5 things I learned from music festivals
Summer music festivals have been seeing a steady growth in popularity over the past few years. Events such as Coachella and Bonnaroo, once only on the calendars of jam-band freaks and neo-hippies, have grown into hundred-thousand person strong blowouts, attracting attendees from across the entire spectrum of the American college-aged population. Bros in tanks and crunchy granola hippies, Bear Stearns interns and Starbucks baristas — music festivals have become the one place they all congregate as equals.
Given the wide range of personalities, music festivals can also provide a lot of insight into the quirks of our society, as well as a few good lessons that may be impossible to learn in any other setting. That being said, I present to you five important things I’ve learned from music festivals. Enjoy.
Totems are the greatest method of communication, ever.
The totem, an identifying object that primarily serves a practical purpose of replacing cell phones, is also a great example of the kind of creative self-expression that hovers in the atmosphere around a music festival.
Some tend to forget the fact that many of these festivals are based around camping in the middle of nowhere, which means that within 6-12 hours your handheld connection to all of human civilization will be nothing more than a useless piece of metal and plastic. Once digital communication fails, then all that’s left are the kind of primitive methods used for most of human history. A large totem that sticks a few feet in the air can serve as a moving rallying point; if you get separated from your group (which you undoubtedly will), then just scan the crowd for your group’s work of art on a stick.
One of the cool things about totems is the vibe they bring to shows, almost to the point that looking for and commenting upon totems becomes part of the overall festival experience. Some personal favorites I have seen include a picture of N*Sync’s Lance Bass with the words “Drop the Bass” written across the bottom, and an umbrella adorned with lights to make it resemble a glowing jellyfish.
Rain is a powerful spiritual force.
Mid-July’s Hudson Project festival in upstate New York, held on the same site as Woodstock ’94 — the only reincarnation of the famed festival that can hold a conversation with the original Woodstock — had one of the best and most diverse lineups of the entire summer, but was unfortunately cut short and, shortly after, descended into semi-primitive, quasi-chaos.
While there were certain logistical issues that were within the control of the organizers — Porta Potties shouldn’t be placed on top of a hill if they’re meant to operate for four days straight, and allowing state troopers to ride horses through the campgrounds will invariably lead to more than a few people needing tetanus shots — it was their inaugural year, and I’d love to meet the person who does everything right the first time, every time.
No, good ol’ Mother Nature decided to take a dump in festival organizer MCP’s Cheerios when she unleashed a killer storm on Winston Farm roughly four hours before headliner Bassnectar was set to take the stage for his sonically unopposed Sunday night set. I was standing in the crowd before rapper Isaiah Rashad when the music cut out suddenly and a pre-recorded voice announced that everyone should return to their campsites and that the music was cancelled for the day. About twenty minutes later, the rain came.
Given the financial realities of attending these festivals — entrance alone will run you around $225, plus food, camping supplies, gas, and everything else to fuel your weekend of mayhem — it’s extremely unlikely that any of these so-called hippies are actual hippies. These are people who work regular jobs, whom you pass on the street, and perhaps even hold a door open for. They’re all normal people, and what do normal people do when they find themselves caught in a rainstorm? They strip naked and go mud sliding. I’m not saying everyone did this; some people got naked to just stand in one place and stare in awe at the angry God of the Sky and some people went mud sliding without getting naked — I include myself in the latter category. The naked dude whom I collided with going down the mud hill probably packed up his car the next day and went back to his marketing job, ready to give his weekly report to the boss, and maybe be the nice guy who changes the coffee pot on Monday. He likely doesn’t let all of his glorious, muddy self out for the world to see very often, but it was raining, and the rain (somehow) made everything okay.
Profiling isn’t just a racial thing.
If you’re like me and think that America’s deep-seated issues with institutionalized racism are a dark spot in our culture, then I’m sure reading the news this summer also made you upset. From Eric Garner suffocating after being put in a chokehold for selling untaxed cigarettes, to the recent shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., this summer was ablaze with instances of racial profiling influencing the actions of law enforcement officials.
While not on the same scale or influenced by forces anywhere near the legacy of slavery, the society of a summer music festival also has its own persecuted and profiled group: the person who looks like the kind of person who we always see portrayed in movies as the person who does a lot of drugs. Like profiled people at an airport, this person will often encounter some issues at the security check, whether it be a more thorough pat down, the third degree of questioning from a state trooper over an EpiPen for their allergies, or to simply have their bags and person sniffed at by a K9.
The astounding thing is that some of those people who choose to dress like a cross between Tommy Chong after a week in Mexico and the Unabomber actually do end up arrested. See, when festival security performs their contraband search, their main targets are people intending to sell drugs at the festival and not necessarily the nervous looking college student who brought a joint for when Pretty Lights plays at midnight.
This helps prevent stupid people from doing stupid things like buying Schedule I narcotics from a guy they just met standing in line for the Porta Pottie and becoming the subject of a Monday morning news headline.
I just can’t help but wonder why so many of these drug dealers try to make it through security looking like a stereotypical drug dealer, and then act completely flabbergasted when the cops pull them out of line, bring over their nice little puppy, and calmly explain to them that the life they’d once known is over and their new life as a convicted felon is about to begin. Isn’t it drug-dealing 101 to not attract attention to one’s self, especially by looking like a drug dealer? Perhaps I’m sitting on some revolutionary, industry-changing knowledge here.
People will seemingly say anything if it’s in sing-a-long fashion.
Note: I am not condoning the use of racist, misogynistic, or any other demeaning language in any context, but merely commenting upon an existing phenomenon.
One constant critique of rap music is its general complete disregard for political correctness. Due to rap’s popularity, songs that contain messages of sexism, racism, homophobia — to varying degrees of severity, of course — often find their way onto the Top 40 chart, and therefore into the ears of nearly all participants in our entertainment culture. One doesn’t necessarily need to buy into these messages in order to enjoy the music — I can still enjoy a Lil’ Wayne song despite finding his misogynistic imagery and promotion of opiate use unnecessary for an artist of his ability — for they are simply unalterable aspects of songs that are enjoyable for many other reasons.
That being said, seeing a rapper live can often create a deep crisis of conscience for fans torn between singing along to every word they know, and not wanting to vocalize phrases that perpetuate cultural cycles of oppression and disrespect. At least that’s what I thought would happen, but it appears that no one actually cares at all.
Kanye West had 12,000 Governor’s Ball attendees — of all skin colors — screaming the response to “M.J. gone” from “All of the Lights” back to him in complete confidence; Kendrick Lamar had the ladies shouting about “what she wants” when he performed his verse off “Problems” at Hudson Project; Eminem at Osheaga had 40,000 Canadians singing along to “Kill You,” the lyrics of which would probably give a 100 percent purely socially-progressive and pacifist brain an aneurysm.
Similar to the power of the falling water from the sky, there’s just something about being part of a huge crowd, with everyone participating and sharing in the music, that causes people to abandon their constructed sense of social and cultural decency. I wonder what Freud would’ve had to say about the crowd at a Flatbush ZOMBiES performance.
Good music is the cure for all of life’s ills, aches, and pains.
A single day at a music festival is truly a test of endurance probably on par with a triathlon (Editor’s Note: I have never done a triathlon). You’re out in the hot sun, with very little shade or places to sit, for an entire day. Once the sun goes down, you’re offered some relief from the heat, but there’s still the headliners, late night acts, and a whole day’s worth of built-up tiredness to power through. Then you get up the next day and do it all over again, and then you do it all over again one more time.
While there are many ways to boost your stamina during the day — plenty of water and keeping granola bars on hand are pretty great — nothing replenishes spent vitality quite like a great set. Once the opening notes of the artist you came to see start roaring out of those speakers, it’s as if you suddenly took a shower in the Fountain of Youth. That stinging sunburn? Gone. Those rocks rolling around in your left sneaker? Disappeared. Lotus at Moonrise wiped away painful experiences of a lost phone, a lost mind, and a stomach angry with me for only feeding it greasy Vietnamese food for two days.