For a long while now, Pitchfork has been about a lot more than indie rock. The Pitchfork website and the Pitchfork Music Festival both have a history of mixing obscure, strange and intellectual music with unabashedly mainstream pop. This past weekend, the festival put an exclamation point on that attitude by booking controversial R&B superstar R. Kelly as one of three headliners. The other two were more typical examples of the sort of music originally associated years ago with Pitchfork: Björk and Belle & Sebastian.
In theory, I like this idea of mashing Top 40 artists and DIY bands together into one musical amusement park. It pushes fans out of their comfort zones, helping them to discover artists they’ve previously ignored because of a bias toward particular genres. I’m one of those music fans who needs some pushing. Call me an indie snob … a guitar-centric elitist … a rockist. I’ve been ignoring the vast majority of mainstream music for the past few decades. The reason is simple. To my ears, most of it sounds overproduced, unimaginative and uninteresting. I realize that the sonic style of this stuff — the way this music tends to be performed and packaged — probably leads me to overlook some creative and well-crafted songs. But it feels like a chore to sift through it all to find whatever gems might be hidden in there.
So … R. Kelly? Sorry. I’ve barely even listened to the guy. What I have heard didn’t make me want to continue listening. The controversy over the disturbing criminal charges he once faced — and was acquitted of — doesn’t make me especially eager to dig any deeper into his music, either. This weekend, I was taking photos for The A.V. Club. After being allowed to take pictures from the photographers pit during R. Kelly’s first song on Sunday night, I had fulfilled my duty. And I needed to get home to edit a day’s worth of photos. So I left Union Park at that point, missing most of R. Kelly’s set. I’ll leave it up to other writers to say whether his performance was what R. Kelly fans wanted to get out of the experience. Judging from most of the comments I’ve seen, his fans rated the concert as a smashing success. From what I did hear, I doubt that R. Kelly would have made a new fan out of me.
I did stay for Björk on Friday night. There was never any doubt about that. And I stayed for every minute of Belle & Sebastian. Both of these iconic artists delivered terrific performances — the only problem being the weather alert about an approaching storm that forced Björk to end her concert prematurely, cutting a few songs off her set list. Certainly, Björk’s more recent compositions aren’t as catchy as the earlier songs, but even the less memorable tunes came off as intriguing, complex creations as she performed Friday, wearing a sparkly set of spikes on her head. The set’s emotional climax was the moment when Björk sang “I love him, I love him, I love him, I love him…” in “Pagan Poetry,” tilting her head skyward, while her choir of female harmony singers responded, “She loves him, she loves him…” And then, shortly after Björk conjured some bottled lightning with a Tesla coil, actual lightning sparked in the dark clouds overhead.
Nothing so dramatic occurred during Belle & Sebastian’s set the following night. It was, quite simply, a fun time — a lively concert packed with so many fabulous songs that it was hard to imagine how anyone could come away from it without being a Belle & Sebastian fan.
The three-day festival had plenty of other highlights for me. Woods jammed with a more Byrdsy vibe than ever. Swans droned and declaimed with frightening intensity. Savages made good on their hype. Wire started off a bit slow but finished with a strong buzz. Yo La Tengo played loud, and then quiet — so damn quiet that you had to listen — and then loud again.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead dug into its songs with fierce power. Foxygen’s flailing lead singer, Sam France, climbed halfway up the red stage’s metal support column and jumped down, as the band fell into a delightfully shambolic groove. Phosphorescent leader Matthew Houck’s voice keened with longing. Julia Holter’s music floated as she stood as still as a statue. And Waxahatchee’s songs blossomed from bedroom folk into slacker rock.
Alas, I wasn’t able to stay for whole sets by Mikal Cronin, Angel Olsen, Low and Metz, but they all sounded great for the few songs of each that I did catch. (I wasn’t there when Low closed its set with a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay,” transforming a mainstream pop song into, well, a Low song.) And I wish I’d seen more of Parquet Courts to figure out what all the fuss is about.
What else happened over the weekend? Pissed Jeans cavorted with glee. Daughn Gibson intoned with brash confidence. Trash Talk praised old people for “having us all and shit.” The Breeders fumbled. Mac DeMarco stuck out his tongue. Joanna Newsom plucked her harp and warbled, the subtleties of her songs getting a bit lost in the park.
I went into this Pitchfork fest with a bias toward old-fashioned, guitar-based indie rock, and I came out of the weekend with my bias intact. Still a rockist, but trying to be open-minded. Toro Y Moi’s frothy pop did nothing for me. M.I.A. put on an impressive and energetic show, but her music quickly wore me down, as it has in the past. I still have no idea what Lil B is all about, other than the fact that he has some really enthusiastic fans. Solange, Beyonce’s sweetly smiling sister, seemed to charm much of the audience. Hearing her music for the first time, it struck me as unremarkable. Maybe just not my cup of tea.
And so, when New York Times critic Jon Caramanica writes that the Pitchfork fest’s second half “served as a reminder of how dance music has become the most exciting emergent narrative in pop,” I have to wonder: What was I missing? I much preferred the weekend’s indie rock, which included, according to Caramanica, “bands in various stages of delusion and defensiveness.”
Killer Mike won me over, though. Of all the hip-hop artists I watched at Pitchfork, he was the one who had the most to say, even if his rap denouncing Ronald Reagan’s lies in the Iran-contra affair seemed oddly dated. “I want to encourage Chicago to take care of each other,” he said in one of his mini-sermons in between his raps, apparently alluding to the city’s violence. “I’d like to encourage the people of Chicago to look out for one another.” Later in his set, looking out on a Pitchfork audience that was more racially diverse than it had been on previous days, Killer Mike declared, “This is what church is supposed to look like.”