American DJ Steve Aoki summed up the weird and wild vibe of the Supersonic festival during his Sunday night headlining performance.
“This is the most energetic, quietest show I’ve ever played,” Aoki said with a little laugh late into his set. “Very interesting.” He then reminded the thousands of attendees inside Chiba’s Zozo Marine Stadium to not scream, before deploying a blown-out bass drop that had hands in the air (and mouths shut).
Supersonic, held on Sept. 18 and 19, aimed to pull off a music festival amid a pandemic. Organizers Creativeman imagined the event — originally announced in 2020 as the Olympic-year replacement for its annual Summer Sonic blockbuster, but postponed — as a chance to jolt life back into the live-music scene following a disastrous 18 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company knew holding a music festival in 2021 would look drastically different from previous iterations.
That became clear immediately after disembarking at Kaihinmakuhari Station at 10 a.m. (on a Sunday only, the previous day saw a typhoon sweep through the country). The typically numerous waves of fans heading from station to venue were reduced to a trickle owing to Supersonic’s limited capacity. A handful of people enjoyed tallboys of beer outside a Ministop convenience store, getting into a party mood before they entered a venue where no alcohol would be sold. The only sign around the station that Supersonic was happening at all were staff directing punters toward the stadium.
Pretty much every attempt at a music festival this year has been met with the belief that a superspreader event would follow. After a relatively incident-free Summer Olympics, the masked masses turned to concerts in a pandemic panic. A scaled-down Fuji Rock Festival in Niigata Prefecture last month drew disapproving coverage from news outlets that normally wouldn’t give it any attention. Yet, there have been no major outbreaks linked to the event.
Then came Namimonogatari2021. Videos of maskless revelers drinking alcohol out in the open and cheering loudly — all actions running counter to antivirus measures — quickly spread online and the media backlash was fast and warranted. Supersonic was up next on the calendar and it was hit with the double whammy of its Saturday headliner, Kygo, canceling, and its Sunday headliner, Zedd, showing off impressive quarantine digs at a time when many people can’t get back into the country to see family, meet work commitments or get to schools. Lined up like vultures outside Supersonic’s front gates were TV cameras and reporters looking to spot any signs of wrongdoing.
However, the situation didn’t get out of hand. Creativeman went to great lengths to create a COVID-unfriendly environment. To get in at all required a 10-step registration process and the presence of three apps downloaded to a smartphone, including the government’s COVID-19 tracking app. Each attendee received a Supersonic face mask upon entry, and was encouraged to stay seated between acts. The action took place in an open-air baseball stadium, with certain chairs taped off to ensure social distancing. Meanwhile, staff vigilantly enforced antivirus measures. Whenever someone let out a yelp that was slightly too loud, black-clad staff dashed over to quiet them. Anyone removing their mask also earned a talking-to, and I saw one staff member chase down an attendee whose mask didn’t cover their nose.
In addition to these safety measures, certain workers spent the whole event spraying and wiping down empty seats, railings and concourse stands. While the thorough wipe-down was somewhat performative since COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through the air, this display of cleanliness helps during a time in the pandemic when people latch onto any transgression and turn it into a to-do. If a few extra people wiping down benches wards off extra controversy, scrub away.
The overall result was a fun, albeit odd two-day festival that was simultaneously broadcast online (which is how I took in the first day).
To be fair, Supersonic marked the first live event I had been to since February 2020, so I was especially receptive to any kind of live music. Actions that would have felt annoying in pre-pandemic times — overly long talks from artists between songs, instructions on waving from side to side, Aoki unironically urging the stadium to wave their smartphone lights in the air along to Coldplay’s “Yellow” — were welcome after a year and a half stuck inside watching shows on Zoom. Simply being around other people who were equally excited to see live music was enough.
Supersonic offered a glimpse of what live music could look like in the near future. Sky-Hi and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu came as J-pop veterans on Saturday and Sunday, the latter getting around the cheering ban with songs built around handclaps to engage the pumped-up crowd.
Younger groups like the nine-member NiziU were able to amp up the crowd at 11:45 a.m. with a short set — four songs in total, including last year’s pandemic pleaser “Make You Happy.” Fans showed appreciation by waving cardboard cutouts of their favorite member’s face. And male pop outfit Be:First attracted similar excitement, despite the added wrinkle of performing during a typhoon-associated downpour.
Most of the fans in attendance, however, were there for hard-hitting dance music, with the buzzsaw sound of 2010s EDM dominating the lineup. Musically, it made for one of the stranger summer music events in recent times — rock, usually the backbone of these types of gatherings in Japan, only existed as an accoutrement for the DJs performing, whether it was the German act Digitalism looping the opening guitar riff of Blur’s “Song 2” during its set or Aoki acknowledging the stadium setting with Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”
This probably stemmed from practical reasons — a single DJ and their crew equals less people than a team of rock roadies — but the audience, many sporting EDM fest Ultra Japan gear, loved it, even with safety regulations heavily enforced. Saturday saw rabid crowds jump and wave their hands in the air for Alan Walker and headliner Zedd’s pop-accented anthems. (Turns out the crowd wasn’t brought down by any angry tweets.) Zedd in particular weaved in a mini-history of EDM through his set, along with a rendition of “The Legend Of Zelda” theme.
The crowd responded just as eagerly to Aoki, a showman capable of rip-roaring noise, earnest passages and irony (delivered through Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” with footage from “Titanic” playing behind him, but with Aoki’s face swapped onto Jack and Rose).
“What a strange time we live in,” he said, before turning around to snap a selfie with the audience.
By the time Sunday reached its final hour — a special back-to-back set from Walker, Zedd and Aoki to fill in for Kygo’s absence — fans were ecstatic, to the point where staff had to ramp up their polite reminders to take it down a notch. Whoever can organize a full-fledged EDM festival in a restrictionless future will likely be a huge success.
While Supersonic can’t strictly be called a success for two weeks to account for the possibility of new COVID-19 cases linked to it, Creativeman did everything in its power to put on a safe event. If Summer Sonic 2022 plays out under similar circumstances, I’ll likely be disappointed (perhaps more for society at large), but for now I’m grateful for this musical reprieve from pandemic life. Here’s hoping we can let out a cheer soon.
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