This is both easy and, in another way, more challenging to explain. The crowd was louder in no small part because it was younger — the show was one of several at this year's HPX open to all all ages. While there was plenty of room in the 19+ section, the area directly in front of the stage was crammed, with many of the audience appearing to be teenagers or younger adults (plus some pre-teens with cool parents in tow) who met Lights' appearance with rapt adoration.
The challenging part is explaining why, exactly, Lights' audience is so young in the first place. After all, like so many millennial artists, her trade is nostalgia for an imagined, unlived 1980s, a synth-laden quasi-future full of feelings. As she opened with Little Machines' "Muscle Memory," a catchy, pulse-driven electro jam, I was struck that the musical gap between Lights and some of the bands I saw the night before, like Austra or Vogue Dots, is at times very, very small.
Part of this can be chalked up to marketing and framing: Lights has a major label push, Lights has marketing-focused music videos, Lights still looks like a teenager and speaks/moves with an endearing, youthful enthusiasm. But there are musical differences — performance differences, especially — that, though small, make a huge difference in who listens to her music. There are the ballads, which frankly never quite match the power of her singles and feel like perfunctory obligations to a certain sector of pop feeling. There are the flourishes, little builds and releases that bring a stadium sensibility to the material. There's Lights' stage presence, big and smiley, pushing her songs forward to make sure every face in the crowd has the chance to share in the moment.
Taking stock of all this pulled me in two separate directions. On the one hand, I admired the honesty of it all: after all, these are pop songs, so why not perform them big, loud, proud? (With an impressive — and, obviously, on brand — light show to boot.) But I'm not convinced her songs can all stand on their own without the trappings of the form. Her best do ("Running With the Boys," "Toes"), but others rely on associated feelings, with hooks that don't necessarily go anywhere but sound like a marketing pitch for a familiar place you'd love to visit. But for an audience eager to soundtrack their dreamed-up synth-pop road trip, Lights' songs more than fit the bill.