Thursday, July 23, 2009

Paradoxically Pitchfork


I have childhood memories of going to toy stores. The feeling I had when I was in these toy stores was pure and joyful, a feeling that I haven’t had in a long time. Today those stores are gone. Maybe it’s sad that I can’t physically go visit a memory and feel that old joy again, but it actually feels right that some of my past has ceased to exist. It’s almost as if my own physical growth is somehow connected to the external world, and vice versa. I mean, if everything that existed as it did when I was younger continued to do so today, then how could I have really changed? If I intend to grow and develop as a human being, don’t my surroundings need to change as well?

Blacks start moving in, whites fly away. Urban neighborhoods decay while suburbs sprawl into oblivion. The senior citizens remember the good old days when things were good. Because they’re not good now. They were good then.

Change is one of those things we love to hate, and hate to love. But in the end, we know we need it. We know it’s inevitable.

I’ve gone to the Pitchfork Music Festival every year since its inception. Every year, I see changes that I immediately want to condemn. The first year was perfect. And now… it’s just not.

The Flaming Lips were memorable for many reasons at this year’s Pitchfork Fest, but their front-man made one statement that jumped out at me louder than any of the songs or images that surrounded it. Wayne Coyne confidently declared, “Everybody knows that Pitchfork is the best music festival in America.” And a few of the thousands cheered. But I groaned.

Now that the secret is out, expect legions of marketers and corporations to force their way into Ryan Schreiber’s little indie block party. The pure fun has turned into obligation. Daily lineup schedules have become checklists. Once I’ve seen a band, I can now tell everyone that I have done so. Nothing happens for the moment anymore at Pitchfork Fest. The monster lives and breathes and grows, more monstrous every year.

I’m exaggerating, but there is a problem at Pitchfork Fest. The problem comes by its own self-awareness. Once anything realizes how it can be marketed, its artistic value declines. And yes, this is a problem. Like hipster backlash in Wicker Park, insincere “cool” is unforgivable.

On Friday night, Built to Spill, Yo La Tengo, Tortoise and the Jesus Lizard played sets that were made up entirely of audience votes. It was called, “Write the Night,” in conjunction with ATP’s “Don’t Look Back.” How ironic, right? On Sunday, The Flaming Lips half-assedly took part in this activity too (they snuck in some of their new songs in half-assed defiance). The Flaming Lips hence revealed the great folly of this “pick the setlist” idea. When Wayne came on the mic between each song explaining why they were playing it, how many votes it got, or gave excuses for playing something else, it sounded like mumbling around censorship. Because, honestly, that’s what it was. Pitchfork fest and its audience censored some of these artists.

I skipped Friday night. Censorship in rock and roll is one of those sins I refuse to break bread over. If me, you, or anybody else is telling an artist how they must express their art in any setting, the artist is being degraded to the role of a performing monkey.

“A new one! Bahhhh! Play your old stuff!” The guy who says this is the worst fan. In essence, he’s not a fan at all. He should just listen to his ipod for his musical fulfillment.

For my first impression of Pitchfork this year, the entire festival seemed to say, “No to art. Yes to entertainment.” Give us what we want, artist. Or else we’ll just ignore you.

I have this pessimistic attitude about Pitchfork every year, but then I always stick around for the rest of the day in hopes of getting my money’s worth. And then I always get my money’s worth, and then some. I always have fun at Pitchfork. For all of my criticism and negativity, I can’t really deny it when I’m just wandering the premises and a band like Japandroids catches my ear.

I hadn’t heard the Japandroids album before this weekend. The duo became my surprise of the year at Pitchfork fest. These two men filled the stage with their energy. Both singing/shouting, one on electric guitar and the other drumming like he could’ve been a cousin of Brian Chippendale. These guys were entirely concerned with rocking. A more sincere rock band couldn’t have been found anywhere else in the weekend’s line-up. It wasn’t the lo-fi noise of No Age or the overindulgent smarminess of Death From Above. It was more like classic punk, or even a remnant of garage rock. Japandroids were a source of energy for me; a new band giving me an old feeling, a rock and roll feeling of guileless emotion.

What a weird event. I always hate it at first, declare its downfall upon viewing the added vendor booths and raised ticket prices, find a band like Japandroids that makes me feel like it doesn’t even matter, and then the ongoing paradox just levels me.

Andrew Bird once said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times: “self-awareness is the enemy of creativity.” And he’s right. The Flaming Lips played a strangely awkward set as a result. But if Pitchfork fest changes, then I have to be ready to take my own medicine. Pitchfork will continue to grow, and I’ll have problems with it just as the old man complains about the present while recalling the “good old days.”

I mustn’t forget to wander the premises. I have to look around and find what’s happening now, because whatever gives me that rock and roll feeling is the thing I can’t deny. That feeling is always there somewhere, it just moves around. It’s not concrete. It’s not in one Built to Spill song or any particular music festival. But it’s there. I felt it this weekend. It might not be there next year, but change is a wandering wind without worry of alliteration.

I’m glad those toy stores are gone. That old joy has moved elsewhere, and I’m still able to find it every now and then upon wandering.

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