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Govball 2021: Kinda Bad

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When I was fifteen years old, attending the Governors Ball Music Festival on New York City’s Randall’s Island was an adventure of epic proportions. Every step, from acquiring the entry wristbands to eating Swedish pancakes at a Harlem iHop in the aftermath, felt glorious, heroic, and dramatically adult. I saw many of my favorite artists perform for the first time, from Chance the Rapper to Lorde. It was where I discovered other favorites whose music would sustain me in years to come—The Strokes, Charles Bradley (may he rest in peace), and Kali Uchis. It was where I learned to associate the smell of weed with joy, the smell of vanilla vape with rhythm, the smell of vodka and SPF commingling in a smuggled sunscreen bottle with liberation. 

I spent my winter mornings commuting to school with my best friend, poring over a Reddit thread that analyzed the lineup clues on the company Instagram like a live music advent calendar. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that throughout high school, Govball was the most important event of my year, the thing I looked forward to as I slogged through precalc and the SAT IIs. 

So when, after a long COVID hiatus, the festival announced that a rescheduled iteration would be held at Queens’ Citi Field on September 24–26, I was excited. Limited by important collegiate commitments, I scanned the lineup and decided to go on Saturday. It boasted a wealth of acts I was excited about: headliners A$AP Rocky and J Balvin promised to put on great shows, and I wanted to see the likes of Big Thief, Aminé, and Phoebe Bridgers grace the stage. 

My anticipation mounted as my friends and I careened towards Queens in a ($40!) Uber this past weekend. By the time we were standing in line to claim our wristbands at willcall, I could have peed my pants from excitement (also from having to pee quite badly). My senses were suffused with a signature festival musk—the sloppy cocktail of synth, sweat, and sativa that makes a girl feel like anything’s possible. I could hear King Princess crooning her indie hit “Upper West Side” as I entered the festival grounds. The day was mine to be had. 

For a moment, my senses were awash, dazzled. I felt YOUNG again, for Christ’s sake! However good my memories of festivals past were, there was so much I’d forgotten—the short-girl game of getting hoisted onto strangers’ shoulders for a better vantage point, the gargantuan queues for even more gargantuan mozzarella sticks (and other trendy, Frankenstein-esque fare), the playfully couched sponcon booths (Casa Bacardi, GrubHub Refuelling Station, et al.). My friends and I smiled at each other, relishing the moment. 

And then…the moment passed. Like a failed paper airplane after catching a second of wind, our energy hit the floor. With twenty minutes until Megan Thee Stallion’s set, we simply didn’t know what to do with ourselves: share a box of loaded fries from a stand called “Dank Nugz?” Take wide-angle selfies? Do drugs? (We did ⅔ of those things, and I’ll never tell which ones ;)) 

But even so, the event rang unmistakably hollow. Rather than drinking it in, wishing it could last forever, we each found ourselves separately checking our watches, waiting for it to be over. By hour three, we finally admitted this to one another and decided to leave mid-J Balvin and go out for tacos instead. 

It’s hard to say where exactly the problem here lies. What had changed—me or the festival?

Certainly, the pandemic played a role. Spending so much time in various degrees of isolation has probably given everyone agoraphobia, or at least a heightened awareness of all of the stinky, sticky, germy elements of being in a crowd. Plus, in the simplicity of a pared-down life, I’d gotten used to convenience; long lines and huge throngs now felt like a high price to pay for food I could Postmates (or forego) and artists whose NPR Tiny Desk concerts I could watch any time. 

My decision paralysis has also certainly increased in the last two years, in the confines of a simplified existence. Choosing between Phoebe Bridgers and Aminé, booked for the same time slot on opposite ends of the concrete, felt like a cruel prank, especially after being starved of live music for a year and a half. 

I’m older and wiser than I was when I last attended a music festival, in 2019. Perhaps I’m more jaded, less easily impressed. I’ve read at least a fifth of Plato’s Republic, and given some thought to what makes a meaningful life. I was acutely aware of how many people younger than I filled the festival. I felt embarrassed on behalf of all the fifteen-year-olds who I know clenched their asscheeks to smuggle their Juuls through the security pat-down. It was easier, this time around, to see how constructed and contrived the atmosphere was, to spot the fault lines, to get distracted by the looming baseball stadium in the background and notice the product placement. I found myself ignoring the music and thinking instead about the labored illusion maintained by the custodians who ostensibly came in at night after the festival wound down, picked up the metric ton of trash littering the site, and prepared for another day of hijinks. In the middle of Megan’s set, I wondered, inexplicably, if there were any updates on the Texas abortion debacle. Mentally, I was immersed in the Grammy-winning rapper’s call & response prompt: “If you’re a hot girl, say yeah.” Yeah, I guess, I wanted to say. 

The festival itself was also materially worse than it had been in past years. A parking lot was an obvious downgrade from the lush pastures of its previous location. And there were fewer genuinely cool, interesting people in attendance than I remembered. In my younger years, I recall seeing outfits worthy of a feature in NYLON (some of which I’d then actually see in NYLON the next day). While writing this piece, my research turned up an utter dearth of fashion write-ups about the event, which makes sense, because the festival was, sartorially, a study in Tik-Tok hive mind. Attendees’ swaying bodies were mood boards of Princess Polly swatches from a short and crude trend cycle: mesh, checkerboard, green, halter necks. It strikes me that perhaps an artistic set who might previously have attended a music festival doesn’t anymore, that the festival’s most interesting group of attendees have sobered up or aged out. In their stead is a population best emblematized by a man who stood in front of me at a set whom I’ll call Party Dave. Party Dave was found by himself, wearing a tank top decorated with multicolored weed leaves, pressing his butt into the midsections of his unconsenting neighbors. 

For most of my life, the value of gathering for live music seemed self-evident. I have long said that the best concerts can dilate a second in time, make it feel a little longer. For, I’ll grant, a small and privileged group of people, music festivals like Govball once felt utopian, free, and progressive. This escapist virtue has eroded; it’s harder to escape, less clear as to what festival-goers are escaping except into a chamber of their basest, most vile impulses. I can’t parse how much of this decline exists in my own subjectivity, how much of it is extrinsic. In short, it seemed that even Govball itself didn’t know what Govball was for. 

It wasn’t all bad, of course. I can’t fault the artists, who gave passionate, energetic performances. I can’t fault my friends, who tried to make their own fun with goofy dance moves, and didn’t drive away complaining that it had been a wash. I can’t even really fault the teenagers who showed up en masse for the Best Weekend of Their Lives. I just know that I’m not really one of them anymore.

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