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Fortnite’s Travis Scott event is incredible, but it feels wrong to call it a concert

We don’t have a word for this yet

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Promotional artwork for Fortnite’s Travis Scott event. Image: Epic Games

“They said we was going too crazy, so we had to get the fuck out,” a shirtless man says near the start of the Travis Scott Netflix special. The admission is followed by minutes of incredible footage of various concerts: people screaming, moshing, crowd surfing, and running as stretchers rush to the scene. An ambulance flashes in the background. Travis sweats, and he douses the crowd with a water bottle. A scramble ensues as Travis tells the security guards to stop holding people back from the general standing area.

A few minutes later, we see Travis ushered off the stage. The cops are on the way. We then watch as the man is arrested for allegedly inciting a riot by doing nothing more than performing his show. It’s bullshit, of course, but still: Holy shit.

I watched this documentary, Travis Scott: Look Mom I Can Fly, a few months ago, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately in the wake of Fortnite’s series of digital Travis Scott shows, which offer something totally different. As of this writing, a couple of these events, dubbed Astronomical, have already happened — and if you tuned in, you were likely wowed.

Travis looms large throughout the show, teleporting around the map as the scene shifts and blooms. The visuals are amazing and capture that otherworldly theme park vibe that defines the Astroworld album. I was particularly struck by the portion of the event where you have to swim through an endless ocean as Scott performs “Highest In The Room” — the segment is a perfect distillation of the hazy yet seductive murkiness of the track.

It’s particularly impressive to hear that all of this was created while Epic Games employees worked from home in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Travis also debuted a totally new song, which is a treat for anyone who tuned in.

So, I want to be clear here: What Epic Games has accomplished is tremendous. There’s nothing else in video games like this, and it’s especially remarkable that you can experience it all for free on pretty much any device you can name. No wonder millions of people caught the first show.

But a concert this is not. If anything, calling it a concert short sells both Scott’s real concerts and this nascent art form that is now burgeoning in Fortnite.

There may be 100 people per instance, and you may have even queued up with friends, but the show is a very individual experience thanks to how the game blasts everyone off into different directions depending on the scene. Even when you’re with folks, it appears to be only a handful at a time; a far cry from the wall-to-wall human explosion you can see at any Travis Scott concert. During those real-life shows, it’s like everyone comes together to form a larger whole; an entirely new living, breathing creature. It’s hard to stand in those crowds and not get swept away by the intensity of it. Good luck not joining in the rager. That raw human element is missing in the Fortnite version of things, even though there are plenty of people participating in it.

Then, of course, there’s that unpredictable and improvisational quality that defines a concert. You never know what you’re going to get, and even if the artist sticks to the same track list, the performance might not be the same. Their anecdotes might not be the same. The way they interact with the audience totally depends on the actual crowd present. Perhaps you get lucky and are treated to a special guest who wasn’t even on the booking. Compare this to the Fortnite event, which is the exact same performance every time.

I realize that a video game event couldn’t possibly fulfill the same function as a concert, especially during the height of COVID-19, when we’re not supposed to be near other human beings. And, admittedly, for all the fantastic things an actual concert can offer, there’s plenty of downside too. Who wants to have a drunk asshole spill beer on them, or be stuck near a bunch of people who will not stop taking flash selfies? Never mind that you would have to pay hundreds of dollars to ever be this close to the actual man himself. And, of course, some people might even prefer to experience an event like this from the comfort of their homes.

It’s less that Fortnite falls short of what the concert experience should be, than, perhaps, that we’re entering a new era where we don’t even have the right terms to describe what such an all-encompassing game offers. Astronomical is a curious mix of an event, art installation, music video, and a video game — the beginning of a totally new type of media experience that will likely continue to change as the years go by. Concerts may in fact be one of the smallest defining features of what Fortnite accomplishes here, even within the realm of video games. To wit, there’s a huge disparity between what a Second Life concert could offer a decade ago, and what a Fortnite concert actually pulls off today.

Travis Scott’s Fortnite skin Image: Epic Games/Cactus Jack

On the most visible level, this is a continuation of Fortnite’s popular scheduled events, which ask players to log in at specific hours. You can always watch an event later, of course, but these things are meant to be experienced, not just viewed. Watching someone run away from Scott’s massive visage is not the same as being there and feeling that excitement of not knowing if this guy could kill you in-game. Queuing up into instances at all has more in common with joining a raid than it does, say, waiting in an actual line.

By offering Cactus Jack branded gear, Fortnite also successfully incorporates Scott’s ongoing strategy of limited-time exclusive merch drops. Except this gear is dynamic in a way that a real-world object could never be. Music videos have already experimented with interactivity, with the most cutting-edge stuff allowing fans to influence what the material looks like. Fortnite captures some of this give and take by allowing viewers to actually participate, but the community isn’t limited by the borders of the game.

Twitch and YouTube are key pillars to Fortnite’s success, as any passerby can comment on the action as it happens. This rolling public chatter has become such a defining feature of digital releases that even stars like Ariana Grande are experimenting with things like YouTube Premiere. And of course, art exhibits have had plenty of crossover with music acts already — last year, for example, Yasiin Bey released his latest album at the Brooklyn Museum.

The event isn’t so much an evolution of what video games, music, or the larger art world offer as an experience, than it is a merging of dozens of different threads and tech trends. “Concert” doesn’t even come close.

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