An important moment in the life of any music fan comes when they go to a festival they’ve been attending for several years and think — “Man, am I old?”
For me, at 28, the 2015 edition of Summer Sonic marked this milestone (which came a bit early, if you ask me). Held on Aug. 15 and 16 in Chiba (Tokyo) and Osaka simultaneously, the punters filling Chiba’s QVC Marine Field and the Makuhari Messe convention center skewed young. It was appropriate, since Summer Sonic was highlighted by Top 40 pop stars from overseas and EDM (electronic dance music) acts — both genres that target younger listeners.
Which isn’t to say older customers were left to stare blankly at a sea of shirtless dudes bouncing around to EDM remixes of Maroon 5 tracks. Summer Sonic has always made the effort to be everything to everyone. This year’s lineup, like the 15 before it, appealed to as many types of music fans as possible. It’s easy to scoff at the acts you don’t like on the roster, but it’s also pretty simple to string together a good day.
Still, the festival’s main goal is to bring in the teens and 20-somethings. The most crowded sets belonged to pop acts; three of the four headliners have been radio staples in the West over the past two years. American performer Ariana Grande brought out an energetic crowd early Saturday night, and had them hopping along to hits such as “Problem” and the EDM-glazed “Break Free.” The next evening, Imagine Dragons attracted an equally large crowd for their brand of screamy rock.
Pharrell Williams, who closed out the Tokyo edition of Summer Sonic at the QVC stadium on Sunday, has helped produce some of the biggest and most influential songs of the past 20 years. His headline set played out like a mini history lesson — and even featured a N.E.R.D. reunion — but the biggest cheers came when he wheeled out fresher material, such as the Daft Punk collaboration “Get Lucky” and his own “Happy.”
An assortment of Japanese artists scattered about the venue also helped draw in the kids, ranging from wolf-masked rock group Man With A Mission to up-and-coming trio Shishamo. Despite leaning on many domestic acts, Summer Sonic only featured two on the main Marine Stage: pop singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and rock outfit Kana-Boon. The former attracted an especially large crowd Saturday morning, and got massive applause after pointing out she was the only Japanese act playing the stadium that day (a response that was nearly matched when she shared her intention of buying a Marilyn Manson shirt afterward).
One genre represented less at this edition than at previous Summer Sonic events was idol pop. This year, those acts were mostly relegated to a stage next to the food court, causing a lot of festival-goers to cover their ears while standing in line for gelato as the vaguely new-wave-tinged unit You’ll Melt More! screamed into its microphones. The exception was Babymetal, playing its fourth Summer Sonic in a row , who attracted a large crowd to the Mountain Stage. At this point, though, the heavy-metal-meets-pop trio are more a spectacle all their own than idol novelty.
The decrease in idols was a rare bit of shade from an event that draws its crowds by signing onto anything that’s popular. The festival’s main rival, Fuji Rock, has raised eyebrows in recent years by featuring more domestic rock bands and EDM acts, but still tries to keep its underground edge by including someone like Deadmau5, who puts on airs of artistry.
Fuji would probably never feature Zedd, EDM’s current pop poster boy. At Summer Sonic, however, the Russian-German producer was a big hit. He was on the main stage to play his own songs and remixes of pop hits. From the seats it was a repetitive affair, but to the thousands having their brains melted in the pit — the most packed the stadium got all weekend — his set was a hedonistic hit.
Summer Sonic may have courted the youth, but it made sure to save some sugar for the so-called old guard, too. The highlight of the entire weekend came when American R&B artist D’Angelo and his band, The Vanguard, took the Mountain Stage. It was his first show in Japan since 1996, and he delivered a set that was invariably politically charged and brimming with joy — sported a huge smile throughout.
“C’mon sing it with me,” he shouted during a slow-burning version of “Untitled (How Does It Feel?),” and the crowd obliged. If this is what it means to “feel old,” then I’m sure life is just going to get sweeter.