Pop Heroes Made and Remade
Notoriety was the key to headlining the Governors Ball Music Festival last weekend on Randalls Island. It used to be the making of a pop hero, and sometimes it still is.
Saturday’s main-stage closer was Guns N’ Roses, the band led by a vociferous bad boy of yesteryear, W. Axl Rose. Sunday’s finale — and by far the biggest draw, if tabulations by the festival’s scheduling app were any indication — was Kanye West, the rapper and producer who has so often acted up in the spotlight and then written songs about fame-induced folly and megalomania. He had a new one on Sunday, modestly titled “I Am a God.”
They both have long, tangled back stories that have become incentives for attending their shows; see it live before it’s reported by the tabloids. And their music was set at full blast. They’re two generations of pop hero: Mr. Rose stays shameless while Mr. West is (sometimes) repentant.
At Governors Ball they avoided the self-destructive rants of past occasions. Mr. Rose came back onstage after his band’s big fireworks display to announce, “I love New York.” And when Mr. West got to the spot in his song “Clique” where, he said, he usually starts complaining and justifying himself, he instead touted his artistic independence. “We just made some real music,” he said of his album “Yeezus,” due for release next Tuesday, going on to insist that he didn’t care about selling a million albums or tailoring songs for radio play. “When I listen to radio, that ain’t how I want to be no more,” he declared to roars of approval, though radio stations might be resentful.
If Mr. West was out to steamroll the acts that came before his — 63 others over three days — he came pretty close. His new songs relied on brutally stark synthesizer riffs and drumbeats, closer to industrial dance music than to current hip-hop, and they were delivered on Sunday through a sound system with bone-rattling bass. Most of his older songs were remixed along the same lines: all deep, ominous punch as Mr. West shouted nearly every line.
He spent most of his performance on a small stage in the audience, wearing a loose gray outfit that made him look something like a penitent; for those who could see him, he was heaving back and forth, working up a sweat. But he set aside the beat for two long ballads with only piano chords and his computer-tuned voice: “Heartless,” about a breakup, and “Runaway,” a toast to boorish behavior. Bragging and materialism are at war with self-consciousness and self-criticism in Mr. West’s songs; a hero of ambivalence, he slammed home all the contradictions.
Guns N’ Roses, by contrast, unabashedly celebrated excess. The group, which now consists of Mr. Rose and sidemen rather than the band of comrades from its 1987-91 heyday, is larger, slicker and even more cartoonish than it was in its early years. Mr. Rose and the band’s three guitarists struck rock-star poses, songs indulged themselves in long buildups and guitar interludes, and the stage spewed fireworks and confetti. It was an older school of rock-hero behavior, full of preening and bombast. Yet once Mr. Rose got his voice up to full, abrasive yowl and screech, Guns N’ Roses was the embodiment of nostalgia-enhanced memories, a relic reanimated like a woolly mammoth suddenly charging across the tundra.
Kings of Leon, whose headlining set was rained out on Friday, were squeezed into Saturday’s lineup for their first New York City show since 2010. They didn’t play hero; they worked their instruments and let their songs — brooding Southern rock updated with hints of punk agitation or U2’s arena-scale hooks — speak for themselves.
Most of the rock bands presented themselves with that kind of modesty. Gary Clark Jr., a blues-rocker from Texas, made his songs slash and scream and erupt with distortion, communing with his guitar rather than telegraphing the music’s drama. Divine Fits — the songwriting alliance of Britt Daniel, from Spoon, and Dan Boeckner, from Wolf Parade — did some clowning onstage, but never hid the rigorous neatness of songs that use every detail of an arrangement to tell their stories.
Deerhunter’s guitarists just stood there casually as they showed how two or three chords could swell into clouds of noise evoking specific eras: garage-rock, psychedelia, postpunk. A different variety of postpunk — revved up by breakneck, pointillistic guitar patterns — came through in galvanizing sets by two British bands, Bloc Party and Foals. Haim, a band led by three sisters from California, channeled guitar patterns into a sunnier style, like Fleetwood Mac thinking about the Feelies.
Crowds sang along on folky, toe-tapping ditties from the Lumineers and Of Monsters and Men, and mouthed the lyrics more quietly for the whispery, skeletal, lovesick pop of the xx, who used lasers and smoke to create an eerie virtual canopy over a big muddy field. Yeasayer, whose songs delight in intellectual constructs and musical convolutions, faced happy, hands-in-the-air fans who picked up the band’s elements of disco and electronica and danced to them.
The mesh of the programmed and the hand-played was one through-line of the festival. Erykah Badu’s tart, sassy voice humanized the two-chord vamps generated by her laptop-wielding band; Alt-J drew subtle but clear connections between folky picking and the blipping patterns of electronic dance music. Animal Collective played a mesmerizing set, mingling live and electronic instruments, in which loops and overlapping vocal lines became euphoric incantations. Thievery Corporation slipped programmed elements into live-sounding reggae and funk. Robert DeLong, a one-man band using loops and samples, constructed pop songs that he then zapped with the assaultive noises of dubstep. Crystal Castles reached back to the punk-tinged synthesizer riffs and out-of-tune vocals of the 1990s rave era, though it also had more current, consonant tracks. The festival also had some unaccompanied DJs — Dillon Francis and Griz — who played inventive, genre-hopping sets; there was a Silent Disco tent, where dance music was broadcast to headphones all day.
While most of the festival’s rockers weren’t acting heroic, its rappers were. Azealia Banks — the best dressed performer by far — had fans shouting encouragement as she presented herself in song after song as a “bad bitch,” bragging about raunchy exploits and picking fights, in a rapid-fire, indefatigable delivery that rivaled the twitchy momentum of her backup tracks.
Nas, whose set split the Saturday night audience with Guns N’ Roses, presented himself not as a bad guy but as a chronicler and preserver of hip-hop. He reached back to his 1994 debut album, “Illmatic,” for details of ghetto life and worked his way forward to grown-up reflections. Freddie Gibbs presented himself as the keeper of a disappearing genre — gangsta rap — but turned traditionalism into swagger, performing bare-chested and rattling off verse after verse a cappella, barely taking a breath. Kendrick Lamar’s album, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” doesn’t endorse the gangsta life he observes, but onstage he barked his songs as if they were triumphal rather than wary.
The other headliner was mud: a result of the daylong deluge Friday. Festivalgoers tramping through shoe-swallowing mud, and dancing through it, may have been the real heroes.