Musings from Pitchfork ’08

As I sit still recovering from a last-minute adventure to Pitchfork Music Festival 2008 in Chicago’s Union Park, I can’t help but marvel at the vast quantity of engaging musicians, porta-potties and American Apparel ensembles that I had experienced over the course of the weekend. Speaking specifically to the musical component, my hat goes off to the festival organizers for arranging a lineup of artists that was well spaced out, diverse, and most importantly for a currently jobless college graduate, an incredible bargain. Below are some scattered thoughts on the festival:

I arrived late on Saturday, after getting a later start than expected when a certain blogger was still a bit hazy following a late previous night stomping around at the Indie Queer Pride Discotech. This meant missing Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar and A Hawk and a Hacksaw, both of whom reportedly delivered very pleasing sets. My day, instead, began by seeing what all of the hype with provocatively-titled duo F*** Buttons was about. As it turned out, it was mostly about booming feedback mixed other sporadic noises — not exactly my scene. After watching a few songs, I headed over instead to observe the brave souls who had already begun charging through the many muddy pits that remained on the grounds throughout the weekend following light rain Saturday morning.

The best (muddiest) seat in the house Saturday night.

The best (muddiest) seat in the house Saturday night.

Incidentally, I was equally “whelmed” later in the festival by two other blog darlings that I’d been very much looking forward to — Vampire Weekend and HEALTH. VW’s set consisted of crisp replicas of their impeccable debut album delivered with perfect posture worthy of Sunday morning at church with the family. Combined with the heat of the blinding Saturday afternoon sun and the expected overcrowding, the set was a definite miss. HEALTH perhaps suffered from the opposite problem and reminded me of an overly stimulated puppy. That said, the large crowd assembled at the new-and-improved third, side stage seemed to jive well with their sound.

Saturday’s highlight, as it turned out, was a tie between the foul-Cockney-accent-mouthed British rapper Dizzee Rascal and the incredibly trippy end-of-the-night set from Animal Collective, followed closely behind by a disco-rific set from !!! (Chk Chk Chk), which thankfully woke the crowd up after being lulled to sleep by the faux-Transylvannian weekenders . Animal Collective’s light show was particularly impressive, perfectly complementing the act’s pulsating haunts, much to the amusement of the many, many festival-goers adding various illegal substances into mix for their set.. It was a sublime end to the night, coming just before being shaken back to reality by the cattle call to the train stop just outside the festival.

Fixie Fest '08.

Union Park's other large event of the weekend: FixieFest '08.

Sunday, I arrived on the grounds feeling rejuvenated and not-hungover, ready for more gratuitous samples of Fuze fruit drink — orange melon was my flavor of choice, by weekend’s end. Moments after stepping past the many fixed-gear bikes and the surprisingly attentive bag-checkers at the gate, I was greeted with a series of four gong hits — Japan’s Boris had begun their show, which was surprisingly pleasant for this non-metal head. Next, I ran over to the B stage to catch High Places, an entertaining calypso-sugary duo that put together a very nice set, before avoiding HEALTH’s dying-raccoon-screeches by grabbing a piece of deep-dish Chicago pizza from one of the plethora of surprisingly delectable food vendors and collecting more free buttons, stickers and coupons than I knew what to do with.

M. Ward playing early on Sunday.  He'll be back in town with Zooey Deschanel in September at the Barrymore.

M. Ward playing early on Sunday. He'll be back in town with Zooey Deschanel Friday, Aug. 8, at the Barrymore.

Ready for more music, I hid under a polka-dotted umbrella-turned-parasol while catching the end of the Dodos‘ set and claiming a prime spot for M. Ward. The Dodos’ sound was infinitely better in this setting than a few weeks prior at the MU Terrace, and their set was fantastic, only outshone by the artful mastery of music displayed by M. Ward in the set that followed.  His performance managed to give me, and likely many others in the audience, chills on the balmy summer afternoon — a feat that requires true musicianship.

Bon Iver rocking the "B" stage on Sunday at Pitchfork Music Festival 2008 in Union Park, Chicago.

Bon Iver rocking the "B" stage on Sunday at P4K.

The series of fantastic back-to-back sets continued as I headed over to the B stage to set up camp for the triple threat that I’d been most looking forward to: Ghostface Killah & Raekwon-Bon Iver-Cut Copy. Ghostface and company delivered peace, love and hip hop in a set that provided a fresh take on old school — the crowd ate it up. Bon Iver was equally satisfying, balancing his well-known falsetto with his clear curiosity of noise rock, and recruiting the audience as his own backing chorus, just as he had done back in April during his last Madison appearance at Orpheum Stage Door. A surprising bonus of the set was an impassioned Creedance Clearwater Revival cover, which helped sweeten the blow of the severe collective dehydration and claustrophobia of the large crowd gathered for the set.

The night ended with a bit of a downer, as it took festival organizers nearly a half hour past Cut Copy’s scheduled start time of 8:25 to announce that the band was caught at the airport and was delayed — it was all said and done, we unfortunately missed the abridged, reportedly amazing, set from the Australian wunderkids. Instead, we were treated to an ad hoc ensemble of the most intoxicated Chicago band members available at the time — the singer from Deerhunter, drummer from the Ponys, and a few of their compadres. Following a lilting, improvised song titled “Jelly Roll,” it was time to catch the last bits of Spoon‘s set from the very back of the large assembled crowd. Spoon’s sound fits perfectly into a festival setting, and they did not disappoint.

As many warnings as I had heading into Pitchfork of its being unorganized and amateurish, I was repeatedly impressed by what the organizers had done catering to such a large crowd in a confined space. My only real disappointment was not being able to see all of the bands that I’d wanted to due to the packed schedule requiring that difficult decisions be made — namely missing out on the Hold Steady (who went straight from P4K to rock the Majestic stage earlier this week), Jarvis Cocker and Spiritualized. Indeed, it seems the festival has overcome its growing pains and solidified a position as one of Chicago’s greatest music festivals, one that I am looking forward to attending for many years to come.

— Joe Erbentraut, True Endeavors Communications and Public Relations Intern

Confessions of a music snob

Living within the Madison music fan bubble as a car-less UW student for the past four years, my experiences with Top 40 tunes were limited at best. However, upon graduating and taking a day job working near a kitchen filled with devoted listeners of a certain Clear Channel station not particularly known for an exhaustive playlist, all that has changed. This change originally sent the music snob within me into a constant state of cringe — almost to the point of teeth-grating and thoughts of further self-injury.

After much soul-searching, however, I let down my guard and began to listen to the lyrics and music of today’s top tunes. Perhaps if I gave it a chance, I hypothesized, I’d realize that the indie snobbery needed to come to an end, and I’d begin to embrace mainstream pop music for what it is: Light, airy, low on substance and not horribly offensive, if not mostly enjoyable — sort of like cotton candy. Below are the findings from my so-called social experiment.

As it turns out, in my humble opinion, most of what is being played on this particular station continues to be crap, disproving my naively hopeful hypothesis. There are exceptions to every rule: Ne-Yo, a producer and performer who has worked closely penning hits for names like Beyonce and Rihanna, has a fantastically danceable song out right now [“Closer”], though it is on the verge of relentless overplay. This particular station has also caught wind of overseas talent providing a breath of fresh air to the status quo — both Duffy and Estelle are gaining airplay for their singles “Mercy” and “American Boy.” I also, as much as this pains me to admit it, don’t entirely mind the latest John Mayer single, “Say.”

Beyond these few gems, however, pickings are slim. It’s not even that much of the music is lacking in quality and originality, a legitimate organic energy that does not feel overproduced [though all of these things are true]. Music, as I’ve said before, can and does carry a lot of power, particularly when placed in a mass medium. Much of today’s popular music simply does not advance public discourse — in fact, in some cases, lyrical content may be doing much more harm than we know.

Take, for example, the surprise current #1 song, “I Kissed a Girl” by up-and-coming performer (and former gospel singer) Katy Perry. Perry has been lauded by many for her candid openness about kissing another woman, and this is perceived as promoting and supporting diversity and tolerance.

“No, I don’t even know your name
It doesn’t matter
You’re my experimental game
Just human nature
It’s not what, good girls do
Not how they should behave”

Instead of providing a positive media portrayal of a lesbian relationship, Perry chose to speak of kissing a woman in a way that was dehumanizing and states that the action is not what girls “should” do. This song’s portrayal of the LGBT community, in effect, perpetuates the Tila Tequila fallacy of what it means to be queer, which produces many harmful side effects, whether or not they were intended by Perry.

Perry’s song is just one of many radio songs that perpetuate far-than-ideal stereotypes and assumptions, as far as social justice is concerned. “When I Grow Up” by the Pussycat Dolls feeds the notion that many of today’s social networking-obsessed youth also have unreasonable expectations of becoming famous one day. Other songs continue to utilize terminology that is degrading to women and perpetuate sexist ideology.

All of that said, perhaps I’m taking this all a bit too seriously. The sixties — the days of the Beatles, Beach Boys and “good vibrations” — are long over and today’s market is completely different, catering to youth that have grown up surrounded by technology in a media environment that is constantly changing, so maybe I should cut the already-suffering industry a little slack. But then again, that wouldn’t be very snobby of me to do, now would it?

– Joe Erbentraut, True Endeavors Communications and Public Relations Intern

The skinny on pants, drugs and rock n’ roll

I’ve been to a lot of concerts around town in recent months, ranging from the hip twin duo Tegan and Sara (pictured below) and the gangly, quirky Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman to the melodramatic, post-punk British duo The Kills and TRL-friendly pop-punkers The Medic Droid. Despite the clear differences in musical genre, if I had to isolate one common thread between all of the shows it would be the skinny jeans. As far as the eye could see, in all cases, the thought process behind the pants of choice for performers and concertgoers alike seemed to be “the tighter the better.”

Tegan and Sara, skinny jean enthusiasts.

Although tight pants are often associated with the fashions of hipster culture — along with ironic t-shirts, disheveled hair and classic shoes — I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was more to it. Surely, the overwhelming spread of the Gospel According to Tight Pants could be attributed to more than just a few influential hipster rockers in Brooklyn sitting around and deciding to borrow their girlfriends’ jeans for a gig. I went to investigate to who or what could be owed the credit (or blame?) for getting the ball rolling.

As it turns out, according to an article from Kitsch Magazine, the mid-1950s breeded what we now call the “skinny jean” as actresses like Audrey Hepburn wore the fitted looks in her films. As New York Magazine put it, “[s]kinny trousers are the uniform of the hard-edged and underfed.” As rock/rebel types like Elvis Presley, James Dean and Marlon Brando also gained prominence through the fifties into the the sixties, they too were known not just for their anti-establishment attitude, but also for their tight-fitting jeans.

From the late sixties into the seventies, fashion trends steered away from skinnier fits, as bellbottoms and larger fit pants emerged through time. In the decades that followed, skinny jeans continued to have their hold within the punk and rock subcultures, while mainstream designers moved toward bootcuts. Designers like Nicholas Ghesquiere, Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney borrowed heavily from music subcultures in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when skinny jeans began to hit the runway in prominent fashion shows.

All of this led up to today, where the skinny jean has made its mark, thanks to the decades of musicians that maintained their zeal for the skin-tight aesthetic. The trend has reached all corners of the globe, leaving some, including medical researchers, to wonder what potential costs may exist with the fad’s spread. In January 2003, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a letter detailing the cases of three women “who had developed a nerve condition similar to carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of regularly wearing hip-hugging jeans.” The letter went on to warn that tight-fitting hipster jeans can “squeeze a sensory nerve under the hip bone, causing a tingling, burning sensation called paresthesia.”

Researchers in Australia have also examined the issue, wondering if men wearing tighter jeans might be risking infertility, stemming from a 1986 scientific study that suggested that tight pants and underwear lower sperm count (subsequently sparking the trend of baggier jeans in the mainstream). Sydney andrologist Dr. Rick Gordon asked members of the band Avant Garde to wear tight pants for a period of six weeks. Following the test, measures of the band members’ fertility were re-evaluated. The results? The band members’ sperm counts were unchanged. Hipsters 1, Science 0.

So, why does this all matter? My point is not to say that all indie music fans need to stop wearing their skinnies and bring back hammer pants — I certainly won’t be. I simply encourage readers to take a look around at the next show you’re out at, and take note of the trends around you. It is seemingly trivial things like the tightness of jeans that remind us of the potential societal impact of popular musicians. Whether they like it or not, so-called “rock stars” are, and always will be, at the forefront of fashion trends, supporting the creation of product lines that can profit millions for corporations of many sorts — some socially responsible, and others not. It all comes with the territory of being part of an American subculture.

– Joe Erbentraut, True Endeavors Communications and Public Relations Intern

The changing face of hipster heaven

Austin, Texas, recently played host to SXSW (South by Southwest Conferences and Festivals) Music Festival, the annual hipster extravaganza drawing in tastemakers and trendsetters to see the tastiest and trendiest of the music world.

If you really needed the above description, though, clearly SXSW is not for you. You are not a hipster. Head straight to un-hip jail, do not pass go and do not collect $200. Since its inception twenty-one years ago, SXSW has continued to grow into its current monstrous size, drawing more than 2,000 bands to Austin; the mid-sized, blue diamond in the rough of oh-so-red Texas; in both officially-sanctioned and unofficial, spin-off showcases in front of over 12,000 attendees. In addition to the fans, the attendees include many booking agents, managers and venue owners, allowing smaller bands to gain much needed exposure in the industry of reduced record sales and increased opportunities for music piracy via file-sharing networks.

As the festival has grown, however, it has become increasingly more difficult to grab the attention of the above powers-that-be. Each year, SXSW attracts many acts that already have a name for themselves and had a great deal of commercial success — such as 2008 performers Talib Kweli, Moby and My Morning Jacket — in addition to many more recent blog sensations on the tip of every hipster’s tongue, such as Vampire Weekend, MGMT and Jens Lekman. Even if these acts help draw in music fans that in turn check out a number of other shows, there is only so much that any given human being (even extra special, extra hip ones) can take in over the course of five days and the bigger acts are sure to outdraw smaller, up-and-coming acts. That is, of course, unless they have the stamp of approval from their “indie” music blogger of choice, who contributes to society by breaking through the clutter and aiding less musically-inclined listeners in identifying the artists and tunes worth listening to without the influence of society’s “haves.”

Blog-approved Vampire Weekend, coming to town on April 4.

As any given music blogger gains notoriety, however, one has to wonder just how “indie” they truly can be classified as. Record labels, in particular, have begun to pay closer attention to the blogosphere, pulling in bloggers with a trusting base of readers to help find promising talent in exchange for helping to tout some of theirs. According to a recent Associated Press article, gossip blogger Perez Hilton is being snapped up by Warners Bros. Records as an executive, and was given control over the talent for a showcase at this year’s SXSW.

In response to criticism over the potential blending of the corporate and the independent, Hilton stated, “I only post things on there that I really enjoy and love and support — there’s no payola Perez … [T]here’s an authenticity there and they really respond to that.”

Bloggers being pulled under the wing of record labels is just one example of corporate influence increasingly playing a role in the defining of what’s worthy of an 8. or 9.something on Pitchfork and what isn’t. Companies outside of the realm of music — such as Urban Outfitters — have also adapted the culture of blog-approved goodness with their selections of in-store music playlists, aiding to profits that head in iffy directions: UO Owner Richard Hayne has reportedly donated thousands of dollars to rabidly anti-gay and anti-abortion politician Rick Santorum. One has to wonder how long it will be before the hipster-blogger-tastemaker role is further commodified and whether it will begin to impact the music itself. Only time will tell.

— Joe Erbentraut, True Endeavors Communications and Public Relations Intern