Photo: Emily Quirk
The last time Bonnaroo had a headliner who performed solo for the duration of their set, it didn’t go that well. That would be Kanye West’s second appearance at the festival in 2014, when the mercurial MC’s antics came across as antagonistic toward the crowd. Singer and rapper Post Malone, who performed onstage all by himself in Saturday’s headline slot, took a very different tack. One component of his persona is fiercely asserting his artistic independence; another is opening himself up to his audience, which works as a way to encourage fans to believe in their own self-worth. You could infer from his massive streaming and sales numbers that those messages resonate with a lot of people. And judging by the ecstatic response from the crowd packed into the field in front of What Stage, he’s highly skilled at communicating that in person.
A few minutes before the show, there was another reversal of a prior notorious Bonnaroo episode. Eminem’s use of realistic gunshot and explosion sound effects scared the bejesus out of people who weren’t even at his set in 2018. Before Post Malone played, there was a warning over the P.A. and on the screens flanking the stage that there would be loud bangs during his set. That didn’t do anything to spoil the effect of the explosion sound and 20 or so seconds of disorientingly deep bass rumble that preceded Malone’s entrance.
Decked out in a short-sleeved suit covered in a pattern that appeared to be made from a photo of Dolly Parton, the 23-year-old star came out singing “Too Young” in a cloud of fog against a dark screen, which later blinked to life with one strip of light across its top. The production ramped up quickly with burst after burst of pyro — flames spouted from all over the stage, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of a wrestling match.
“My name is Austin Richard Post, and I’m here to play y’all some music and get fucked up,” he said ahead of “Better Now,” the next song. “Thank y’all so much, every single one of y’all, for comin’ out and fuckin’ with me tonight. Let’s get fuckin’ weird!”
For the next hour and change, he bounced around the stage, riding the heavy, R&B- and trap-schooled beats. He appeared to be having the time of his life, and he thanked the audience profusely. He sang and rapped at the top of his lungs, in his trademark ragged-edged croon, about things that aren’t easy to talk about. He dug into romantic relationships in “Better Now” and “Stay.” He did a fine job of playing the latter on an acoustic guitar, despite his charming and disarming nervousness in introducing it. Several numbers explored the social awkwardness, feelings of isolation and paranoia that can result from a rapid rise to fame like his, including “Candy Paint,” “Psycho,” “Wow. ” and “Rockstar,” after which he smashed his guitar.
Photo: Emily Quirk
At first blush, the problems of a famous person don’t sound all that relatable, even in the social-media-warped world we live in. But Malone kept bringing them back home for his crowd. Near the end of the set, he recounted how his breakout hit “White Iverson,” which he played earlier, suddenly made him a public person — something he’s grateful for, even if it’s been difficult to cope with sometimes. He explained how people who talked down to him after “White Iverson” now wish him well at every opportunity. That became the inspiration for his hit single “Congratulations,” with which he ended the show.
“They said we’d never go fuckin’ gold, we’d never go fuckin’ platinum, we’d never go fuckin’ diamond, and now I’m playin’ fuckin’ Bonnaroo in front of tens of thousands of beautiful people,” he said, to massive cheers. “This is my way of tellin’ y’all: ‘Live your fuckin’ life. Do whatever the fuck you wanna do.’ Because you fuckin’ kick ass. Live your life, live your dream, live your fuckin’ truth. And don’t let nobody fuckin’ tell you shit. Because each and every every single one of y’all fuckin’ rocks.”
Like generations of great songwriters and entertainers, Post Malone is adept at making extremely personal things translate to a wide audience, and he’s a living example of the contemporary struggle to cope with life at the speed of the Information Age. It still remains to be seen how he will handle another important part of the cultural context of his career. He’s a white man who’s having incredible success playing music that draws heavily on styles invented and perfected by black artists. He’s been criticized for his lack of engagement with social and political issues facing black communities, something that’s intimately tied to that music. And he hasn’t made a lot of effort (that the public can see, anyway) to change that.
All the same, in a recent TMZ interview, Malone stood up for the right of Lil Nas X — the black singer whose country-trap smash-hit “Old Town Road” you’ve probably heard a thousand times — to make whatever kind of music he wants to make. (In case you missed it, Billboard took “Old Town Road” off the Hot Country Songs chart, claiming it didn’t contain enough elements of country music to be there. Lil Nas X was also part of a Wrangler fashion campaign, for which some folks, who either are uninformed of or are ignoring the history of African Americans in country music, accused him of cultural appropriation.)
It will take some work for Post Malone to incorporate a discussion of systemic racism, income inequality or other issues into his songs or his show in a way that feels natural. But it’s work that’s worth doing, and that he seems capable of. He’s tapped into the anxieties and aspirations of millions of young people, and he has a gift for communicating with them in person, made clear again and again when he was onstage alone in front of thousands of them on Saturday. When he’s ready to talk, odds are good that his fans will listen.
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