I find invigorating. So in we go, delving into the mossy, grunge haunted soul of Seattle as it reveals itself to itself at Bumbershoot 2013.

Day One

The morning of Saturday, August 31st arrives as gloriously as anyone could reasonably hope. The weather is ostentatiously perfect; sunny, warm but not hot, with a gentle breeze that persists throughout the day as if it has been programmed to do so by the boys down at Microsoft. The Intrepid and Vivacious Katie and I are standing in line for our daily passes. With us stand an assortment of press officials, individuals who have purchased expensive VIP passes, and a number of horrifically deformed zombies. On my trusty Bumbershoot schedule under the ambiguous heading ‘Spectacles’, various ‘Zombie Attacks’ are scheduled throughout the day with no particular location being specified, punctuated at 4:30 pm by a ‘Thriller Flashmob’. It seems that the folks at Bumbershoot have decided to continue to beat the whole ‘zombie apocalypse’ trend a little bit more to death and get a bunch of people who like to dress up like zombies to wander around the festival trying to bite people.

The first of the zombies that I see is a young, slightly built woman who apparently has had the right side of her face slit open by some unforeseen act of violence. Her make-up is really quite good, and at first glance I wonder if she is legitimately injured in some way, before I remember the whole ‘zombie spectacle’ thing. The young woman is not in character yet, and watching her casually chat with her friends under such apparent physical duress is somehow more unsettling than watching her stagger and moan, as she would do later in the festival. As the festival progresses and both exhaustion and intoxication set in, it will become more and more difficult to ascertain who are intentionally dressed up like zombies and who are simply exhausted festival goers who have become overwhelmed by the crowd. Whether this particular bit of irony was intentional on the part of Bumbershoot’s organizers, a previously thought-out result of the ‘zombie spectacle’, or an unintentional byproduct will remain unclear.

As we enter the festival grounds we are greeted by a low, cacophonous wall of bass. The bass is amplified to the point of absurdity, and at our distance it is impossible to hear any other aspects of the music that the bass is intended to accompany, if indeed it is meant to accompany anything. I feel my skull rattle in its fleshy casing and my various organs quiver gently. As we approach the fountain in the heart of Seattle Center I observe a number of children who have been cavorting in the water with their hands over their ears attempting unsuccessfully to shut out the truly excessive bass tones coming from the stage to the south. The children are understandably confused about the source and necessity of this rather physical sound, not realizing that it is supposed to signify music. They look around nervously, wondering if this might be the prelude to some unsuspected and unimaginable disaster. The artist producing the bass calls himself Grynch. I imagine this moniker seems appropriate to the children who find his almost sub-auditory rumbling disconcerting.

The festival begins to cycle up. Over at the Starbucks Stage where young children and Baby Boomers are quarantined we observe a succession of jazz and blues bands, the most excellent of which is a modern jazz group called Ernie Watts and New Stories. Aging, sixty-something hippies wearing body paint and strange beret-like hats are dancing earnestly. Their lack of self-consciousness and obvious pleasure are impossible to deny; these grizzled old deadheads are having more fun than anyone else out here. The Starbuck’s Stage is located at the bottom of a gently sloping hill, with a swanky coffee lounge at the top for VIPs who have paid excessive amounts of money to sit there. Another sixty-something hippie guy appears at the top of the hill and spies his brethren dancing at the foot of the stage and he becomes overwhelmed with joy. He bounds down the hill like an excited golden retriever to join them with a look on his face that is simply beatific. In all likelihood, these hippies are old friends, but part of me wants to believe that he does not know these people at all and simply identified them as kindred spirits. The hippies are positively capering now. I will hear throughout the weekend and in later press reports that Bumbershoot has been surrendered to the young people and that the old guard hippies have been displaced; whoever said and wrote such things clearly did not see the prancing, beaming sexagenarians at the Starbucks Stage.

Later, we watch !!! whip the crowd into an ass-shaking frenzy as only they can; Gary Numan does a very passable impression of Trent Reznor doing an impression of Gary Numan. The crowds are truly beginning to mass now, and the country boy in me is beginning to feel claustrophobic. Looking around myself I am startled by how overwhelmingly white this audience is; the northern neighborhoods of Seattle in particular often feel very mono-racial in this way, and Bumbershoot has clearly brought out the white kids in droves. The crowd feels keyed up, tense, as if the much anticipated Big Day is finally here and now they don’t quite know what to do with themselves.

Darkness falls, and we are faced with a difficult decision: stay outside to catch Washed Out and Crystal Castles, or descend into the very bowels of the Key Arena main stage for tonight’s hometown hero headliners, Heart. Being a dyed in the wool Seattleite, my photographer Katie opts for Heart, while I stay outside for some dreamy, shoe-gazey electronic music. I come to regret my decision. But part of me suspects that the civic communion with Heart enjoyed on the main stage was not intended for me anyway; this is for locals only, a place where their most secret desires can be performed and reveled in. They would probably spot me for an outsider immediately and not even let me in. At the night’s end, Katie emerges from the chaotic tumult of Key Arena looking blissful and dazed, a dreamy smile plastered across her face. She has experienced something that I will never truly understand.

Day Two

There are more zombies now. The most disturbing are those that are really half-assing it; the ones who only bother with the most cursory remnants of a costume and mostly just lurch around bothering strangers. Families squirm with embarrassment and shield their children from the unsavory people who seem to want to moan and paw at their children for no apparent reason. Upper middle class parents with Scandinavian last names dressed in vests from REI and expensive looking sandals with byzantine constructions of straps and buckles ask each other: Are these filthy, drunken pedophiles of some kind? And is that a group of pretty 14-year-old girls brazenly taking bong rips by the fountain? Is this the inevitable result of marijuana legalization? What has become of us? The crowds swell to stomach churning proportions as I psychologically prepare myself for a special VIP and press only intimate performance from Bob Mould, whose music I have adored since junior high school.

I come perilously close to compromising my journalistic objectivity when Bob Mould launches into the classic Husker Dü track “Flip Your Wig” towards the end of his Press/VIP set; indeed, I nearly do just that. As bored journalists sit passively around me playing Angry Birds on their IPhones, I twitch and spasm in my seat, trying to suppress the urge to launch myself over the video camera positioned directly in front of me and into the seats below, screaming with joy. Later, during Bob Mould’s real set at the TuneIn Stage in the center of the festival, he plays what is probably my favorite Husker Dü song, “Celebrated Summer,” and all weariness and misanthropy leave me for a time. As the aging, graying Mould leaps into the air, wailing the glorious lyrics to what is possibly the greatest summertime anthem ever penned, I feel like I am 16 years old again and euphoric beyond words. I am swallowed up by the experience of summertime and the inescapable knowledge that music can be special, liberating, and incorruptible. The song ends, and Mould concludes his set, but the memory of that one fleeting moment of perfection will linger in my mind for the remainder of the weekend, problematizing my cynicism. Starbucks VIP lounges, jaded hipsters, and vapid commercialism be damned; communal rituals and popular music still have the power to drag us out of ourselves, if only temporarily, and immerse us in something magical.

My sense of pleasure and exaltation continues as the much anticipated Breeders take the stage. They are commemorating their indisputably classic record Last Splash by playing it in its entirety. The Deal sisters, Kim and Kelly, kid and josh with each other throughout the set, seeming to enjoy being on stage together immensely, and making us enjoy their set all the more as a result. They sound fantastic, and I am clearly not the only person here who has been looking forward to this set. Teenagers who were not born yet when Last Splash was first released are visible all around us, and they sing along to songs like “Cannonball” and “Saints”. Later, after the day’s festivities have concluded and the band Vivacious Katie and I wait for our bus, my jaw literally drops and the utterance, ‘Holy balls, look who’s coming up the street towards us!’ escapes my gaping maw. The Deal sisters are strolling casually towards us up the street, apparently decamping to their tour bus or whatever. As they approach I greet them and express how much we enjoyed their set. They are friendly and gracious. We chat for a moment before they continue up the street, bidding us a good evening. I am immensely pleased.

Day Three

The lovely weather of the last two days has given way to a vague mugginess, and those of us who have been at Bumbershoot all weekend are beginning to feel the strain of endless crowds and hyper-stimulation. We recline languidly on picnic blankets between sets and drink overpriced beer. The distinction between zombies and weary festival goers is almost gone now; everyone shuffles and stumbles in their paces, mumbling incoherently. Katie and I encounter a trio of young women in our shady relaxation spot of choice dressed up in what I perceive as post-millennial rave gear; they are wearing vast numbers of candy bracelets, multi-colored plastic necklaces, and neon tank tops with the phrase ‘Free Hugs” emblazoned across them. They seem to radiate youth and vigor. The ever-vigilant Katie asks to take their picture, and they seem genuinely pleased by her request. They insist on giving us both hugs. I submit awkwardly, feeling ancient beyond reckoning.

I make my way into the wretched warren of Key Arena for the first time all weekend in order to see Alt-J, whose music I have only recently discovered but who I am quite taken with. I brandish my press credentials authoritatively at a security official who appears to be about 15 years old that has been entrusted to guard the main-floor entrance. She patiently explains to me that she is unable to let anyone else down onto the main floor. I become indignant, flapping my press credentials in front of my face manically like some foul talisman and ranting, “I’ll have you know, young lady, that I am a professional music journalist, a bulwark of democracy, goddamnit!” She is unimpressed. Katie leads me away broken and dejected, up into the vast hive of seats high above the stage. Looking down upon the sea of people on the main floor, I am relieved to be suspended above its roiling chaos. Alt-J let loose with one of the most impressive and musically challenging performances of the entire weekend, and I am delighted to see impressive numbers of young people not only getting into the music, but singing along to every word. I expected that most of the under-25s were here to see MGMT who were coming on next; not so apparently. These kids are going nuts for Alt-J’s Phillip Glass meets Radiohead avant-pop and I am proud of them.

Now it is time for what, as far as I am concerned, is the climax of the entire Bumbershoot festival: the triumphant return of the mighty Baroness, who just over one year ago very nearly died in a dreadful bus crash. Baroness are, to be perfectly frank, one of my very favorite bands of any genre playing on the planet Earth today. I seriously considered making a large banner, which would have read “Welcome Back, Guys,” for this occasion, but sloth and a fear of sycophancy prevented me from doing so. Predictably, Baroness utterly annihilate the crowd with their gorgeous, haunting, psychedelic metal. The crowd is somewhat sparse at the beginning of the set but very soon the crowd swells considerably as passersby become transfixed by the sounds drifting towards them. Baroness instigate the only mosh pit that I have seen all weekend, and their enthusiasm increases as the crowd becomes ever-more galvanized. They conclude their set with their classic Red Album devastator Isak and I feel deeply honored to witness their return from the very brink of mortality itself. Welcome back, guys…

Evening arrives and the inevitable end of Special Fun looms. We festival goers feel a difficult combination of relief and deep sadness. Once again we have confronted ourselves on mass and we have emerged from the encounter more-or-less in one piece. But just as Bumbershoot signifies summertime itself at its most glorious and intense for Seattleites, its conclusion signifies summer’s end and the gradual retreat into dimness and seclusion. After today’s final sets have concluded we will cease to be a crowd, or lounge in the sun like contented sea lions, or know beyond the shadow of a doubt that our geographic isolation out here at the end of the world with our endless months of torrential rain is all worth it in the end. Because, like everyone else, Seattleites are deeply insecure about who they are and they feel the need to continuously celebrate and reaffirm their identities in order to keep that insecurity in check. Although most of the acts that perform at Bumbershoot are not local artists, the artists themselves are not really the point. As David Foster Wallace so eloquently puts it, “The real Spectacle that draws us here is Us.”[2]

Which brings us back to the question that has haunted me from the very start: How is the Pacific Northwest different in this respect? If Wallace is right, and the Midwest retreats into crowds to reaffirm themselves, and East Coasters retreat into rural isolation to escape one another, then what exactly are urbanites from the far-northwestern part of the continental United States doing at festivals like Bumbershoot? I offer the following theories: I think that Wallace hits the nail on the head about communal rituals and Special Fun at fairs, festivals, and the like, but I think he is mistaken when he singles out rural Midwesterners for this kind of behavior; I believe that it is one of the most fundamentally human things that people do. East Coasters engage in all types of communal, group-centric activities and revel in festive celebrations as enthusiastically as anyone. Seattleites are paradoxically both urban and rural, being a culturally significant city while also being an urban outpost surrounded by vast wilderness. The presence of the sea, mountains, and forest looms large in the Seattleites’ sense of space, and their geographic isolation from most of the rest of the country increases both their sense of loneliness and sense of uniqueness. There is a regional, cultural narcissism here that can only be borne from deep insecurity; a nagging sense of being peripheral, provincial, lost in the woods. At Bumbershoot Seattleites manifest as a collective Us; they turn their faces into the last, most brilliant rays of the dying summer sun and recharge themselves for the coming winter.

In a vintage episode of Beavis and Butthead, the boys sit and watch Nirvana’s ubiquitous ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video. Beavis queries, ‘Hey Butthead, where is Seattle?’ Butthead responds sagely, ‘You don’t know? Seattle is this place where like stuff is like really cool.’ As an outsider who has lived in Seattle for just over two years I feel that such sentiments haunt Seattleites. Where is Seattle? Somewhere far away, no one really knows. What was Seattle like during the high era of grunge? Really, really cool and hip. Seattleites still bask in the reassuring glow of that 90s coolness; it keeps them warm at night, while its increasing remoteness feeds their insecurity. At Bumbershoot Seattleites try, and mostly succeed, to become who they are and to feel, however fleetingly, perfectly themselves, free of doubt and alienation.

[1] Wallace, David Foster. Getting Away From It All While Pretty Much Already Being Away From It All, 128. In A Supposedly Fun Thing That I Will Never Do Again. Little, Brown, and Company, 1997.

[2] Wallace, David Foster. Getting Away From It All While Pretty Much Already Being Away From It All, 148. In A Supposedly Fun Thing That I Will Never Do Again. Little, Brown, and Company, 1997.