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Sweetlife: Identity, authenticity and pop music

May 15, 2013

501.solange-3In its fourth year, the Sweetlife Festival continues to try to combine the green-capitalist mission of the DC restaurant chain Sweetgreen with a smörgåsbord of critical indie darlings to, according to Sweetgreen’s press release, “create experiences  that exceed expectations, where passion and purpose come together, [leaving] people better off than when we found them.”

Although the performances at Sweetlife were undoubtedly a huge hit, and the sporadic heavy rain and subsequent mud did little to put a damper on people’s willingness to raise their hands in their air as if they just didn’t care, I somehow doubt there was anything anyone could do to make a crowd of college kids dropping between $75 and $150 a ticket in Columbia, MD any better off.

Sweetlife’s organizers deserve praise for how accurately the festival’s performers general concern with doing pop the ‘right way’ reflected Sweetgreen’s own attempts to correct the traditional model of the fast food restaurant– and of the music festival for that matter. Sweetlife purchased carbon offsets, provided compost bins, and even put solar panels on the top of the main stage at Merriweather (although, in fairness, I couldn’t see the top of the pavilion to check for panels).

After parking, walking for twenty minutes in precisely the wrong direction, walking back to the appropriate entrance, cursing Merriweather’s signage/lack thereof, realizing this entrance wasn’t the right entrance either, we finally managed to miss the entirety of Lindsey Stirling’s set.  We were informed she wailed on the violin, but it was too late and all of my Charlie Daniels jokes went into the dustbin of history.

Solange (seen here during her set) followed with a set that relied heavily on her magnificent 2012 EP True.  Early on, the sound was plagued with bursts of feedback and mic issues for backing vocalists, which disturbed Solange’s smooth synth-laden R&B, but she was able persevere and by the time she got around to sleeper ‘hit’ “Losing You,” the crowd was more than ready to respond to her request that we go “apeshit.”

Solange’s choice to insert both Selena and Dirty Projectors covers to round out her set seemed to reveal the space she is trying to stake out for herself since leaving Geffen/Interscope in 2009.  She is still invested in pop music, but she seems to be embracing her independence as a chance to explore a more idiosyncratic take on R&B.  Like her recent tweets about sexism in pop which revolve around the idea of what is her’s in her music, these disparate covers inform Solange’s audience of who she is.

Taking some sort of precognitive inspiration from the day’s cardio-enthusiasts Passion Pit, we took a walk around the grounds.  From the lawn, Gary Clark Jr.’s Hendrix and Cream-esque guitar heroics sounded both competent and pleasing, but getting a National Bohemian beer for $5 was far more rewarding.  Looking on from the line for the men’s restroom, Columbus, Ohio’s twenty | one | pilots earned an enthusiastic reception on the festival’s second stage — however, their indietronica/raprock is decidedly not my thing.

Returning to the mainstage in time for Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I was struck by how the band must be the best live group from the early 2000s garage revival.  “Maps” demanded an earnest singalong and the crowd happily complied, “Zero” inspired some of the most vigorous dancing of the day, and even their latest album’s title track, “Mosquito,” received a warm reception.  Karen O remains a great tormentor in pop performance, brighter than anything else on the stage in her bile yellow sequins and knee high socks, she still utilizes sweetness and anger in unpredictable ways to captivate the audience. The tension between pop sweetness and malevolence all came to a head [hurr hurr] with “Heads Will Roll,” a truly excellent Yeah Yeah Yeahs concoction either about the Reign of Terror or doing a lot of E. Regardless, the garish sequins, the delicate imbalance between noise and melody, and the shifting moods throughout the band’s entire performance made for something that tried to embrace both the expectations of the festival and the band’s more incendiary early performances. However, I couldn’t tell if Karen O spat on anyone.

Retiring again to the line outside the men’s restroom, I was struck with how excited college bros in American flag basketball shorts were for Kendrick Lamar. Onstage Kendrick Lamar seemed primed to deliver. He paced back and forth across the stage sluicing  lyrics with aplomb. The laptop DJ accompaniment left little in the way of visual spectacle and although Lamar’s focused delivery left much of the audience captivated it did nothing to stave off our hunger, so we left to get some food.  His performance went well with falafel.

With the rain falling hard and our footwear caked in mud, we returned to the pavilion for Passion Pit.  They started with what seemed to be an attempt at approximating the beginning of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” It then turned into the sort of indie pop that causes a friend to inquire, “How is this band not fun.?” The Taco Bell inspired jazzercise of “Take A Walk” created such a furor in the crowd that it has certainly solidified its position as the lead off track for the future comp “Jock Jams for People Bad At Sports” coming out on Arts & Crafts in 2025.  It must be said that frontman Michael Angelakos’ work ethic on stage was impressive, and his effort to satisfy a crowd who seemed to adore his work was genuinely admirable.  It was almost as if through his effort, Angelakos’ hoped to justify the sins of his pop instincts and maximalist compositions.

Despite a return of the microphone problems that plagued the beginning of Solange’s set, Phoenix were by far the most impressive act of the festival. In an hour and a half they managed to seamlessly work in Daft Punk-styled instrumentals, lullabies, funk, disco, punk, pop, rock, and probably some classical quotations or whatever French thing I probably missed. Their set was appropriately heavy on their latest album Bankrupt! and 2009’s breakthrough Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, with that album’s “1901” in contention for the most arduous reception of the evening.  Although Phoenix eschews the usual rockist reliance on narrative lyricism and “songwriting,” their imagery is often evocative of  a discomfort with the trappings of rock stardom and capitalist excess that you might find in more traditional rock-oriented groups. While Phoenix’s sonic avoidance of rock cliche didn’t prevent singer Thomas Mars from both crowd surfing and smashing his faulty microphone, it did mean that before Phoenix came on, the banner exhorting Sweetlife came down, and that their set featured the hilariously incongruous graphic of raining dollar bills, not to mention the implication of calling an album Bankrupt! in this economy.

The conflict implicit in Phoenix’s use of tension and release, and their current ambivalent pop stardom after nearly 15 years of producing music, leave Phoenix as the most compelling, and perhaps most flattering iteration of what Sweetlife is supposed to be about in the first place.  Is it possible to make a music festival so self-aware and self-correcting that it is not a burden?  Can artists check the forms they choose to work in enough to have it all the ways they desire, or are forms and systems things we’ve locked meaning into? In retrospect does it seem like Phoenix have spent 15 years perfecting a specific idea, or circling around what has become a popular “solution” for their conflicting impulses?  If we reject popular success as the value in a consumerist and industrial culture, where are we to find meaning in consumerist art after it is Green? Did I sit, stuck in a parking lot for 45 minutes after the festival with cars running all around me? Yes.