Pitchfork 2013: Here we are now, entertain us

Music still matters to many, but does it mean anything at the Pitchfork Music Festival?

July 22, 2013

UPDATED with a correction below *

As hopefully was made abundantly clear in the Kelly Conversations, the Pitchfork Music Festival’s booking of Chicago superstar R. Kelly as 2013’s ultimate headliner raised a lot of complicated questions.

I didn’t expect to find answers in Union Park about the big issues of separating the art from the artist and the music from the man’s misdeeds. But it did help narrow down what the presence of the self-proclaimed Sexual Super Freak and Pied Piper of R&B meant to one of the most important music festivals in the world in year eight (or nine, if we count year one as Intonation).

Neither is positive.

My first conclusion is that the appreciation of Kelly by Pitchfork’s powers-that-be and by some (not all) of the paying customers was indeed fueled by irony. All you had to do was look at some of the unofficial Kelly merchandise for sale onsite to see that.

“Irony is a low-lead brand of gasoline that may be ecosound and gov’t approved but it sure won’t put a tiger in your tank, nor take you as far as either moxie or rage or conscience (even that crap!) or even crassness,” the late rock critic Lester Bangs wrote in 1972.

To be sure, there was crassness at Pitchfork: Allentown, Pennsylvania noise-punks Pissed Jeans covered that loudly and very nicely, thank you.

There was moxie: A strong set by Mish Way and Vancouver’s modern-day riot grrrls White Lung kicking things off on Saturday was the very definition of that word.

There was rage (thank you, Metz) and conscience (hello, El-P and Killer Mike). And, best of all, there were a few examples of both combined.

Only an idiot could deny that this year’s festival belonged to Savages. As powerful as London-based guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan, drummer Fay Milton, and vocalist Jehnny Beth are on their brilliant debut album Silence Yourself, they are 100 times more ferocious, potent, mesmerizing, and dare I say life-changing in concert.

These four smart and passionate women, each making an indelible and unique contribution to the sound of the whole, packed the field in front of one of the two main stages, and the number of mouths left agape in awe after their cyclonic assault was rivaled only by the number of those who seemed genuinely frightened.

The only other act that came anywhere close to that level of intensity and sincerity (such an old-fashioned word!) was one of Savages’ inspirations: first-generation art-punks Wire. Aging legends they may be, but there was none of the phoning-it-in nostalgia witnessed in the considerably younger Breeders’ set.

Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, and Robert Grey plus upstart addition Matt Simms were as galvanizing in their minimalist way on classic older tracks such as “On Returning” and “Drill” as they were on the new material from the riveting Changes Becomes Us and other new-millennial releases.

But Pitchfork also had irony aplenty.

Saint Lester didn’t make a distinction, but irony can be a useful literary tool like any other, if used correctly and sparingly. Texas-to-Brooklyn transplants Parquet Courts did exactly that as they rattled off a list of things minor (high thread count) and major (people die) that elicit the same ambivalent response: “Forget about it!” They hit the stage hard with their subway-train rhythms and dueling guitars, playing the songs from their great second album Light Up Gold, and they never let up.

A cheaper and much more annoying brand of irony was displayed by Canadian multi-instrumentalist Mac DeMarco, who wasted half his set with dumb and painful covers of J.J. Cale/Eric Clapton, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the Beatles, and Metallica, mocking the whole festival experience even as he took the festival’s money and played to an eager festival crowd.

Then of course there was the ironic appreciation of R. Kelly’s exaggerated sex jams, with hipsters bumping and grinding to soft-porn cartoons such as “Sex in the Kitchen,” “Flirt,” “You Remind Me of Something,” and “Fiesta,” gleefully unconcerned about the real harm Kelly has done to many girls, some of whom lived within walking distance of Union Park.

As Kelly shows go, the singer was on good behavior, with no sign of the giant bed or the captive women in a cage that were for years staples of his concerts.

Instead, Pitchfork was treated to an army of white dove-shaped balloons released into the sky during the set-closing “I Believe I Can Fly.”

For blatant and offensive onstage misogyny, Internet hype rapper Lil B was a much bigger villain. Kelly just seemed to be on auto-pilot, his voice cracking, his set padded with snippets of covers by Kanye West, Young Jeezy, and Nick Cannon, the crowd not connecting to stepping tunes like “Happy People” and “Step in the Name of Love,” and most of his songs being delivered in truncated versions of a verse and a chorus or two.

It was underwhelming, but his shows generally have been for the last decade, with little of the evidence of the genius boosters find on record or in the ever-twisting and never-ending “Trapped in the Closet,” which played on the loudspeakers after he left the stage.

The very mundanity of Kelly’s performance leads to my second, sadder conclusion about his presence at Pitchfork: That the formerly Chicago-, now Brooklyn-based  (*see correction below) brains and businessmen behind the festival and the Webzine, Ryan Schreiber and Chris Kaskie, just don’t think that the music we embrace means anything at all in the real world. It’s just a cool, digitally stored backing track for your oh-so-hip and groovy lifestyle at home, and every bit the ideal tool in concert for marketing and money-making that we see at the festival’s larger corporate cousin, Lollapalooza.

Why talk about ruined lives? It just brings the party down. But this lack of soul or conscience wasn’t always the case at Pitchfork.

Perhaps it’s just the nature of the Old Country Buffet smorgasbord model that as a festival becomes increasingly successful, well-established, and ever more commercialized, the ethos upon which it was founded becomes increasingly obscure. The greater meaning, if ever there was one, slips further and further away. Any role that the fest had in both reflecting and stimulating a musical community inevitably erodes. And everything is reduced to mere entertainment.

Savages, Wire, and White Lung; Mac DeMarco, Lil B, and R. Kelly: There’s no difference; it’s all just show biz. Pay your money, get your kicks, enjoy the tunes, or just wait until the next set starts in 20 minutes. “I feel stupid and contagious,” some indie dude sang a million years ago. “Here we are now, entertain us.”

That poor deluded fellow was sneering at the very notion that music—especially underground music—ever could be dismissed as anything less than the essential lifeline tethering us to this mortal coil. Now that was irony well-employed! But that sort of idealism is lacking in many on the current scene (and, truth be told, it was lacking in many during the alternative era, too, and in every rock movement before it).

So was Pitchfork in year eight (or nine) at least entertaining? As always, it depended in large part on how much you were there for the music and how much you were there for the high-five-me partying, bro.

I have long said that live music is best appreciated indoors at night. Why? Beyond the usual havoc wreaked on outdoor shows—scattering the best sounds to the wind, roasting people under a blazing sun, the dubious joys of dehydration, etc.—Mother Nature struck Pitchfork with a vengeance on Friday night, cutting short Icelandic goddess Bjork's performance, and dousing those enjoying heartfelt troubadours Belle & Sebastian on Saturday evening (though they at least got to finish their set).

No matter how you cut it, those performances and the other highlights cited above all would have been much better experienced at Metro, Lincoln Hall, the Riviera Theater, or, really, pretty much anyplace else. And at any of those places, minus the now ethically vacant Pitchfork imprimatur of cool, maybe the music would have meant something, too.

At a time when an audience can find irony, entertainment value, or both in the music of a man who has hurt so many women, I remain undeterred in the conviction that music matters and there is meaning to the sounds we embrace or eschew. Go see Savages, and maybe you’ll believe, too.

* CORRECTION: Pitchfork Music Festival publicist Jessica Linker points out: "Pitchfork's headquarters are still Chicago. 50% of their staff is here, which now also includes The Dissolve. More so, Chris Kaskie continues to live in Chicago, down in Beverly. He is not a New Yorker."

I regret that error. Also, I could swear Wire played "On Returning," but an even bigger Wire fan than me, Aadam Jacob, says it was "Map Ref. 41°N 93°W. "