The Astroworld Tragedy

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S1: Hey, there. This episode has a bit of adult language in it. Even if you wanted to avoid talking about what happened at Travis Scott’s Astroworld last week, it would be hard to do. The algorithms simply won’t let you.

S2: I saw the videos on Saturday morning. After everything happens, they were pretty much all over the internet. My wife woke me up with it.

S1: Tom Breihan writes for Stereogum.

S2: My kids barely know who Travis Scott is, but they’re on Tik Tok, and they definitely had opinions about it by, like Sunday.

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S1: At least eight people died and hundreds were injured last Friday when a surging crowd pushed the breath out of Astroworld audience of thousands. Two of the dead were high schoolers. The oldest victim was just 27 and the entire show was caught on tape. Myself so that there is video of Travis Scott singing while an unconscious concertgoer is carried out just yards away from him. There’s video of fans dancing on an ambulance as medics try to reach someone who’s in trouble. Looking down on what they might like to is gone. And then there’s tape of people begging for help or something you could say. This clip shows a man and a woman who’ve climbed up on a platform that is where a cameraman is livestreaming the performance for Apple Music. Their screams get cut off by the show as the camera guy waves them off, but they’re yelling at him. They’re saying, Stop the concert. But also, there’s someone dead down here. Stop the concert. And he sort of brushes them off. Did that surprise you?

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S2: Yeah, it does surprise me, but it also makes its own morbid kind of sense. These things are these sort of vast beasts, these concerts and this cameraman who’s trying to film his thing for Apple is probably not thinking about the safety of the people underneath it. It probably doesn’t even occur to him that he has any power to stop it, even if he thinks it should be done. It becomes an out of control thing. They decided about 20 minutes into the show that it had become a mass casualty incident.

S1: But the show kept going

S2: and the show kept going. The Houston police were worried about a riot if they stopped it, and so they let it keep going for another 40 minutes. And if they had stopped it, you know, who knows how things would have turned out? I don’t think they would have turned out worse.

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S1: Today on the show, sorting out just who’s to blame when a concert turns deadly, I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Can you give me a Travis Scott 101, like where he came from and what his music’s like?

S2: Travis Scott is from Houston. The Astroworld Festival is his festival. He started out as a rapper and producer who worked under Kanye West. He, I believe, co-produced some of the tracks on the Yeezus album that Kanye West put out around to 2013. Travis Scott emerged as his own artist, and he works as a rapper. He’s a sort of like, psychedelic figure.

S1: What do you mean when you say that a psychedelic figure?

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S2: He likes to create this sort of like woozy, mystical sound. So Houston has this long tradition of what’s called screw music

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S3: during the morning still going down? Well, sir, based around Scott’s,

S2: where legendary DJ Screw took treks, slowed them way down and made them sound alien and otherworldly and just super woozy and trippy

S4: and went down.

S2: That’s a sound that was specifically built because it sounded good when you’re under the influence of coding 12 syrup, which is what killed DJ Screw in 2000. Leon, probably, yeah. So there’s that sound and the drug both became more popular. Travis Scott integrated little bits of it into his music without going the full screw style. His music is sort of like built out of classic Houston rap sounds, but it brings in different things.

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S1: Is there a specific song?

S2: Well, the Sicko Mode is the anthem. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

S3: Yeah. Garneau, you were the pick and roll young flame, he has said. This year with our eyes on.

S2: It sounds endemic, but it keeps twisting. It sounds like a three or four different songs, all glued together. It’s full of samples, it’s full of allusions and and it has something like it has dozens of credited songwriters because it has so many samples and because the songs that had samples sample other songs. So these these tracks become these sort of like vast, multi-headed beasts. He is probably or has been up until now, probably one of the five or six biggest rappers in the world. He creates a lot of excitement around just the release of a single, and a lot of that has to do with his ability to create these like brand partnerships, which are a huge part of his identity. Like McDonald’s had a Travis Scott meal.

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S3: So will you? I’m Travis Scott this one McDonald’s order.

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S2: Follow me. He has sneakers that Nike makes. He is a corporate friendly figure.

S1: He’s not a businessman. He’s a business man.

S2: Yeah, he has made himself and other people very rich through these sort of sponsorship deal. Things that he does.

S1: So he’s brand friendly, he’s really popular, but he’s also known for his shows, Getting Wild. And this has been true since the beginning. Like you’ve talked about how you went to a show seven years ago when he didn’t even have an album, and already you could see this. What did you see there?

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S2: I saw him for the first time in 2014 in Austin, during South by Southwest. When he was a mixtape rapper, he had like one big mixtape out of nothing that you could really describe as a hit. When he performs and this is my first time seeing him, he didn’t really rap on stage, this really struck me blowing up. His thing is kind of sort of shouting melodic catch phrases. It’s about sort of capturing a certain feeling. So when he plays live, it’s always about telling the crowd how to react, saying Everybody jump up this way. Divide in half this way, we’re all going to rage together. It’s all going to be a big mosh pit.

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S4: Everybody has. So right now is this are here. First, is this where you? OK, let’s go through all of this and the focus of your brain stress

S2: machine in shows has really, really grown over the past six or seven years. It’s about sort of creating this feeling of catharsis. And that’s what he does. That has made him a huge live draw. It can make for an environment that is unpredictable and euphoric in some ways, but it can also be really unstable and potentially dangerous.

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S1: Yeah, the energy that you’re describing at Travis Scott shows. It was notable to me how often it had gone wrong before this past weekend. I wonder if you can describe some of the previous incidents where Travis Scott held a concert. Something went wrong and various people are trying to hold him accountable.

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S2: Yeah. So the the big thing that happened, the sort of emblematic moment before this one was at Terminal five in New York, which is a very tall concrete venue with balconies that go up several floors, this one show a few years ago. I believe what happened was he sort of shines the spotlight on somebody who was hanging from a second floor balcony and said, Go ahead. They’ll catch you. And then a while later, somebody fell. Or, he says, was pushed from a third floor balcony and fell and was paralyzed on the ground and apparently was then Travis Scott told people to bring him up on stage after he fell. And so this guy is now partially paralyzed. He tried suing Travis Scott.

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S1: I think the lawsuits still ongoing, like I read, he was going to there’s going to be some kind of testimony in December. And I think part of his his claim is that, you know, Travis Scott had me brought onto the stage, but if I’d gotten medical attention sooner, I wouldn’t be paralyzed.

S2: Yeah, a pretty clear case of a performer who wasn’t thinking clearly and did not necessarily have his audience, his best interests in mind and a big thing. I mean, you know, he has told crowds to smash through barriers before, and he has been arrested for it a couple of times and sort of plead it down to some minor charges. In the past week. Since Astroworld, there have been a lot of videos being sent around online of performers stopping shows to make sure that everybody’s OK and to get help to people. And Travis Scott has done that in the past, but he has also added to situations and helped create situations where people could get hurt.

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S1: Yeah, I was struck by this piece of video from the documentary about Travis Scott that I think was on Netflix, where you see the crew that’s getting ready to start a show openly talking about the fact that the crowd is going to get wild. People are going to have trouble breathing. They push up against the front

S5: end all the way across that still in the home front. So the pressure becomes very great up against the barricade. You will see a lot of crowd surfers in general, but also you see a lot of kids that is trying to get out and get to safety because they can’t breathe because it’s so compact.

S1: But it wasn’t even a warning. It was said casually,

S2: Yeah, it was like, This is what these shows are like, be ready for it. And Travis Scott has been proud of being able to create that atmosphere before he’s bragged about it. He has a line on one of his songs that says,

S3: And it ain’t no Muschietti’s pain, no injuries. I got on stage Gavin. That’s a nose

S2: bleed. So this has been a point of pride, his ability to make things go crazy. So set it off.

S1: It seems like in Houston, things went wrong from the start. Like there was one clip making the rounds of how early, like two p.m. before anyone was really on the stage. A bunch of concert goers rushed the barricades and they became through. And it was basically a stampede of people. Eventually, the police are there with horses, but they can’t even stop anyone.

S2: Yeah, and that that by itself for a Travis Scott show. I think something like that is pretty routine where a bunch of people bust their way in. And I think that is the sort of thing that you yourself to encourage the thing where these people got basically crushed to death while he was performing. That’s something else like that’s that is not routine.

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S1: Yeah, I mean, Scott took the stage around nine o’clock. And my understanding is that at least this is about the head of the Houston Police Department is saying that he basically warned Scott, there’s an energy out there. Be careful. You know, I’m worried. How did things start to go wrong?

S2: The way this festival was set up was there were two stages and usually at a music festival where there’s two stages. People play on alternating stages. Somebody plays well. Somebody else is setting up and it keeps going back and forth. But the first day of Astroworld, all of the earlier in the day played on one stage, while the other stage was empty. This was Travis Scott’s own stage. It cost, I believe, a reported $5 million to build. He had it set up to become this whole spectacle half an hour before he starts playing the screens near the stage. Start a countdown for when he’s going to go on. So it creates this big burst of excitement and energy when he is about to start. So the people who have been lined up at the front of this stage waiting for him to start for a while, they get sort of crushed by the big, big groups of people who come running over to the stage when the countdown starts up. So I think by the time Travis Scott even came on stage, things were very chaotic.

S1: Hmm. Yeah. So looking back looking, I mean, hindsight is 2020. But looking back now engineering the event so that you basically create a swell of a crowd seems like a terrible error.

S2: Yeah, and it also seems like from everything that I’ve read from the accounts of the people who were there, the promoters didn’t do anywhere near enough to to be ready for that. It seems like a lot of the medical people who had been hired to take care of injuries were in no way ready for what was about to happen. There are stories that some of them didn’t know how to do CPR. There was a video of somebody dropping a stretcher and dropping somebody on their head. There have been many, many Travis Scott shows where maybe people got bumps and bruises, but everybody was fine. This one was a bigger undertaking, and I think we’re going to be going through video and trying to figure out what happened for a long time. But it certainly seems like the people who put the show together should bear a real responsibility for not being ready for what was about to happen for what they had engineered.

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S1: Even if the staffing was inadequate, there was one person who many argue could have stopped the show Travis Scott’s. And while it’s hard to imagine how an artist would knowingly continue to perform after a mass casualty event has been declared by the local authorities. Tom says it’s impossible to know what Scott knew when or what Scott could even see from the stage.

S2: If you were a performer who routinely encourages this type of chaos and you look out at this vast crowd and you see chaos like, I can understand how he didn’t think that anything was going seriously wrong. Well, playing because

S1: this is what it always looks like.

S2: Yeah, exactly. There’s a there’s a part of the show in the video where he sees an ambulance out in the crowd, and he says it’s an ambulance call. It’s an ambulance. It’s everybody, OK, everybody wave your middle fingers if you’re OK. If everybody does, a little thing of it is done. And then he sees a bunch of middle fingers. And so he was like, All right, and so he starts. There’s another video of him stopping and saying, This person over here has passed out. Go help them. We need somebody. Help somebody pass

S3: somebody. How are you going to touch him? Not just back up,

S2: but also if you’re on stage in front of 50000 people as he was, then you can’t see everything. You just see this massive heaving humanity. And so I can understand how he would have looked out at that and not realized that things were going seriously wrong.

S1: When we come back, who bears responsibility for the Astroworld tragedy? The reason why the show didn’t stop. Is that at least the story we’ve been told is that the local authorities thought if we stopped the show, it might get worse. Do you think that? Hunch holds water.

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S2: Know their specific fear was a riot and a riot and a crowd surge are two very different things in a riot. Something like Guns N Roses in St. Louis. And I want to say 1991, people don’t get killed. They destroy a lot of property. But nobody died that day. I think worrying about a riot is as a sort of a misplaced fear. I think they should have stopped that show right away.

S1: Yeah, I wondered a little bit the fear of the riot. I was like, Is this about who’s performing and the assumptions they’re making about the fans? Because it seemed like a lot of the fans were really upset. And if someone had said. We’re going to stop the show, especially if the artist had said it, they would have listened.

S2: Yeah, you know, that’s definitely possible. I think the Houston police is going to have to think about that for a long time. I think. The way rap crowds get treated is potentially very different. A rap show is often more heavily policed than a rock show. And things about race and class come into that. The idea that the police didn’t necessarily trust this crowd to leave in an orderly way and so allowed them to keep getting crushed. You know, that’s messed up, and that should be really, really reexamined.

S1: I know you want to keep the focus on the structure here and the fact that the people in charge of planning the concert did not do their job in gaming out what could have gone wrong here. But it’s hard for me when I look back at Travis Scott’s history as a performer, when I look at what had happened at this venue earlier in the day. When I look at the fact that this is Travis Scott’s event that he was hosting, it’s hard for me to look at all that and think that he doesn’t bear at least some responsibility for what took place. Do you see it differently?

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S2: Not exactly. It’s a I think looking at Travis Scott. I think he certainly if he ever returns to performing, he needs to radically rethink the way that he does it. I think there is value in shows that get wild in mosh pits and in in the sort of the raging out thing the Travis Scott has always encouraged. I think that can be a real, healthy outlet for aggression, frustration, energy, whatever. The trick with that stuff is to find a way to channel and harness that energy in a way that doesn’t kill people or hurt people. He certainly is going to have to face some heavy responsibilities for that.

S1: I guess here’s where I get hung up, which is Travis Scott released a statement on Instagram.

S3: I just want to send our prayers to the sort of ones that was lost last night,

S1: where he’s clearly pretty shook. But he says, I mean, things like, I’m

S3: honestly just devastated and I could never imagine anything like this just happened.

S1: And it’s hard for me to believe that’s true because bad things have happened at his concert and he’s been sued over them and arrested over them before.

S2: Yeah, well, this is far beyond anything that’s ever happened at any of his shows. It is magnitudes worse. And if he is sincere in those videos and I have no reason to believe that he’s not, he’s going to have to do some really serious soul-searching about. How he put these young people in danger, the responsibility that he bears for that. But I also think that in the right situation, a show like a big Travis Scott festival of performance can be safe or at least minimally dangerous, I guess.

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S1: Yeah, I mean, it makes me wonder a little bit. Can you prevent everything, especially when being in a mosh pit, being close to other people, having a cathartic experience? That’s part of what you’re paying for. And so if you have all these barriers up and you can’t get close to the artist and you’re not slamming into other people. Why are you there?

S2: Yeah. And I don’t know, honestly, it it’s maybe, maybe there’s no way to stop it from happening again, which is horrifying to contemplate. Mosh pits in general, work best in small shows in smaller spaces where there is a whole, there’s a community around them. There’s an ethos, there’s what’s called mosh pit etiquette, where everybody knows that if somebody falls down, everybody has to pick them back up again, that everybody’s in it together. A big festival like Astroworld, where people pay hundreds of dollars to get in and where they’re shuttled from checkpoint to checkpoint on their way and then made to feel like cattle. That does not lend itself to a spirit of community and to an atmosphere where everybody is looking out for each other even if they are marching. Maybe it’s not possible to have these sort of grand scale moshpit safely. Like maybe that should stop. I think that if you’re going to put on a festival like this, you need to be ready for things to go badly wrong and you need to have plans in place. Otherwise, there’s another thing like this waiting to happen.

S1: Another reason Tom thinks another Astroworld is all but inevitable is because what happened last week has happened before. Tom can take off event after event, a WHO concert in 1979, where 11 people died rushing the entrance, a Pearl Jam concert in 2000, where nine fans got crushed to death. One of the videos from Astroworld that went viral this week. It showed Travis Scott mid performance, while in the crowd you can see an unconscious woman being hauled away. Tom says he’s seen that kind of image before at a Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in 1969. That concert was caught on tape, too, for a documentary.

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S2: It kind of reminds me of the part in Gimme Shelter, where the guy is getting stabbed and the Rolling Stones are a few yards away singing. It’s there’s there’s this sort of visceral power to the idea of someone performing while people are being physically harmed so close to them and they seem almost oblivious. There have been disasters at music festivals, big concerts for decades since the birth of popular music in the rock and roll era, and since these like large concerts started, people have been dying at them. They’re potentially very dangerous places with Travis Scott. I don’t know where his career goes. It’s every time that somebody has had something bad happen at one of their events. It seems like it affects those people deeply and it really traumatizes them. It doesn’t kill their careers. So the WHO are still considered rock legends after Cincinnati. The Rolling Stones are widely beloved after Altamont. Pearl Jam What happened at Roskilde has not affected their standing in the world. So I think this will affect Travis Scott in the short term. I certainly think a lot of his corporate partnerships will go away. I think this will affect him on a personal level. I don’t think it will destroy his career. I just hope he does things differently. You know, I hope he doesn’t play more shows like that because it is clear that they can’t keep happening.

S1: Tom Breihan, I’m really grateful for you coming on the show today.

S2: Well, thanks so much for having me on.

S1: Tom Breihan is a senior editor at Stereogum. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Davis Land, Carmel Delshad, Elaina Schwarz, Danielle, Hewitt and Mary Wilson. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Thanks for listening. OK, you back here on Monday.