Festival-going is, in theory, exploratory and outward-looking. You hopefully see some new acts, and let other people’s limbs and/or tent guy lines invade your personal space. But even though festivals are ostensibly massive social events, many of us just stick with the people we went there with, and the average person dreads the thought of being left alone at one. Someone even made an app to help combat festival loneliness and eliminate the unthinkable prospect of walking up and saying hi to a stranger. Instead, we cleave to the security of a closed ring of tents (obviously, depending on what substances you’ll have ingested).
I recently moved to Paris from Dublin, and after the initial explosion of new names and faces, my social circle is slowly closing on itself. The same people know the same people, we all go to each other’s pre-drinks, and expanding the proverbial ring of tents no longer seems necessary. But meeting new people is fun! You wouldn't have the same seven meals for the rest of your life would you? That's just dry. So that’s why I decided to venture to Pitchfork Paris – from last Thursday 1 November to Sunday 4 November – to see how easy it would be to connect with total strangers.
Pitchfork Paris isn’t exactly your average festival. Firstly, no one camps. The music blares out from inside a fancy venue called La Grande Halle in Parc de la Villette, along the banks of a picturesque canal. It’s far outside the city centre, almost at the peripherique (the ring road around Paris that separates the city from the banlieus or suburbs) so it’s quiet, but still surrounded by life. Two stages flank opposite ends of the Halle's cavernous and clean indoor space. And that means the live sets alternate between stages, with virtually no break in time, but also no overlap – you can basically see everything.
You sort of ping-pong back and forth, stopping for a quick refreshment on the way in between. There are balconies on each side, which house prosecco and pasta bars – it’s a far cry from a squelching field dotted with NOS canisters and the odd abandoned, soaked trainer. The sophisticated setting draws a correspondingly subdued crowd, and alcohol you’ve bought outside is forbidden, so it seems like possibly the worst place to try to draw out a sense of curiosity in others. But I might be wrong. I venture to my first set with mild trepidation that maybe nobody here is interested in making new friends. There's only one way to find out.
Cola Boyy’s pulled the short end of the stick. He’s the 6PM slot on Thursday, day one of the festival, and pints are €7.50 (actually very cheap for Paris – yes, living here is hell). Everyone is terrifyingly sober in a still half-empty Grande Halle. It’s also the day after Halloween, so I’m concentrating very hard on not vomiting every time a stage light flashing sends a wave of nausea shuddering through my hungover frame. It’s a tough sell for anyone. The crowd skews very beardy, 30-something, hipster guys. *insert Adore Delano “I don’t belong here!” GIF*
Was it awkward? Oooh, a strong 7/10. As a flamboyant gay, approaching strange men in any environment other than a gay club is mildly terrifying to me. Kinda wish I had that festival app now (would it be weird to open Grindr?).
Were they friendly? All the gruff-looking lads I approached tried their best, responding to my excruciating small talk with equally painful “and where are you from yourself?” reciprocity. Beardy straight guys are getting a 6/10 for defying my very low expectations.
Tirzah’s 6PM Friday set is backlit in soft pink. It’s a much more mixed crowd, all hovering in worshipful silence. Tirzah is a stationary performer, and her mournful bedroom vocals echoing over the crowd make the space feel private, still, and sepulchral. The thought of darting from person to person with conversation-starters suddenly feels like blasphemy, when everyone is frozen in silent introspection. A hetty couple sways in front of me, wrapped up in each other, and since it would probably be inappropriate to tap them on the shoulder and tell them I feel attacked, the next step is clear: I must acquire a festival boyfriend. “All I want is yooou”, Tirzah whispers into the mic. Right, that’s it; Friday is cuffing season at Pitchfork!!
Was it awkward? No! A mild 4/10. Once the song ends, I tap the cute, well-dressed guy with one Bowie-style earring (he’s signalling to me, I know it!) on my left and ask if he’s a fan. He is! We talk a little about Tirzah’s album Devotion and he peers at me curiously, asking where I’m from and making small talk. This is going excellently! When Tirzah finishes, I’ve got his Instagram. He even makes a joke (hinting! He’s hinting!!) about the Grindr app he glimpses on my phone.
Were they friendly? So he just never followed me back???? I???? I honestly???? I truly believed we would tell our children about this one day and that Tirzah would perform at our wedding. Unsurprising, really, that I left her set with a broken heart. 3/10 :(
Okay, I’ll admit I had no idea who these guys were but that’s the beauty of discovering music at festivals. The crowd are comparatively buzzing on Will Toledo’s band. It’s not even a late set, only 7.35PM, but compared to the early sets I’ve already done, the audience is positively loose!
Was it awkward? 2/10. Everyone has had a few pints at this stage, and Car Seat’s sound is full of a teenage kind of optimism, so not awkward at all. People engage with an easy kind of disinterest, like they’re happy to talk shit with me but also don’t really care that much that I’m talking to them. It actually makes me feel real existential, like I don’t matter at all, but nobody else does either, so it’s OK?
Were they friendly? 8/10. They ask me lots of questions, follow me back on Instagram, and one girl even tells me about how her house just got burgled. Hope you get your Mac back, babe!
By Saturday, I’m feeling pretty rundown from two days of drinking, and feeling weirdly existential. Pitchfork’s rather cruel ‘no return’ policy (you can’t leave once you’re in) means that my friends have decided to forego early sets for pre-drinking, so I’ll be waiting around for two hours by myself after this set ends. Weirdly, the one time I could use some new friends is the time I least want to bother talking to strangers. It makes me realise the value of familiarity, and how most festivals are kind of supposed to be about escape into yourself as much as exploring new things. It also makes me realise that manufacturing rapport with other people is kind of depressing, and all the more depressing when you think about the fact that we do this on some level every day. “I’m so tired of moving on”, Lindsey Jordan keens over dreamy electric guitar. I hear ya, hun.
Was it awkward? 1/10. No, but mainly because by this time I had stopped caring.
Were they friendly? 3/10. Kind of standoffish but fair because Snail Mail were killing it and all we all wanted to do was listen.
This is the closing set I needed. It’s 2AM on Saturday and La Grande Halle is as packed as it’s been all weekend. The huge, echo-y hall makes the transition from day festival to warehouse rave seamless. There’s a sense of joy and carelessness now, like the old crowd has been swapped out for a new one.
Was it awkward? 0/10, lol. People ask if I’m selling any “exta”, as the French call it – no, I say, but where are you from? Are you enjoying the set??
Were they friendly? I mean obviously they’re getting 10/10, but it makes me think a lot about how weirdly circumstantial all of our friendships are. Pardon the ‘just hit the zoot in fresher’s’ talk but you might pass your potential soulmate on the metro and never speak to them; and so you might be tricked into thinking someone is very witty and fun just because you happen to meet them at a Peggy set at 2.17AM. Think about all we’re missing?! I’ve decided I’m going to speak to strangers a lot more from now on.
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