Backstage, a golf cart pulls a small flatbed trailer. On that trailer sits a big, soft chair. There’s a printed-out piece of paper taped to that chair, and here’s what it says: “BRIAN WILSON CHAIR DO NOT SIT.”
There have, over the years, been legends on that Pitchfork stage: Yoko Ono, Public Enemy, Pavement. And yet, the one most emblematic of the entire experience, especially this year, might have to be Wilson. Wilson wrote scores of hits, of course. But today, his legacy is this: He made immaculately sculpted sonic fantasias light years beyond what anyone else was doing — music even his own bandmates couldn’t understand — and then he retreated, or was made to retreat, from society completely. Wilson is one of the all-time gods of headphones music. His music, at least in the way we receive it today, is not social music, and he is most certainly not a social person. So how does this inward-looking music work in the context of thousands of people standing in a field?
I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t watch the troubled-genius Beach Boys architect sing Pet Sounds, his 50-year-old masterwork. That’s partly because Wilson was on at the same time as Anderson .Paak, the wiry young funkateer who gave one of the festival’s great performances this year. And it’s partly because I find something profoundly sad in the idea of this fragile old man singing these symphonies to teenage despondence. Still, Wilson’s music hung over the whole weekend in one grand, important way: Pitchfork managed to program an entire festival of headphones music, so why not bring the saint of headphones music in to bless the proceedings?
In previous years, Pitchfork has been a rock festival, and at least a handful of the bands present have endeavored to make a little noise. Not this year. This year, almost nobody was trying to make anything resembling noise. This year, the festival had precious little rap; the only rappers on the bill were Chicago word-twister Mick Jenkins and reunited early-’90s jazz-rap veterans Digable Planets, neither of whom was about to cause a riot. There was no metal whatsoever this year. There was precious little punk. Instead, there was a whole lot of R&B and a surprising amount of jazz. There was breezy folk-rock. There was dense experimental music. And there was a trio of headliners as insular as any I’ve ever seen.
There was something so beautifully strange about watching Beach House, a band I once watched play to about 10 people in the back room of a record store, doing relatively unchanged slowcore blissout for tens of thousands. Sufjan Stevens, who headlined the second night, still seems so afraid of coming off as a sincere folk-rocker that he has to disguise his true identity in clown-college bullshit — balloons and angel wings and inflatable tube men that, for me, undermined and disrespected some great songs with stagey, self-conscious silliness. Still, Stevens was a sincere folk-rocker headlining a festival and somehow serving as the most conventional rock star in that position. And then there was Sunday night, where the breathy, clicky future-pop of FKA twigs competed with the third-stage attraction, the giddy synth-spatters of Oneohtrix Point Never. Whatever choice you made, you were going to end your weekend with glitchy drone music. There was no non-glitchy-drone-music option.
I find something quizzical and honorable in this: A whole festival built around music that is not, in any way, designed for partying. In a way, isn’t that the logical endpoint of a decade-plus of internet music consumption? We’ve all spent all this time finding music on our computers and piping that music directly into our ears, rarely if ever having real-life conversations about some of the artists who mean the most to us. Why shouldn’t we be dedicating entire festivals to that same antisocial experience?
In any case, even if I weren’t in the business, Pitchfork offers a deeply pleasant experience that’s far beyond what I’ve seen at most festivals. It has a relatively compact grounds, a whole lot of shade, and drink prices that at least make sense. Once you’ve been through 15 security checkpoints out on Randall’s Island or wherever the fuck, the whole Pitchfork setup seems positively humane.
And in a way, the booking this year was almost an extension of that humaneness. I legitimately hated that Sufjan Stevens performance, but there’s still an easy romance to hearing him sing “Chicago,” the best song he’ll ever write, before walking out into the Chicago night. Beach House were, as ever, a calming thrum. And FKA twigs’ performance, daring and strange as it was, also worked as a spectacle of true and overwhelming beauty. By that same token, much of the midcard, even as it ventured around the musical landscape, went for a sort of pleasant, calming friendliness. Kamasi Washington and Digable Planets both made for lovely, urbane sunny-afternoon music. Kevin Morby and his old band Woods — who were playing in the exact same spot on the bill, in consecutive days — both wafted prettily through the grounds. Even Blood Orange’s righteous wokeness played as a summery shimmer. It was all very nice.
Still, though, my favorite moments from the festival were the ones that pushed against that niceness, toward star-quality and unpredictability. I’m talking about Anderson .Paak, a future festival headliner if ever there was one, spazzing the fuck out and levitating the third stage. I’m talking about Chance The Rapper, bounding out during a lovably sloppy set from hometown R&B hero Jeremih, rapping “No Problems” and calling back to last year, when Chance gave probably the single most transcendent performance in Pitchfork Festival history. And I’m also talking about Carly Rae Jepsen, the one act I’d been more excited to see than any other.
CRJ was, obviously, an odd one out here, and she hasn’t exactly made a habit of playing rock festivals in the past. Going into it, I felt a vague twinge of unease, a “how’s this going to work?” type of thing. I’ve felt similar things in previous years — before Clipse in 2007, before Robyn in 2010. But as with those performances, I had nothing to worry about. If you put a great performer, who makes great music, out in front of that crowd, it’s not going to matter whether this is an indie rock festival. People are going to respond. And they did. Surprising numbers within that crowd knew Jepsen’s E•MO•TION album tracks. And by the time she got to “Call Me Maybe,” the cathartic, euphoric full-park sing-along reminded me of being at Fugazi shows when the “Waiting Room” bassline would snake out. In that way, Pitchfork is just like any other festival. You can put all the effort in the world into curating a vibe, but in the end, a moment like that is what people will remember. Greatness always transforms.
But when I close my eyes and think of this year’s festival, I won’t think of CRJ. I’ll think of the walk back to the hotel after FKA twigs got done on Sunday night. On the third stage, Oneohtrix Point Never went long, and so those gurgling, unreal synth tones followed me out into the night, bouncing off of skyscraper walls and echoing through city canyons. It went on forever, for blocks and blocks, coloring the atmosphere, making a city and a night strange and unfamiliar and unsettling. And maybe that’s the best thing about a festival like this, about the kind of music it represents. At this point, the summer music festival is a deeply entrenched part of American music fandom, an annual ritual. But when it gets weird enough, it can still become something new.