astroworld tragedy

There Won’t Be Easy Answers for This

Travis Scott built his reputation on a live show that teeters on the brink of chaos. Photo: Erika Goldring/WireImage,

Last night, I rewatched Apple Music’s livestream of Travis Scott’s 2021 Astroworld Festival performance — during which nine concertgoers lost their lives and scores more were injured as fans who had traveled to Houston’s NRG Park for a night of cathartic raging instead faced a crowd-collapse scenario in which the sheer force of the swaying, unsteady masses created a terrifying, asphyxiating pileup. I was hoping to gain an understanding of the tragedy and the disconcerting anecdotes and footage we have been left to consider in its aftermath. The feed is chillingly mundane. You think there will be a moment when the guy onstage acknowledges the seriousness of what’s happening in the audience, but it never comes. It’s hard to discern how much of it he was able to see from the stage, or whether Scott — a performer with a colorful public history of encouraging rowdy and often dangerous behavior at his concerts, of inviting fans perched on venue balconies to jump off into the arms of the audience below, of goading people to rush security checks, of berating crowds that don’t turn up to his liking — thought much of the signs of distress he seemed to react to during the set. Was it simply not out of the ordinary to watch overwhelmed ragers being spirited out of general admission into medical care? Was it normal for an emergency vehicle with sirens blaring to be trapped among revelers all night? How could there have been a nearly 40-minute gap between the Houston police becoming aware of a mass-casualty event on-site and the end of the concert? Who is responsible for this?

Crowd collapses and stampedes are horrors of physics that can happen without much prior warning. One hundred and fifteen people died at Shiloh Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1902 when the congregation thought it heard someone say there was a fire and thousands in attendance rushed toward a single exit. Eleven died in 1979 at a Cincinnati arena concert by the Who as fans squeezed through too few gates. In 1989, a push to get inside the U.K.’s Hillsborough Stadium for that season’s FA Cup semi-final killed nearly 100. Pack people in too tightly and they start to move like tectonic plates or breaking waves, crashing together and spilling over one another. It is exceedingly hard to breathe in such a squeeze. It is also difficult to parse accountability. Audiences get vilified as reckless hooligans. Officials get called incompetent. Artists get sued by families for being too short-sighted to plan effectively for a disaster. Everyone races to prove they weren’t directly culpable, and momentum for fundamental change crumbles alongside mass outrage. It took over a decade and an independent panel to challenge the narrative that attendees were to blame for the incident at Hillsborough and to get anyone to admit the police had mishandled the event and shifted blame onto the crowd. After the Who gig, Cincinnati took a hard line and banned general-admission seating. Other cities didn’t line up to follow that lead, and Cincinnati ultimately repealed its own ban in 2004.

As Scott, Live Nation, Houston police, and city officials dance around the question of who could have seen the Astroworld horror coming, and as everyone close to this thing lays it on thick with thoughts, prayers, and mea culpas, we know what happens next. The potential for this tragedy to get charged to the game is very real. There is an awful lot of money and business savvy at work, and very smart people are watching out for their bottom line. They will do only as much soul-searching as the demand requires. They will pass the buck. This isn’t the first Live Nation event to have its safety protocols called into question. This isn’t the first time fans have been injured in Scott’s care; he has been arrested twice for attempting to incite riots at concerts. This isn’t the first NRG gig to see security quickly rushed and bypassed; a Playboi Carti show was canceled last month after fans made light work of one of the gates. It’s nobody’s first rodeo. Scott, Live Nation, and NRG teamed up for the 2019 edition of Astroworld, where three people were hospitalized after being trampled when barricades leading into the park came down and hundreds of fans charged in. The venue should have been prepared for behavior that had happened at prior Scott performances, for history to repeat. There needed to be greater communication between fans, police, venue staff, and the artist’s team. How can all the professionals here be so attuned to their own piece of the production that we come out with footage of people partying to radio hits while their nearby peers, revelers as young as 14, draw their last breaths?

I don’t expect quick answers to these questions. Instead, we’ll probably have awful conversations about violence in hip-hop culture. We’ll wonder what’s making young people dark and callous in 2021. We’ll ask one another whether it was smart to make Travis Scott a household name, whether he is a caring enough steward of an audience of underage fans to appreciate the visibility his McDonald’s and Fortnite deals yielded. His 2019 Netflix documentary, Look Mom I Can Fly, goes a long way toward portraying Scott as someone who cares deeply about his audience in a way that doesn’t always line up with venue security’s expectations. It’s not a posture he can maintain now that lives have been lost at the festival he dreamed up (inspired by the shuttered local amusement park of the same name), we were told, in order to restore a space of fun in his home city. He’ll either have to clean up his act and make good on his intentions or choose to be a liability. Will the business partners who bet on him in the past be willing to take the gamble again?

We’ll talk about the commodification of punk-rock aesthetics and maybe how the version of punk that’s trickling down through pop and rap charts lately made a grave mistake in separating the values from the visuals. We’ll wonder if we created a generation of music fans who treasure defiance but aren’t very discerning about what’s being defied. (To be fair, that isn’t a problem this generation or this artist created. Mainstream marketing has pinched off punk aesthetics for decades; it’s not impossible to come out of this climate lacking an understanding of the history of left-leaning politics, anti-consumerism, and group camaraderie that used to come with the spiked leather gear and brat mentality many artists seem to think it stands for now.) It will get much harder to book rap shows, and the ones that are allowed to happen will have a more intimidating police presence. Hip-hop usually foots the bill when it’s time to tighten up restrictions on live shows. Arrests, assaults, and deaths happen at country, rock, and EDM shows, but you rarely hear about other country, rock, and EDM shows being shut down in their wake. Sporting events explode into riots; no one tries to ban the sport. Hip-hop has been demonized since its inception, though, and in a climate where law enforcement appears to use festivals like Rolling Loud to nab artists with warrants and squeeze performers with criminal records off lineups, everybody suffers whenever anybody missteps. Fallout from Astroworld will hurt.

But will we take meaningful steps to keep this from happening again? Will the venue that didn’t appear to learn much from how easily Playboi Carti fans busted through its front gates try harder now? Will the music industry that packed over a quarter-million people into Lollapalooza in a global pandemic quickly develop a conscience? Will congresspeople and city-council members have to step in and litigate this one for us? Is the music business just the latest corner of culture where our urge to rethink everything in the wake of the mortal concerns and crushing closures of 2020 went up in smoke the moment we could slip back into our normal routines? Is that what this is?

The reality that eight young people have died and that all the parties who should share responsibility for it are presumably very afraid to implicate themselves by saying “sorry” to the families speaks loudest this week. That’s bullshit. Travis Scott built his reputation on a live show that teeters on the brink of chaos. It is the focal point of Look Mom, a film in which Scott is arrested for encouraging fans to ignore security protocols and is later given the key to the city of Houston by the mayor who is now offering condolences to families of fans lost at Astroworld (but not much else as yet). It is the selling point for the Apple Music stream of this year’s festival, which cuts from time to time to cameras inside the mosh pits to play up the visceral crowd experience at Scott’s shows. Flirting with danger is his biggest appeal; rage is his ministry, his literal brand. Will he admit he played with fire?

More From This Series

See All
There Won’t Be Easy Answers for This