why can't we end our love affair with festivals?
By Emily Parker
An ode to festivals and their unique power to make us happier people.
Utopia: an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.
Utopia: from the Greek: οὐ ("not") and τόπος ("place") and means "no-place".
What can we get from going to music festivals today? They cost a shit load of money and take a shit load of preparation, you have to queue for hours every time you need the loo, you don’t shower for a whole week, you have to trek miles across muddy fields carrying a week’s worth of water and alcohol, after getting up at 3am to join the queue into the festival site… It doesn’t sound like everyone’s idea of a holiday.
And all the photos and footage we see of music festivals make the experience look pretty clichéd. Is it about flowery headbands, face jewels, fancy dress, face-paint, celebrities, posh wellies and denim shorts? About cider, wife-beaters, wayfarer sunglasses and keeping to the pre-prepared list of acts you have identified as the coolest ones to see this year; nodding your head endlessly to songs you have either learnt in preparation, or never actually heard before? Is it about getting as battered on as many different substances as is humanly possible in three - five days without killing yourself, appearing the following week in various Instagram feeds (without your permission) with your mouth wide open and your eyes half closed, in various stages of rained-on, windswept bedragglement?
These may well be aspects of the festival experience, and anyone who has been to popular music festivals in the last 5 years will have come across large numbers of people doing one, some, or all of the above. Perhaps you’ve even participated in some of this festival behaviour yourself. But, underneath all the inevitable exhibitionism, is there something deeper going on?
In 1516, Thomas Moore defined a “utopia” as a place where the beauty of society reigns and its evils are stripped away, making it a space for the operation of the perfect social, legal and political systems. The word “utopia” comes from the Greek: οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”), meaning, literally, “no-place”. But is utopia a place too perfect to exist, or can we find it in going to festivals?
The most important thing to say about the festival experience is that it is temporary. Festivals are defined by the fact that they happen, and then they’re over quickly. And this is where the magic of a festival space lies; in its elusiveness, and its liberating ephemerality. Four days out of a year. Blink (or take too many drugs), and you’ll miss it. As we return to the concrete monotony of our daily lives at the end of the festival, it all disappears. It completely ceases to exist as a physical space. In our minds, the festival is translated into a space of otherness – a space only of memory. But also, as we anticipate the festival experience awaiting us next summer, it becomes a space of the future – a space dislodged, neither here nor there.
Why must all good things come to an end?
The fields of Worthy Farm in which Glastonbury takes place exist all year round, but they are not a crucial part of what Glastonbury is to the people that go. Glastonbury could still be Glastonbury if it happened in another location, in another field. So, it’s something else physical that makes Glastonbury Glastonbury.
Is it the mechanical constructs – stages, rides and spectacles – which the staff erect in advance of the festival, and laboriously dismantle each year as the festival ends? With the wonderfully-named Shangri-La, a hybrid dream-nightmare party space for Glastonbury’s nocturnally-inclined; the oddly threatening Arcadia, a DJ booth in the form of a giant, mechanical, light-up spider which shoots laser-beams from its eyes, moves grasping pincers and propels jets of warming, blinding fire into the night air; the tranquil peace gardens, rainbow tower and pyramid stage, Glastonbury festival is a totally unique architectural space that exists only during one short and special period each year.
But of course, the exhilaratingly escapist world that is created with these “wonderland” mechanical constructions does not constitute the entirety of the festival space or experience. If you visited the exact same, fully-constructed festival site with all the stages, bars, tents and food stalls, but it was totally deserted, it wouldn’t be Glastonbury. This experience, in fact, would be painfully empty. Dream-crushingly so. We, the ticket holders, never experience an empty festival. It’s part of the deal that thousands of other people will be there having a good time too. A fundamental expectation. The experience of a festival without the people would destroy the magic, the illusion and the dream – like watching a puppet show as a child, and then horrifyingly seeing the puppeteer peeping out from behind the stand.
In fact, as much as the trappings and trimmings of the modern-day festival can add to the unusualness of the experience, its true magic is in its atmosphere, and its atmosphere is created by its people. But anyone who has lived in London and commuted on a busy tube line at 8am and 6pm every weekday, shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of other disgruntled commuters, would probably not say that crowds of people are their idea of ‘utopia’. And yet standing in front of the pyramid stage shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of fellow Glastonbury attendees, the people around you are your people. You chat to them, laugh with them, look after each other, share drinks and food and bond over a shared love of the band.
So what is this fundamental difference between other people at a festival and other people in ordinary life? Freedom. Complete, unadulterated, unrestricted, unscripted, stupid, wonderful, crazy freedom. Thrown in amongst a thousand people without jobs, responsibilities, or a clock to live by to the minute, united with a crowd, the side of human nature we see is completely different. Of course, there are always going to be the idiots – the person throwing a strop because they can’t see, the pisshead getting aggressive because someone just pushed past them and spilt their pint. There is no stipulation that ticket-purchasing for festivals is only for non-wankers. Indeed, as Noel and his “high-flying birds” take to the stage yet again, it becomes evident that you can’t even keep the wankers off the stage, let alone out of the crowd.
But this is not the point.
Going to a festival once a year is a reaffirmation that people are good. You can dance with strangers, people will loan you their phones if you get lost, everyone looks happy all the time, and you can make actual friendships with someone by simply smiling at them and saying hello. We are all there together, momentarily removed from our lives and the structures that make us who we are; writing ourselves into our own utopian fictions. It almost begins to counter the crippling pessimism of life outside the festival – embracing the temporariness of fleeting experiences, short and sweet, like life itself. Festivals become a celebration of impermanence; of living for the moment. And I think if you’re into music and you don’t mind camping, it can be a pretty awesome thing to spend your money on. At least to try once, or you’ll never know if it’s for you. As to whether or not all of this is merely contrived, illusory and just a dream? As to why we truly can never end our love affair with festivals? I don’t know. But because I plan to go back again next year, I’m not really sure I want to know anyway.
To Watch: Woodstock (1970), documentary directed by Michael Wadleigh, edited by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker.
Image by Joy Molan