Festival Series: Sasquatch 2014

M.I.A performing at the mainstage at Sasquatch in the Gorge.
M.I.A performing at the mainstage at Sasquatch in the Gorge.

My lens is ever focused on the expression, inclusion and representation of women in our popular (and not-so-popular) culture. When I attend a music festival for instance, as I did several weeks ago at the Sasquatch! Music Festival in the Gorge, I’m ready to be impressed by the musical genius of world-class female artists. I am also prepared for a certain amount of predictable sexism that dominates nearly every facet of our culture, not excluding music industry.

I witnessed a hearty dose of the former, and thankfully only a little of the latter. The event itself is a music-lover’s heaven. Even for those camping way out in District 9 (as the Seattle’s alt-publication The Stranger dubbed the farthest-out camping spots), the event is manageable in size, and every direction boasts breathtaking beauty. The line-up is indeed world class and the event’s art (illustrated by Emory Allen and produced by Wexley School for Girls and Workbench Creative), which featured playful illustrations of the elusive Sasquatch in all sorts of compromising situations, was light and fun.

The must-see-women of the weekend included Banks, [French singer] Yelle, Alisa Xayalith of The Naked and Famous, Sarah Barthel of Phantogram, Haim and Tokimonsta. The men brought it too, with beautiful performances by Kid Cudi, Ryan Hemsworth, Chet Faker, Tycho and Outkast.  The range of styles, both visual and musical, was vast and energizing. Between Chet Faker’s Saturday sunset set and Tycho’s on Sunday, I think I could die and go to dreamy down-tempo heaven, while Outkast,  M.I.A. and Kid Cudi brought the mainstream pop-hip-hop to the main stage.

M.I.A., the exquisite British/Sri Lankan singer, songwriter, rapper, visual artist and designer, played main stage at sunset Saturday to a sky showing off deepening blues and neon-colored clouds. Her performance was an ultimate expression of power–pure creative power that speaks directly into the space that powerhouse feminists like M.I.A. have created for themselves within the art and music community.

With or without knowing the full context of M.I.A.’s social activism, the show (including the pop-art visuals on screen and stage) was powerful, bright and poignant. Between sirens M.I.A. took to the mike with a crisp “Uh oh…uh oh….” to begin the song “Trouble Again.” The lyrics gently boast of her reputation and could be taken as a mild take on the obligatory self-promotion every rapper engages, or paired with the drones sporting led-lit peace signs that descended from the stage’s high heavens the song could have been speaking to our war-hungry yet peace-washing nation.

Big Freedia performing at Sasquatch 2014.
Big Freedia performing at Sasquatch 2014.

A surprise treat at Sasquatch was Big Freedia, the bounce and hip-hop artist who helped rebuild the New Orleans nightlife scene after Hurricane Katrina with daily shows, drawing people back into the city and giving folks a reason to celebrate again. Big Freedia–who identifies as a gay man but feels comfortable with either pronoun–maintains a passionate following, with many women, gay men and gender-nonconforming people as her fans.

Big Freedia’s music is aggressive and sexual, but in a way that for once puts female fans in the position of the subject as aggressor rather than the object. In a genre that dehumanizes and sexualizes women to an absurd degree, Big Freedia’s bounce music takes back some of that ill-gotten power. Yes, the role the backup dancers on stage played was that of twerking and bouncing, but something about Big Freedia’s male-yet-feminine stieze (and her own plentiful twerking performances) gave the act a light, body-celebratory feel.

A few hours later at Major Lazer–a Diplo project–we are back to the stereotypical presentation of women as perfect, enhanced objects strutting around stage. But Major Lazer threw a great party. Sure, Diplo and Friends are not exactly on the front lines of the gender equality struggle, but it could have been much worse. As I expected it would be, the show was loud, heavy and fun.

Sasquatch is no Coachella, Bonnaroo or Lallapalooza, and that’s a good thing. This medium-sized festival in our cozy corner of the Northwest is something to be cherished. Lineups overwhelmingly represented by men can get (no offense) terribly dull, and the talent–both men and women gender conforming and non-conforming–represented here shows us that someone is paying attention. Diversity, social commentary and talented women acting as more than just props onstage is not a new thing, but still it’s something to be celebrated and encouraged.

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