By VITTORIA BENZINE, May 2023
When I read in January that MGMT would dedicate their first live show in four years to redux-ing Oracular Spectacular at L.A.’s indie sleaze-fest Just Like Heaven, it’d been five years since the last time I’d seen them live. My first time was at The Mann Center on their 2010 Congratulations tour. That was maybe the only time I’d seen them play “Kids.” During it, the band walked out on barricades separating GA from the rest of us. I wailed and grasped at Andrew Vanywyngarden’s pant leg. He grimaced down at my orthodontic contortions in sheer horror. I was 15 at the time.
What’s the catch, I wondered, regarding Oracular Spectacular’s purported rebirth. Others have laid out the lore — MGMT made their hits as experiments, and railed against their fame. One friend and I waited out back for an hour after a 2012 show at the SteelStacks with a handful of other acolytes. MGMT drove past us in their hatchback. In that era where celebrities bared it all, I learned boundaries the hard way with MGMT. Or I would have, if I didn’t take such experiences as challenges. I just learned to be Machiavellian instead, in true terminally cool bloghouse style.
No matter that Just Like Heaven fell smack in the middle of two art fair weeks in NYC — this music is the underlying reason I write, and sometimes the art world makes me want to drink. I got my ticket in April and realized it would mark my first fest in 4.5 years of California sobriety.
As an angsty teen I fell for MGMT’s moody, abstract lyrics. Paired with mystic backbeats, their songs still offer a timeless canvas for my inner ravages. Their music taught me how to feel, write — it stays the same, but I change. Every album has offered solace since, from mega-sagas like “Siberian Breaks” to “Little Dark Age” — first the single that accompanied my alcoholism’s death rattle in 2017, then “One Thing Left to Try” off the album, my favorite from first counting days.
By now I’ve seen MGMT eight times, including festivals — Firefly in Dover, Delaware, weeks after graduating high school, Panorama in NYC the day I turned 22. They bookend a five-year drug-fueled frenzy, emulating the sensibilities MGMT symbolized at the start of their career, in pop culture. My high school friends and I prefaced risky decisions with “Time To Pretend” until someone we knew nearly choked on their vomit. We attended the first year of Made in America in Philly — they ran out of water and would only sell us beer. Before Firefly we hotboxed the empty parking lot where we left the car. I was so stoned I swore I pissed myself during Passion Pit. Another friend crowd surfed during MGMT. These are the stories I can tell you in this forum.
I’d traded the hallucinatory self-importance I felt while wasted to work on my actual life since last seeing MGMT in 2018 at Kings Theater and Brooklyn Steel, within nights of each other. Learned a lot about myself and magic since. I suspended expectations and practiced floating through Just Like Heaven— easy, since Golden Voice is a well oiled machine. The one-day fest offered cash to card conversions, ample bathrooms, a store selling tampons, rolling papers, and more.
Stress has a sheen I’m working on ignoring. Unlike Delaware, it was legal to get stoned at Just Like Heaven. The sun singed my shoulders while SoCal mountains ringed us. The Faint brought our Stardust Stage crowd to gyrating life. I was surprised that lead singer Todd Fink still sounds so sexy. He seemed surprised too, praising our energy: “I didn’t expect that.” Azealia Banks arrived a perfunctory 20 minutes late, rapping “Fuck Him All Night” acapella, stunning in green.
It did feel like heaven — in comparison with the adrenaline of megafests like Osheaga, where four wasted girls couldn’t last an hour without losing each other. I wandered Just Like Heaven with a friend in dazed contentment to see Ladytron at the larger Orion Stage, playing classics like “Discotraxx” I’d never fathomed hearing live. I stopped listening to “Seventeen” years ago due to the hook, but as Helen Marnie sang, it resounded like a middle finger, not a death knell.
Legendary Peaches dommed the Stardust Stage, then we all danced for pure love with Hot Chip. I kept thinking how these acts are only getting better with age. Any other evening I would’ve been listening to this music over my headphones — that day, I was seeing it in person. As Caribou mesmerized the crowd with “Odessa” I was overwhelmed by the reality I’ve made material choices that have impacted whole families based on the lyrics across these sets.
I never did fully overcome the conviction I’d meet Andrew and Ben that day. I kept echoing that we needed to stake out an MGMT spot up front so I could make eyes, like I had at every other show. Even with determined navigation, we got lodged in the crowd — a quarter of the way from the stage. My friend noted we wouldn’t be able to see. Mitigating my sense of sunk costs, I reminded myself of another revelation I’d had during Ladytron, when I’d wondered whether it’d be better to experience the fest from VIP. “More fun to be in the crowd” I’d quickly resolved.
That particular crowd made me put my money where my mouth was. It was dead silent before MGMT went onstage. Antsy attendees elbowed and yelled at each other. This band was my self-serving obsession. For the first time I sought community. I thought of the hipster disposition they’d helped hawk and felt embarrassed like never before about the fan base I was a part of.
It began with a fakeout, the first beats of “Time To Pretend” interrupted by a minute-long film like a surreal AI montage around “manifest destiny.” Before the set started I’d tried being friendly by warmly warning one of the hetero couples surrounding me I’d be chain smoking with the music. The girl didn’t seem stoked. In the interest of community I held off — I felt she’d signed on for rock and roll by being there, but no one was lighting up. I wondered how many people yawning through “Weekend Wars” knew what was in store. I felt them crack during “The Youth.” A large proportion of the crowd palpably grew up listening to it. We were changing back then. Did we?
“This is really different from the last set we saw by them,” the girl next to me said as “Electric Feel” came on. Everyone wiggled, but I tried not to feel disheartened by the general lack of losing it that the song deserves. Then my stomach sank. We all knew what came next. I personally hadn’t listened to it since I was 15. When I was a kid. They acted out the literal lore as bobbleheads.
There was no getting off the rollercoaster. The crowd sang along to “Kids” and I tried not to cry. Then they’d all definitely think I was on drugs. During the song’s instrumental break an actual referee came on stage, reminding me of precious “Metanoia.” Ben and Andrew began playing hockey for real, like the tales say they did in college. It also felt like an oblique callout to Frank Ocean’s alleged NHL plan at Golden Voice sister fest Coachella weeks prior. It dawned on me that MGMT had come to this set entirely with love, because play is an ultimate expression of love. In spite of myself I threw up my hands, laughing. I took them down and started crying — the good kind of crying, that feels like something held inside a long time finally coming out.
I was so wrapped up that I didn’t realize what was next until the beat began. My entire worldview lives in “4th Dimensional Transition.” I danced with my eyes closed most of the song.
One time I cried to “Pieces of What” while wasted at a basement party in high school and became irrevocably tied to it in my peers’ eyes. It’s a longer story than that why the song hasn’t grown with me, but I was touched by how many people softly sang along with it, realizing we all had deep personal relations. The blockbuster-quality production framing MGMT’s performance, though, repeatedly lent new perspective. A local children’s choir joined to back this track — their family cheered and filmed from close to where we stood — while footage of mushroom clouds framed the stage. Oracular Spectacular, I was reminded, is in many ways a protest album.
Following that tacit permission to sing along, I allowed myself the visceral pleasure of belting every word on “Of Moons Birds and Monsters” because who knew the next time I’d get to do so live again? I tried to do it in a way that wasn’t directed at the girl who thought I didn’t deserve to have a cigarette at this show, more so that the crowd felt inspired to dance harder. Beneath my joy I hoped that if they heard the words more clearly, they’d understand the song’s power more.
If each track on this album is an astrological mascot up for assignment, “The Handshake” is mine — favored on high school bus rides to volleyball games, emblematic of the struggles I encountered during addiction and the dryer moments of my recovery, like getting walloped thrice over throughout 2022 while meeting my newfound art heroes. I met Hollywood’s favorite dealer in Basel last summer, then went to live with him on the premise he’d ‘love and take care of me’ because he hadn’t ‘felt this way in 35 years.’ Even though I knew better about the handshake by that point, I obliged — then had the gall to feel hurt when he started ignoring me four days in. Military propaganda played onscreen. I felt self compassion, urgency in my commitment to the macroorganism, comfort. Maybe I’m better off never meeting Ben and Andrew, especially given their lyrics to “The Divine Chord,” off the Avalanches’ album. For the sake of my ability to write.
“Future Reflections” ends the entire album, a rumination, on an ambiguous, semi-apocalyptic note. Even in the best imitation of Eden here on Earth, it’s all dust to dust and ashes to ashes.
They could have left it there, and it would have been magic, but MGMT came back on stage and the familiar bootup of “Love Always Remains” powered on. Blindsided, I had no strength left to hold it in. How many times between age 15 and, well, last week, had I found comfort in those words — “am I just someone from the past?” But also in the context of all the social revolution we’d heard across the day’s lyrics, and the healing MGMT was publicly facilitating, these lyrics I know so well sounded all new: “No one has to hear the sound of people laughing at their fears.”
By that point, warmth and fuzziness pervaded the crowd. I felt so satisfied I simply stumbled fifty feet or so backwards to make way for the rush of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fans who’d waited all day to see Karen O and co. headline. She’s a sight unlike any other alive — astounding with the range that deep-cut “Art Star” requires, while still weaponizing all my self-pity in “Y Control.” Ever gracious she thanked MGMT, Peaches, every woman on the bill, her father — in the crowd, on his birthday — and attendees. “If you’re here, then you love rockers,” she said. After the whole day, everyone found themselves there in one place. At last no one held back while they danced. In the end it was the music and the crowd that replenished me, ready to return to art and work. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // email@example.com // vittoriabenzine.com
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