I discovered this weekend one of the most important qualities that comprises my personality: I am not the Music Festival Type.
I had always thought (or maybe hoped) that I might be—that I would feel OK and possibly even thrive in being outside all day. That the rules of basic human biology wouldn’t apply to me and I would be able to go a whole day without having to use a porta-potty. That I would have tolerance for adults who wear flower crowns and ponchos that may or may not be ironic, who even cares anymore. But none of that is my reality, and that’s why this weekend’s Pitchfork Music Festival was a nightmare.
Look, if you are the type of person who enjoys outdoor music festivals, I’m sure Pitchfork would be a complete dream. While it may have been filled with garbage and dirt, Chicago’s Union Park is actually a really nice place to be. It’s massive, but not overwhelming due to the festival’s accessible layout, and there is a surprisingly good view of the city’s skyline way off in the distance. This year’s festival featured one of the summer’s most diverse lineups, including headliners Beck, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Kendrick Lamar, and offered plenty to do besides standing at one stage for an entire day in the hope that you’ll be able to see Jeff Mangum’s weather-inappropriate sweater up close. The CHIRP Record Fair and the Book Fort were among the most popular attractions. At CHIRP, you could shop from a huge selection of records, CDs, and cassette tapes from over 20 record stores in the Chicagoland area. The Book Fort, a modest set up near the back of the park, was maybe a little less exciting, but featured readings from Chicago Tribune music critic Jessica Hopper and senior editor of This Recording, Britt Julious.
There was also an impressive, albeit somewhat obnoxious, selection of local food vendors. There was gelato (not ice cream) from Black Dog, vegan hot dogs from Chicago Diner, and watermelon mint salad from the Rice Table. If carrying around a plate of salad while looking for a spot during Earl Sweatshirt isn’t your thing, there were also a couple free sample booths. The most notable was the Hostess Cakes booth, mainly for how entirely out of place it was. It doesn’t make much sense that, among the plethora of healthy and organic options, they were also handing out Twinkies, which legally shouldn’t be considered food. It makes even less sense that there was a man dressed as a character named Twinkie the Kid (a Twinkie who was a cowboy, though I’m sure you already knew that) who had to be led around the park by a another person because his costume didn’t have eye holes, but he was there nonetheless. Woozy from dehydration and low on cash, I opted for the Twinkie. While my choices weren’t healthy, my sense of shame was and I was too embarrassed to eat it out in the open. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything more dehumanising than trying to find a private spot in an overcrowded park to eat a free Twinkie.
The main thing I took issue with isn’t necessarily unique to Pitchfork, but just an inevitable factor of any large-scale outdoor music festival: the performances are rarely worth the effort it takes to see them. There’s a disconnect between the performer and the audience that doesn’t happen at a regular concert where everybody has come to see that specific musician. I think it’s safe to say that the vibe is a lot less intimate when half of the crowd is made up of people who just wandered to the stage after eating an artisanal corn dog. Also, the festival got off to a rough start this year, mainly for reasons beyond its control. In April, one of Sunday’s headliners DJ Rashad passed away and then, less than a month later, Kathleen Hanna’s band the Julie Ruin cancelled their set due to her relapse with Lyme Disease, causing a last minute scramble for replacements. Perhaps the biggest hit taken was the sudden passing of intended opener Death Grips, forcing the flute-laden synth-rock band Hundred Waters to take over. The zen kick off to the fest set the energy off balance, especially as it was followed by trip-hop throwback Neneh Cherry, the folksy Sharon Van Etten, and the now aggressively ethereal Beck.
One of the few exceptions I witnessed was St. Vincent, Saturday’s secondary headliner, who blew the lid off of what had started as a slow weekend. Annie Clark and co. pulled out all the stops, with a light show, expansive set list, and, most importantly, Clark’s wicked guitar-playing and bonkers choreography. I think it was the first time the crowd truly lost it that weekend. It was as if the official kick off happened two days into the festival, and it was well worth the wait. Unfortunately, nothing quite lived up to it. Neutral Milk Hotel played immediately after, a buzzkill in the truest sense of the word. The band requested that all of the monitors projecting the stage be turned off to create a more intimate atmosphere, which was fine because who wants to see a 43 year old man sing about how he loves Anne Frank anyway? It was quirky when he was in his 20s, and now it’s just unsettling.
To pretend that I’ve actually read a David Foster Wallace book, I would classify this experience as “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”. I don’t think Pitchfork was bad—it may have had some rough spots, but overall it’s still one of the most revered music festivals, and for good reason—it just wasn’t made for me. I think I can live with that.