It is Friday afternoon and I’m standing silently alongside many large groups waiting impatiently for the Green Line train to take us to the Pitchfork Music Festival. The scene is nothing new for people who annually attend the festival in Chicago’s Union Park: clusters of predominantly white, flannel-wearing men with their hands in their pockets excitedly muttering amongst each other about the acts they want to see; women arguing with their respective partners about whom was supposed to buy cigarettes and bring the tickets; two guys in matching Minor Threat t-shirts scoffing at the crowd who, to them, don’t seem like the real Godspeed You! Black Emperor fans they were looking for; nervous looking people crouching to check if their contraband is well hidden in their backpacks; and all while the regular Green Line patrons look on confused as if aliens had dropped bunches of disaffected hipsters from the sky. One of these patrons rolls their eyes at someone who loudly remarks “I’ve never even heard of this El Line!” as if to say, “this happens every year.”
The rain came down hard at around 2:00 P.M., an hour before the festival was supposed to open. When I arrive at 4:00, a half-hour after the festival actually opened, the ground was already soaked and the sparse crowds were beginning to check if they were standing in puddles. I cursed myself for not bringing a rain poncho, knowing full well that the rain wouldn’t be gone for long. It’s my fourth consecutive year at Pitchfork and I’ve never once brought a backpack, fearing the inevitable fatigue I would feel at the end of the day lugging it around for upwards of eight hours. But as I look up at a gray sky, I start to believe that my commitment to personal comfort was misguided. The rain will be an unavoidable presence this year.
As I sat waiting for Olivia Tremor Control to begin their set, I think to myself that at least it’ll wash away the unofficial fashion competition that occurs every year. No one looks good in a poncho.
Heat replaced the rain almost immediately. As Olivia Tremor finished their rollickingly, melodic set, people cautiously placed their protective gear in their backpack, checked to see the state of their smart phones, and dispersed in all different directions on a dime. Kids jumped in the mud puddles as their parents stood watching, silently sipping their Heinekens. I could see stagehands clutching the tarp to cover electrical equipment off to the sides, hoping it wouldn’t have to be used. “This doesn’t look too good,” one of them mutters to his compatriot. “It’s supposed to be worse tomorrow,” he replies.
Friday has always been a leisured Pitchfork day. When the festival first began in 2006, it was only a two-day affair, but expanded to include Friday the next year to incorporate the “Don’t Look Back” concert series where only three artists play an entire album from their catalogue front-to-back. What seemed like a Friday festival staple was abandoned two years later, and ever since the festival has struggled with Friday’s identity. In 2009, all the bands that played on Friday played songs picked by ticket-holders. 2010 featured the first and only time a stand-up comedy stage appeared at the festival, a poor attempt to liven up the opening day (especially with the awkward host job from Tim Harrington of Les SavyFav). But in the last couple years, Friday has been renovated into just another expanded day of music, a change that many have pointed to as an example of the festival losing its independent identity.
Of course, as soon as I enter the Chicago Independent Radio Project Record Fair, I realize that those claims are the slightest bit unfounded. Pitchfork dedicates an entire area of the festival every year solely to vinyl, tape, CD, and even 8-track fetishists in order to support CHIRP community radio and independent record stores. I walk through the maze-like aisles of the CHIRP tent literally stepping over people as they hunch down to peruse the dusty crates of records below the desks. While some are there to gawk at just the amount of vinyl that the tent has (“Who the hell still buys this stuff?), the snippets of conversation I hear are of a more discerning variety: “I’m not leaving without a Marquee Moon LP under my belt.” “There isn’t great selection in the 60s proto-punk section.” “Do you think I have enough cash to shell out for a Dirty Three record and a new wallet?”
But what many would perceive as music snobbery I see as a celebration of community. The record store clerks aren’t the pretentious, disgruntled archetypes (I only heard the “Yeah, I used to be in a punk band…” line used once), instead they cheerfully interact with the customers and share stories about how and when they got this record or in what year they discovered this band, all while treading the line between salesman and “just another fan.” After all of the music trends that come and go, all there is left is a shared appreciation of the past and a determination to keep it alive in the future. This might sound like false nostalgia to some, but for many it’s a reminder of the dedication and seriousness that both fans and artists use to approach art. I smiled intensely as I saw a vendor selling hundreds of cassettes with a sign in front of his wares that said, “Tapes didn’t go away, you did.”
Pitchfork is separated into three designated, color-coded stages: Green, Red, and Blue. Both the Green and Red stages feature the top-tier acts of the festival in the Main Area of Union Park, while the Blue stage is located on the other side of West Washington Boulevard, the park’s southern border, and features smaller, less well-known acts. Since the Green and Red stages are right next to each other, only one act can play on either stage at once, inevitably forcing people to rush back-and-forth between them to acclimate to the tight festival schedule. On the other hand, the Blue stage seems to run on its own wavelength and has a much more laid-back pace. It isn’t subject to the same time constraints that plague the larger acts and, even though every non-headliner act at the festival only roughly plays an hour or less, the Blue stage allows more leniency when it comes to set-up and sound checks. The types of crowds those acts inspire won’t get impatient waiting an extra twenty minutes. They care if it sounds the way it’s supposed to sound.
While the festival draws attendees with diverse musical taste, the divide between the crowds at Green/Red and Blue stages is traditionally noticeable. The Green and Red stages are meant to draw people to the festival that wouldn’t normally attend, with acts that either has dipped their toes into the wider popular culture (Vampire Weekend, Beach House, Feist) or have a sound that would capture the attention of someone aimlessly wandering through the grounds (A$AP Rocky, Hot Chip, Real Estate). Since the Blue stage features more experimental acts, the crowd present is very niched. It’s the people who run in avant-garde circles that relish the idea that someone like Tim Hecker or Oneohtrix Point Never, both ambient artists who lack or reject traditional stage presence, can be given such prominent stage time. Usually the Green/Red people venture over to the Blue area “just to check it out” only to find music devoid of melody, scaring them back to the Main Area. More than once I’ve heard “you’re only really hip if you stay at the Blue stage.”
This year that divide is slowly closing. This is partially because the Blue stage happens to contain more buzzed-about acts this year, such as Grimes, Purity Ring, and Kendrick Lamar, but I think it can also be traced to the ever-blurring genre lines. In the last decade, rockers have learned to dance, dancers have learned to sway, and droners have learned to sing-along. Pitchfork Fest has always reflected the music the website endorses, and, unsurprisingly, the festival’s evolution has mirrored the website’s, from its snarky, indie rock beginnings to widespread, straight-faced coverage of everything from hip-hop to metal. What it also reflects is the waning notion of single-minded identity. The underground’s rigid music scenes are slowly becoming a thing of the past as eclectic tastes become more commonplace and musical discovery becomes easier and easier. Especially in the last couple years, the festival actively asks the question: “Who says you can’t like what you like?”
Even as the headliners played, the crowds moved like waves, ebbing and flowing at a consistent pace, only halting momentarily for beer or food. Many leave early before the lines for the trains become interminable. Three guys in muscle tees started chanting, “Fuck Feist! Fuck Feist! Fuck Feist!” while others chanted, “No, fuck you!” in response. A girl threw away something in her backpack after realizing that it had gotten soaked earlier in the day. The rain had reared its ugly head again, but it wasn’t too bad. He’ll be back tomorrow.
Maybe I approach live music incorrectly, but I’ve always felt the type of people at a show says just as much if not more than the actual music played. Feist brought a crowd that wanted to hear and see a professional play, with mature lyrics and understated melodies abound that facilitates lying down on the grass pensively. Purity Ring had more to prove to their audience, being a group that has been around for less than a year, and thus brought an excited group with very high expectations. I stood in the back at both shows having no real interest in getting in the middle of anything. I was tired.
Purity Ring mostly succeeded in their endeavor with their visual savvy and hypnotic synths, but Feist struggled to bring her soft-spoken style to a larger venue, truly attempting to embody the arena-rock persona that she joked about on stage. But this wasn’t the case of the old guard being showed up by the younger generation, instead there was a choice embedded within the contrasting performers. The word “discovery” gets thrown out a lot when discussing Pitchfork, with the expectation that audiences will see rising artists before they hit it big, but what’s clear to me is the festival understands this isn’t everybody’s bag. Some people want to hear a performer who’s been around the block a few times for the money they’ve spent, while others are more content with embracing the unknown by seeing someone who is still young and fresh. It’s ultimately the choice between safety and risk. As the publication ages with its audience, there’s a clear respect for an older generation of music obsessives, one’s who have lost a little bit of their edge, but not their spark. They still go out for shows, but don’t hunt for the new single by the hip, new band. Why punish people for growing up, even just a little bit?
At the end of the night, Feist came out for an encore to the delight of her fans and Purity Ring said that the audience was “the most people [they’ve] ever played for.” The sitters clapped while the standers cheered. Inclusivity ain’t that bad.
I got to the festival right after the gates opened on Saturday afternoon just to walk around. I wanted to get some food in me before the day got started and had yet to check out the other vendors or the Flatstock poster show. There’s an air of calm for the few who make it out early to revel in the open space and explore. They take the time to actually look around at the community the festival aspires for, before it inevitably gets too crowded to notice. The weather cycle continues as people prepare for the inevitable downpour.
As The Psychic Paramount and Atlas Moth square off at around 1:00, I make my way to Poster Alley where local and international artists sell their gig-posters and prints of indie bands. People smile and nod approvingly at the posters they recognize, making promises to the illustrators that they will come back later. When I arrive, the main poster artists are still setting up shop and smoking cigarettes, talking with each other about how the rain is negatively affecting their sales. A tall, nebbishy artist wearing a black headband accurately remarks while putting up a Calexico print that “people only really start to buy on Sunday anyway,” and that “perusing is the name of the game for Friday and Saturday.” “Sure, but perusing isn’t getting me anywhere,” another grumbles as his assistant rolls his eyes.
The poster community at Pitchfork seems to function both in and outside of the larger festival community. For one thing, it’s clearly a separate entity from the rest of the fest, existing away from most of the action and music, but it’s hard to deny the inherent connection between art and music that hangs over the whole event. The artists featured at the fair were commissioned for their work for a specific show or series of shows, meaning that, in one way or another, they are documenting a specific point in an artist’s career. Especially with regards to independent music, these artists are an integral part of maintaining both relevancy and legitimacy of the musicians they depict, many of whom will never achieve mainstream recognition.
As I walk down the alley, I get lost in an Archers of Loaf reunion poster for their set at Sasquatch Music Festival done by award-winning illustrator Casey Burns. It’s a minimalist depiction a woman staring off into the distance with her wind blowing in the wind as she hangs over her car door. I’m not sure of its meaning or if it is closely related to their body of work at all, but I find myself fascinated by its very existence. Art spurs obsession and fandom the same way music does, but when art and music join hands like it does at the fair, it illustrates how all creative processes are closely intertwined regardless of their medium.
And then it came down.
I’m standing on the left side of the Red stage watching Cloud Nothings diligently play their set and ignoring the weather that would eventually cut their act short. About a third of the way through their song “Wasted Days,” an eight-minute song with a long instrumental break in the middle, it starts to pour. Much of the audience flees to the protective tents on the other side of the grounds hoping there’s still space left in the large CHIRP tent. The stagehands start to cover the electrical equipment with tarp and whisper nervously to each other about the weather. The band doesn’t take their eyes off their instruments. Shirts are thrown off. Shoes get soaked. Ponchos are ripped in the hurry to put them on. My pants are so drenched that they have become a part of my flesh. I decide to stick it out.
Lead singer Dylan Baldi leaves the stage to talk to the technicians as guitarist Joe Boyer takes the lead. He’s staring at his amplifier with such intensity that I thought he would burst a vessel. People rush around him trying to communicate with both the event staff and the musicians over whether or not to end the set early because of safety concerns. The crowd continues to jam along with the band as they pretend nothing is happening around them. The instrumental break is almost over and the sky is crashing down.
Baldi returns to the stage for a reprise of the chorus: “I thought! I would! Be More! Than This!” But just before he launches into it, the sound suddenly cuts out. The event staff cut the mics and the amps in order to avoid an electrocution scare. The crowd looks to Baldi et al for their cue to how they react. After realizing they can’t hear themselves, Boyer and Baldi angrily shrug their shoulders as they keep playing the song with diminished sound. The crowd screams in unison: “I THOUGHT! I WOULD! BE MORE! THAN THIS!” Baldi smiles widely, knowing he’s playing to an adoring crowd, and they finish the song, but not before Boyer throws his guitar down in frustration. A technician picks it up without a second glance.
It’s not that something like this couldn’t happen at any other music festival, let alone any other concert. But Baldi was eighteen when he started recording music under the name Cloud Nothings in his parents’ basement in Ohio. Now, three years later, he’s playing to a relatively large crowd who’s cheering him on even as his set is plagued by forces outside of his control. It’s a small momentthat will neither define him or his career, but it was moving in the way that only live music can achieve. Baldi would have graduated from Case Western soon if he had not dropped out in favor of his burgeoning music career.
I can’t help but think that I’m sharing in this with him, even if it’s just for one song.
I’m in the CHIRP tent with the rest of the festival waiting out the second bout of rain. There’s about an inch of room to stand as people rock on their tippy toes, craning their necks to find their friends and to see if the rain has subsided. The record store clerks look frustrated at the amount of people around them who are unwilling to purchase anything. A downpour turns into a drizzle. Everyone slowly starts to trickle outside. People adjust.
The smells really start to set in the air during the afternoon: a potent mixture of cigarettes and marijuana, damp clothes, body odor, and sopping wet grass all make an appearance. Someone in front of me reaches into his pocket to check out his orange Bic lighter and chucks it towards the Green stage without giving it a second thought. Groups like Atlas Sound and Lotus Plaza admiringly trudged through their sets, with the former leaving early because “the rain killed his shit.” Much of the festival catches their breath. I never fail to be impressed by the sheer number of people willing and eager to be personally uncomfortable for live music, especially at a festival. It’s the implicit promise that sheer energy and talent can produce connection and transcendence among a large group all there for one purpose.
The sun peeks out as Flying Lotus comes on stage. The crowd cheers. Clothes and hair start the long process of drying. A high schooler next to me looks up towards the sky and takes out a flask from his back pocket as if to say, “this one’s for you.” We all move forward.
I’m in a very select crowd Saturday night. The 90s post-rock group Godspeed You! Black Emperor is closing out the Green Stage, while the newer, relatively more popular Grimes close out Blue. Out of the acts played at the festival, Godspeed has the most narrow fan base. Much of Godspeed’s music on record consists of tape loops and violin or guitar noise, slowly building to a loud, rousing climax. Their songs are often twenty minutes long and require much patience. It’s a set for people who are willing to stand and take in an anti-melodic experience for a wondrous payoff.
Those who didn’t know what they were getting into seem rightfully frustrated. “I thought they were supposed to be a headliner,” someone grumbled listening to their music waiting for the bathroom. I’ve always thought that a group like Godspeed defined what people think of Pitchfork: pretentious, inaccessible, and seemingly against having a good time.
Godspeed is what I love about a small festival like this. All of the signs at Pitchfork this year point to a publication and a festival broadening their scope and losing the younger, discerning qualities that made them unique. It’s not just that a populist group like Vampire Weekend is closing out the festival or the conscious decision to dramatically increase the number of hip-hop acts, it’s the perception that adventurous acts who work outside the mainstream don’t get as generous of stage time that they used to. Godspeed is one of the few “classic” groups playing at the festival, but unlike Olivia Tremor Control or Chavez, they don’t fit into the mold of underappreciated rock groups from the 90s. They were heavily appreciated by the people who listened and cared, and left a music scene they helped define without much fanfare. They’re not a group whose music will be featured in a Chevy commercial.
I was surrounded by people who couldn’t take their eyes off the stage, but they weren’t looking at the musicians, who themselves were surrounded by shadows, but instead at a film projection that played in conjunction with their music. Godspeed has always emphasized the projection as an integral part of their live show, saying that it puts “the whole into context.” I interpret this as an attempt to remove ego from the performance entirely, and let the music exist in its own vacuum. This is something many independent artists try to do: to serve the music as much as possible rather than serving themselves or the audience. It’s antithetical to the whole nature of live music, but it’s something that certain artists desperately cling to as a way to differentiate themselves from the mainstream music culture. Godspeed play like professionals, with no banter or superfluous stage action. It’s not about them. It’s about something larger. It’s times like these where I want so badly to grin at the people who bemoan Pitchfork as an entity that’s losing its identity. Something like this could never happen at Lollapalooza.
It’s Sunday night. People are beginning to pack up and clear out as Vampire Weekend begins their set. The minimalist techno sound of The Field trickle out from the Blue Stage. Food vendors try to perfectly time when they can start taking down their spot. Poster alley is hopping with people trying to buy a print on their way out. The CHIRP tent is starting to wind down. The event’s ending. The weekend’s over. Most of my friends left before Vampire Weekend started, completely uninterested in their music and what they have to offer. I don’t hold it against them, I’m not Vampire Weekend’s biggest fan either. But I want to see this play out. I want to see this festival properly end.
As I sit down on the grass away from the stage, I realize that I have the closest relationship to Vampire Weekend’s music over any other act at the festival. I distinctly remember almost all of the major events of their career. I remember when their debut album came out and the buzz that preceded it. I remember when the “A-Punk” music video dropped on the Internet. I remember girls in my high school cooing over lead-singer Ezra Koenig, who embodied the non-threatening archetype many desire. I remember the backlash against their preppy clothes, their elitist lyrics, and their obnoxious attempt to incorporate West African pop sounds into standard indie rock that reeked of faux, white guilt. They’re a group that simultaneously satisfies a lot of people’s ears while also rubbing an equal number of people the wrong way.
“Just fucking look at them,” one of my friends remarks. “How do they not piss you off?” But the truth is they don’t really. I remember why I was drawn to them in the first place during freshman year of high school and I also remember why I lost interest in them no more than a year later. They don’t excite or anger me in the slightest; they just simply exist as one of many indie groups that have broached the mainstream. Saying I like the songs, “I Stand Corrected,” and “Walcott,” is as much of an opinion of the group I can muster.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that their set was enjoyable, even if it was for the combination of limited nostalgia and people-watching. I watched boyfriends reluctantly sing along to songs they knew by heart with their girlfriends, even if an eye-roll was thrown in. I saw middle-aged men dancing with reckless abandon under the influence of a weekend-long buzz and disaffected people tapping their toes to the beat as if their feet were not under their control. It was a strangely heart-warming moment that stripped away all of the faux-posturing that the festival inspires. Sure, their sound is kitschy and Koenig’s voice is just a little too perfect, but it was difficult not to have a good time on a day that had the best weather of the weekend.
My mind wanders back to this notion of independence and how we use it to create identity. Underground music inherently encourages obsession and passion simply because of its lack of exposure, but what happens when the mainstream brushes up against the underground and vice versa? The Internet has facilitated an unprecedented growth in exposure to sounds and styles that wouldn’t normally get strong attention and it would be fair to say that not only are people listening to more music but they’re listening to more kinds of music. Pitchfork ostensibly places a premium on the music they endorse or feature, intentionally or not attempting to create some type of official canon, but I don’t think smug superiority drives them. It’s an honest hope that people will be exposed to and pass on music that have the high potential to be lost in time, even with the unending documentation of the Internet.
Many people at this festival define themselves by what they do or do not listen to, and I understand if they feel that Pitchfork has now become a place for everybody and not just them. There’s a tendency to dismiss people who don’t approach art the way you do, like the people who sneer at those who call themselves Modest Mouse fans who only have “Float On” on their iTunes, but what gets lost in the shuffle is the undeniable fact that it’s not your art. It’s everybody’s. Pitchfork, both the publication and the festival, are at an interesting turning point in their development because of the tension between satisfying the needs of the many, many people who trust their opinion and staying true to their commitment to shedding light on different, unique music, many of which won’t appeal to their vast readership. What Pitchfork is suggesting with its expanded coverage and its attempt at a broader appeal is to break down the impenetrable barriers of the underground, creating a space for those both new and experienced. As Pitchfork moves forward, I believe it wants to make it safe for everybody to come join the cool party and to upend the notion that “quality” and “accessibility” are mutually exclusive.
(Image Credits: Pitchfork)
Vikram Murthi is a rising sophomore at Swarthmore College where he studies everything from Advanced Drum Circling to Theoretical Bobsledding. Vikram is an aspiring writer, critic, or bard (he doesn’t have a preference), but is secretly holding out for the position of astronaut chef whenever NASA starts hiring again. Meanwhile, he spends most of his days on Twitter, obsessing about television, or listening to the same three Modest Mouse albums over and over again. He wants to meet Abed Nadir on the street one day, but knows it’s very unlikely.