In the waning moments of the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2019, with Khruangbin’s vibey guitar music wafting over the sun-dappled, sleepy Sunday crowd, I bumped into a stranger who recognized me. The man asked: Didn’t we sit next to each other on a plane back from Toronto just a few weeks ago? Indeed we had, and that surreal coincidence spiraled into further conversation.
We soon discovered that we’d both studied urban planning at UIC, and he later invited me to geography trivia in Logan Square the following week. It was precisely the kind of interaction that festivals facilitate so well: a chance meeting creating unforeseen, unexpected human connection.
I thought of this story often at last weekend’s Pitchfork festival. Now in its 16th iteration, the fest has offered us these little moments for years—moments that give us a chance to write micronarratives within the cozy confines of the fest’s three days. I’ve done plenty of that in the seven years I’ve attended. Each fest stands on its own—a confluence of the year’s buzziest bands, exceptional legacy acts, and the particularities of weather, fractured into thousands of pieces by festgoers’ unique paths through the weekend—but patterns also emerge from year to year.
In 2019 I began compiling a list of recurrent Pitchfork tropes, with an eye toward eventually making my own spin on a “festival bingo” card. (Maybe you’ve seen a Lollapalooza card with squares like “Witness an obvious drug deal” and “Hear a girl compliment someone’s glitter.”) In the week before this year’s Pitchfork, I drew up a 25-square card, combining my initial observations with exceptional suggestions from friends (“Sunburn requiring medical attention,” “Diversity as a corporate value”).
With that, my quest to turn Pitchfork weekend into one long scavenger hunt began. My mission was twofold: to cross off as many bingo squares as I could myself, and to get cards into the hands of as many fellow fans as possible. I printed more than 500 cards at the beginning of the weekend, so I knew I’d have to hustle, turning every fleeting encounter with a stranger or friend of a friend into a chance to give away another card.
Friday’s consistent rain put an early damper on my efforts. My partner had put the bingo cards in a big Ziploc bag before I left home, but that only helped a little—cards and festival schedules alike disintegrated into soggy, pulpy messes. Still, I could check off a few easy squares. I spotted the inevitable Death Grips shirt across the crowd at Tierra Whack. I saw an iconic mid-aughts Chicago Reader bandana wrapped around a photographer’s head. And my friend Grant met all the requirements of “White Claw, white shoes, white socks”—even better, he hadn’t known that was a bingo square.
The first day of the fest also forced me to reflect on how my quest was obscuring my perception of my surroundings. I needed narrow, targeted vision to pluck the expected from the unknown, distilling down an absurdly resplendent multisensory environment to an item on a bingo square: a single T-shirt, maybe, or a spoken phrase. Absorbing new, surprising sights and sounds was just as hypnotizing, if not more so, and it didn’t box in my attention.
It was especially fun to combine the two modes by finding a creative way to check off a nebulous square such as “Conde Nast Fest” (in quotes on the card). I decided that Claire Rousay had satisfied my requirements during her performance in the Zelle-sponsored DJ tent by having a computer-generated voice read snippets of her latest Pitchfork review. It was a subtle wink at the Pitchfork brand’s overwhelming presence and exactly the kind of tongue-in-cheek, galaxy-brain approach this increasingly corporate fest deserves. Rousay knew she was doing a bit too, and chuckled as it played out.
On Saturday, I began to sense my focus pulled elsewhere. I started considering emergent patterns for future bingo cards, and of course I never stopped appreciating the kind of singular fest encounters that defy categorization. My attention wandered away from checking off every box I’d created for myself. I knew from previous fests that I had certain goals in mind for my experience, sharpened in a new way by the search for a bingo, but I increasingly understood that I was losing sight of something larger.
At its best, the Pitchfork experience is a long string of singular, discrete encounters with the unknown. In her Saturday headlining set, Mitski paused to say, “Life is just a series of short little moments, and I’m glad that I get to share this one with you.” As she launched into “Nobody,” I remembered a sticker that my partner had seen on a porta-potty just hours before: “I’m a NOBODY,” it read. “And you can’t kill a person with NO BODY.”
In my mind, this stray sticker was now tethered to Mitski’s haunted singing, and it reminded me of how I’d previously encountered the fest in a disembodied, pretransition haze. This surprisingly powerful connection I’d made between song and sticker was precisely the kind of uncategorizable, deeply felt self-narration that could never fit on a bingo card. It was almost the exact opposite of playing that game, but still, it had only been possible because I was approaching the whole festival with the same attention to detail that made bingo so fun.
I also did much better at handing out bingo cards on Saturday, thanks in large part to a recent Tour de France-inspired decision to buy a United States Postal Service bike jersey for the weekend. With its three back pockets holding a Perrier, my phone, and bingo cards at all times, that fit proved to be the ideal distribution vehicle.
As I entered the fest grounds for the last time on Sunday afternoon, I knew I could expect to check a few more bingo boxes during the day. Sitting for lunch, I finally spotted my first and only Black Flag parody shirt of the weekend, with “Black Hawk” rendered in hockey reds and blacks. “Sunburn requiring medical care” came a bit later, when someone asking for a bingo card had a week-old but still visible red splotch—otherwise a rare sighting across the cloudy weekend.
I also received reports of a trash can crowd-surfing by the Red Stage, and another stranger asked if a bag of wine forgotten in a porta-potty could be considered a valuable item (yes, of course). I talked with someone who’d gotten a text from a friend telling them that they were the coolest-dressed person at the fest, other than one specific baby. Every sighting filled me with gratitude for this silly little endeavor, a joyous opportunity to connect with strangers. I’d given so many others this absurd task, asking them to be observant in the same way that had made my own festgoing experience so special.
As I reflected on what makes each fest its own once-in-a-lifetime event, I kept coming back to a thought as simple as any of my bingo squares: “That moment on Sunday.” If you go to a lot of weekend festivals, you probably already know what I mean. It’s always on the last day, when you stop for a second to catch your breath—the fleeting nature of the experience hits you with sudden clarity, reminding you that you won’t be returning tomorrow. You’ll be going back to work, or else taking a plane ride or road trip home. As I’ve grown into adulthood, this moment has only become more significant, carrying as it does the knowledge that I must soon begin to say my goodbyes to all those beloved who make the pilgrimage to the fest each year.
“That moment on Sunday” wouldn’t work on a bingo card. It’s an entirely self-contained, idiosyncratic experience, something we each encounter differently. Still, it provides a much-needed dose of reckoning that puts the rest of the festival in perspective. This year, it hit me hardest on Sunday during the dance-heavy sets by Sofia Kourtesis and Toro y Moi—I felt most present in my body then, a poppers head rush binding me happily to the spot. Like my chance meeting with a fellow urban-planning student three years ago, these musical moments will stay affixed to my body, ready to be recalled on Sunday next year, when I will say goodbye all over again.
Today I’m still basking in the afterglow of this year’s festival, grateful for every box I checked off on my bingo card and for every not-a-box I checked off in my heart—all the glorious things that have already vanished into the ether, never to be seen or heard again. Three days of Pitchfork fade to memory before we even get back home, but for everyone who kept their senses alive while there was still time, those days are assured an afterlife.