I’ve been deluged over the last three days with criticism about my review of Wavefront Festival for Billboard.com ("Chicago’s Wavefront Music Festival Offers an EDM Alternative,” July 7), and felt the need to clarify my thoughts. As you can tell from the timestamp of this post, it’s been keeping me up nights.
I thought Wavefront was a good young festival with a few issues to solve before it becomes great. But the responses I’m getting - from Wavefront itself, commenters on the Billboard article, and social media - indicate that my writing apparently didn’t make that clear. “If I wanted to drive 50 miles to EDC I would have,” said someone via Twitter. That comment was so off, so contrary to what I thought the article actually said, that it inspired me to write this; to clear it up, and also make the case that it’s what the piece said all along.
Anyone who has read my stuff or followed me for any length of time knows that I’m a househead; that fact defines a lot about not only my musical taste but my view of the world. (Knowing that is not required to read and understand my writing, of course, but for the sake of the full-disclosure nature of this post it’s important to share.) As such, I was predisposed to like Wavefront from its lineup alone (Mark Farina x Derrick Carter - OMG!) . That’s why I decided to make the trip out to Chicago. But it was also something I needed to be careful of: Having such strong tendency to like something can ruin your critical objectivity. So, I decided to cover Wavefront for two outlets, and therefore two sides of my brain: The emotive music fan/expert for InTheMix.com, and the festival critic (I go to lots of these things) for Billboard.
My IntheMix coverage of Day 2 was flat-out gushy. Here’s what I said about Frankie Knuckles’ set:
The tent was perhaps a quarter full, but it didn’t matter: The househeads were there, a greyer, and yes, gayer, group than the rest of the festival, living for this homecoming moment with such passion that it clearly transcended just nostalgia.
This was house showing its roots as a social movement, a safe haven for the marginalized, set to music that’s just now beginning to creep upward into the mainstream. It all came together here, on this dance floor, at this festival in the year 2013: The originators, their small group of faithful, and one stage over, the massive youth culture they helped spawn, wearing brighter colors and more carefree smiles. Appropriation, commercialization, whatever: Wavefront created a temporary place in which they could coexist, and in those brief moments, it was beautiful.
You can tell I really hated it, right? I also Tweeted some crazy shit:
When it came time to write the Billboard article I was still of course filled with these types of positive vibes (I had even cried on that dance floor!). But I had to take stock of Wavefront in the context of the other events deemed “electronic music festivals” in the year 2013, some of which have staffs of thousands on the ground and million-dollar budgets. Wavefront isn’t there yet - but I also believed that it wasn’t the organizer’s desire or intention to get there. They were designed to be different.
I decided the best way to express these things was to go right at the most extreme example (a construction writers often use):
Wavefront Music Festival, which wrapped its second year last night (July 7) at Chicago’s Montrose Beach, is not Electric Daisy Carnival. The accouterment for its Main Stage, dubbed The Wave, was not an animatronic owl with plasma screen eyes; it was two blue-painted wooden wave structures with some plastic “foam” on top, that looked like a high school drama club made them. The side stage called The Cube was not an actual cube, as modern festival-goers might come to expect. It was just a stage, with a few LED screens arranged in a square formation hanging from its trussing. The sound was not super. It was muffled, dull, or overloud, and bleed was occasionally crippling, as DFA patriarch James Murphy discovered during his Friday night set (“Could my monitors be louder than the sound from the other stage?” he quipped to the tech).
First to admit that these things could be perceived as “negative.” But they’re also true. More importantly, did it sound like I was asserting that owls are required, or that the expectation that a stage called The Cube be an actual cube was a fair one? Thought the tone made it clear that those are strange permutations. Obviously we needed to get to the point though…
But all the things that made Wavefront unpolished (and in only its second year, what else could it be?) were the things that made it so endearing, and important. Because when the children of EDC start wanting a deeper, stranger, or more localized dance music experience (that’s the cycle of fan-dom, after all), someone has to be ready to provide.
Translation: Wavefront’s understandable scrappiness is the very thing that makes it not only worthy of love but “important” - that’s a big word, right? Because when kids start to scratch the surface of the owl and don’t find what they’re looking for, they’re going to want something else, something different. The future of dance music depends on them getting it. On the all-important positive-negative/black-white scale, this is pretty effing positive, right? From this point in the piece my overall feelings should be clear, right?
Wrong. This passage apparently got readers on the defensive, and unwilling to go down any subsequent paths with me. When I went on to talk about the relative “greenness” of the crowd, they said I had no respect for the educated Chicago dance music fan. (I saw and noted the ‘heads, for sure, but most of the crowd was, quite interestingly, more concerned with hearing dance music in general than idol worship at a particular DJ’s feet. This is in stark contrast to other festivals, where attendees rush from stage to stage to make certain sets and never leave their comfort zones. On the positive/negative spectrum, again, this was positive.) I used the word “unsophisticated” in this context - a bad choice, but meant to describe this general lack of pretense (you’re right, I should have just said “unpretentious”). Fail. In another passage, I defined the festival’s brand as “kinder, gentler, more astute and democratic” (albeit in the context of constructive criticism). Not enough. They were even annoyed that this sentence (I added “refreshingly” in a later edit to be absolutely clear where it fell on the positive/negative spectrum) did not contain a laundry list of all the drinks available in the VIP area, including wine:
Refreshingly, the VIP areas didn’t have bottle service - only free vodka, beer and coconut water.
I’m the first to admit that if the writing requires this much explanation then it probably failed. Perhaps I should have used more superlatives - “best dance festival in Chicago” (not qualified to say that; haven’t seen them all) - or called it “a music fan’s dream.” But I’ve never really written in sound bite. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything negative at all; just turned a blind eye (and deaf ear) to the issues that I noticed over three days of watching very carefully, and blithely supported a festival I do believe in. But I feel like it’s my job to be honest. So many writers these days write what the event or artist wants to hear, so they can get a pat on the head and continue to enjoy a good relationship with the behind-the-scenes staff. To me that should not factor into the work.
My takeaway from this unfortunate series of events (and it really does suck; I feel rotten about it) is to simplify my language and be more overt when writing an opinion piece. That’s kind of a sad lesson, because I enjoy using the areas between-the-lines to communicate my true feelings. But when the possibility of being this misunderstood exists, it’s not worth the risk. The onus is on me to be crystal clear, and going forward that’s what I’ll be.