Over the course of its three days, Pitchfork Music Festival 2019 had a good amount of variety. Though fans of heavier music or more experimental electronic artists might’ve been out of luck, the lineup otherwise was a good balance offering up something for everyone, and not just in terms of genre. You had legacy alternative acts like Stereolab and Belle & Sebastian on the same day as the Isley Brothers; you had reliably crowd-pleasing festival acts like HAIM headlining over ascendant songwriters like Soccer Mommy or buzz-y young bands like Black Midi. And then, closing it all out at the end, was the pop one-two of Charli XCX and Robyn.
This was a smart bit of booking. Not only are both those acts somewhat unifying draws that go over particularly well at festivals, but it was also a way to make a kind of statement — these are pop artists with big choruses, but they are still left-of-center. Both Charli XCX and Robyn have either released or been involved in some very famous songs this decade, but neither is exactly a ubiquitous household name. They are pop artists outside the usual mechanisms of the pop world. So, if Pitchfork strives to provide a festival a little to the side of a normal American festival, in many ways Charli and Robyn were the ideal options to close this year’s iteration.
While the intimate size of Union Park means that even a mainstage set can feel a bit cozy, these were some of the primary sets of the weekend that really made you think you were at a festival. Charli came on in the early evening. For most of her set, it was just her onstage, flanked by two giant cubes, but that was all it really took; her energy was electric, and never let up throughout.
Her set was dominated by recent material, mostly from Pop 2 or from her upcoming album Charli. In this context even something like “Vroom Vroom” started to sound like an bygone incarnation of an artist in perpetual transformation. That meant that her only real concession to her old hits, performing “I Love It,” almost sounded like a different singer entirely at this point. For an artist who’s always trying to push the boundaries of pop music, this set was appropriately about the future.
And that seemed just fine by the audience, who received the set closer of “1999” as if it was one of the old hits. There was one more crowd-pleasing moment towards the end of the set, as well. “You know one of my favorite people is from Chicago, right?” Charli asked. “You probably know who I’m talking about, right?” CupcakKe then joined her for a feverish run through “Lipgloss.” If you looked at Charli’s set as an opener for Robyn, she certainly got the audience amped up for the night’s big headliner. But throughout she had that characteristic swagger and presence. In her own right, she was underlining that she was one of the most iconic names on this year’s lineup.
Robyn’s set, too, was mostly focused on new material. She’s currently touring behind her excellent comeback Honey, and these shows have been triumphant. Her setup was a bit more elaborate than most other acts over the weekend. The stage was draped with flowing white curtains, and unlike Charli she was backed up by a live band. The sound was huge and muscular, every synth sound reverberating through the park. Robyn took the festival over. From her first note to the final refrain of the weekend, this was her world.
Even when singing songs about heartbreak or loneliness, Robyn appeared ecstatic throughout. She thrashed around, danced, urged the audience to sing the biggest hooks with her. (They readily complied.) New songs, whether the spaced-out “Send To Robin Immediately” or the tropical hangout of “Beach2k20,” were as warmly received as the old favorites. “Missing U,” in particular, came off like one of Robyn’s classics already.
That song was situated towards the end, right between her two monolithic songs. “Dancing On My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend” have only grown in stature since Robyn first unveiled them at the beginning of the decade. And that is very evident when you watch her play these in front of a festival audience. During “Dancing On My Own” she ceded whole parts of the melody to the crowd, and “Call Your Girlfriend” inspired similarly cathartic singalongs. We already knew this after years of living with these tracks, but they offered the sort of wholly transporting moments you wish for in the best pop songs.
This is the best way to end a festival weekend, with an act that offers something communal, thousands of people gathered to sing the same words after a couple days of dispersing to different corners and different artists. Having Charli and Robyn back to back was the perfect way to achieve that. Two artists who have done things on their own terms and their own timetables, unleashing pop songs into the world only once they have been calibrated and honed just so. Two artists who, even if you don’t hear them on the radio constantly, can bring everyone together for one final celebration.