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).

The non-stage areas of the festival are distinctly low energy. It’s like a 4th of July picnic, or an inconsequential afternoon of free music in the park. The fact that popular bands happen to be playing in the background seems almost beside the point for these slow wanderers. They’re more interested in the fresh fruit in the Whole Foods tent, and the myriad vendors bordering the fields and offering everything from vintage records and artistic reinterpretations of concert posters to handmade jewelry and t-shirts. Those 19,600 slow wanderers certainly aren’t a static group—some convert to die-hards for particular bands—but it’s safe to say that at least a few thousand attendees had no intention of doing anything but camping out for the day in a shady area with their blankets and chairs, occasionally napping and getting up for beer.

For me, the most cringe-worthy moment of the festival happened in the middle of day two when I spotted two blonde girls in high-waisted jean shorts, gladiator sandals, and lacey oversized tops saunter onto the shady lawn of the Blue Stage where Wild Nothing was playing. They came across a half-eaten corn on the cob lying on the ground with the husk jutting out from the ends, stiff straight and flower like, and proceeded to take a series of photos of it over the next five minutes using a 35mm vintage camera. One aerial shot. One with the one of the girls’ shoes positioned adjacent to the husk. One from the ground angle, and so on. When they’d captured the essence of this corn husk sufficiently, they walked away.

What the corn-husk girls didn’t notice was that there was a garbage can five feet away from their photography session, and that ten feet away, there was an overweight, middle-aged woman picking up the empty beer cups, half consumed water bottles, and myriad corn husks sprinkled across the field, dragging along a trash bag that was twice her size. This scene shouldn’t be unfamiliar. Every festival has its share of attendees who don’t care about the difference between the recycling bin and garbage can. (And many who never find either). But the ironic part about this moment was that, in the act of trying to manufacture a quirky spectacle in the festival context, these girls seemed totally ignorant of the spectacle that they themselves were generating for me and several other attendees who stopped to gape at the weird scene. But then again, maybe that’s another kind of moment that we go to festivals to observe. We’re there as much to witness the strangeness of others and as we are to experience the music.