Over the summer, it seemed like music festivals might be the new protest marches. At Glastonbury, Phoebe Bridgers, Lorde, Megan Thee Stallion, and Kacey Musgraves all denounced the U.S. Supreme Court from the stage for its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Olivia Rodrigo incorporated her protest into her set, bringing out Lily Allen to perform the British pop star’s “F— You” as a message to America’s highest judiciary body. It’s not a coincidence that Megan and Musgraves—two proud and outspoken Texans—were front and center in condemning the court. The state has long been ground zero in the battle over abortion rights. Which raised the question: What would happen when Musgraves and other outspoken, politically aware performers such as the Chicks and Lil Nas X took the stage at the Austin City Limits Festival in October? 

We got our answer: not much, really. Musgraves dedicated a line in “High Horse” to a favorite target, Ted Cruz (“everybody knows someone who kills the buzz/every time they open up their mouth”), and had kind words for the queer community that makes up a good portion of her fan base, but her set was mostly subdued. Artists such as Muna and Japanese Breakfast made references to politics and social issues—the former making a statement about bodily autonomy that spoke to abortion or trans rights, or maybe both, the latter offering a “f— Greg Abbott” and warning the crowd that the voter registration deadline was approaching. But overall, the vibe of the festival was downright apolitical compared with what we saw at Glastonbury, Summerfest, and other events that came in the wake of the court’s decision. Even Natalie Maines mostly just shut up and sang, albeit in a bedazzled Ruth Bader Ginsburg T-shirt. 

The Chicks ACL Fest 2022
The Chicks. Roger Ho/ACL

Still, it wouldn’t be right to describe the festival as apolitical. The mere existence of some of the performers is political. Lil Nas X’s appearance was as much performance art as concert set, a highly choreographed piece built around telling the story of the young superstar. Simply being visible as a queer, Black artist at a time when being any of those things puts you under fire is an act of defiance. In a youth-obsessed culture, booking women in their forties and fifties (Pink, the Chicks) as one third of the festival’s headliners serves as a stance unto itself. The vibe of the festival may not have been explicitly political, any more than it was explicitly framed around the pandemic or—in the first major outdoor Texas music festival since last year’s Astroworld tragedy—crowd safety, but those things are a substantial part of the context in which the event is taking place. 

Masks were rare but not altogether absent, and the festival had a tent where guests could get a bivalent vaccine booster shot. But more than any specific nod to the ongoing nature of the COVID crisis, the festival seemed to have found a de facto theme around the vibrancy of being alive and gathering in the park with 75,000 friends each day. The crowd was overwhelmingly young—a byproduct, perhaps, of the relative dearth of legacy acts on the lineup. An audience that has seen a good chunk of their youth swallowed up by a pandemic seemed especially determined to embrace the opportunity to be out in the world, together, to pull toward community, music, and escapism within the late-capitalist hellscape that is a $145-per-day corporate music festival. Seemingly all of the girls dressed like extras from Almost Famous, in bell-bottoms and groovy prints; all of the boys looked like they were cosplaying as Harry Styles. This is a good thing. It’s been a hell of a past few years, and our ongoing catastrophes cast a pallor over life—why not dress in loud prints and try to find joy and make meaning as you dodge plague, drought, and oppression over three days in the park? 

The festival has been lucky, in recent years, to have secured appearances from rising artists just before they exploded into superstars. In 2019, ACL featured a midafternoon appearance from Lizzo, who—by the time she performed—was famous enough to close out the festival; a similar thing happened last year, with Megan Thee Stallion. But this year, the afternoon acts and undercard consisted of artists who were appropriate for the size of the stages they were on (some may even have been a bit ambitious, if the thin crowd for, say, Marcus Mumford was any indication). In 2022, though, that’s ultimately a good thing for the festival experience: There is some relief, post-Astroworld, in not having to navigate a crush of fans all charging in a single direction. At ACL, it was almost possible to forget that the last event of this size to happen in Texas ended in tragedy—which speaks well of the crowd, the event organizers, and the artists. 

Artists, in fact, seemed quite conscious of crowd safety. SZA, in her headlining set Friday night, stopped the show at one point to call for help for a fan who appeared to struggle in the scrum; pre-headliner Big Gigantic similarly stopped their set to intervene on behalf of an audience member who needed medical intervention. (Less attention was paid to the possibility of the giant piles of writhing, exposed, sweaty flesh spreading monkeypox—a not-quite pandemic that also favors such conditions—but how many health crises are crowds in their teens and twenties expected to navigate at a concert?)

The 2022 edition of the Austin City Limits Festival, in other words, is defined by the context in which it’s occurring but in ways that are more subtle than widespread exhortations to vote, or middle fingers raised to SCOTUS, or whatever. Rather, the vibe of the festival seems largely a reaction to the time in which it’s happening. The old-timers last weekend brought camping chairs and picked a stage to park ’em at, while Gen Z reveled in bright colors, celebrating the return of an event that felt even more normal this year than last. ACL may not be breaking any new ground, but that in and of itself is a success in times as chaotic as these.