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Square Garden fest featured performances by Charli XCX, Benny Blanco, Cashmere Cat and more
SQUARE GARDEN featuring 100 GECS, CHARLI XCX, KERO KERO BONITO, DANNY L HARLE, A.G. COOK, BENNY BLANCO, CASHMERE CAT and others in Minecraft, Friday, April 24. Rating: NNNN
It’s going to be a long time before we’re able to go to concerts again – in person, anyway. There’s plenty of space available to hold gatherings freely, with no risk of getting a ticket for improper social distancing. It just happens to be virtual space.
This past Friday, warped pop duo 100 gecs threw their own festival inside Minecraft. The event was called Square Garden and featured a stacked lineup of weird pop and electronic artists including Charli XCX, Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat, Kero Kero Bonito and more.
Though there are plenty of artists livestreaming acoustic sets from their living rooms, video games are strangely becoming the arena for big, communal events that feel more like shows and festivals.
Last week, rapper Travis Scott set a record for his trippy, psychedelic Astronomical “experience” within the battle game Fortnite, drawing close to 28 million players. You can imagine that concert promoters and record labels are taking note, especially considering how monetized the performance was – there was exclusive merch and in-game purchases, and it heralded a new collaborative project with Kid Cudi called The Scotts.
Compared with that, 100 gecs’ festival felt unpolished and DIY in all the ways we miss from IRL live music. Not an official collaboration with Minecraft, which is the highest grossing video game of all time, it was less like a sold-out arena show and more like they rented a venue, commissioned some visuals from local artists, turned the bathrooms gender-neutral and invited all their weirdo friends. They took donations throughout for Feeding America, a charity that’s fuelling food banks during COVID-19.
100 gecs, the duo of Dylan Brady and Laura Les, were about to go on their first major headlining tour when the quarantine hit, and there was a lot of buzz around the breakout group. In Doug Ford’s plan for reopening Ontario, public gatherings like concerts will be the last to return, which means it’ll be a long time before Toronto gets a proper gecs show.
In reality, playing in Minecraft probably suits them better than playing the Velvet Underground. Their first official show was actually within Minecraft, at a festival called Coalchella. The game’s blocky, retro-futuristic aesthetic and its procedurally generated 3D world are like the visual representation of the duo’s sound: a strangely addictive, hyperactive mishmash of pop-punk, hip-hop, nu-metal, dubstep, the Chipmunks and electro-pop sounds – like it’s creating itself out of materials found on SoundCloud.
Sandbox games – open-ended games in which users can create and modify the environment – have become the canvas for approximations of social interactions we can no longer have in person (see: surprise parties and protests within Animal Crossing). And in certain ways, this really felt like real life. I showed up at 6:30 pm, around the time of the second act, and entered the URL to get into their specially created world. But I kept getting different variations on the same error message: the server was full. “Did the door kid not get the updated guest list?” I joked in an email to the publicist. (Another Minecraft festival featuring Massive Attack, Pussy Riot and IDLES was supposed to take place the next day, but was postponed after the servers crashed.)
So, I watched the majority of Square Garden on Twitch instead (it was also streaming on YouTube). There, I saw the makeshift venue filled with blocky avatars of kids jumping around in unison to the music. There was a stage and an approximation of a DJ booth, and the walls were adorned with the poster for the event, listing all the acts we’d be hearing. The view switched between vantage points: a crowd cam, mosh cam, worlds cam and dead cam – the latter with messages like “OH NO! you were devoured by the goblin king during his great feast” and “the crowd became too rowdy and you passed out in the pit,” with countdowns to respawn. Kids in the chat called in all caps for trans rights and to “LEGALIZE DUBSTEP.”
There was a tongue-in-cheek looseness to the whole festival that felt fun in a way that stay-home shows rarely do, especially the big star-studded live-with-my-Grammys benefit shows that have been all over TV the last couple of weeks (though the money they’ve raised for charities and frontline workers are nothing to scoff at). The audio came mostly from DJ sets, which were livestreamed on 100 gecs’ website with the aim of soundtracking your gameplay. But you could also just watch the whole thing synced on Twitch or YouTube like I did.
Parry Gripp sang songs about space unicorns and rainbows, while producers like Danny L Harle, 99jakes and A.G. Cook combined similar amounts of Blink-182, bouncy eurotrash and harsh, dissonant noise.
Later, my inklings about the influences of all this new, punk-edged Warholian electro-pop was hammered in by the b2b set by superstar producers Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat, who spun remixes of Cotton Eye Joe, the Hampster Dance, Aqua and the Spice Girls – basically the soundtrack to my 1999 bar mitzvah. The Minecraft visuals, meanwhile, looked like they would have fit in a video for Eiffel 65 or Crazy Frog.
Kero Kero Bonito and Charli XCX brought a poppier sheen to those sounds, with the former singing about the floating feeling of love while the Twitch view was actually floating above the crowd. British pop auteur Charli XCX, who’s really been making the most of this quarantine (streaming a talk show, recording an album, playing Club Quarantine), played a DJ mini-set that leaned into her weirder sounds, including Taxi, her somewhat rare collaboration with SOPHIE, and a pair of collaborations with the gecs: her remix of their song Ringtone and her new song Claws, which is produced by Brady. “I don’t know what Minecraft is,” she deadpanned.
By the time 100 gecs came on to close the night, I finally made my way into their server. It took me a little while to figure out the controls (I’m brand new to Minecraft, and this was a hell of an introduction) but eventually I was able to follow the arrows laid out into the venue. There, I was able to experience (somewhat) first-hand what I had been seeing on Twitch and – it was unexpectedly satisfying, like finally getting into a club after listening to muffled sounds for hours from the queue. It felt like a festival.