I did not start attending music festivals until my mid-twenties. In my teens and college years, festival ticket prices were out of my budget (to say nothing of travel, lodging, expensive fried foods served on the grounds, etc.), and I was much more likely to attend a concert with a five-dollar ticket price in a gross but comforting basement or humble lodge. But something clicked once I turned 25, and then I tried to attend at least one or two fests a year up until the pandemic hit. I really liked the organization and intention of them: the way an enclosed space would become a neon-lit zone of socialization, dancing, and debauchery for a few short days before reverting back to its regular existence; the heady combination of live music and brand activations; the interesting challenge for artists to please their most loyal fans up at the rail while also attracting the attention of people walking by who have no idea who the hell they are. One of my favorite details of the Fyre Festival debacle is that the organizers promised an “immersive” experience on their ill-equipped island in the Bahamas. I always got a huge kick out of that descriptor because of course like duh, a festival is immersive, it is real and exists in three dimensions and you can go to one and be surrounded by it on all sides, the grass below you and the sky above. And yet there is something specifically immersive about entering the realm of a festival, a slight adjustment of reality like that of entering an airport, where the value of money becomes different, your relation to your fellow neighbor is heightened, and it’s normal to walk around and see random people asleep on the ground, with a crumpled sweatshirt serving as a pillow.
This weekend I attended my first ever Governors Ball. I had bought just Sunday passes for myself and my husband with the express goal of seeing Post Malone live for the first time. One of my other affinities for festivals is the “charcuterie board” style of lineup, where you can have a couple of must-see folks and then accessorize the rest of your day with unexpected but pleasing acts. This was the goal for Gov Ball, to definitely see Posty headline and then work our way back with other accoutrements.
I had known from friends that Gov Ball had a reputation as a festival where many young people, including tweens and young teens, attend. As soon as we got on the 7 train to the fest’s new location in the parking lot surrounding Citi Field, I confirmed this would be true. The train was packed with young folks in current fashions, sitting on each others’ laps, drinking unidentifiable liquids out of large jugs, and yelling their heads off all the way to Flushing. This is the part where I say that I am thirty-one years old and my husband is thirty-three. Even being a person who currently has a husband pretty much rips me, demographically, away from the general population of Gov Ball. I feel quite young, physically and mentally, but surrounded by teenagers, I knew that my true days of blissfully idiotic youth were long behind me. The evidence was all around me! Over the course of the pandemic, the concept of what “Gen Z” is really solidified in broad cultural markers (TikTok challenges, fantastical glitter eye makeup), and of course some millennials have made some whiny content about being mocked by said generation for pants shape preferences or whatnot, and that whininess feels like a predictable but spiritually impoverished response to no longer being the youngest generation out there in the game. I am trying to avoid all that. I am trying to age with equanimity. It’s certainly not worth it to stand in judgment of young people. I used to have my friend take black-and-white digital camera pics of me pretending to skateboard and then go post them on Myspace. Each set of people has their own imagery they find important. I like to think that I have wisdom to share and love to give, and life is very long, or at least I hope so.
At the festival I got a can of cold brew from a cold brew can station, plus a can of water—a tallboy of flat spring water styled to look like an epic heavy metal kind of beverage. And we saw Caroline Polachek at the Grubhub stage. She walked on, wearing a very artful-looking black dress with a plunging bodice and these funky stirrup tights, and she basically immediately started crying. Based on the New Yorker profile of her, I believe she was overwhelmed with joy and relief at performing live in public. Something I noticed on this Sunday at Gov Ball, and also a few weeks ago at Riot Fest in Chicago, is that there is definitely a mood right now of musicians being able to get onstage and play again while radiating lots of gratitude and goodwill. No one is exhausted from tour burnout or “the grind.” Everyone seems pretty inspired and excited and that energy bounces off the audience. I really liked Caroline Polachek’s set. She has a fabulous voice that can modulate almost like a computer, and she kept doing these little elegant choreographed movements to accent the tunes. When she sang “Parachute,” the closer for her 2019 album Pang, she sounded like an elf on one of their elf boats sailing to The Undying Lands.
On to Duck Sauce, at the Honda Stage. I knew Duck Sauce from their 2010 song “Barbra Streisand” which was released shortly before I studied abroad in the Czech Republic and therefore was played at almost every club I went to during that time. When we got to their stage, my husband Chris asked if they were brothers. They are not, but in their shining golden bomber jackets and similar bleached hairdos, it was an easy assumption. A duo of popular producers, A-Trak and Armand Van Helden, their set was undeniably good vibes, a lot of disco-y house music set to a silly montage of ‘80s dance video clips and, at one point, an animation loop that offered a swooping view directly into a cartoon man’s butthole. Truthfully it did not look like the two men were doing any super elaborate live mixing of their music per se which I am aware is a certain point of pride and mark of authenticity for electronic dance artists, based on the snarky comments I often see on EDM YouTube videos. That is totally fine. It didn’t really matter to me, as they were much more in the service of vibe creation rather than mixmanship. At one point I saw even the camera person perched at the top of the tent’s sound booth dancing to the music. At the end of the set, the two bros of Duck Sauce came together, bowed to each other, and hugged. It was adorable.
By this time we’d met up with Ryan, who co-runs a podcast and amazing Instagram-zine called AntiArt, we had a little time between acts to do my favorite non-musical thing at a music festival: seeking out brand activations. Ah, brand activations, those booths between the stages shilling products and experiences through Instagram-worthy photo opps and scraps of free merch: the little extra spice all fests need. I understand that brand activations might feel like they cheapen the fest experience, creating a crass marketplace environment littered with corny hashtags and GIF photobooths. I do understand and empathize with that feeling. It doesn’t quite jive with the vision of Woodstock ‘69 and everyone swaying in the breeze with flowers in their hair, no phones, living in the moment. But there’s something delicious to me about the effort put into creating immersive brand experiences within the confines of a fest. I imagine the months of work involved, meetings scheduled and presentation decks sweated over, marketing associates and graphic designers and VPs, approvals and revisions and re-approvals, all so that Grubhub can sponsor a large statue of a gooey slice of pizza that people might take a photo alongside. So much work goes into creating products to please us and so much more work to advertise those products pleasurably too. A nation of marketers, all of them humans with problems and dreams, working so hard and most likely hoping for their own moment of leisure, the kind we were indulging on this fine day at The Governors Ball.
We veered toward the Bud Light Seltzer Sessions stage, which programmed intimate shows throughout the day but also offered a wall of cans of hard seltzer, out of which emerged a cooling mist! A perfect respite for a sunny 75 degree day, and a perfect brand alignment with refreshment provided by the hard seltzer in question. A+, no notes.
Carly Rae Jepsen was next. She emerged resplendent in a short jumpsuit covered with what looked like silver tinsel. Her hair, a chic bleached mullet. I love Carly Rae Jepsen. I think she has a gorgeous soprano voice, excellent taste in production, and a gift for making massive-massive mega pure-pop hits that everyone else is basically too afraid now to make. I’m sorry but you have to have balls to go as hard as she did on “Cut To The Feeling.” She had a goofy stage demeanor, dancing and smirking through her flirtatious and romantic tunes as if to say “Who meeeee??” When she busted out “Call Me Maybe” a tall handsome guy in a tank top and backwards baseball cap behind me screamed as if he had just won The Price Is Right. I have never seen a song bring people of all types and demographics together so quickly and thoroughly. I did a bit of math in my head and realized that for most of the people in the audience, “Call Me Maybe” came into their lives somewhere between early childhood and late college.It was senior year for me and got played at just about every party I went to.) For this audience “Call Me Maybe” is probably going to be an instant portal for everyone into a more joyful and carefree time. But seeing it live created a new memory of joyful carefree-ness. That is the magic of live music! You can keep creating more and more portals as you get older, making it easier and easier to access the freest and most fun part of yourself.
The sun set and I ate a gyro pita and then a small psychedelic mushroom. We got into position for Young Thug’s set. The crowd was getting drunker and rowdier, stumbling through the teeming masses in long chains, lamenting the Juuls and phones they left in the porta-potties. We waited ten minutes, then twenty. I don’t know a ton about Young Thug, and I’m not super plugged into new Hip-Hop right now, so I was ready to experience the mood, whatever it was. But the mood was “Young Thug is extremely late.” After a certain point, his DJ took the stage and started playing popular rap songs that I was familiar with—when he cued up “Mo Bamba,” a boisterous squad of young white guys tore through the crowd and whisked the area in front of ours into a spontaneous mosh pit and I had my first, “mom, can you come pick me up? I’m scared,” moment. At Riot Fest, it was understood that pits occurred in the front and the back was reserved for more chilled folks, but here at Gov Ball crowd dynamics were much more lawless. Any area, it seemed, could become a pit if the people located there believed in themselves. And everyone was getting more restless with the continued lack of deployment of Mr. Young Thug. I ended up chatting with the couple to my right, a man and woman who looked to be in their thirties, and they both rolled their eyes when I asked whether they thought he’d appear: “He’s not coming out, for sure. If anything he’ll do like two songs.”
We eventually ran out of patience and dipped. It was feeling tense! As we walked away, I noticed a man wearing a baseball cap with not one but three Yankees logos on it, actually three glow in the dark Yankees logos, and I started giggling, and knew that noticing such funny and unique details of the world around me meant that the mushroom was kicking in. We skirted the edge of the Bacardí Stage and emerged to a completely different sonic world on the other side: Jamie xx was DJing, playing what sounded like a groovy mix of soul and old-school rock & roll and…techno and house?? I am terrible at identifying dance music genres, but regardless, it was a wonderful release after the unfruitful wait for Young Thug. Everyone was vibing. I felt like I had been dipped into a cool plunge pool full of Bud Light Seltzer. Ryan popped into the crowd to take some photos closer-up, and Chris and I boogied for a while amid individuals and pairs who danced with their arms in the air as if trying to catch the vibes with one’s hands. Jamie xx won the trophy for Unexpected Delight Of The Night.
We also tried to buy some water from a drinks stand and the poor guy working said “I’m so sorry, we are completely out of everything, but we have these electrolyte drinks we’re giving away.” They were called Electrolit and seemed identical chemically to Pedialyte, with a grape flavor that reminded me of the Children’s Motrin chewables I crunched as a child. After sweating in a parking lot all day, the Electrolit was perfection.
We then found a good patch of turf to sit on and chill before Post Malone started—right back outside of the Bud Light Seltzer Sessions zone, where I finally took a branded selfie in the misty shelving area.
As we waited, we discussed a phenomenon I had observed many times over the course of the day: a large group of young women, dressed to the nines and makeup done for the gods, all walking in lockstep together, while all looking completely miserable. To me it makes perfect sense. I can’t imagine being 18 or 20, coming to a festival with “my girls”, and being able to have a consistently good time. The demands of female friendship and the demands of attending an all-day musical event are both strenuous. For me, so much of being a young woman was denying my own needs in order to avoid the horrible prospect of standing out or not getting along. In middle school when I still ran with a cool crowd (lol) we’d go all together to the state fair and I’d ride these rides that were completely terrifying to me because more terrifying still was the prospect of being left out, a huge loser, craning my neck up at “The Zipper” and staring at the girls having fun without me. We human beings are animals at the end of the day, and I’m familiar with the animal-style behavior of staying with the pack at all costs. So add that factor to a long day outdoors where the sun is hot, you’re dehydrated, you’re wearing a brand-new pair of Doc Martens that haven’t yet been broken in and getting serious blisters. Ah, and the synthetic material of the skirt you bought off an Instagram ad is itchy, and you have to pee but no one else has to pee, maybe you’re drinking some illicit alcohol and you don’t have a ton of experience drinking yet and that’s not going great. And then you want to go see Rüfüs Du Sol because you love that song “Underwater” but everyone else wants to get a really good spot for Billie Eilish? Whew, it’s a recipe for misery. I guess that’s part of getting older too, noticing the painful phenomena of my youth, feeling gratitude to be past that stage, having earned, the hard way, a strong sense of physical limitations and boundaries. Hence the need to sit down for a while and watch the trees circling the parking lot all lit up, replenishing my energy before Post Malone, was easily acquirable without much consultation or fanfare.
Post Malone: he was wearing a pink striped shirt and cut-off jorts. His stage setup was kind of wild—there was a lighting rig that sliced horizontally right through the middle of the stage that sometimes emitted smoke or rotated in spirals or went up in flames, and at certain points a video screen showed abstract images that evoked darkness and danger, like a rotating buzzsaw, and a suspicious yellow eye that looked like the eye of a dragon or other scary critter. Posty’s stage presence was rather sheepish. Several times, he referenced his reliance on Auto-Tune and called his songs “shitty”; when he introduced an acoustic number “Stay” he told the audience, “If you have to take a piss, go now.” But his songs felt so substantial to me, with moody imperial beats suggesting an accumulation of power, and his more sensitive numbers were heart-wrenching. He had oodles of charisma and a very sweet demeanor, even while working through some apparent tech difficulties with his microphone. I understand why he thinks it’s important to radiate an aura of sloppiness—several times during his set he paused to chug from a red plastic cup—because his sweet relatability appears to be a huge sell for his biggest fans. It is fun to be a big goof making it rain Bud Light. It’s an easy way to connect with regular people even if your teeth are literally made of diamonds.
That was of course all analysis that came afterward. At the time of the performance I was pretty much just dancing around to his slick beats like an idiot and admiring the fireworks that popped into the sky. After “Congratulations,” Post thanked the crowd profusely for coming and everyone scattered to the winds, clogging the exits, lining up at the lost-and-found kiosk, and leaving a pile of empty cans in their wake. The sight of post-fest garbage feels a bit sad but also kind of poignant and funny. There’s so much waste, but it’s enclosed—cloistered trash.
When we first arrived, Chris pointed into the crowd and said “Looking at everyone right now, it’s impossible to figure out what year it is.” It was true. Some people looked like they had teleported from a 2002 pop music video, some were wearing thrifted duds from an indeterminate era, some people were definitely rocking the faded t-shirt jam band concert aesthetic. A tank top with a holographic outline of Steve Aoki’s head. A trucker hat that said “I ♥ TITTIES AND BEER.” I loved how chaotic it all was. It definitely seemed like everyone had spent the past many months inside, plotting out who they planned to be when they emerged. And here we were, wearing our chosen costumes that represented our new selves and our interests, all of us swaying in the breeze, crushing hard seltzers, feeling the bass vibrate up from the parking lot pavement through our shoes.