I hate the word "post-modernism." Unless you're talking about Jacques Derrida and his intellectual descendents, you're using the word wrong. And considering that Jacques Derrida and crew are the definition of masturbatory faux-intellectualism, even their usage of the phrase is mostly horse s***. And it's driving me a little bonkers this morning that the only word to spring to mind to describe last night's mammoth headlining set from art rock pioneers LCD Soundsystem is "post-modernist." I bet there's a German word for what I actually mean to say.
"And with a face like a dad and a laughable stand
Rumors abound that this year's Bonnaroo only sold around 50,000 tickets. I don't have any confirmation on that being actually true, but there's little question that Bonnaroo is emptier this year than it's ever been in the four years that I've traveled to the Farm, and when the headliners are LCD Soundsystem, Pearl Jam, and Dead & Co., it doesn't exactly require mental gymnastics to understand why young people aren't flocking to Manchester this year even if you're one of many folks like myself who have nothing but love for those acts.
At their peak, LCD Soundsystem sold out the Garden for a series of shows almost entirely on the strength of the band's impending dissolution. LCD Soundsystem is dance punk about being a middle-aged man looking back on all of the f***ery you got into as a kid with the wisdom and empathy of someone a little bit older. He was 40 when the band broke up. He's 46 now. "Losing My Edge" is an extended bit of self-aware, spoken word poetry about being an insufferable hipster but at least you can escape into the fact that you have better taste than the Philistines around you. "All My Friends" is possibly the best song of the aughts, and it's about reaching the end of your 30s, looking around and wondering what in the hell happened to your life, your loves, and the friendships that defined your youth.
This ain't "poppin' molly" material.
LCD Soundsystem are the rare "conceptual" band that could pair witty and meditative musings on growing older and how our pasts define who we are now with songs that make you want to..."Dance Yrself Clean." Although James Murphy collects a murderer's row of session musicians for his live performances, LCD Soundsystem is his baby. And if there's a man on this planet who knows his way around post-punk guitars, Krautrock electronica grooves, and sheer shake your ass disco rhythms on the planet more than Murphy, I've never heard his music. He's a musician of the highest order, and watching him and the band effortlessly segue between transcendent dance ecstasy, noisy punk riffage, avant-garde dissonance, and more often than not a fusion of all of the above and then some is to see a man who perfectly understands how to build, maintain, and perfectly release tension between a sea of different genres.
And for the kids who come to Bonnaroo just to party, the constant swings between LCD Soundsystem's most "club"-esque tracks to Murphy and the band just fiddling with distortion pedals for about five minutes was a bridge too far and while there wasn't a huge crowd when the set started, by the time the show was halfway through, those who were still sticking around were gifted with a comically intimate headlining show for a major music festival. LCD Soundsystem peddle party music for people whose party days are probably behind them. He asks his listeners to shake their ass but also think about all of the times they've been total f***ups. The "challenging" portions of the show where the band sends shockwave of noise at the audience electrify you because they're so sudden and unexpected but they're also a moment to reflect on the chaos the s*** we get into leaves in our lives. James Murphy isn't going to just let you "hear" his music. He will force you to engage with it until you either do so or go away. It's just a shame there weren't more kids willing to engage with him.
And as the show closed with "All My Friends" and I screamed along to "You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan. And the next five years trying to be with your friends again" and
You can sleep on the plane or review what you said
When you're drunk and the kids leave impossible tasks
You think over and over, 'hey, I'm finally dead.'"
And I thought about the end of my own twenties and if I'll ever have the same self-awareness and sense of humor and out & out pathos that James Murphy has (an underappreciated facet of his talent is that the man can croon with the best of them). And as the final chorus of "If I could see all of my friends tonight" washed over the few of us that still remained at the main stage, the isolation and desperation of those words and that yearning for the intensity of the friendships of our youth rocked me to the marrow of my soul.
James Murphy will never lose his edge.
The heat at Bonnaroo this year is the sort of heat about which William Faulkner could have written a novel.
It's always hot at Bonnaroo. The festival takes place in southern Tennessee in June. You're about an hour from the Georgia state line and not much further from Alabama. And while temperatures in the mid to high 80s with humidity that rarely scales below 50% can leave you feeling a little toasted and maybe like you're walking around in a Turkish bath house, this year's heat is an active hazard to your health.
Yesterday came close to shattering the record for the hottest day in Bonnaroo history and today and Sunday are forecasted to be even warmer. They're calling for a high of 97 today (on Monday it's supposed to get up to 99 but I can promise all of you that I will be the f*** out of Tennesse before I deal with that nonsense). And if you're not from a part of the country that gets that warm, that sort of heat just makes your body begin to shut down.
I was catching Kamasi Washington yesterday afternoon. His neo-jazz opus The Epic was one of the 2010s defining pieces of instrumental music and alongside Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, it was a towering reminder that jazz still matters. His set was one of my most anticipated of the weekend, but just standing near the This Tent for five minutes before he took the stage left every square inch of my body flowing with sweat. I wasn't drenched. That would imply that the moisture came from somewhere and then stopped and I'm just now covered in this liquid. My body was a waterfall of sweat. It was dripping off of me in steady rivulets.
I couldn't think. I couldn't remember why I wanted to come to Bonnaroo. I drank two full water bottles in the space of about fifteen minutes. I couldn't engage with the subtleties of Kamasi Washington's interplay of acid jazz, 70s funk, and afro-futurist sci-fi walls of sound because my brain literally lost the ability to differentiate between any of the sounds I was hearing. I left twenty five or so minutes into the set to retreat into the air-conditioned shade of the press tent because I thought I was going to suffer an actual heat stroke.
The heat at Bonnaroo is rarely "fun" and you're never getting ideal weather except maybe at night, but it's a shame that an actual risk of Bonnaroo is heat that is so draining...heat that causes such a loss of sensation and enjoyment and makes you so tired that you can't enjoy the festival anymore. And with a prime performance today from country music superstar Chris Stapleton at around the same time Washington played yesterday, I'm terrified that we're in for a repeat.
The crowd for Blood Orange was 100% Brooklyn. Even if the kids there weren't from Brooklyn, they were living the Brooklyn hipster ideal. To be young and to think about art.
Tame Impala were the main late night act of Friday, and they drew a mammoth crowd at the Which Stage. But here's the thing about Tame Impala. Lonerism and Currents are unimpeachable classics. Kevin Parker is a perfectionist with soul. He knows exactly how he wants his reinterpretations of 60s psychedelic rock and (at least on Currents) New Order-esque electronic rock to sound. No sonic detail is unaccounted for. Parker's introspective lyricism about life and drugs and love can be great, but the appeal of that band is that their music is like a painting and you just want to stop and study it.
That painting starts to bleed more than a little bit when it's brought to life.
Tame Impala's albums are Kevin Parker, and it's no surprise that his band can't recreate the striking precision of the record. So instead of getting songs whose entire appeal rests on their clarity of vision, you get versions of songs you love that sound like you're hearing them through a swimming pool. And after about five songs of that, I said f*** it and snagged a spot toward the front of the stage for Blood Orange aka Dev Hynes.
There isn't a better musician on the Farm this weekend than Dev Hynes. He can rock as hard as Pearl Jam. He can make make you dance as much as LCD Soundsystem. He can sex you up more than Miguel. The superproducer just understands the craft of R&B and rock at a fundamental level, and he fashions layers and textures into those familiar sounds that you've never heard before. A saxophone solo that is pure sex will be followed by a hard rock guitar interlude that would have fit in on the last Bully record.
And Blood Orange explicitly contextualizes those sounds with a deep affection and understanding of black dance culture and contemporary black life. During one of the jazziest tracks of the set, a screen behind Dev showed iconic black tap dancer Gregory Hines lost in the ecstasy of his art. A more upbeat, dance heavy song was accompanied with a kaleidoscopic montage of the NYC skyline and BBoy (and BGirl) culture. And as Dev gallivanted on stage with the loose sexual abandon of Prince, his show was a reminder to celebrate not just his art but everybody that came before him that shaped who he is now.
And for the crowd, Dev's shattering of any conventional understanding of the sexuality spectrum or the gender binary makes him a lightning rod for an increasingly queer young audience. It's sex as consensual fantasy fulfillment. It's masculinity as sensitive introspection and honest to god giving a s*** about the women (and possibly) men around you that might want to love or be friends with. It's a recognition that men can embrace elegance and beauty and you don't have to put up a wall of tired indifference or hostility. Dev doesn't like it when journalists fixate on his queerness and he plays coy about its existence, but his whole aesthetic is for folks whose personality rest between masculinity and femininity and who can find the beauty and power in men and women. He is, alongside Perfume Genius and Olly Alexander from Years & Years, at the vanguard of the new queer art-pop/R&B/rock renaissance.
Dev Hyne's approach to queerness and actively engaging with the art that inspired him as a songwriter was in stark contrast to the one legitimate disaster set of the evening which is rising pop starlet Halsey.
On paper, Halsey should be a powerful force for new representation in a pop scene that is hyper-white and hyper-straight. She's bisexual. She's multi-racial. She has a history of struggles with mental illness. But none of that shines through in her music which is an endless blend of replaceable basic pop & basic R&B with no real heart and no real soul. And "New Americana" is as actively repulsive an "anthem" as Bonnaroo has played host to in years.
"We are the new Americana
High on legal marijuana
Raised on Biggie and Nirvana
We are the new Americana"
Trying to separate a pop artist from the music they perform is a nightmare and don't take what I'm about to say as an attack on Halsey herself but on the PR machine that is turning her into a carefully tuned and aggressively focus-tested product but f*** that s***. Nirvana and Kurt Cobain entire life's work was about trying to give kids like him who struggled with depression and anxiety a little bit of comfort in knowing they weren't alone. But Nirvana didn't shy away from how tough those struggles were. And Biggie wrote a lot of great party tunes, but he is explicitly a product of the poverty and struggles of inner city black lives in NYC in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. You don't get to turn their legacy into a bland platitudes about getting high and listening to music. It's disrespectful to some of the most important artists of the last 50 years.
Trying to get a decent night's sleep at Bonnaroo is what I imagine it's like to be a toddler and you're cranky and you just need a nap but nobody around you will shut the f*** up and let you catch some zzz's.
Even in the years where Bonnaroo's heat is manageable and not the type of s*** that belongs in a Heironymus Bosch painting, it's impossible to sleep past 7:30 or so if you're in the general camping area. Your tent just traps heat and once the sun is actually up, it's a good 20 to 30 degrees warmer in the tent, and you'll stir awake and suddenly your sleeping bag has reached peak saturation from your sweat. And I don't know about the rest of you but waking up in your own sweat is not my favorite way to start off a day.
All that said, running one weekend on 4-5 hours of sleep a night is exhausting if doable. Bonnaroo has recently enacted new elements of the festival that make even that respite from the bone-weary exhaustion impossible. Bonnaroo has a Kalliope stage. It's a tiny little stage hidden away in a remote corner of the fairgrounds and it's empty most of the day. But, at night, they've begun having surprise performances there. Skrillex played there from about 4 in the morning to almost 7 in 2014.
And they pipe these "surprise" morning Kalliope performances into the loudspeakers in the general camping area.
I was riding an ecstatic high after Blood Orange's set which ended at 3 AM, but I was also dragging my sunbaked carcass back to my tent as my legs and arms screamed in agony and my brain kept repeating "I'm too old for this s***," like a record player that won't stop spinning that weird secret track at the end of a Beatles album. I reached my tent and collapsed and then realized I could still heart music as loud as if I were close to one of the stages. And it didn't stop til the sun came up.
I'm all for letting the folks who come to Bonnaroo just to party rage 24/7. I couldn't do that s*** when I was young and I sure as f*** can't do it now, but more power to you if you have enough uppers in your system to fuel a German battalion in World War I (keeping German soldiers awake in the trenches was why meth was invented). But some of us would like to sleep so we can try to enjoy the shows throughout the weekend, not listen to dubstep at 5 AM that sounds like someone handed a toddler with poor motor control a keyboard and drum machine.
If I sound pissed about all of this, it's cause I'm furious. If I got any sleep last night, it wasn't for more than thirty minutes or so. If I can't sleep, I can't do this job. That I will crash at some point today isn't a matter of if but a very inevitable when. And I will at least have the privilege of being able to retreat to the air-conditioned shelter of the press tent. I can sit in a chair and grab a power nap sitting up and if I can't fall asleep sitting up, I will literally lie on the ground and honestly I'm so tired right now I have no f***s to give if that isn't professional. And if I'm that desperate, think about all of the regular festival goers whose veins aren't flowing with more drugs than someone cosplaying as Hunter S. Thompson. They've got nowhere to crash.
And if you're paying $300 to attend a festival, the festival owes you the respect to let you treat this back-breaking experience like a marathon you can properly prep for, endure, and enjoy instead of some Navy SEALS-esque exercise in pushing past our human limits. Camping should be fun, but forcing people in the place where they sleep to hear music that makes it impossible to sleep if you aren't conked out on booze or drugs is oppression. Plain and simple. It's the kind of s*** that the U.S. government rightfully gets in trouble for when they use it as an "enhanced interrogation" technique on terrorists.
The symptoms of sleep deprivation are not dissimilar to low-grade psychotic breaks. Bonnaroo has an obligation to fans who want to have a healthy Bonnaroo experience to make camping a more comfortable experience and if this isn't rectified in the future, I honestly don't know if I can come back to Bonnaroo, and I certainly wouldn't recommend the experience to anyone who wants to feel like a functioning human being as they watch the bands they love.