Music Festivals Are Liminal Spaces: From The Throne to Frank Ocean

For music lovers, festivals represent headlines and history, openings and closings, and being there — or wishing you were.
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Niggas In Paris” is neither JAY-Z nor Kanye West’s highest-charting single on Billboard’s Hot 100. It’s not artistically or lyrically a contender for their best collaboration. Yet, on their 2011-2012 co-headlining tour for joint album Watch The Throne, the Hit-Boy-produced mega single guided a ritual of repetition. Each night, thousands of concert-goers arrived unaware of the number of insurmountable encores that awaited them. Would it be three? Would it be 13? They didn’t know; no one knew. In hindsight, it didn’t matter. Every performance of “Niggas In Paris” was a hysteric loop of provocative mania with the possibility of never ending. That sense of cultural significance and guaranteed surprise is why The Throne made history—‌and headlines. Remember the headlines?

Curating the contagious song into a public event made “Niggas In Paris” a banger banging loudest at those live performances because The Throne sold an experience, not just a single. You had to be there to access the experience; you had to be present to be a part of history. That’s the cultural currency of “Niggas In Paris,” a song that allowed you say: I was there.

I thought about “Niggas In Paris,” and the impact of exclusive experiences, while reading about Coachella’s 2020 lineup. For the LA Times, pop music critic Mikael Wood wrote, “Coachella is getting back into the you-have-to-be-here business.” The story included a brief on why this year’s headliners—‌Rage Against the Machine, Travis Scott, and Frank Ocean—‌all provide “the promise of an experience best had in person, not via the popular YouTube live stream.”

Even with all the benefits of live streaming, Coachella-operation-company Goldenvoice isn’t marketing toward smartphone spectators. Coachella wishes to remain a festival that is witnessed, not just watched. In his 2019 essay, “Where Do Music Festivals Go Now?” Larry Fitzmaurice explains why this phenomenon is harder said than done for all destination festivals:

“The original Woodstock’s oft-romanticized reputation as an isolated ‘happening’—a rare occurrence that would be ostensibly impossible to replicate—clashes completely with the dime-a-dozen regularity of music festivals from the mid-late 2000s on. Even as the industry that keeps fests going seems to be in the midst of an economic slowdown, the proliferation of festivals big and small throughout this decade have made the act of attendance as remarkable as going to the grocery store.”

With over 52 percent of the U.S. population attending a live music event each year—per a 2018 report by Nielsen Music—festivals have, as Fitzmaurice calls it, stopped feeling like “events.” Not everyone will agree, most people won’t care, but there’s absolute truth in the yearly challenge festivals face in being a you-have-to-be-here event. They have to return greater than the year prior. How else will they maintain legitimacy? Goldenvoice wants it to matter when you post your Coachella wristbands on Instagram; Goldenvoice wants it to matter when you say: I was there.

Being there is the lifeblood of the modern festival experience. Photos of expensive wristbands and videos of famous performers are transient status symbols in the age of sharing. This brand of you-had-to-be-there content appeals to the innate vanity of social media. For example, Popeye’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich didn’t grow into a viral sensation because of the taste—it was the commentary; it was the exclusivity. Eating a sandwich became an event, one that was less expensive than a weekend pass to attend a music festival, but an event nonetheless. That hunger to be a part of the conversation in the epicenter of an event is what gives social value to moments like JAY-Z and Kanye performing “Niggas In Paris” in Paris.

As Nielsen also reported in 2018, 56 percent of attendees will update social media while viewing a concert or festival. In the liminal space between what was and what’s next, those in attendance never know if they’re documenting the next big viral clip of the internet or an artist’s final performance. It could be both; it could be neither, they have no way of predicting how meaningful the moment they’re witnessing will be.

Just look at The Throne—thousands of people may have unknowingly witnessed their last “Ball so hard motherfuckers…” on stage together. A more tragic example is Nipsey Hussle. On YouTube, there’s a five-minute clip of the late Crenshaw rapper performing in San Diego that’s titled, “Nipsey Hussle last performance.” 

Visually, the shaky footage is subpar, but it’s not like the person filming the show knew this would be important documentation. 56 percent of the fans in that room were recording Nipsey’s performance without any knowledge of what would happen in the days to come. All they knew is what they saw, and they saw Nipsey Hussle alive, well, and having what appeared to be the time of his life. Watching the footage now, knowing what we know, I wish I were there.

It’s that sense of unpredictability that can make live music either heartbreaking or worthwhile. You never know if it’ll be the best show of your life or if the headlining act will have the flu and can barely hit the expected notes. I’ve attended three different festivals in three different cities—Philly’s Roots Picnic, Miami’s Rolling Loud, and Atlanta’s A3C—in hopes of seeing Lil Wayne perform live for the first time. Twice, he canceled the day of the performance, and in Atlanta, he was on stage for three songs before a sudden brawl in V.I.P. abruptly concluded his performance. Being present comes with the risk of being disappointed. At each festival, after failing each time to see Wayne perform, I felt I didn’t have to be there.

How I feel about seeing Wayne live is how many fans feel about Frank Ocean and seeing him this year at Coachella. Out of the hundreds of artists who will be performing at the desert paradise come April, he is the event guaranteed to be significant to the culture. Frank’s performance is culturally significant because no one knows what he’ll do or if he’ll even be there. Coachella will be his first performance since 2017, which could mark the beginning of a new era of public visibility for the prestigious artist or end up as a brief outing before escaping to black once more. That’s why he’s the event; you have to be there.

Mystery is Frank Ocean’s superpower; mystery creates his sensationalism. If the New Orleans songbird didn’t cancel shows or toured regularly, then headlining Coachella wouldn’t be as significant. He’s so secretive and hidden, so beloved and adored, that even Aubrey Graham, arguably the biggest rapper in the world, couldn’t please last year’s Camp Flog Gnaw crowd who booed once they realized Drake, not Frank Ocean, was the festival’s secret guest. The boos represent the earnest craving to see Frank, to sing with Frank; for him, they will leave their homes on a whim. That is his mystique, that is what’s impossible to replicate.

Even if Frank Ocean fails to make history at Coachella, you’ll hear about it. All the phones will be out, waiting for a note from heaven or a pitch from hell. He’ll be a meme by the end of his intro, a think piece by track seven, and a Gildan T-shirt with a snappy quote by the encore. The question is, how long will it go on? Will Frank’s performance go unspoken by June like last year’s headliners? Will this be a once-in-a-lifetime set spoken of with the infinite-scroll-enthusiasm of Beychella?

Honestly, it doesn’t matter. The writers will write, the critics will critique, and Twitter will tweet. What’s important to recognize is how rare these moments are and how artists should take advantage of them, especially at festivals. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the instant uploads and viral clips that occur during these moments, especially in hip-hop and R&B, have the opportunity to drive a conversation that’s accessible to any and everyone for months, even years to come. 

There’s no better marketing than live music because it merges the speed of word-of-mouth with the hyperspeed of the internet. No matter the audience, everyone is after a moment worth sharing because it says: I’m here.

When it comes to being an eyewitness, naturally genius, not the ordinary, gets the people going. By building events and exceeding expectations, recording artists can always curate experiences that will outlast the clutter of forgettable content. Artists can make their moment be the moments. JAY-Z and Kanye curated “Niggas In Paris” to be an event by the number of times they performed it each night; Beyoncé curated Coachella to be a momentous event through the HBCU Homecoming stage design and her unbelievable athleticism as a performer. That’s what the stage still offers stars: A chance to leave those in attendance with something historical and to make those who weren’t, wish they were there.

As a music writer, being there at festivals and concerts is different from that of being a fan in attendance. More than a good time, I’m always looking for a good story.

On December 22, Summer Walker concluded her First and Last Tour in her hometown Atlanta, Georgia. Initially, I didn’t have a ticket for the show, but after a few conversations, I felt I had to be there. With this being a sold-out homecoming show as the final date on a highly publicized tour, I romanticized the “Playing Games” singer going out with the bang of JAY-Z at Madison Square Garden in 2004. I know my expectations were unrealistic, but that is the beauty of concerts being a liminal space—you never know what is about to happen. I did not want to look back and regret not being there.

At the eleventh-hour, 30 minutes before she graced the stage, a friend was able to secure a miracle ticket. As I drove through the rain, I envisioned the words to my headline: Summer Walker’s Grand Opening, Grand Closing. But when I got there, I didn’t see a grand performance. Summer was good, a charismatic artist who sounded fine live, but overall, the performance wasn’t as exceptional as the moment offered. No tears shed, no speech made, no Usher guest appearance, nothing making grandeur out of goodbye, which is fitting of a singer who earnestly expressed that she is, as her album title states, over it.

If this was indeed the last time fans witnessed Walker on stage, I imagine many of the patrons who arrived and sung every lyric of every song took their exit from the First and Last Tour with shaky cellphone memories they’ll cherish forever. To her credit, the door is always open for a return. Too, the longer the LVRN singer waits, the more she builds the big-ticket mystique shrouding Frank Ocean or, a better example, SZA. If she finds peace in her social anxieties and decides to tour again in the future, it’ll be an event, and I’ll be there, romanticizing the possibility of Summer Walker’s grand re-opening.

That’s all there is for us music lovers: Headlines and history, openings and closings, and being there—or wishing you were. 

By Yoh, aka Yoh in Paris aka @Yoh31

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