“Hey hey, my my, rock and roll can never die,” Neil Young postulated in 1978. Six years later, James Cameron released The Terminator, a film which envisioned a future where machines nearly wiped out mankind.
By 2015, it’s safe to say the sci-fi director was a little more prescient.
While this year’s edition of Governors Ball featured a number of rock, pop, hip-hop and EDM luminaries, the tens of thousands of attendees at the New York festival clearly favored sounds coming from laptop keyboards than guitar chords over the three-day affair. The crowds gathered during DJ sets swelled while rock headliners attracted a modest audience; frequently, the heavy bass from electronic sets bled into the between-song pauses from acts playing with live instruments.
The most vocal complaint came from Ryan Adams, whose headlining set was scheduled opposite deadmau5 on Saturday night. “This song is not going to match the robot music over there,” the veteran rocker snarked mid-way through his set. “It’s like we’re living in a fucking Terminator nightmare!”
Ryan Adams Goes on Anti-EDM Rant at Governors Ball
While Adams’ sentiment might earn approving nods from rock-leaning listeners, there weren’t too many in attendance at Governors Ball. A fair contingent of guitar-favoring fans turned out for Adams, but deadmau5’s set drew a much larger crowd. And the truth is, when you’re preaching to a dwindling choir, you start sounding less iconoclastic and more like a curmudgeon.
Which is a shame. Adams’ set found him ab-libbing a song about a man in the audience eating a hot dog — not an artistic achievement per se, but let’s be real: A song improvised in real time is a more impressive feat than someone hovering over a laptop and tweaking the levels on previously recorded studio tracks.
Of course, there is an art to being a DJ. While many mime, others truly do use technology like an instrument, creating live music that’s actually, well, live. And this article isn’t an anti-EDM screed, nor is it meant to bemoan rock’s decline. It’s simply to point out that for rock at festivals, the genre is no longer top dog — which was more than apparent at Gov Ball this year.
Bjork Delivers Energetic, Inscrutable Set at Gov Ball 2015
Numbers don’t lie. While the crowd Noel Gallagher drew to the main stage early Sunday evening was respectable, it was no larger than the one A-Trak attracted to the Honda stage two hours earlier. And it was far smaller than the number of people who flocked to Big Gigantic, the semi-live electronic act scheduled opposite the Britpop icon.
But the crowd’s response to Bjork — an artist who has long skirted both worlds — was most telling. A sizable contingent descended upon the main stage at the outset of her Saturday performance, but when it became clear she was focusing on new material — accompanied by a mini-orchestra, no less — instead of her alt-dance classic, throngs of people wandered away from Bjork, seeking more immediate satisfaction in the form of food or alcohol. (Conor Oberst was the only artist scheduled opposite her, and those who left Bjork’s set early didn’t head his way.)
Governors Ball: Most Memorable Moments From Day 3
Not every DJ set is a smashing success, of course. Festival-goers thirst for showmanship, which is more difficult to come by when there’s one person stationary on a stage.
Flying Lotus‘ jazz/rap/ambient mélange is a far cry from EDM, but at the end of the day, he’s still a man standing behind a MacBook for an hour at a festival. And while the response to his set was palpable, there was a moment he nearly lost the crowd. When Chance the Rapper‘s voice boomed out over the speakers, the crowd perked up, eagerly eyeing the stage to see if the Chicago rapper was in attendance. When it became apparent Chance the Rapper was only present by way of recording, the crowd was noticeably disappointed.
But unlike those let down by Bjork’s set, no one left. With the notable exceptions of Tame Impala, The Black Keys and Florence + the Machine, most of the rock bands at Gov Ball saw their audience gradually dwindle over the course of an hour.
The Black Keys Aren’t Lonely Boys at Gov Ball 2015
Again, this isn’t a comment on the quality of the live bands who played Governors Ball. But within the last few years, it’s increasingly clear that rock is on the run while music from men (and occasionally women, but let’s be honest, it’s usually men) standing behind laptops is on the rise at music fests.
And based on the public response to sets at Gov Ball, you can bet the festival organizers are watching — and planning accordingly for the future.