Pando at Bonnaroo, Day One: Celebrating the long-awaited, digitally-driven death of the hipster
I was only 12 in 1996 and not quite old enough to understand the magnitude of the injustice. Nevertheless, my older sister and her friends took pains to impress upon me the blinding outrage they felt at whatever force of corporate machismo was responsible for the grotesque crime against alternative culture at foot.
It was the first warm day in months, and somebody had just found out the headliner of that year's Lollapalooza tour. This was years before "Lolla," like every other modern festival, became a one-city affair. Back then it was roving, nationwide, summer-long indulgence with a rotating cast of musicians situated at the vanguard of "alternative music" -- the amorphous genre cultural commentators called "college rock" the decade before and "indie" the decade after. Bands like Jane's Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Butthole Surfers were the festival's bread-and-butter. And while most of the acts on the main stage were known to anyone lucky enough to have parents with cable -- and thus MTV -- the bands nevertheless stood for something outside or at least adjacent to mainstream culture. (I mean, "Butthole Surfers"?) Even better were the musicians that graced the magical "Side Stage." Before blogs turned anyone with an Internet connection into a musical encyclopedia, this smaller, more vibrant venue was the only place a kid from, say, Columbus, OH might hear Yo La Tengo or Will Oldham.
But by 1996, the festival had grown to become seriously popular -- and seriously profitable. And the organizers of the event, who at this point no longer included its progenitor Perry Farrell, needed a headliner worthy of the gigantic crowds the tour was now capable of attracting. And so the promoters made a choice that was far more controversial than any of them probably expected: They selected the LA-bred speed-metal-turned-cock-rock quartet, Metallica.
This wasn't the dark and ferocious Metallica that spawned classics from the 80s like ...And Justice For All and Master of Puppets. This was the toast-and-mayonnaise "hard rock" iteration of Metallica that farted out radio hits like "Hero of the Day" and "Until it Sleeps"; the band that helped forge the embarrassingly macho, interminably dull post-grunge movement that terrorized airwaves for the latter half of the 90s, scaring every musician with a heart or half a brain away from distortion and power chords for nearly a half-decade.
And so when the 25-year-old hipster-approved neo-yacht rocker Mac DeMarco ended last night's midnight Bonnaroo set with a raucous, slightly-butchered cover of Metallica's "Enter Sandman," I couldn't help but smile. Had the approving coalition of blog-reading music elites in the audience -- who to be honest were a minority compared to the average and unpretentious Midwestern youth in attendance -- been born ten years earlier, they would be the same kids who tore their hair out upon discovering that Metallica had invaded their precious and sacred Lolla lineup. But it's 2015 and like so with many other bands the punks hated over past forty years, the statute of limitations has expired on Metallica's crimes. And while their bad songs -- which are legion -- are still bad, it's finally okay to throw up devil's horns and bang your head like an idiot to the irresistibly dumb riffage of one of their rare post-1990 gems like "Enter Sandman."
The rest of DeMarco's set was equally fantastic, as his band relished the big stage instead of retreating like so many indie rockers turned festival headliners. The drums, lo-fi and tinny on record, echoed as loudly as a Def Leppard backbeat. The moneyed and meteoric rise of mega-festivals like Bonnaroo has turned every band into an arena rocker. And the result -- particularly at Bonnaroo where the crowds are more open-minded and forgiving of artists and each other than at any other marquee festival in the nation -- is visceral and anthemic, creating a sense of unity between hipsters, hippies, jocks, and sorority girls.
More than the product of big acoustics, however, this vibe is part of a cultural and psychological shift that took place when the Internet invaded our homes and our hands. If DeMarco came up in the pre-digital days, to "discover" him you'd have to spend hours scouring moldy record store racks every week before finally, in an act of blind faith, dropping 10 bucks or more on his album. And so it's no wonder that the hipsters and hippies and beatniks of yesteryear felt superior to those content to let mass media wash over them. Back then it took work to hear something that wasn't subsidized by radio ads for Ex-Lax.
But today, millions of artists -- obscure or otherwise -- are but a Spotify search away. Obsession, patience, and other virtues of the connoisseur have been tossed out of the equation of fandom. The audience members who happened to know DeMarco's "older" tracks were no cooler than the ones who didn't, because nothing about a digitally-native musician is obscure or mysterious -- that is, unless the mystery is consciously constructed, in which case it's just obnoxious. Yes, I was familiar with DeMarco's less-heard debut album -- but only because I found it on Spotify while riding the bus to Manchester, TN earlier that evening. Neither the fratboy nor the hipster nor the journalist has to lift a finger to find DeMarco's entire discography nor that of a million other indie artists.
Some people bemoan the death of obscurity. And maybe they have a point. If you liked Brainiac in the 90s and were lucky enough to meet another person who liked Brainiac, there was a good chance the two of you weirdos had a lot of other things in common, too, lending strength to the tribal friendships that formed around these micro-obsessions.
But could it be that one's appreciation of a band is even more sincere today when there's no work involved? When there's no added layer of pretension? And could it be that the collective bond that forms between divergent groups of people over the wildly diverse crop of acts at an event like Bonnaroo is even stronger than the provincial ligatures of the world's lost subcultures?
When I traveled to Austin for SXSW this year, I mourned for the subcultures surrounding music and technology the event and its corporate sponsors helped destroy. But while subcultures provide an outlet for society's misfits and mis-shapes, the kind of unified culture that formed out of the Internet -- and the one on display here at Bonnaroo -- is perhaps equally accepting of these outsiders. Just because all these kids get along with one another, that doesn't mean they're products of conformity. The sense instead is that all types are welcome here. You don't need an unkempt beard and thick-rimmed glasses to like Mac DeMarco, nor do you need a snapback and fairy wings to have a good time during Bassnectar. (Though the ample supply of recreational comestibles on-site may help with that). "Alternative" replaced "college rock." "Indie" replaced "alternative." But it's telling that in 2015 no new word has arisen to describe non-mainstream culture.
Okay, I better go. There's only a few hours left of the glorious first two days of Bonnaroo, before the crowds enlarge to three times their current size and all the teenagers who couldn't skip Thursday and Friday classes descend on Manchester. Tonight's lineup is out of control, by the way, with Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Flying Lotus playing back-to-back-to-back-to-back. After that, I better some rest because our man Dan Raile, who was last seen getting kicked out of the CODE Conference, is joining us for the last two days here.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]