I stood in a crowd of about 20,000, waiting for the man who might very well go down as the best rapper of all time. Earlier that day, I had previously been harangued into seeing The Chainsmokers, and their brand of pandering, pedestrian EDM-pop had been too much to bear sober, so I left to stake out a spot for Kendrick Lamar. As the crowd rapidly surrounded the Samsung Stage, I found myself in one of many classic festival conundrums: unable to reach my friends near the front and unwilling to compromise my position to watch with another group near the back. My company for the show thus became a pair of vacationing Alaskan fishermen tripping on acid given to them by ‘some guy near the merch tent’.
Kendrick’s latest studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly, was a landmark political manifesto on blackness in America. But as he walked into his well-earned headlining set that night at Austin City Limits, — the fans going ballistic and singing along to classics like “Swimming Pools” and “Alright” were predominately white and Asian. The recipients of Kendrick’s live message that day, as he rapped about taking pride in blackness, were hardly black — an irony that extends further still when taking into account that the author of this piece is a 23-year-old privileged, white grad student from New Jersey.
In a way, the stark difference between the characters in Kendrick’s music and those in attendance at his shows is representative of the festival experience as a whole. In an age when emerging indie bands play upwards of 30 festivals a year, every American city is cashing in, creating a world in which both hardcore and passive music fans alike can see dozens of their favorite acts each summer without committing to dozens of concerts. And each year, organizers get better at curating their festival experience to the whims of their primary demographic; rich, white kids between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five. If Pitchfork, the preeminent tastemaker in purportedly independent music despite being recently bought by publication giant Conde Nast, says Father John Misty, Vince Staples and Solange Knowles are making poignant political statements within the context of excellent music (which indeed they are), you can bet white, informed, and liberal millennials will soon be wholeheartedly singing along at a festival near you.
All the hallmarks of 2010s zeitgeist culture can be found at a 2016 festival, glitzed up and on display like some kind of indie Las Vegas. The increasing social acceptance and legalization of marijuana, as well as the emergence of MDMA and LSD as relatively common commodities (especially in proximity to live music) has placed drugs at the forefront of festival culture. Decisions such as which EDM artist to roll for (Kygo on Friday or Porter Robinson on Saturday?) and how to sneak joints and spliffs past security have become familiar elements of the full time job that is attending a 3-day music festival. Local craft brews will fly off the tap for nine dollars a pop. Recycled, organic and heavily branded packaging will be strewn throughout the grounds. Voter registration booths will be manned; iPads with Square Cash will reap Visa swipes from within dozens of artisan food trucks; and festival-specific phone apps will be downloaded, checked incessantly and later uninstalled by every smart-phone touting millennial from high school fangirls to thirty-something stoner bros uniting for the modern world’s best reinterpretation of a classical Roman orgy.
In this way, festivals provide a means by which individuals can physically inhabit a hall of mirrors that reflects the familiar culture we constantly witness through our screens, on the internet. At Austin City Limits Fest, Kendrick Lamar is no longer a foreign entity to be viewed and interacted with only through videos, tweets, articles and shares. Instead, he’s a real-life person — one who incites twenty-four year old Alaskan fishermen to squeal like children. And with his physical presence comes the commoditization of his music and his message. Where in the 1960s experiencing protest music was an infectious and spontaneous consequence of living through the the times that were a changin’, it can now be packaged and sold for 300 bucks a pop, with the added bonus of watching emotional high schoolers lose their shit to Twenty-One Pilots while stoned out of your fucking mind.
And who can afford that 300 dollar price tag? Probably not Compton teenagers struggling to resist gang culture, but guys like me, that are afforded not only the luxury of going to the show, but also of criticizing everyone else that does too. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop attending festivals, and hopefully I’ll still enjoy them. But it’s important to recognize that the price of seeing every wannabe Mumford and Sons or Tame Impala that your friend starred on Spotify is immersing yourself in a world where everyone looks like you, reads what you read, likes what you like and hates Trump. Festivals are far from inclusive, and the more they cater to my (and Berkeley’s) demographic, the more insulated their attendees become from the cultural waves this amazing year in music is creating. We all want the same thing: a break from work and school in the form of pure hedonism, with psychedelic blinders to shield us from the overwhelming, racially-charged political shit show that is 2016. But hey, I screamed every word of “King Kunta”, so I’m not the problem.
Written by HR Huber-Rodriguez