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The school year has ended, and another graduating class has moved on into the real world—many of them to New York City, where the epic music festival Governors Ball was hosted from June 6 to June 8, headlined by Outkast, Vampire Weekend, Jack White, and Skrillex. I attended all three days, and in honor of the recent graduates (myself included), I’m handing out superlatives to the sights, sounds, and people of the festival.
Best Fans – SKATERS
The New York-based punk band drew a local crowd on June 8, an early Sunday afternoon when most concertgoers were either nursing a hangover or still asleep. But what it lacked in size it made up in enthusiasm and friendliness. In what was probably the world’s friendliest mosh pit, men and women of all ages smiled and laughed as they shoved each other, even helping the fallen up before pushing them to the floor again.
Worst Fans – The Strokes
The Strokes are a great band. But their fans are overzealous, unaware toddlers convinced that their taste in music is superior to everyone else’s. The minute the band emerged, dozens of shirtless teenagers began a slow, vicious pilgrimage directly through anyone in front of them towards their gods onstage. The ensuing human traffic jam was only slightly more comfortable than the human centipede, probably.
The kiddos weren’t any better during the show, howling every lyric off-key and eagerly demonstrating their knowledge of the band down to every last drum fill and guitar riff. The Strokes played a tight and energetic set, but it’s a shame that my perception of the band was hugely overwhelmed by the pubescent hordes around me.
Most Awkward – Culture Clashes on 125th St.
Governors Ball takes place on Randall’s Island, which is a short walk on the Triborough Bridge from East Harlem. This made for some uncomfortable scenarios between concertgoers and neighborhood residents: rowdy teens from Long Island stumbling into bodegas, disgruntled moms coming home with large shopping bags having to deal with the packed sidewalks, a man in a wheelchair on the corner of 125th and 2nd pleading for change and getting ignored by dozens of high schoolers in glitter and jangly jewelry who paid $100 for the day or $230 for the weekend.
Most Overmatched Bandmate – El-P of Run the Jewels
El-P is a swell dude—an excellent producer, savvy entrepreneur, and quite decent rapper. But
basically anyone in the world would lag far behind the dexterous, charismatic Killer Mike if they had to share the stage with the man. Mike’s delivery was forceful yet relaxed, his lyricism and sense of time astounding. Sorry El-P, but when you perform next to a man who “moves with the elegance of an African elephant, presented the evidence eloquent as the president,” you’re not going to fare well in comparison.
Best Lyric – Frank Turner, “Try This At Home”
The cheerful, roaring Englishman Frank Turner deserves to be more famous in the States, especially due to lines like this one: “There’s no such thing as rock stars, just people who play music / And some of them are just like us, and some of them are dicks.”
Worst Lyric – Axwell ^ Ingrosso, any song
mm tss mm tss mm tss mm tss mm tss mm ts ts ts ts tststststststststst BOMMMMMM BOMM BOMM BOMM BOMMMMMM
Best Banter – Tyler, the Creator
Somewhere on the list of Worst Festival Things (behind port-a-potties and dehydration) is long musician banter, which tends to be tedious, hackneyed, cloying, or drunk. But not so in the case of Tyler, the Creator, who treats every moment not filled by a beat as a chance to build his persona. On Sunday, he brought up his Odd Future buddies Taco, Jasper Dolphin, and Earl Sweatshirt (who had just finished his own show on the opposing stage) to carouse with him, mock the audience, and even skewer themselves. Earl went off on a tirade against a guy who had an especially long camera mount, while Tyler scanned the crowd, praising a Dora the Explorer balloon. At one point, he asked the audience to boo him for incompetence (they gleefully obliged) and sarcastically announced, “we could do some ignorant shit for like two minutes” before launching into the unsurprisingly profane “Bitch Suck Dick.” Get this man some acting roles, ASAP.
Coolest – (tie) Washed Out, Jenny Lewis
Both have gotten buzz lately for their appearances on the soundtracks to supercool TV shows (Jenny Lewis on “Girls,” Washed Out on “Portlandia”), and both were sharply dressed and impeccably aloof. But while they tried their hardest to sound laid back and detached, the music was incredibly detailed, intricate, and grooving. For people who aren’t supposed to particularly care about things, they were way too invested in making their music sound good. You don’t fool me, you over-talented hipsters!
Rapper Loved The Most By White Teenagers (Non-Drake) – Chance the Rapper
Speaking of hipsters, Chance the Rapper’s afternoon set could have been straight out of a “Portlandia” sketch about a particularly un-urban rapper: he covered the Arthur theme song, for god’s sake, as thousands of high-schoolers packed into the Gotham Tent gleefully sang along and fondly remembered watching that ’90s aardvark show.
Worst Behavior (Non-Drake) – The drunk teenager who approached us in the massive line for Phil’s Steaks, shouting that he would pay for all of our food if we let him cut in line. Classic trust fund baby with an empty stomach and money to blow. But the food truck didn’t take credit card, so he slunk away, probably to try to bribe someone else.
Best Creator – This one goes sadly not to Tyler, who was limber and playful during his set, but to James Blake, who treated his stage like a home studio, building up intricate beats bit by bit, looping and layering his gorgeous voice onto itself. He’s a savant who has somehow bent pop music in his very strange direction, and with any luck he’ll be one of the most lasting artists of this generation.
Worst Shirt – André 3000
It’s pretty hard to nitpick André 3000 of Outkast—the man has “let bygones be bygones” and embarked with his partner Big Boi on a massive cross-country tour, once again bringing the stank back to America. And he was mesmerizing as he’s ever been, crooning out the goods on “Prototype” and attacking his virtuosic verse on “B.O.B.” with complete dedication. Still, his shirt, a black long-sleeve reading “Art or Fart” in large white typeface, was pretty dumb.
Best Special Effects – Outkast
Clothing aside, Outkast was spectacular, helped in part by the main set piece: a giant transparent cube, which was put to use in all sorts of creative ways. The two rappers stayed in the cube for some songs, building chemistry, while images and textures of all sorts washed over and around them; at other points, the cube was an awesome [and] [NIX] active backdrop. It’s good the freshest duo in the world didn’t skimp on the budget their first tour back.
“That Doesn’t Sound Like the Record!” (Positive) – Jack White
Jack White doesn’t care if you know his record, and he really doesn’t care if you want to sing along. He’s going to sing his songs the way he wants to, whether he’s stretching out or repeating a single word, changing the tempo, or cutting a phrase short to instead take a guitar solo. He turned the White Stripes’s “Hotel Yorba” into a fiddle romp, completely reinvented The Raconteurs’s stomping “Top Yourself,” and most impressively, elevated “We’re Going to Be Friends” from a lullaby to an grown man’s folk anthem. His improvisatory mindset was a refreshing break from the strict professionalism of other rock stars (cough PHOENIX cough).
“That Doesn’t Sound Like the Record!” (Negative) – Sleigh Bells
Sleigh Bells’s explosive debut album “Treats,” will shatter your ears. The guitars are so loud they distort over pretty much any speaker, and Alexis Krauss’s screaming, overlayered vocals will make your head explode with adrenaline. Unfortunately, seeing the duo play these songs live was like revealing the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain—Krauss’s single, unsupported voice sounded thin, and Derek Miller’s guitars were similarly underwhelming. Really, though, it’s their own fault that their records are so aggressively awesome.
Worst Overall – Banks
The up-and-comer Banks has ridden the Lorde wave of moody quasi-R&B to the outskirts of the mainstream, and I expected her to be the breakout star of the festival. Instead, she was weirder than Lorde at the Grammys, singing barely audibly and sometimes off-key. The nerves probably didn’t help: “My heart is beating so fast, you guys,” she said breathlessly to the audience. Don’t expect her to be hanging out with T-Swift anytime soon.
Best Overall – Janelle Monáe
The most recent Yardfest performer took it up another notch on Governors Ball’s biggest stage, staking her claim on the Best Showman Alive title. The pint-sized dynamo sang, rapped, danced, wailed, crooned, jumped, and flirted with astounding energy on every song, from the breezy “Dance Apocalyptic” to the orgiastic “Primetime.” There wasn’t a stray note or motion in the whole set—even the whirring camera work was impeccable. And Monáe not only nailed her set but took Outkast’s to another energy level: during the “Polaroid picture” section of “Hey Ya,” she rushed out onto the stage, flailing her limbs and shaking her magnificent afro with all her might, sending the audience into a euphoric frenzy. BANG BANG. SMASH SMASH. DON’T STOP. SHALANGALANGALANG. The new James Brown has arrived.
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