‘Half a Million Strong’ Studies the Intersection of Crowds and Power at Rock Festivals

Gina Arnold's research into rock festivals in the US, Half a Million Strong, reveals that it's about the music, yes, but it's also very much about you.

Half a Million Strong: Crowds and Power from Woodstock to Coachella
Gina Arnold
University of Iowa Press
Nov 2018

As a rock music critic who attended countless concerts and festivals and published in Salon, Entertainment Weekly, and elsewhere between 1981 and 2003, Gina Arnold could have written a behind-the-scenes memoir about the music scene. Instead, she wrote Half a Million Strong: Crowds and Power from Woodstock to Coachella, a bracing study of music festivals, their audiences, and the cultural myths that surround them. The real conditions of the rock festival are not pretty, yet rock festivals sustain a magnificent past in cultural memory.

Arnold begins with a simple premise: music sounds better live, and “people who love music have a deep desire to be in close proximity to others enjoying the same music.” The festival, though, is more than just a concert; it’s an event. Its “eventness” shapes both the experience and the understanding of what happens at a festival. An important distinction is rooted in physical space: “Concerts held in officially sanctioned spaces — stadiums, band shells, auditoriums, clubs, and the like — create officially sanctioned reactions from patrons,” while spaces like fields and farms that are repurposed for the festival lack the common cultural understanding of what we do here that is imposed by sanctioned spaces. Instead, rock festival crowds are an example of Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, an event where the cultural authority of church and state is turned on its head. The decadence of the carnivalesque can be both pleasurable and destructive, and Arnold stresses the same holds true for the rock festival.

Arnold’s extensive study begins with live performances as early as 1910 and devotes significant time to Woodstock, which remains the iconic rock festival to which others are compared by fans and critics alike. Of particular note is Richie Havens, the first performer at Woodstock, telling the crowd that they are the star of the show: he says it is the crowd, rather than the performers, that people will be reading about in the news the next day. Arnold recognizes this as a defining moment for the Woodstock audiences, and the rock festival crowds into the future, to realize they are at the center of what is culturally significant about the festival.

Moving through the history of rock festivals, Arnold takes note of the turn in the ’70s from festivals representing counterculture communities to commodified experiences of drunken excess. The turn was not universal yet marks a shift that needs to be acknowledged to understand the threads that tie Woodstock to Coachella: not only has the music industry changed over the past 50 years, so have cultural experiences of music. For example, Arnold effectively argues that Live Aid, with its multiple performances on multiple stages around the world, was organized as a consciousness-raising event against world hunger but was ultimately a television event, not a rock concert.

Arnold’s study of the US Festival, organized (and funded) by Macintosh cofounder Steve Wozniak in 1982 and 1983, offers an engaging perspective on the intermingling of music and digital technology. Noting that “the spectacles which draw rock crowds together are in fact instantiating American ideas of capitalism, freedom, and individuality,” she adds that the “rock festival has always been a visible metaphor for these ideas, but the US Festival makes the connections more visible than most.” For whatever reasons, artists including David Bowie and the Clash demanded far more than their standard performance fees, possibly as a result of the ultrawealthy Woz just wanting to throw a great party for his geeky, rich industry friends.

The lesser-known Wattstax festival, held at Los Angeles’ Memorial Coliseum in 1972, is called out precisely because it seldom appears in conversations about the great rock festivals in US history. Commemorating the Watts riot with a concert featuring gospel, soul, blues, and jazz artists, Wattstax defies the tacit understanding of what a rock festival really is: a space organized and operated predominately by white men. By delineating differences between Wattstax and the qualities that typify the rock festival, Arnold draws out the striking cultural limitations that keep rock festivals from living up to the multicultural ethos that organizers and audiences claim to embrace. As she moves deeper into this analysis, she portrays the crowd behavior at rock festivals to be far less fun for attendees who are not straight white men:

“the monolithic vision of American culture that festivals embrace is invariably normed to the middle-class white male. Any marked, alienated group that can’t fully embrace the appeal of that rhetoric — not just African Americans, but also women, Asians, Hispanics, the elderly, and the poor — will not be drawn by this festival rhetoric in the same way. But this doesn’t mean that the festival space cannot, under certain circumstances, work as the utopian, multicultural ideal that it claims itself to be.”

The example Arnold draws on here is We Are One, the concert held at the Lincoln Memorial to celebrate Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. While it may seem shortsighted to consider this event a rock festival, Arnold successfully argues that it meets the requirements she has already laid out and provided evidence to support. Throughout Half a Million Strong, the reader is challenged to distinguish the differences between rock festivals and other similar live performances as a means of understanding the history of rock festivals as significant cultural events that matter more than just the music performed.

Drawing on the previous discussion of rock festival rhetoric, the chapter “Girls Gone Wild” looks at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival as a precursor to Lillith Fair, then moves to an examination of how women were taught to perform their roles in the audience by MTV’s Girls Gone Wild and Spring Break. Sexual violence against women at rock festivals is a thread that runs through the book and becomes a focus in the last few chapters. The reader is reminded that Woodstock was not the hippie utopia that cultural memory has marked it as, and the gritty, unpleasant reality of crime and violence is a part of the carnivalesque nature of the festival.

In the end, Arnold acknowledges the paradoxical nature of the rock festival — it can be all of the things discussed here while also creating opportunities for shared pleasure and share space that create both community and history, giving festival crowds a chance to stitch themselves into culturally-defining moments.

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You might also be interested in “In Defense of Music Festival Fatigue“, by Colin McGuire 4 Jun 2013, PopMatters.