As of a few hours before doors opened, most results for the Twitter search “Camp Flog Gnaw fire” were about how lit the lineup was, with only a handful expressing concern over whether the massive fire ripping through Southern California would affect the festival in its first year on the Dodgers Stadium grounds.
The crowd trended young and fashion conscious—massive merch lines were a constant, and it’s likely that many of those wearing face masks would have done so whether or not the air quality was in question. There was something a little dystopian about the sheer number of Flog branded masks. In a way, the Flog Gnaw experience is a microcosm of how we consume culture in this unceasingly anxious age: feverishly, with an urgency that seems fueled by its ability to keep the ever-mounting stressors from breaching the gate.
There was some palpable uneasiness within the crowd—Karen, who came up from Florida was impressed by Flog Gnaw (SZA in particular) but concerned about the air quality, while another out-of-town attendee had to burst a friend’s bubble about the smoke-filled skies on Saturday.
“A girl I came with was like, ‘Oh, it got cloudy,’ and I had to tell her that those weren’t clouds,” said Walter, who flew in from D.C.
To that end, this year’s Flog Gnaw was an immaculately constructed diversion. The myriad carnival rides and games create a sense of surreal escapism, and the festival was chock-full of appointment viewing moments both planned—the cathartic if unpolished Kids See Ghosts set, which included their collaborative album and cuts like “Pursuit of Happiness”—and the spontaneous (Pusha-T unwittingly pulling a Drake on Drake with his screen, later clarifying he didn’t approve the profane message).
There was an eeriness to being at the festival not inconceivably far from the path of the Woolsey Fire, a feeling difficult to reckon with the younger crowd’s elation at sets by Jaden Smith and Billie Eilish, or catching a glimpse of Tyler as he made his way backstage. A handful of performers addressed the fire directly or indirectly in their sets, but largely the sets were committed to relishing in the strange, singular mix of talent on display.
The headliners largely skewed within rap or R&B (Kanye’s Kids See Ghosts Grammy submission choices notwithstanding), but the early parts of the day were a testament to Tyler’s versatile ear. L.A. band Wallows played a giddy hometown set that blended beachy surf rock with post-punk and more uptempo contemporary indie. After their set, the band described Flog Gnaw as the no. 1 festival they’d wanted to play and still were clearly processing the experience.
“’I’m just a huge fan of Tyler, and the lineup he curates every year. It’s one of those things you look at and are like, Man, it’d be crazy to play that festival because that’s curated by someone that we love so much,” said singer and guitarist Dylan Minnette. “So to actually be a part of that this year—it’s one of those things where you’re like, How do you get on that? Then you’re on it and you’re like, What?!”
Montreal’s Men I Trust opened Sunday on the Camp Stage, and their tight set captured the band’s shimmering sound and easygoing charm as they glided through tracks like “Tailwhip” and “Show Me How.” The band acknowledged that they have a smaller following than most of the others on the bill, and expressed gratitude to Tyler for having made a point of reaching out to them.
“Tyler actually messaged me through Instagram. I was like, ‘Wait, Dragos, Tyler just texted me. What do I answer?’ says Men I Trust’s Emmanuelle Proulx. “He liked a song we uploaded on YouTube and he wanted to know when it was about to be out. It was just a short clip, it wasn’t a finished song. I think two weeks later [we had the offer].”
As Pitchfork’s Paul A. Thompson wrote, Flog Gnaw is indebted to Tyler and Odd Future, which led to some stunning moments that could only have occurred there, like the rapturous response to Tyler acolyte Rex Orange County who blasted through his sweet, homespun love songs and a feather-light cover of Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” or Domo Genesis’ heartfelt tribute to his “lost brother” Mac Miller. Domo performed their collaboration “Coming Back” and played Miller’s “Best Day Ever” as his closing track, visibly struggling to contain his emotions onstage.
Tyler’s set, which featured mostly Flower Boy cuts but a few old standards like “IFHY,” contained a thesis statement hewed from “Where This Flower Blooms.” In his performance of the Flower Boy standout he harped on the line “Tell these black kids they could be who they are,” repeating it passionately several times. Speaking later, he stressed the importance of individuality and commitment, delivering resonant words that lived up to his role as the carnival’s ringmaster.
“In this crowd right now is somebody who makes beats or raps or sings, and in four or five years, you’re going to be my competition,” he said. “If y’all’s success ain’t quick and fast do not give that shit up.”
Check out our gallery of the weekend’s best performances shot by Daniel Garcia above.