Phoenix

As miracles go, the last two Phoenix records were somewhere between water-into-wine and raising a man from the dead, all ecstasy and wonder and effortless grace. The singles got all the ink, as singles do, but every track was effervescent. It was the kind of music that seems to materialize out of thin air but only comes from years of slavish devotion to craft; as Cole’s recent interview with the band pointed out, Phoenix spent the better part of a decade developing into the powerhouse that birthed the lite guitar streetscape It’s Never Been Like That and the jetliner sleek Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. In another sense, those albums were the culmination of a much longer history, a gleaming compendium of French pop’s finer exports through the decades. Spiritually, they channeled the distinctly Euro, fashionably metropolitan joie de vivre of Serge Gainsbourg and Francoise Hardy, hopeless romantics for whom the difference between a pout and a smile was as elusive as universal truth for the philosophers you imagined them reading in cafes from behind scarves. Sonically, they wrapped it in the synthetic sprawl and bold gestures of Air and Daft Punk, expertly mingling guitars and keyboards and Thomas Mars’ breathy beam of light into gorgeously oblique car commercial manna. You won’t find a more perfect pair of pop records from the past decade.

No one loved those albums more than I, but even I was shocked when this year’s Coachella lineup came out and Phoenix was listed as the Saturday headliner. Sure, Phoenix closed out the day at Lollapalooza in 2010, but Lolla boasts two headliners a night at opposite sides of Chicago’s Grant Park, so the feat isn’t as impressive as ascending the summit of a Coachella poster word mountain. Out in the desert, the food chain is more clearly delineated. Somehow, organizers at Goldenvoice decided Blur and the Stone Roses needed to prop each other up like crisscrossed Union Jack support beams while Phoenix could handle a spotlight all to themselves. My Bloody Valentine, Madonna, the Stooges, Pixies, Pavement, Morrissey, At the Drive-In, Tiesto, David Guetta — all of them played Coachella and didn’t headline, yet somehow Phoenix qualified as a headliner? This seemed like wishful thinking, rendering Phoenix a turtle on a fencepost and suggesting that the well of suitable big-time festival headliners had run dry — a case reinforced by the “Who is Arcade Fire?”-like head scratching regarding the Stone Roses’ Friday headlining slot.

Which raises the question: What makes a headliner? Take a look at the names that have topped the bill at Coachella over the years — alt-era heroes like Beastie Boys, Beck, Red Hot Chili Peppers (about to go for the trifecta) and Nine Inch Nails; alt-sympathetic metal gods Tool and Rage Against the Machine (twice each); avant-garde pop stars Radiohead and Bjork (twice each); classic rock legends Paul McCartney and Roger Waters; rap titans Jay-Z, Kanye West, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg; moody ’80s icons the Cure and Depeche Mode; newly minted arena staples like Muse, the Black Keys, and Kings of Leon; motherfucking Prince — and some themes emerge. Typically a headliner’s career spans at least a decade, though the Killers and Arcade Fire bucked that trend. They usually boast enough critical acclaim or perceived hipness to attract the average indie snob, though Jack Johnson is a major outlier there. On the other hand, their appeal tends to be broad enough that the average joe would recognize their name, know some of their songs (by sound if not by title), and get swept up in their upbeat, listener-friendly music; by that measure, maybe Gorillaz wasn’t such an odd selection after all. The most decisive factor is pure subjective intangible: It has to feel like a big deal.

Phoenix is a wonderful band that I love dearly, but they don’t feel like a big deal the way most Coachella headliners do. There is supposed to be a “Wow!” factor; for most of America, there is still a “Who?” factor with Phoenix. Their last album peaked at No. 37 — respectable, but hardly breathtaking — and that one outsold their first three records exponentially. Thanks in large part to Cadillac, everybody’s heard “1901,” but I’m guessing most people don’t know the name of the band or the song, just that “Fallin’ fallin’ fallin’” hook (which is actually “Fold it, fold it, fold it,” which is weird). Phoenix might play the Garden and Barclays Center when they swing through NYC these days, but in the Midwest they haven’t graduated to arena status just yet. They won a Grammy but haven’t sniffed a Grammy broadcast. They did manage to play SNL twice, but even the Ting Tings have played SNL, and Phoenix’s double dip says more about the indie cred of SNL’s talent buyers than the band’s widespread appeal in America. There’s an argument for Phoenix as one of the biggest bands in the world. But it’s hardly an open-and-shut case, and the fact that there’s any question about whether they stack up as a headliner suggests to me they flunk the intangibles test.

If Phoenix hasn’t completed the leap from stardom to superstardom, Coachella is more than willing to carry them the rest of the way. As Buzzfeed’s Steve Kandell tweeted when the lineup came out, “Reunion well is almost dry, it’s in the festivals’ interest to anoint these bands.” The fests are selling an experience, and that experience happens to be one of the few cash cows left in an otherwise rotting music industry. Brad Shoup summed it up beautifully in his excellent Stereogum essay last January: “People who can’t be convinced to drop $9.99 on an album will happily part with a few hundred to watch the Roots while sitting on a beach towel.” Whereas the artists once bequeathed their cred to festivals, it appears to be working the other way around now. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter who’s headlining Coachella; people are going to show up. (Shoup again, killing it: “Not buying a pass to a Björk-less Coachella would be like avoiding a buffet because it lacks chiles rellenos.”) But even if the festival has “a stronger brand name than 98 percent of the bands,” as Grantland’s Steven Hyden posited this week, the Coachella machine runs at least in part on high-wattage star power. In that context, “(calling) a second-stringer up to the big leagues” makes sense, same as the music industry has always manufactured new superstars in the event of a vacuum. As Hyden noted, old metrics like the “late-night TV debut” and the “No. 1 album” no longer mean what they used to in a world where late-night TV has no center of gravity and Vampire Weekend can debut at No. 1 on the strength of a bargain-basement Amazon promotion. Festivals are now music’s most prominent venue — “alternative” music’s most prominent venue, anyway — so by extension they’re also the most expedient vehicle for kingmaking.

In that case, Phoenix is as fit for royalty as anybody else in this crazy, mixed-up world of long tails and short attention spans. In an early evening set at Bonnaroo 2009 (opening for Crystal Castles and Girl Talk, which seemed about right at the time), they exuded charisma, poise and power. As Michael explained in his review of their secret Brooklyn show last week, “what they do on stage takes them from terrific to transcendent” thanks to reconfigured arrangements built for maximum visceral impact. In concert, they morph from a pristine pop band to a high-voltage rock band, perfect for jolting woozy beer sponges back to life after a sweltering day in the sun. Even their weaknesses mark them as emergent luminaries; the forthcoming Bankrupt! seems to me like a glossy veneer over flimsy songs, i.e. exactly the kind of album bands usually release around the time they start headlining festivals. It’s so ephemeral it might as well be hologram Phoenix, so maybe that’s what caught Coachella’s eye.

If Phoenix represents a new paradigm of indie rock staples riding festivals to out-and-out rock stardom in the face of slim pickins on the reunion circuit, what else is coming down the pipeline? Who will the Lollas, ’Roos and ’Chellas elevate to marquee status next? The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have a fat stash of hits and swagger to spare; they subbed for Beastie Boys at Lolla back in ’09, but by now they could rightfully stake their claim as more than just pinch headliners. At Pitchfork’s fest couple years ago, Fleet Foxes attracted a behemoth audience that defied easy categorization; by the time their next album drops, they could easily carry a night at Bonnaroo. You could make a similar case for Modest Mouse, plus they’ve got a decade head start. Assuming Bon Iver ever releases another album, Justin Vernon has built up more than enough goodwill across disparate spheres to justify a headlining bid. And if Vampire Weekend can so thoroughly outpace Phoenix on the charts (Contra was still lingering at No. 89 last week), why aren’t they the ones closing out a night at Coachella?

This is all assuming the elite festivals insist on remaining accidental rockists. There are still plenty of acts out there that qualify as genuine celebrities, artists with enough clout and prestige to turn people’s heads, but most of them exist outside the indie, alt, and classic rock spheres that tend to dominate top-tier festival playbills. These events would be crazy not to book Beyonce or Justin Timberlake if they had the chance, both for the prestige and the incomparable performance. Maybe talent that super-sized is too expensive when you can book Phoenix for a fraction of the price and still sell out your festival, but I have to wonder if the people assembling these festival lineups (incorrectly) believe such unrepentantly populist stars are beneath them; if anything, it’s the other way around. Neither of those multi-hyphenates has reason to perform outside a setting they can meticulously control (like, say, their spouse’s music festival).

The top-tier fests have taken tentative steps into hip-hop in recent years with Eminem landing top billing at Bonnaroo, Dre and Snoop shutting down Coachella and both halves of the Throne repeatedly holding court. If the programmers continue in that direction (and they should), Drake or Lil Wayne could easily attract a throng as a tentpole act without compromising the big-time festival aesthetic. Give him one more album, and so could R&B art star Frank Ocean, who by all accounts inspired religious devotion with non-headlining sets at Coachella and Lolla last year. These fests usually relegate DJs to the dance tent, but given EDM’s continuing vice grip on popular music, it’s hard to believe nabbing Skrillex or Diplo to close out the main stage would be anything less than a coup. Related: I don’t know a single person who isn’t sick of Girl Talk by now, but given his omnipresence at these things he might be able to headline on the strength of inertia alone. And what of the fledgling poptimism that allowed Lady Gaga to dominate a night at Lollapalooza 2010? Have we not approached the frontier of Ke$ha conquering the desert, of “Firework” lighting up the Chicago skyline, of Britney going ham down on the farm? Miracles can happen; just ask Phoenix.

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Comments (43)
  1. awesome article, been thinking a lot about this lately. i disagree with you on a few things though. first, if you look at the actual coachella schedule, they sort of copped out on the phoenix headlining stance. they’ve got phoenix vs. new order vs. sigur ros closing out the night simultaneously on separate stages, which brings me back to a point i made a while ago about how really any of the second tier bands could have headlined saturday night. this makes me think that maybe they had higher hopes in booking a headliner (rolling stones? who knows). i know that they always have separate closers, but all three of these bands are arguably on the same level in terms of audience and fame (or whatever you want to call it), and it seems likely usually they have a smaller act of a different genre fighting the larger headliner. also ( this is based on pure speculation, without really taking the time to look at past lineups), i feel like bon iver wouldn’t be able to headline coachella. phoenix makes more sense to me because they’re at least dancier and more festival oriented (specifically coachella and its audience). like i said, i didn’t really look back, but who was the last headliner that was as quiet/mellow as bon iver? duno, cool article, totally agree though coachella is a beast of its own at this point. people are gonna go regardless at this point. whatever i’m still going next week haha

    • i’m completely sober btw

    • That’s a good point about them maybe hoping for Stones/Daft Punk and ending up with Phoenix as their safety pick. I meant to reference that idea in here but forgot to, so I’m glad you brought it up. Now that you mention it, I also tend to think Sigur Ros and New Order both seem more like headliner caliber bands than Phoenix, but again, perhaps this is just Coachella trying to plan for the future by anointing a new generation of headliners now.

      • agreed. coachella is looking out for coachella’s future, great points!

        • Fuck yeah man. This is the most fucking awesome article I’ve read in a long fucking while on this blog. Its been so fucking crazy for these guys to go from zero to hero in the span of a few years but they fucking earned it. With legit songs and a fucking great new record, they fucking deserve whatever Coachella fucking gave them. I’m really fucking happy to see bands that deserve top billing fucking get there. Fucking red hot chilli peppers are fucking shitty but Phoenix is NOT. Great fucking article! Nice work.

  2. Mars actually says “folded, folded, folded” in 1901, even though “fold it, fold it, fold it” is in the albums’s lyric book.

  3. I still like Girl Talk. I just think of his shows as being a big party, with an awesome DJ, and $10 domestic beer.

    • i saw him headline a festival once. definitely not my thing. after about 45 minutes of nonstop daning, i remember turning to my wife and saying “jesus christ, this is exhausting.” and then i felt like an old man. plus, there were no actual songs; his set was like an hour of flipping through radio stations. i knew this going into it, of course, but if he’s at another festival i go to i’ll probably see what else is happening at that time.

      • Yea, I can agree with that. My point was that I see it as less of a concert than a big party. I’ve only been to one of his shows but it was at the end of a 1-day festival and you’re right, it is exhausting. People did wear some pretty awesome masks for it, though.

  4. This was so well-written I’m searching for past articles you wrote.

    Great read. Thanks.

  5. Thanks! Hard to think of a better or nicer compliment than that.

    • I echo the sentiments of many and really enjoyed reading this. My music nerd friends and I have always wondered who will be able to headline festivals in, say, 2025. Phoenix is one of those bands that I still don’t feel will REALLY cross over to arena-status across the country (unlike, say, Black Keys and Muse). Sure, they’re great and living in NYC city, I seem to think everyone loves them but as you probably know, this city isn’t always a very accurate depiction of the coutnry’s tastes (something that the SNL bookers might out of think about as well). I think you nailed it when you essentially said that many of these festivals are now a brand themselves. I know so many people who “REALLY want” to go to Coachella yet could probably only recognize 2-3 bands on the lineup. It’s about the experience which is also the reason I feel the NYC-area (and, basically, Northeast) has yet to build up a successful festival. Each one of them just feel like a generic all day concert with no special vibe about them. Governor’s Ball might be the one to break the mold (3-day passes are sold out) but Randalls Island here just isn’t the same as it probably is seeing festivals in other areas.

  6. the only thing Lady Gaga dominated at Lolla 2010 was ‘Gagapalooza’ t-shirt sales and crowdsurfing wearing a cast net at a Shiny Toy Guns set. The Strokes played opposite Gaga that night and delivered a near legendary set.

  7. With a day job in Hollywood, I have to wonder how much of the Coachella lineup is simply haggling and negotiating on the part of booking agencies. If it’s anything like the film/tv world (and I have to assume it is, since half these larger bands are repped by CAA and WME rather than smaller indie-centric booking agencies), every detail of “billing” is included in an artist’s contract. In a movie, negotiating to have your name on a separate title card is considered a major coup for an up-and-comer. Obviously clout and the wants and needs of the festival will be the two biggest factors, but you have to assume the infinite intangibles that fall under “negotiation” are partially responsible here. The deciding factor why Phoenix wound up over New Order might boil down to the way things shook out between their agents and/or lawyers and Coachella’s.

  8. Man, eff this. Timberlake, Beyonce are nice and all but they ARE EVERYWHERE! They are on the Super Bowl, Pepsi commercials, beer commercials, there is no where else they need to be. Stop this anti-”rockist” BS, do they really need to dominate fesitvals too? Coachella, Lolla, Bonnaroo, ACL, you name it were built on the backs of “rockist” 90′s bands (ie. Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam, Rage, Tool,, RHCP, Phish, Weezer, Green Day, etc) who represented artist-based (not producer based) musical freedom. They held up the fesitvals while no one else could headline and got fans in the door while th, until the current fesitval culture (which I really like) now finally self-supports itself and stars can be created within. Kids are actually digging diverse music (EDM, hip hop, folk, along with rock, etc) enough where they don’t even need to know the headliners and they just want a cool experience checking out new stuff. It’s great. Let JT, Rihanna et al have all the American Idols and Voices and Super Bowls they want, but why must they be narrated as the “underdogs” in the fesitval arena now? Don’t they have enough? It’s great that Pheonix or MMJ can become huge solely within the festival world, Thanks, now I’ll go back to popping Propecia and yelling at little kids to get off my lawn …..

    • I’m actually curious as to why Pearl Jam or Green Day has never headlined a Coachella. I know there would be a ton of outcry from the Coachella snobs (their message board is insufferable) but I think it would work quite well for both those bands.

      • Those two could definitely do it. There are still plenty of acts that have headlined one or two of the major festivals but not all of them — Metallica and Eminem come to mind. Of course, depending on the clout, repeating what somebody else has booked could feel like a retread or a coup. So there’s another reason for the festivals to endorse a new generation of headliners OR expand their genre range.

      • Pearl Jam has never headlined the festival, but they were the first big band to play the Coachella ground back in ’93. For awhile, I thought they would headline this year as a 20th year anniversary. Guess not.

  9. Add in NIN as another one where without them, the self-supporting festival culture wouldn’t have gotten to where it is today. Add in the the poppers, and the festival bubble will burst and this really cool alt culture we have right now will disintegrate.

  10. Good points. Good article.

    I’ve kind of decided I’m not into the idea of a festival anymore. The festivals I have been to, it just doesn’t seem like the best environment to enjoy the band you want to see. Thus a vast majority of the people that show up are their for the “I went to Coachella” stamp and booze and could usually care less about the music it seems. It’s great for the casual fan or the overly obsessed fan that must see every second of a certain band, but then there’s the normal people. I dunno.

    I read this article recently and though it is a bit tongue-in-cheek, I very much enjoyed it.
    http://bullettmedia.com/article/going-to-coachella-youre-a-loser-and-part-of-the-problem-and-probably-fat/

    • I really hate that I wrote “their” instead of “there.” Not sure how that happens.

    • i’ll agree that festivals are less music-centric than a “normal” show, but i’d also venture that it’s a completely different thing – much more like a vacation for people whose interests include music and, generally speaking, partying. but i don’t think that wanting to participate in such a event necessarily yields the conclusion that someone was only there to say they were there, or couldn’t care less about the music. in my own experiences, that really doesn’t seem to be true… it’s more so the flip-flop of what you’ve said. whereas a small minority of festivalgoers are just there for the party, most of them, to some extent, are true music fans. that’s my observation.

      now, are they music fans who are getting hammered whilst wearing a bunch of zany clothing and neon-colored sunglasses? well, sure. but i ask you this – what’s wrong with that? what’s wrong with wanting to mix hedonistic fun together with your interests? i mean, shit, it’s practically an american tradition to tailgate all day and get good and drunk before going to football games – does it make you less of a football fan if you do so? i don’t think it does. some people like big social events, others don’t. and that’s fine! but when people take the position of “coachella is the enemy of the authentic music experience” (as the author of your linked article did), come on now, that’s just sour grapes. sour grapes toward people who are enjoying themselves.

      and as for a festival not being the best environment to enjoy a band you want to see… i challenge you to take a trip to the gorge sometime, and see a band you love headline sasquatch. or play as the sun sets over the gorge. doesn’t get any better in my book.

      • Good points. I enjoy a good time, nothing against partying it up. I actually don’t drink and get very annoyed when I’m surrounded by drunks in such situations as this, so the idea of it personally turns me way off in that respect. That sort of party culture has never appealed to me, but I understand it.

        I’ll grant that I was over generalizing, and that article is obviously over-the-top (kind of why I enjoyed it), but when it comes to live music I’d just rather see one or two bands performing full sets and blowing me away. I’ve been to a few festivals, and it appealed to me much more as a kid, maybe I’ve just become a cynical adult. I’d just prefer not be distracted by jackasses at every turn. Then again, that’s just live music anyway I suppose.
        We have a festival every year out here in Utah called the Twilight Music Festival (no relation to the tween novel), and they do it a little different by having two bands every week for a couple months and until just last year the thing was free. Now they charge like 5 bucks per show or something. I’ve really enjoyed that setup (although the crowds have become increasingly unbearable). There’s always great bands too. Last year we had Beach House, The Walkmen, Raphael Saadiq, Iron & Wine, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, stuff like that. I get the appeal of the typical festival setting, I guess I’m just too old and grumpy now.

        • well, i hear you. i’m less than a year from 30 myself and it’s definitely a different experience nowadays then it was 10 years ago. and i also have my cynical adult moments, but i just try to remember how much of a blast it was when i was 20 and to not to get too annoyed with people. beer helps with that, not gonna lie. and yeah, that article was clearly over-the-top, author was pretty much trolling, but there are surely some people out there who hold similar views.

          • Yeah I’m pushing 31 this year… I went to a Deftones show a few months ago and figured “I’m much beefier now than I was the last time I came to a show like this, I’m sure I can hold my own.” Boy was I wrong. Took me a song and a half to fight my way to the back where I could enjoy the tunes in peace without fighting for my life.

            Damned kids and their hooligan ways ruining my shows! : )

  11. Sigh it’s like “Alphabetical” (their best lp) never happened.

    “It’s never been like that” was pretty weak but unfortunately signposted that they were going to ditch all the subtle aspects and just focus on the thumpers. So I’m not surprised they’d struggle to headline, because you need variety, personality, not just 10 pretty good variations on the same idea.

  12. I think we’ve reached a gap now where all the exciting current bands have played multiple times, and the big time reunions have already been through once or twice. So now promoters are trying to fill the gap with bands like Stone Roses who I’m pretty sure were never that big stateside to begin with, and Phoenix who will probably get polite applause for all their songs that aren’t the first two off of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.

    Oh and on an unrelated note, I’ve suddenly realized that my entire life up until this moment has been a sham. If I had only known that the key to happiness is a bottle of hand crafted since way back Bushmills triple distilled Irish whiskey! Thanks Best Coast! I sure will drink responsibly!

  13. They even top The Postal Service, who precedes them on Saturday night. Kendell’s theory of the reunion well running dry may be true-but it’s safe to say TPS reunion is the biggest of the year (so far). Who knows, maybe Daft Punk will join them on stage again, holograms or not!

  14. This was very interesting to read and I agree with you in that there are other artists that could be headliners of a big festival like coachella. The only reason why I wasn’t surprised is because I already saw Phoenix as a headliner, an accidental headliner to be more accurate, of an Argentinian festival called Hot Festival and I know the effect they have on a crowd. You can imagine that if in the US there are many people who ask “who?” when they hear the word Phoenix, in Buenos Aires, most people probably think that Phoenix is a strange creature from Narnia. I actually wrote last week about that experience, you can read it in this link: http://juanalikesmusic.tumblr.com/post/47122346472/phoenix-once-was-a-headliner

  15. I think it’s interesting that Phoenix is headlining, but it’s not unexpected. “Wolfgang” came out while I was in college, and starting my sophomore year and bleeding into my junior year 1901 and Lisztomania were EVERYWHERE. Everywhere on campus, every time you turned on the radio, at events and games, etc. Everyone on campus it seemed knew those songs. And I went to a massive university (Univ. of Florida), not a little indie-centric school.

    Granted, that was a few years ago now, but most of those kids, like myself, have graduated and moved on, but are still young–the perfect festival-going age. It’s not surprising to me that the Coachella guys would try to tap into that, especially considering that Phoenix buzz is bubbling back up because of the new album. And none of this references their chart performances: the Wolfgang singles dominated the Billboard Rock/Alt charts in a way similar to The Black Keys or Muse. Entertainment is climbing them now.

    Does it sound weird to think of Phoenix headlining Coachella? Yep. Does it sort of make sense? I think so.

  16. With the teaser that Daft Punk’s been playing at Coachella, it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s an even more newsworthy event happening tomorrow night when Phoenix takes the stage.

    Perhaps the postulating that Phoenix got the headliner because they couldn’t get Daft Punk were both onto something, and missing it simultaneously? What if they couldn’t get Daft Punk to headline, but they were up for a surprise appearance with Phoenix instead, and the organizers, of course knowing that, gave them the sole headlining slot on Saturday?

  17. While everyone else is talking about how to fit more and more into a bigger tent (Li’l Wayne? For reals now?), where’s the talk of MAKING ANOTHER TENT? There’s obviously a market for outdoor festivals featuring massive top-40 acts, and since your average top-40 listener/concert attender listens primarily to other top-40 acts, why can’t we just have top-40 festivals without bolstering them up on the backs of smaller indie acts?

    That’s great if every indie culture/content-generator on the web wants to pretend like the indie/mainstream divide no longer exists, but I’m pretty sure most of the blog-followers who are paying hundreds of dollars more than they did years ago so they can see Grimes at a festival headlined by RHCP will have a different opinion. It might take a massive corporate/artist sponsor to get the ball rolling, but segregating things a little bit might be in all listeners’ interests – When major festivals have 4+ artists playing simultaneously at any given time, you have to accept that you’re working on diminishing returns.

    But hey, maybe this is just the (400$+) price we have to pay for being such enlightened musical omnivores now. Ugh.

  18. I don’t agree at all with your impression of Bankrupt. For me it’s a shiny veneer over improved, more mature songwriting. They’ve graduated into writing rather amazing sophisticated pop – it’s not as immediate as Wolfgang, but it’s deeper and more satisfying in the long run. It has threads of 80s pop – not in the production so much as the intelligent songwriting that’s so lacking in modern pop. Far from selling out or tailoring their music for stadiums, it sounds more like they’ve become less accessible if anything. I really, really like it as you may be able to tell.

    Good article though, otherwise

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