Festival culture has swallowed itself whole and shit out a steaming pile of mud and noise. What may once have been a populist celebration of music and sunshine and summer vibes has become a monstrosity. Fatigue, drought, poverty, death – these are all very much in the cards. The specter of that last one now all too real if we are, as it appears, finally willing to acknowledge it.
Made in America 2013 was a rousing success. Beyonce got to try out all of her Tumblr faces on the big screen Saturday night. Whoever builds large stages had an opportunity to build two very large stages. But while stumbling around the Philadelphia fairgrounds I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Hunter S. Thompson’s experience at the Kentucky Derby. Not decadent, or even depraved in any attractive way. But certainly grotesque.
The festival was, and in its platonic form still is, populist to a fault. The 99% without a badge hanging around their neck are on very even ground. There is equal access for all. But there’s a misconception that needs to be addressed. A frightening swath still seem to think that this equality is achieved by extending access – to bands, to beer, to cheeseburgers and to laser beams.
When, in fact, this even ground is achieved by stripping away all the things that allow us to assert our individuality. The myriad food and beverage choices that sweeten a first world existence are reduced to a congestion-priced few. We choose when and where we use the bathroom based on some imagined collective bladder heatmap. Our sneakers are dirtied into anonymity. There is no cell service. We can’t even really choose whom we spend the festival with.
But most grotesque of all is how we experience the music.
When you cram X number of people in front of one even very large stage, most are going to end up so far away they might as well not even try to watch. While watching, we can all agree, is the very coolest thing about seeing live music. I can always crank “No One Knows” to eleven on my home speakers but I can’t always watch Josh Homme up close pounding the shit out of his guitar. (Which is why I broke from the herd for Queens of the Stone Age and hit the very front of the stage, tragically missing Macklemore [and Ryan Lewis] as I waited).
That issue is expected, and even accepted. In theory, musicians are supposed to counter this dynamic by using the occasion’s scale. This is what arena bands like U2 have perfected over the course of decades; this is why a 2Pac hologram exists.
But if you’re just going to do a cookie cutter show, if there are going to be no holy-fuck visuals or theatrics or guests or even improvisation and you’re just going to, as they say, play the songs, the whole situation’s physical absurdity isn’t only un-countered but also exacerbated. Standing in a tightly packed crowd staving off heatstroke three football fields away from Phoenix as they play a slightly distorted version of the “1901” you’re used to hearing in your headphones does not a transcendent experience make. And in this format even the best talent is neutered by a total absence of risk or surprise.
That being said, when I emerged from Beyoncé’s Jay Z-less “Crazy In Love” in a blue-balled haze and looked around expecting to see other blue-ball-contorted faces I saw joy, and a new train of thought began. I wondered if I don’t have a dickish cross to bear.
Which, this train of thought, led me away from Hunter S. and towards another iconic piece of creative non-fiction: David Foster Wallace’s Ticket To The Fair. In a similarly overwhelmed and incredulous state DFW wonders what exactly about an experience at the grotesque Illinois State Fair could ever constitute a vacation. The fundamental question: why are all these people willingly subjecting themselves to this? His theory makes complete sense where there appears to be none:
“Megalopolitan East-Coasters’ summer vacations are literally getaways, flights-from – from crowds, noise, heat, dirt, the neural wear of too many stimuli… Most East-Coasters see more than enough stimulating people and sights M-F, thank you.”
“The Fair’s [read: festival’s] deliberately about the crowds and jostle, the noise and overload of sight and smell and choice and event… The vacation impulse in rural IL [read: outside of an East Coast Megalotropolis] is manifested as a flight-toward. Thus the urge physically to commune, melt, become part of a crowd.”
That logic I can accept. I’ve personally been conditioned to find the festival experience obscene. I’m not right or wrong, and neither are screaming suburban teenagers.
What it comes down to: this isn’t my steaming pile.
Featured image courtesy of Wall Street Journal