Written by Nick Murray • Photography by Theo Wargo/Getty Images • August 21, 2016
Couples at music festivals hold each other with an intensity you rarely see in public. From afar, and even sometimes from a-close, it's nearly impossible to tell whether they're fighting or professing their undying love, whether the conversation will end in tears or a deluge of PDA.
This kind of embrace could be found everywhere during day one of the second annual Billboard Hot 100 Festival--against the fence during Rae Sremmurd; under an awning in the beer garden; in the upper deck of the Nikon Theater at Jones Beach amphitheater, just as Ariana Grande began her headlining set.
No matter where you stood, or who you stood with, Hot 100-goers seemed to embrace their own eclecticism. And why not? The concept alone justified it, because if there's one thing that the Hot 100 documents, it's pop's range at any particular moment. On Friday night, the rapper Wale, French DJ Madeon, and a teen-friendly diva like Grande could all play side by side based solely on the fact that they're all are popular. Everything else was secondary.
Sleigh Bells' Alexis Krauss
Rachel Platten, one of the few Friday acts who was neither a rapper nor a DJ, performed an afternoon set that included the day's first acoustic guitar sighting. She dedicated "1,000 Ships"—have you ever wondered what a Decemberists/Vanessa Carlton collab would sound like?—to the people who used to watch her perform in the nearby New York bars. Later, her mantra-like "Fight Song" launched a big crowd sing-along, and she covered Swedish House Mafia's "Don't You Worry Child."
Up next, Fetty Wap filled all but the amphitheater's top tier, drawing a crowd that would rival Ariana's in size and outdo it in grinding. Here, most couples were back-to-front, and Fetty put them in motion by rapping over finished tracks, harmonizing with his own lyrics before ceding the stage his pal Monty. Looking around, I couldn't help but think that at 25, the rapper may have been one of the oldest people in the building.
Outside, the EDM-heavy Next Up Stage stood to the left. On the right, the Sun Stage seemed to house the "older" acts, like Brooklyn band Sleigh Bells. At around 6:45 p.m. on Friday, indie rock duo took the stage to deliver something of an intervention in the form of an hour of piercing, rhythmic hard rock that both drew from Billboard's unlikely context and defied it. When accidental mic feedback forced those assembled to cover their ears, singer Alexis Krauss looked more thrilled than embarrassed. Eventually, even the ravers in the crowd started head-banging. A kid in a Donald Trump hat left after about five seconds.
Martin Garrix was surely the loudest act of the day: The bass on tracks like "Virus" was powerful enough to shake some of the low-tide loose from the recesses of the amphitheater. Even the mother sitting next to me in the upper deck raised her hands when the DJ finally played "Animals," his biggest hit. Back at the Sun Stage, Garrix's confetti blew over the crowd just as the caffeinated Atlanta rap duo Rae Sremmurd queued the minor chords that began their highest-charting hit, the consumer's anthem "No Type."
Similar cross-pollination preceded Ariana Grande's set, when tracks from Kanye West's The Life of Pablo carried across the concourse to the main stage. Then, as if by design, she and her dancers emerged in Yeezy-like garb, wearing baggy earth tones and looking like monks headed out for a jog. From the beginning of "Bang Bang," Grande delivered pop in its purest form. Over the course of her set, bits of sounds heard earlier in the day—hip-hop, EDM, R&B, and even a little rock—dissolved together, keeping only traces of their original code. There was even, for the first time since "Buffalo Soldier" reverberated across the parking lot earlier that afternoon, a little reggae: "Wrist icicle, ride dick bicycle," Nicki Minaj rapped, in absentia, while Ariana Grande mouthed along on "Side by Side." Finally, the Hot 100 appeared, rendered not just as a two-day festival but a single star, part-diva, part genre-conjurer.