At Pitchfork Music Festival, a Test of Big Little Bands in the Headline Spot

This year, the prime time slots go to the new elder statesmen of indie rock

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Pavement at Pitchfork 2010 / Flickr user weeklydig

At 16 years of age, Pitchfork, the loved-and-loathed icon of new-millennium online music culture, is nearly all grown up. The reviews website launched out of editor Ryan Schreiber’s parents’ house back in 1995, and this weekend (starting this afternoon), the Chicago music festival it spawned in 2006 celebrates its fifth anniversary.

For a sign of the maturing nature of both Pitchfork and the culture it spawned, look no further than its festival’s lineup. As always, the bill is diverse, juxtaposing mid-level indie hit makers like Cut Copy, Destroyer, and Das Racist with brand-newcomers like Yuck, Toro Y Moi, and EMA. But the headliners—Animal Collective, TV on the Radio, and Fleet Foxes—suggest a different Festival than the one we’ve grown up with: one with less of a nostalgic tint, that can rely almost entirely on acts whose fame has been created and cultivated by Pitchfork itself.

In independent music, where followings are by definition relatively small, the idea of a headliner act is tricky. Who should be the final artist to play each night? Should it be the coolest band of this calendar year? Last? The band with the best-reviewed album? The one that most people know? The one that the fewest people know? The skinniest? The youngest? With an undercard as packed with artists of various obscurity levels, the headlining slots seem like they should be reserved for bands that everyone can agree on—as if such bands exist.

The formula for headliners over the past few years has been fairly consistent: two bands with nostalgia appeal for aging Gen-Xers, and one current, extremely successful act. In some past years, entire days have been devoted to throwback artists. It was a pretty good formula that allowed for the inclusion of such mass crowd pleasers as Public Enemy, Built to Spill, The Flaming Lips, Spoon, and The National. But in 2010, the festival's headliner roster outdid itself: It featured the prototypical Pitchfork-success-to-mainstream-success-story Modest Mouse, the well-loved and about-to-be-dismantled LCD Soundsystem, and the seminal ‘90s rock group Pavement, who set the blueprint for indie over the last two decades and who had just reunited after an 11-year hiatus.

The 2011 headliners are by no means new to the scene. TV on the Radio is a tireless Brooklyn art rock group who are six records deep, including this past April’s Nine Types of Light. But their first “big break” came from Pitchfork and MP3 blog acclaim back in 2004 with their sophomore Desperate Youths, Bloodthirsty Babes. Lately, the mournful single “Will Do” has captured FM radio attention.

Pitchfork darlings from the very beginning, Animal Collective was actually a headliner at the 2008 festival. Made up of a group of Baltimore friends transplanted to New York, their experimental records become chopped, stewed, and even more bizarre in concert—that is, when they don’t just play entirely new material.

Finally, there’s Fleet Foxes, the Seattle-based folk group that is both the newest of the headliners and the one with the quickest ascent to prominence, enjoying near-immediate success with the release of their self-titled debut album in 2008. When their second full-length, Helplessness Blues, dropped in May, the Foxes already felt like old hands in the rising movement of "neo-Americana" bands.

This isn’t to say you can’t find the classic indie rock from the pre-Pitchfork (or pre-Pitchfork’s cultural dominance) era. Washington, D.C.’s The Dismemberment Plan for example have reunited after a number of down periods to promote the reissue of 1999’s Emergency & I. In 10 years, maybe the newer acts in this year’s headliner slots will be playing the Dismemberment Plan's role: beloved, reunited reminders of another time.