The age-old saying goes something like this: “If you’ve grown one of the largest music festivals in the world, the only goal left is to make it even bigger.” Or at least so myself and the organizers of Budapest’s Sziget Festival seem to recall it that way.
The 24th edition of Sziget kicked off on Wednesday to rain, low temperatures and high spirits of the tens of thousand attendees. The week-long, gargantuan music and art event has carefully cultivated its image as a skillful fusion of million-dollar entertainment (more on that in a bit) and amicably hipsteresque 200-acre art installation year after year, and for that is rewarded with the trust of visitors from 70-plus countries and thus an opportunity to grow with each passing edition. This year the already huge event has quite literally stretched itself once again and is reaching for new levels of event superstardom — more than 500,000 visitors (still waiting on the official number), 13 stages, 26 complementary event and performance spots and stands, 3,000-strong staff spread out across the Obuda Island, and more than 1,500 programs which involve concerts, art performances, TedX talks, workshops, installations, seminars, etc.
This year, the daily capacity of the Island exceeded 90,000 people, and with all weekly and five-day passes sold out well in advance, everyone was curious to see how well the staff would handle hordes of eager festival folk. On Day -1, everything went well. The rain and temperature of about 55 F did nothing to damp the spirits of tens of thousands of people anxious to set up their tents wherever permitted and commence with an entire week away from the constraints of daily existence. Until recently, Day -1 was a mere introductory day, with mostly cover bands in charge of the music while visitors set up their tents and explore the island prior to the “inaugural” Day 0, when a single behemoth headliner would light the sky up and take home a million dollars for their effort of showing up. Not any more, though; the continuous expansion of the festivals has resulted in even more music, meaning even Day -1 would have “proper” headliners, while Day 0 would become as eventful as any other festival day. This pleasant surprise brought us the Chemical Brothers and Die Antwoord as Day -1 top bill, while Day 0 was all about Rihanna.
Bulks of festival aficionados showed up as early as noon on August 10th, setting up their tents and getting in line for the showers before the shows. While, as of this year, Day -1 also features major industry players, the majority of smaller stages were closed, in preparation for the rest of the week. No problem, apparently, since Main Stage drew a crowd measures in tens of thousands, for yet another trademark synth-heavy party. The day kicked of with Marky Ramone’s Blitzkrieg and Skunk Anansie playing to modest audiences, still adapting to the mud and sheer chilliness of what was supposed to be a scorching summer day. Skunk Anansie is, in all honesty, a band of the past, with their greatest hits left in the past millennium. Still, there’s no denying their music is beautiful, and many of their well-known tunes timeless. We could certainly use more frontwomen like Skin, whose powerful voice and no-nonsense demeanor convey both a strong attitude and empathic vulnerability over the melodies of “Weak” and “Hedonism”. On the other hand, Die Antwoord dazzle with their off-kilter humor and approach to stage antics, and the already buzzed audience responds in kind, with inarticulate limb movement, howling sounds, and rapturous joy.
By the time the Chemical Brothers take the stage, the weather becomes more bearable and we are treated to a slew of their great and greater hits. Honestly, there isn’t all that much to say about the big beat pioneers’ headlining set, which had sent a huge wave of people home smiling around 11:00 pm, the Main Stage curfew. The visuals mirrored the ones we’ve been seeing at their shows for the past five years of so, with psychedelic imagery laden with drug-friendly innuendo throughout, and the setlist was hit-heavy, naturally starting with a “hey girl, hey boy, superstar DJs, here we go!” chant, and, by extension, naturally ending with “Block Rockin’ Beats”. It has to be noted that, for the most part, the show appears to be a long YouTube playlist of the band’s big tunes, but one has to give them credit for being able to put “Swoon” arpeggios in a loop for several minutes without the ecstasy (no pun intended) wearing off.
If Day -1 was a meteorological test of audience’s stamina, Day 0, the first sold-out day in the expanded history of the festival, was a logistical test of nerves and general dexterity. It seemed like every man, women and child (yes, children, literally dozens of 10-year-olds, or so) had prepared for Her Naval Majesty’s arrival their entire lives, and if the reports suggest that there were 90,000 people on that island just because around 90,000 have been sold – I call bullshit, as the three-hour waiting line suggests a much larger number. Day 0 saw the festival in full swing, with performance art tents, vendors’ stands and “minor” stages all operable and content-heavy, but everyone was talking only about the Barbados-born pop icon, for whose arrival entire streets were shut down, and the routes to and from the festival changed, at the expense of, well, everyone who isn’t Rihanna.
No problem, though, as the masses had appeared to be ecstatic hours before the show. Or at least those who managed to get in during daylight. The Parov Stelar trio performance had been a great interlude; Markus Füreder, a famous Austrian producer and musician, and his band, effortlessly set the mood with their immensely popular electro-swing tunes, laden with the proverbial female power-vocal of repetitive, yet catchy verses, and booty-shaking melodic textures. Rihanna’s show ended up being half an hour late, and while I am personally not sure why (it’s unheard of in the recent festival history), the urban legend has it this was due to the fact that she had appeared at the festival without any downpayment and only requested her $1 million fee minutes before the show. Or maybe it was because the lines were so huge countless guests hadn’t managed to get in before 9:30 pm. Or maybe it was because she was sipping champagne will sitting on the banks of the Danube. Who will tell.
And RiRi? Make no mistake, she belongs at Sziget as much as any other headliner, rock, electro, or otherwise. As Andre 3000 so beautifully put it in “Bombs Over Baghdad”: “Don’t pull a thang out, unless you plan to bang.” Sziget gambled big with its ferocious, exponential growth, and it won big – Rihanna is strikingly beautiful, majestically languid and unconcerned with stage appearance, and boasts a truly unique, magnetic voice – when she decides to sing and forego the lip-synching choreography, anyway. As she casually struts down the stage catwalk, nearly 100,000 people of all ages,sexes and genders are in awe; some scream loudly and shiver, some forget to handle a hard-on, while some, or let’s be honest, many, simply stand there, drunkenly transfixed.
Rihanna, sporting a large hood which completely conceals her face, immediately kicks off with a melodically rich version of “Stay”, and we are instantly treated to the beauty of her voice. Soon enough the singer will dismiss the hood and reveal another new haircut, coupled with that genuine, hypnotic smile we all know. Over the course of a 75-minute set, some tunes will work better than others. It has to be noted that the tunes which work best are the ones not arranged as medleys, but the songs demanding the force of her voice to actually resonate with the audience. Admittedly, the fact that the setlist consisted mainly of medleys and the material off her new album, Anti, was somewhat problematic, given that the audience hadn’t been given enough time to truly inhale any of the tunes. However, with a star this big, the decision to present a bouquet of medleys, led by a potent guitar and layers of pre-recorded synth audio, is mostly understandable.
It should also be noted that Rihanna is quite different from what the market has come to expect from pop stars – she genuinely doesn’t aim to please anyone. You won’t see her frolicking in an overly sexualized manner (at least not very often), squeezing her lady parts every 20 seconds just to elicit gasps from hormonal teenagers. This, also, may be the reason why some of the reviewers gave her performance a negative review – I guess many expected to see a Barbie-doll, a toned, almost-naked female body whose only purpose would be to flex its gluteus maximus and smirk enigmatically at the kids in the front row. Not to mention that this concept is inherently wrong, Rihanna doesn’t seem to be all that concerned with dancing or striking a pose at any given moment. Except for grateful smiles and waves, she seldom addressed the audience, and the one time she does, while marveling at the size of the crowd and comparing it to the size of entire Barbados, she uses the “f” work repeatedly. And why not. It’s her show, which many seemed to have forgotten in those waiting lines they made themselves while waiting solely for her. Whether Rihanna’s, or anybody else’s performance, is worth $1 million, is not for me to decide. We have applied economics for that. As far as I’m concerned, hearing “Umbrella” live, coupled with that girlish smile, and watching the crowd lose themselves over “Diamonds”, is mission accomplished for any festival headliner.