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The cultural relevance of music festivals

January 27, 2008

I was thinking the other day about music festivals, and how they don’t really appeal to me anymore. I thought about the festivals of the past, and how they sounded so much cooler than what we have going on now. I’m currently reading Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, and he made a statement about how nowadays, counterculture is the mainstream. Perhaps this is why music festivals in the ’60s and ’70s…even the ’80s…seemed much more appealing to me. They were statements of counterculture, showing the mainstream culture their size and scope by congregating all in one festival. Now, festivals are attended by the mainstream, as it’s become a more accepted form of entertainment. Beyond this assumption, it’s possible to tell a story when you look at these now legendary festivals; you can follow the evolution of culture. Or, devolution, depending on how you look at it.

July 1965: Newport Folk Festival, Newport, RI

This yearly festival was headlined in 1965 by folk icon Bob Dylan, who was famously booed by the crowds for going electric for his set. It was his first ever electric performance, and it is suspected that the crowd felt that he was abandoning his roots. He was, however, planting roots for many to come after him. This happened at a point in time where rock ‘n’ roll was still regarded as fringe, and folk music was safe…and blurring those lines helped advance rock music.

July 1967, Monterey International Pop Music Festival, Monterey, CA, 200,000 people. $6.50 for seats and $1.00 for field entry.

As the first real rock festival, Monterey is often outshined by Woodstock. The Monterey Festival marked not only the beginning of the hippie movement, and with it, the spread of LSD, but it was also the introduction of the generation’s most important musicians: Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. It was also The Who’s first American performance. The festival is considered to be the tentpole for the Summer of Love, the pinnacle of the hippie movement whose epicenter was Haight Ashbury. The performances by several world artists marked the infusion of Eastern culture into Western culture that occurred during the hippie movement. This was spearheaded by Brian Jones, who introduced Hendrix to the stage, but neither he nor The Stones played the festival.

August 1969: Woodstock, Woodstock,NY, est. 500,000, $18 tickets, but was ultimately turned into a free event

The ubiquitous festival example, Woodstock symbolized counterculture then and now. Hundreds of thousands of people desperate to hear the music of their generation descended on this event, in the midst of war, racial tensions, and the sexual revolution. It represented the free love mantra of the time, as more people showed up than planned, the fences were taken down to let people in, and the performers had to be helicoptered in. There weren’t enough facilities and supplies to withstand the amount of people, but it turned into an environment of sharing, instead of erupting in violence. This is a stark contrast to the anniversary festival in 1999, where the event was expensive and corporate sponsored, at a general high point in society (’99 was a great year economically), yet, the crowd erupted in violence, leading to destruction of property, alleged rapes, and a generally horrific situation.

December 1969: Altamont Speedway Free Festival, Altamont Speedway, CA, 300,000

Altamont, which started out as a continuation of the free love idealism of the decade, ended up marking the end of the era. It was a free festival with some of the most important entertainers of the time: The Rolling Stones, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and CSNY. The festival is most often remembered by the murder and accidental deaths that occurred. The Hell’s Angels provided security around the stage; apparently they had been hired for similar duties for Grateful Dead shows. Their lack of inexperience, combined with a drug addled crowd, led to the infamous murder as fans refused to back off from the stage when The Stones went on. The festival showed the transition of the innocent, casual drug use of the sixties to the harder habits that affected the Seventies.

After Altamont, ‘festival paranoia’ caused many events to take extra precautions. Many downscaled their size and scope, and became very cause-focused.

1982 and 1983: US Festivals, San Bernadino,CA

The Eighties brought back the larger festivals, as the age of excess took off. The festivals were put on by Steve Wozniak of Apple fame, and featured ‘Technology Tents’ alongside the music to show off state of the art technologies. The 1983 festival is notable for breaking up the days by genre: New Wave Day, Heavy Metal Day, Rock Day, and Country Day. The festival is most remembered for marking the rise of Heavy Metal, or Hair Metal, depending on how you look at it. As with Woodstock and Altamont, the event was considered a planning and financial disaster.

1985: Live Aid and Farm Aid, various venues.

The mid Eighties brought 2 famous festivals to raise awareness and funds for famine in Ethiopia (Live Aid) and American family farms (Farm Aid). These festivals set the stage for many to come, most recently, Live Earth. Similarly, it would be the beginning of a continued argument that these types of events don’t lead to as positive results as they should. Questions have been posed as to how the money raised has been used, as well as the neccessity of the money involved in corporate sponsorships and ticket prices. This also marked the beginning of an artists presence, or lack thereof, at a festival of this nature, beginning to mean something other than ‘a scheduling issue’. You were either supporting the cause, or you were against it- so if you were a big artist of the moment, you had to be there. Live Aid could quite possibly when Bono got his first taste of becoming ‘more than a rock star’.

1991-present: Lollapalooza, Warped Tour, Lillith Fair, Ozzfest

The proliferation of the touring genre festival became popular in the early Nineties. Lollapalooza, the premier tour for the bands popular right now and tomorrow, symbolized the growing mainstreamness of alternative culture. The grunge era lived and died within the scope of these tours. Warped Tour focused on extreme sports and the bands that cater to that crowd, which could be at any given moment punk, ska, or metal. It exists now as Vans Warped Tour, a highly sponsored event that echoes the irony of Tony Hawks middle age-ness. Lillith Fair ran for a few years in the late nineties, and served basically as a death gasp of feminism before media became plagued with casual bisexual women, reality TV, and casual bisexual women on reality TV. Ozzfest became a cog in Ozzy’s habitual resuscitation machine, making metal heads happy every year as they were about to suffer a boy band onslaught.

2000-present: Download, Coachella, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch

Today’s festivals are well oiled, $5 water selling machines. With slick sponsors with slick booths, inflated schedules that force fans to make the best/worst decisions possible, and technology forward atmospheres…there remains to be something missing. Oh yeah, authenticity. And a soul. The sense of community is manufactured, barely going beyond what cows being corralled do. The words ‘alternative’ and ‘up-and-coming’ are thrown around way to much, and reunions of aging bands who have, shockingly, only been broken up for 8 years, seem trite. There is no sense of purpose, because there is none. In the state that the world is any, we should have plenty of causes to pick from, no? But I have a feeling that the majority of people attending these events are unaware of them. Instead they are interactive advertisements for the corporate sponsors. Perhaps these festival organizers could learn a thing or two from Burning Man, and then forget one of those things, and this would make the festival better.

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