Music Is The Motivation We Need In Times Of Despair

Even lighthearted summer music festival season has a purpose when the world feels hostile.

Late last week, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gave a dark and fearful speech that was less “morning in America” and closer to “a minute to midnight on the Doomsday clock.”

As ominous as Trump’s speech was, it tapped into a certain mood that has prevailed throughout 2016 — a year studded (at a seemingly biweekly rate) with deadly terror attacks, mass shootings, killings of unarmed civilians by police and ambush attacks on officers themselves.  

Those events did not let up even into the warmer months, standing last week in especially stark contrast to the modern tradition of the summer music festival. At the mid-July Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago’s Union Park, considered to be among the more easygoing of summer gatherings, rapid-fire text messages with friends about which band to see next commingled with push alerts about the deadly coup in Turkey.

It’s enough to make anyone — and particularly tragic-news-weary journalists who can’t responsibly tune it out — grow cynical about something as seemingly frothy as a music fest. Is it appropriate to indulge in a weekend of frolicking from stage to stage while elsewhere people are losing their lives? Is it even worth it to go?

The answer is all but certainly “yes.” 

Sure, there’s a lot of science behind the fact that listening to music carries with it all sorts of health benefits — improving mood, reducing anxiety and depression and even lessening pain. But, generalities aside, there were many moments from the Pitchfork, now in its 11th year, that served as evidence for the very specific ways that live music settings can help us cope with the seemingly endless onslaught of bad news. 

As hard as it is to reconcile heavy events with light ones, the latter can serve as unifying response to the former.  

Each performance provided a different antidote.

Canadian pop princess Carly Rae Jepsen’s Friday night set became a much-needed burst of joy. You’re probably grimacing at the thought of Jepsen’s once-ubiquitous “Call Me Maybe” hit, but, in light of recent headlines, dancing and singing along to slice after slice of pop perfection felt downright therapeutic.

Saturday brought catharsis in a different form thanks to London post-punks Savages, who tore through an exhilarating set amid blazing afternoon sun. Songs like the set-ending “Fuckers” ― which centers on lead singer Jehnny Beth’s repeated refrain “Don’t let the fuckers get you down” ― were the perfect vehicle for channeling some anger and a nod to keep your head up. 

Other moments in the weekend spoke more to feelings of vulnerability. These came via British artist Blood Orange’s, aka Dev Hynes, emotionally raw Saturday evening set, which largely showcased songs off Hynes’ latest release, “Freetown Sound.”

Hynes has described the album as being written “for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the underappreciated,” and that sentiment could not be more timely. Songs like his duet “Better Than Me,” sung with Jepsen, effortlessly spun feelings of fear and uncertainty into something both comforting and affirming.

Eventually, in any grieving process, there comes the period of acceptance. At Pitchfork on Sunday, Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper made a surprise appearance during his friend and collaborator Jeremih’s mid-afternoon set.

As soon as the crowd knew what was happening, hundreds of people ran toward the stage so they could get a closer look at their city’s rising star. As Chance sang highlights from “No Problem” and “Angels,” the pure euphoria was, again, palpable. 

The rapper’s appearance was particularly significant given his status as a hometown-kid-made-good who uses his fame to draw attention ― and action ― to some of the city’s most dire problems, like gun violence, and support of the young black community. 

But perhaps no moment over the weekend captured the conflict of getting into a party mood among the gloom and doom than R&B star Miguel’s Sunday performance. After a thrilling start, the energetic singer, clad all in white, halted his dance-laden, energetic set to silence. He then addressed the recent killings directly, saying he was “tired of human lives turned into hashtags” and calling for action, not just prayers, before he launched into the powerful protest song “How Many.”

Before returning to form, he urged festivalgoers to raise their fists in the air in solidarity as a promise to do better. Together, the crowd raised their fists in a silent pledge to do just that.

It was another reminder that attending an event like a festival serves an important function of getting oneself out into the world. Whether you’re reading about the latest tragedy or writing about it, gathering in a public place that’s underpinned by a certain sense of community is a crucial counterbalance. 

For one of us, the Pitchfork experience came just days after returning from an anguished week in St. Paul, where the community was grieving the death of Philando Castile, a man killed by police in a traffic stop.

The week before, protesters shut down I-94 for hours amid angry and anguished protests. To cut the tension and lift the mood, a pickup truck carrying loudspeakers amplified music from Marvin Gaye, Kendrick Lamar and Prince. 

A dancer from an indigenous Mexican tribe joined the crowd on the freeway to drum and offer a “fire dance.” 

Asked why the group opted to dance and sing for a crowd calling for an end to police brutality, the dancer said, “We need to keep feeding the passion, the motion. Especially when we’re feeling hopeless and [feeling] despair.”



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