Since 2015, my first year living full-time in Chicago, the Pitchfork Music Festival has been a watershed moment in my summer. In its regular July slot, the fest has created a fulcrum point in the season—it’s a place to unexpectedly bump into forgotten friends and rest in the leafy tranquility of the Blue Stage, where the clock slows for an unhurried, resplendent weekend stretching beyond everyday time. Each year, without fail, it’s given me something to cherish and linger over as summer died down and fall slipped into its place.

This year’s fest is slated for mid-September, nearly 26 months after Pitchfork 2019, so I’m already prepared for it to hit different. New considerations make it stranger than any previous iteration—it arrives under a cloud of uncertainty around the rising Delta variant, even as it’s freighted with extra weight because we’ve all lost a year of the regular social routines that make collective life meaningful. The revelatory experience I had at Pitchfork two years ago, combined with the intervening year-plus of dislocation, should make this festival powerfully emotional in ways I’m thrilled and overawed just trying to imagine.

Pitchfork 2019 was my first after I started transitioning in November 2018. While in the years before I’d loved the fest (and live music generally), concerts were rarely as captivating as I’d longed for them to be. Early in the pandemic, I wrote an essay about the dissatisfaction I used to feel, having realized why I’d grown so frustrated with people using phones at concerts: “Still, despite my protestations, I couldn’t shake the sense of alienation I felt at shows; in retrospect, it’s clear that cell phones were merely my scapegoat, occasionally responsible for an obstructed view, but hardly the root cause of my misery.”

It wasn’t as if I didn’t enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime performance by A Tribe Called Quest in 2017 or all the sets by smaller acts that moved me deeply but never quite enough, like Blood Orange in 2016 and 2018. In my head, I could narrate my happiness to myself, or at least explain to myself why I appreciated what I was experiencing. But in reality, I couldn’t have been further from what I truly wanted out of live music. Rarely did my body allow me the rapture I desired; I was held at a distance by my own hormonal makeup, only occasionally breaking through (with a little tab of chemical assistance) for transcendent sets such as Brian Wilson and Sufjan Stevens in 2016. 

For many years I didn’t understand this separation, in part because I never perceived my dysphoria—the feeling of being in a body with the wrong hormonal makeup—through a gendered lens. It was obvious enough that my experience of the world was missing something, though then I didn’t know that transition could enrich and texture my emotional landscape. Concerts were one of the most obvious places where I felt that absence. 

The author at Pitchfork in 2015 (left-hand photo, in glasses) and in 2019 (in black top) with musician Melina Duterte, aka Jay Som Credit: Both photos courtesy Annie Howard

My life has revolved around music’s powerful meaning-making abilities since my early teen years. Because of that, the chasm I witnessed between my studied, cerebral appreciation of live music and the seemingly effortless joy that so many others felt grew more painful with each passing year until I transitioned. Finally, at Pitchfork in 2019, I felt the catharsis of being flooded, repeatedly and unexpectedly, with overwhelming emotion, triggered not just by the acts onstage but also by all the little in-between moments made possible by a festival.

I remember Cate Le Bon at that fest, in a full-length dress on a 100-degree day, cooing “Love you / I love you / But you’re not here” and conjuring memories of friends who’d moved away or stopped being friends entirely. Belle & Sebastian’s “Fox in the Snow” reminded me of how each fest stands on its own yet fits into the cycle of summers (“It only happens once a year / It only happens once a lifetime, make the most of it”). Charli XCX’s “Boys” made me thankful for my years of attending the fest in “boy mode,” still not knowing who I’d become. As I vibed to Khruangbin on a balmy Sunday afternoon, I knew I’d soon be saying goodbye to friends that I wouldn’t see again until the next year’s Pitchfork (or so I thought). It all added up to something much greater than any fest I’d ever been to before.

Now another Pitchfork is upon us. Many unknowns surround this event, but I hope that my status—mid- to late 20s, fully vaccinated, still working from home—will mean I’m not putting myself or anyone else in harm’s way. Doubts still whisper in my ears: that we’re all in denial about the severity of the pandemic, that this is all a major mistake waiting to happen. But my body is primed to return to Union Park, aware that I’ll be stretched and reconfigured in ways I cannot foresee, each set and chance encounter with friends and strangers magical enough to make up for lost time. This year’s lineup has plenty of acts primed to touch me with grace and joy—emotions that have been in short supply for far too long.

First on my list are what I’ll call my heartbreak headliners, all of them nearly guaranteed to reduce me to fat, sloppy tears, which I hope will be endearing to anyone who loves me and only mildly uncomfortable to nearby strangers. (Warning to the long-distant friends I’ll be seeing for the first time in two years: I’m fully committed to my messiness for these acts.)

Pitchfork Music Festival day one
Featuring Phoebe Bridgers, Yaeji, Big Thief, Kelly Lee Owens, Animal Collective, Ela Minus, Fiery Furnaces, Black Midi, the Soft Pink Truth, Hop Along, DJ Nate, DEHD, Dogleg, and Armand Hammer. Fri 9/10, 1 PM, Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph, $90 (children ten and under free with paying adult), all ages

On Friday afternoon at 2:30, local darlings DEHD will bring their unassuming, plainspoken energy to the Green Stage. Their latest release, 2020’s Flower of Devotion, packs a punch, but it’s their previous record, 2019’s Water, that found me in the opening weeks of the pandemic, making me mournful for the friends who unexpectedly had to depart Chicago with no clear way to return. The track “Lucky,” where Jason Balla gives thanks for the “people in my life with the power to break my heart,” helped me sort through the ways the pandemic had remade my relationships and face the grief of not knowing when I’d see people again. It’s just one example of the band’s knack for unexpected moments of tenderness.

At 3:20 PM on the Red Stage, I’ll fall under the spell of Hop Along’s winning sincerity—this Philadelphia band writes songs full of devastating revelations, and Frances Quinlan sings them with all of their beating heart. The song “How Simple,” off 2018’s Bark Your Head Off, Dog, encapsulates this perfectly: first, a painful shot (“How simple my heart can be frightens me”), chased with a sing-along chorus (“Don’t worry, we’ll both find out, just not together”) whose expressive heft comes from its brilliant lyrics and inviting hook.

Friday’s headliner, Phoebe Bridgers (Green Stage, 8:30 PM), has invented alternate worlds I didn’t believe existed. The first time I heard “Garden Song,” from her breakout second album, Punisher, I recalled my own girlhood, fleetingly real between my headphones even though it’d tragically never happened. I’ve chased that feeling to no avail every time I’ve relistened to the song, but I expect that the presence of so many friends, strangers, and Bridgers herself will finally rekindle it.

Pitchfork Music Festival day two
Featuring St. Vincent, Jay Electronica, Angel Olsen, Jamila Woods, Kim Gordon, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Ty Segall & Freedom Band, Waxahatchee, Faye Webster, Amaarae, Maxo Kream, Divino Niño, Bartees Strange, and Horsegirl. Sat 9/11, 1 PM, Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph, $90 (children ten and under free with paying adult), all ages

Saturday brings a dilemma, as two of the fest’s greatest singer-songwriters, Faye Webster (4 PM, Blue Stage) and Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield (4:15 PM, Green Stage), play overlapping sets. The songs from Waxahatchee’s excellent 2020 record, Saint Cloud, will drift through the humid air with the grace of a divine cirrus, carrying devastating moments like these lines from “The Eye,” a song that demands repeated, patient listening for its full impact to settle in: “We leave love behind / Without a tear or a long goodbye.” Webster’s new record, I’m Know I’m Funny Haha, uses disarming humor to draw in listeners and then drops lines on them like “You make me want to cry, in a good way” (from “In a Good Way”). Her gentle, reedy voice, which coincidentally matches a part of my own range where I’m still growing comfortable singing, will be wonderful company in the dying late-afternoon sunlight.

Saturday’s penultimate act, Angel Olsen (7:25 PM, Red Stage), is the most certain to reduce me to a puddle, consumed by emotions that have filled the two years since she released All Mirrors. So many of its tracks helped me process the highs and lows of the pandemic: the ruminations in “Spring” (“I’m beginning to wonder if anything’s real / Guess we’re just at the mercy of the way that we feel”) are never not gutting, only becoming more painful to hear as time goes on. “Chance,” the album’s showstopping closer, has cut me down time and again, inducing clarity and catharsis through heaving sobs. I could quote the entire song, but I’ll pluck out one perfect couplet as testament to Olsen’s poetic brilliance: “I just want to see some beauty, try and understand / If we got to know each other, how rare is that?” Twenty-one words shouldn’t be able to convey so much.

YouTube video
Angel Olsen performs “Chance” in the KEXP studio in December 2019.

Sunday’s lineup is less fraught for me, though I’ll already be a wreck knowing I’ll have to say goodbye to so many friends returning to lives elsewhere. I’m most excited for Caroline Polacheck (4:15 PM, Green Stage), whose 2019 record, Pang, blends forward-facing pop production with shimmering storytelling. I’m hoping to hear her cover of Virginia Astley’s “Some Small Hope,” whose painful truths (“All those dreams lie unfulfilled / All those lives that pass us by”) have narrated many of my quietest, unsteadiest nights, as I’ve contemplated the stories left unwritten in the course of my recent life.

Pitchfork Music Festival day three
Featuring Erykah Badu, Cat Power, Flying Lotus, Andy Shauf, Danny Brown, Yves Tumor, Thundercat, Caroline Polachek, the Weather Station, Mariah the Scientist, Oso Oso, KeiyaA, Special Interest, and Cassandra Jenkins. Sun 9/12, 1 PM, Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph, $90 (children ten and under free with paying adult), all ages

My second tier of Pitchfork acts is less about emotional significance and more about the kinds of pure physical release I’ve also longed for. Local three-piece Horsegirl (1 PM Saturday, Green Stage) haven’t recorded much, but their early tracks brim with joyous overabundance—they seem poised to have a moment at the fest. Ghanaian American artist Amaarae (3:20 PM Saturday, Red Stage) distills her sprightly, lilting voice and arrangements into perfection on “Fancy,” the first track on this spring’s The Angel You Don’t Know, and her corner of the park should be a prime spot for affectionate, playful sway dancing. I expect to see a gleefully sweaty swarm of bodies in the crowds for several electronic acts (Ela Minus, the Soft Pink Truth, DJ Nate), but I’m most excited for Welsh producer Kelly Lee Owens (6:30 PM Friday, Blue Stage), who soundtracked some unexpected, sun-dappled midday grooving with friends in 2018. And the clarion voice of Jamila Woods (6:30 PM Saturday, Blue Stage) always resonates with outsize force in the city she calls home.

I’ve already expended a lot of energy imagining what this festival will be like, but I know that’ll be no match for the unanticipated moments that always pepper my memory afterward. Just before the pandemic, I had a bit of a Nietzche parable tattooed on my left arm: “Show me where I stand, not where I am going.” It’s a constant reminder to not worry too much about predicting what may come next, and a mantra that’s gotten me through my transition—an experience as fundamentally destabilizing as any other. Why bother worrying about what may come out of these three days? My tender heart and this body I now comfortably inhabit are enough to make any concert linger well beyond its closing notes. 

It will certainly be hard to shake some questions about Pitchfork: Should we even be here? Are we doing enough to be safe? I’ve tried to not feel selfish about the whole thing, despite the spectacle of Lollapalooza and my frustration with officials who’ve rushed a return to “normal” despite the rising impact of the Delta variant on children and the slowing rate of vaccination across the country. This pandemic is far from over, but I remain guardedly hopeful that Pitchfork’s older-than-Lollapalooza crowd will be more careful.

This event will also be carrying a weight that no previous Pitchfork festival has shouldered. The rainout two years ago could’ve been seen as a gift, blessedly cutting Saturday’s 100-degree heat, but any weather disruption now will be a crushing blow—we’ll all lose some of our precious time on the festival grounds, socializing and enjoying the community of live music in a way we’ve been denied for so long. I still have no idea if mass social gatherings in any form will ever feel the same. But I’m ready to sprint from stage to stage between sets, to know that my body still has that muscle memory, running deeper than the anxiety that’s pressed down on me every time I’ve been surrounded by people too tightly over the past year. 

I still grieve knowing that last year’s fest would’ve included shapeshifting trans icon SOPHIE, an unparalleled presence in the musical fabric of so many younger queers. SOPHIE’s sudden death earlier this year amplified the sadness of losing so much in 2020. Because Pitchfork’s relatively consistent layout helps me layer many successive years in my memory, I can imagine last summer’s festival carrying on as if the pandemic never happened, a different version of me carrying on a life now unimaginable. In the 2020 that really happened, of course, protests for racial justice filled Union Park last year, giving new meaning to coming together again after we were pushed into isolation in the first unsteady months of the pandemic. For many of us, those protests helped manifest new ways of feeling connected to others.

At the end of this festival, when I say goodbye to friends flying back elsewhere, I’ll hold them closer than I might have before. I’ll return the gaze of a friendly stranger with awe and attention, grateful at the thought of meeting someone new. I’ll trust that whatever sets I do or don’t catch, I’ll have found myself exactly where I was meant to be. 

At peace, the body has a remarkable knack for serving as a tuning fork, resonating with its surroundings. For many years of my life, and for many Pitchforks past, this wasn’t the case. But it’s true today, and I cherish that fact, happy in whatever may come my way. No matter what transpires in those three eternal days, making it this far is reward enough.