It would not be out of the question for an uninitiated observer at Bonnaroo to want to shout at the crowd: “Put down the glow stick and go shower, for God’s sake! That’s not a tan! That’s five layers of dirt!”
If you know anyone who attended the festival this year, chances are they told you they had a blast. But calling Bonnaroo fun requires that you heavily distort the definition of the word. A Martian anthropologist who saw you push your way to the front of a stage in humid, 95-degree weather just to get a good spot for a show that doesn’t start for another three hours would probably question the sanity of your species. The fact that a year later we willingly and enthusiastically do it again is frankly beyond reason.
The reality is that Bonnaroo is no leisurely, beachside vacation where Eminem regales you with his family drama while you sip mojitos (unfortunately). Neither is it, contrary to what its schedule might suggest, a musical all-you-can-eat buffet extravaganza. It is an exercise in restraint. How much fun are you willing to pass on to avoid becoming the guy who runs through the festival – NAKED – in search of a medical tent after taking seven grams of mushrooms? What measures will you take so that you don’t end up like the guy who looks passed out while standing up, except for the fact that he is also urinating in the middle of a well lit, heavily populated path? (The first story is purely anecdotal, but given that I witnessed second story firsthand, it’s not that hard to believe).
Bonnaroo takes place in Manchester, Tennessee, a part of the country where the locals either do not particularly care you’re there or, mostly, do not understand why you would choose it over the actual A-list event of the weekend: The Country Music Association Festival held in Nashville at the same time. When I phoned to book a motel in the city for the night before the festival, it was that event that made the woman taking my reservation worry about availability, not the 90,000-person music festival being held on a farm just an hour away.
The anonymity works for Bonnaroo, though, and in fact distinguishes it from most other music festivals. There are no city distractions (unlike Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits), and no natural beauty (unlike Sasquatch). It’s a festival held in a sweltering-hot, impossibly-dusty landscape, one largely bereft of sources of shade, where the only beauty and entertainment stems from the distinct assortment of people that come and put their bodies on the line, some for the chance to sing along to “Lose Yourself” with Eminem, others to mosh at a Gogol Bordello show at four in the morning, a few for both, but all to help create what is undeniably, in its own fucked up way, an incredible experience.
You can think of Bonnaroo as two lawless states separated by a large police line. The first state is made up of campsites spread out over several miles, some a good 30-minute walk away from the second state, Centeroo, where all the concerts are held. You’re pretty much left alone in either one, so the main game comes down to crossing the border as effectively as possible. On a regular walk to the security check you’ll catch people stuffing bags down their pants, reorganizing material in their bags, and then giving a pleading smile to the guy shuffling through their possessions as he discovers the forbidden can of Red Bull and Miller High Life wrapped inside a blanket.
Once the festival is in full swing, Centeroo becomes the main attraction and the campsites just a place where you wait out the sun while planning how you’ll make your way through security and when you’ll have time to go to the washroom between sets.
It’s true that Bonnaroo is also a social experience. You go with friends and you meet people, most of whom are very friendly due to a common base level of inebriation and a shared sense of purpose. In fact, when you arrive to the festival on Wednesday night or Thursday morning, your first experience won’t be the music; it will be the mass of potential friends wooing and yelling “Bonnaroooo!”
Once things kick off, though, any desire to spend less time snuggling up to the complete stranger next to you at the My Morning Jacket show and more time sharing a beer with a complete stranger at your tent is overwhelmed by the inordinate amount of things there are to do at the festival. Just to give you a sense, here is a selective list of non-music activities in Centeroo: early morning yoga, talks about social justice and music, the comedy tent, the “big ass water slide”, the cinema, the various clothing stores, and the Ferris wheel.
Bonnaroo is an amusement park for music fans. There’s too much to do in one day, the lines are long, food and drink is expensive, you never have enough sunscreen, you can’t get away from the crowds, and sometimes the very entertainment you’re there for only makes you more sick. But your friends are right: it’s a fucking blast.
My Morning Jacket