There’s an old, prophetic Pulp song that applies to the uselessness of today’s music festivals — a song older than the kids who now attend music festivals — that asks: “Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel? Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?”
Twenty years later, the future is here, and we’re all still standing around. Nowadays, every town in the United States gets its very own sad Coachella echo, and ours is called Sweetlife, an annual spring fling that has grown from a scrappy parking-lot party into a festival as bloated and inconsequential as all the others.
In its sixth iteration, this year’s Sweetlife was more festival-like than it has ever been. The lineup was an unimaginative assemblage of Sasquatch-Lollapalooza-Bonnaroo bait. The tickets were overpriced. And perhaps to project a little gravitas, the festival itself was foolishly stretched into two long, thin days.
Softening the blow, various local restaurateurs were on hand to sell yum-yums from a fleet of idling food trucks. Among them was the festival’s sponsor and founder, Sweetgreen, the local restaurant chain that was honoring this year’s big headliner, Kendrick Lamar, by peddling a salad called “Beets Don’t Kale My Vibe.” (It’s a joke on the rapper’s hit “B-----, Don’t Kill My Vibe.”)
So teens spent their weekend drifting around the idyllic grounds of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., chewing on lobster rolls and blow-torched doughnuts, and absorbing 31 musical acts in 21 hours through a mysterious form of millennial zombie osmosis. The energy at this thing wasn’t low, so much as it was absent — proof that at today’s music festivals, the music has become background music.
Even when it’s good. Even when it’s Charli XCX doing her sis-boom-bah feminist pep rally thing. Even when it’s Sinkane making freaky alien reggae. Even when it’s Sweden’s Tove Lo, who sang the most commanding, sex-positive pop tunes of the weekend but who seemed to connect with her audience only after she peeled away the shoulder straps of her periwinkle leotard to flash them.
Pop music is an audiovisual medium, of course, but nobody’s ears seemed to be turned on. So when Sweetlife’s most puzzling booking, Billy Idol, sang “Mony Mony” so horrifically out of tune, as if Idol were issuing a threat to the world’s fingernails and chalkboards, nobody up on the Merriweather lawn squinched.
Or if they did, it was because they were posing for selfies, recording a moment that wasn’t really actually happening. Maybe this is the new psychedelia.
Things “you guys are” at Sweetlife: “Incredible!” “Amazing!” “Unbelievable!” “The best!”
You guys were “beautiful” to Sarah Barthel of Phantogram, who sang trip-hop for Michael Bay trailers. “Awesome” to folk singer Vance Joy, who, unlike his music, was too handsome for open-mike night at the Irish pub. “So wonderful” to Marina Diamandis of Marina and the Diamonds, whose bubble-gummy va-voom had almost enough quirk to resemble personality. “Lit” to Chicago rapper Vic Mensa, who verbally demanded a physical response to his music whenever his music was incapable of producing it.
Instead of nudging America’s youth to overthrow the government or boycott SeaWorld, the message from upon high was “I like you!” — but even more so, “Do you like me?” Pop star groveling is at an all-time high these days, and although the pandering is unseemly, perhaps this is just the way of the world. Social media affirmation culture has oil-spilled into all culture. The kids aren’t out for kicks so much as pats on the head.
But if everyone looked “amazing,” it was because everyone looked pretty much the same, which was kind of amazing. In an expression of generational solidarity, they wore crop tops, NBA jerseys, Daisy Dukes, Hawaiian shirts, head chains, Under Armour, splashes of body paint and way too many faded tank tops with those inexplicable little front pockets.
What goes in those tiny pockets? Are they a metaphor for emptiness? For meaninglessness? Or is this just something to think about at a festival where the music doesn’t ask you to think about anything at all?
There are two moments of potential integrity at any music festival, and the first one comes right off the rip, in the pre-summer hotness when a couple-hundred early birds show up to hear sounds they have never heard before. (On Saturday, this took shape in a terrific, stomping set from D.C. rapper Lightshow.)
The other one comes at the very end of the day when all the iPhone batteries have been sapped of their selfie-juice and the only option is to participate in the present.
On Sunday night, that moment felt sweltering during a set of hallucinogenic sex jams from Toronto R&B singer the Weeknd. No matter how crass or raunchy the lyric, the 25-year-old repeatedly found a way to finesse it into something more elegant than it deserved to be. And this was a chance to feel something. Or someone. Suddenly, it was the final 15-minutes of prom.
Simultaneously co-headlining over on the main stage was Calvin Harris, a songwriter and DJ who is allegedly dating Taylor Swift, who was allegedly on site at Sweetlife to cheer Harris on but who was not easily spotted.
And for more than an hour, kids jumped up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down to the most boring music in the world. “SWEEEEETLIFE!” Harris roared during the sonic dissolves, not unlike how a young Arnold Schwarzenegger might. This was a 75-minute reminder that mediocrity actually steals your life from you.
But it was nothing compared with the disappointment of Saturday night, when Kendrick Lamar barely touched his latest opus, “To Pimp A Butterfly,” an album filled with dense, seething songs about race and class that Americans need to hear — even if it’s Saturday night and those Americans are the predominantly white, possibly wasted teens of exurbia.
Instead, it was the old stuff, performed by a steamrolling backing band that the rapper had to shout over. It sounded like nu-metal, and the momentum was a mess.
At one point, the rapper plucked two random fans out of the crowd and invited them to perform one of his songs with him. The first fan ended up being Jonathan Neman, one of Sweetgreen’s founders. What are the odds?
After Neman failed to keep up, Lamar playfully sent him back into the crowd, but the Internet joked about it all weekend — as if the rapper had exacted revenge for having a salad named after one of his songs. C’mon. When the truth hurts, don’t try to bend it: The Greatest Rapper of His Generation does onstage skits with salad people.
And so rap music sold a little kale, kale sold a little rap music, and everyone had a little laugh and felt a little disappointed. In this way only did Sweetlife feel like anything unique.