The Human Spectacle of the Pitchfork Music Festival

The people in the crowds say as much about the event as the people on stage

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Flickr user KatjusaC

The best moment of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago this past weekend came during Cut Copy’s Sunday afternoon set. Competing with the still-oppressive 95 degree temperature and the inevitable fatigue of a crowd at the end of a long weekend, in the middle of the Aussie dance-pop group’s “Hearts on Fire,” singer Dan Whitford implored the audience to “go crazy.” That's exactly what happened. The audience of thousands jumped up and down, powering through their own sweat and inertia to collectively create a buzz that spanned the festival.

Those moments don’t happen very often, so when they do, you stop and take notice. And at this year’s festival, their rarity was all-too apparent. Maybe that’s just because the event was so hot and so lengthy that it’s hard to feel anything but relief that it’s over, or maybe it’s a sign that even Pitchfork has outgrown its own hype.

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Festivals in general are tests of endurance and patience. Everyone turns out in hopes of experiencing something big, something meaningful. Call it the Woodstock syndrome. People are looking for transcendence and historical significance—a chance to say that they were there, and hoping that people will actually care a few years later. But when marijuana, beer, nicotine, and pulled pork are the only real substances available, when the sponsors include such brands such as Heineken and Axe Body Spray, and when many festival-goers seem so keenly aware of the scene and their place in it, the goal of transcendence seems nearly impossible to achieve. The Pitchfork Music Festival is no longer on the fringe. It’s well-established, and bordering on Lollapalooza territory as the years go by.

Some things don’t change. The audience, for the most part, was snowy white. It’s too easy to say that everyone was a hippie, or a hipster, or a scenester, or a bobo, or whatever. Of course there wasn’t an insignificant number of those—the long haired girls in ethereal dresses writhing around to the electronic sounds of Cold Cave and the rail-thin boys in summer-dandy attire jumping up and down to Yuck definitely numbered in the thousands.

But then there were the unexpected folks. The portly, almost-middle-aged guys in golf wear rocking out to Fleet Foxes. The hundreds of toddlers in expensive-looking, noise-cancelling headphones. The gawky teenage boys who’d taken the El in from the suburbs. It was strangely diverse in its own way. Or perhaps it was just a chance to see the stages of adulthood all mashed up in appreciation of one scene. The conventional-looking teenagers who idolize indie music turn into the 20-something scenesters and then eventually into the polo-wearing dads.

At any given time, at every stage there are about 100 to 200 people who are REALLY into the band—the hard-cores. They camp out in the front row an hour before the set starts. They start innocent-looking mosh pits and dance parties in the 90-degree weather. They appear to have an amazing time. The 19,600 other people at the Festival are the slow wanderers. They hang out past the area of optimal sound quality. They talk to their friends over the music. They take naps with their partner in the middle of left field (Union Park is actually a functioning community park with baseball fields and everything).

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Lindsey Bahr is a writer based in Chicago.

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