Governors Ball 2016: When the ’00s Became Classic Rock
The enduring memory from this year’s Governors Ball festival will undoubtedly be its rained-out third day, and the Kanye West headlining spot that was washed away with it. The gig that would’ve been Kanye’s first post-Life of Pablo live date in this country was undoubtedly the weekend’s most buzzed-about attraction, to the point that the new Pablo merch ‘Ye was peddling grabbed more headlines than most of the first two days’ performers. But it’s not like the lineup was lacking for exciting names: Miguel, Father John Misty, HAIM, Christine and the Queens, and plenty more of the best breakout acts of the past few years. But only Kanye would serve to represent the zeitgeist, to threaten serious FOMO for those absent New York City’s Randall’s Island, to make Gov Ball 2016 inextricable to this moment in pop history.
But in truth, the weekend was probably a more coherent experience without Yeezy’s ultralight beam blinding the rest of the fest. In an era where the map of high-profile music festivals is quickly becoming overwhelmed with thumb tacks, and the primary goal of the great majority often seems to be stacking as many big names on top of one another as possible, Governors Ball stood out this year for having something close to a mission with its lineup. It started the clock on 2000s arena-alternative acts’ eventual succession to becoming the Guns N’ Roses and Pearl Jams of the festival landscape.
When they were first announced, the Strokes and the Killers seemed strange choices for the top-billed acts on Friday and Saturday. The former had played Governors Ball as a late-afternoon act just two years earlier, and had hardly done a tremendous amount to raise their profile in the time since. The latter hadn’t released a new album in four years, and hadn’t had a real hit single in twice that long. But enough time elapses and what was eye-rollingly behind the times one day becomes heart-tuggingly nostalgic the next. Based on the number of under-25s at Randall’s Island this weekend sporting Strokes and Killers T-shirts, and the mostly enthused reception both acts seemed to get in reviews and from those in attendance, it appears Founders Entertainment got the timing right on this one.
It helped that both bands acted like they’d been there before. The Strokes played the consummate crowd-pleasers during their set, paying the necessary lip service to their new EP with two songs in the set’s first half but otherwise stacking a tightly delivered greatest-hits lineup around eight tracks from their classic debut Is This It. Meanwhile, the Killers’ headlining assuredness bordered on downright arrogance, even opening with biggest hit “Mr. Brightside,” as if they had countless such crossovers to burn through over the course of their set. “We didn’t fly all the way from Las Vegas to New York to not play ‘Jenny Was a Friend of Mine’!” frontman Brandon Flowers peacocked midway through the group’s encore, treating their Hot Fuss opener (which was never even a single) like their own “Purple Rain.”
But while neither headliner has a boundless cadre of mainstream hits or a place near the center of the contemporary pop discussion, both have an impressive number of songs it’s all but impossible to not remember fondly. “Reptilia” mostly stiffed on radio back in 2004, but a decade of subsequent appearances in video games and commercials have revealed it to be one of the meanest riffers of its era. “All These Things That I’ve Done” felt something like an afterthought as the fourth single off Hot Fuss in ’05, but endless karaoke renderings later, damned if its “I got soul but I’m not a soldier” refrain hasn’t turned into the “Hey Jude” singalong for the O.C. generation. When the fireworks went off after the Killers’ grandiose “When You Were Young” climax, it didn’t feel any more or less appropriate than the Strokes sauntering back on for a simple encore of the no-longer-underrated “You Only Live Once,” and neither act fell short of the moment.
The marquee names weren’t alone in their ’00s-rock repping, either. Though many will forever associate him with his slacker-folk beginnings, Beck actually has far more 21st-century hits to his credit at this point, and his Friday set featured more songs from 2005’s Guero than canonical mid-’90s favorites Mellow Gold and Odelay combined. Against Me!’s middle-finger-raised set leaned heavily on 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, but the best reception came for their ’07 modern-rock mainstream dalliance, “Thrash Unreal.” Bloc Party, Matt and Kim, even Miike Snow were similarly able to remind us of the last era of alt-rock radio on the New York airwaves.
Which isn’t to say that all of Governors Ball was an ’00s rock retrofest — the weekend was just as heavily keyed around the “indie electronic” (represented in its various forms via Jamie xx, the Knocks, Purity Ring, Bob Moses, and M83) milieu that Founders Entertainment co-founder Tom Russell has cited as the core of the festival’s original vision. In tandem, though, the two musical poles of the two days’ gigs made for a logical representation of a certain type of person’s ideal fest: The twentysomething who grew up listening to GWB-era alt-rock, and whose tastes broadened in post-adolescence to include underground-leaning dance, pop, and hip-hop. It certainly wouldn’t be everyone’s festival strategy, but it gave Governors Ball a sense of identity that’s increasingly rare among the major U.S. music jamborees.
It’s no secret that the future of Governors Ball is an amorphous one at the moment. After Founders Entertainment was swept up by LiveNation earlier this year — following the announcement of the rival Panorama festival (to occur at the same location a few months later) — and after the elements wrought such havoc on this year’s edition, it’s unclear what form the event will take next year, if it’s still around at all. But if this was Founders’ last shot at doing their festival their way, at least they ended with a lineup that felt like the one they wanted to put together all along. That might be of understandably minimal solace for those most looking forward to Kanye’s inexhaustible cultural relevance, Twitter-courting unpredictability, and a string of hits that dates back as long as the Strokes’ or Killers’. This time, though, it would’ve been Kanye distracting from Gov Ball’s creative process.