Sziget 2023
Sziget Festival

Sziget 2023: Macklemore and Billie Eilish Bring the Party to Climax

Sziget Festival, the great six-day Hungarian escapist extravaganza reaches another satisfying climax with Macklemore and Billie Eilish.

Sziget Festival
Budapest’s Óbudai Sziget
10-15 August 2023

After an appropriately festive, if more modestly visited first half of the event, Budapest’s Sziget, one of the largest music/entertainment events in the world, closed its 29th edition (or is it 30th? Nobody knows how the COVID-19 break counts here) with a wonderfully jubilant note. Mumford and Sons, M83, Nothing but Thieves, Lorde, Macklemore, and Billie Eilish, brought catharsis, dance, social justice speeches, and a party, all necessary prerequisites for a successful week in the island wonderland. Let’s take it one bash at a time. 

While Thursday and Friday were just about warm enough, the temperature began to rise from Saturday on, reaching the 90s. In a cloudless sky without a dash of wind, this meant peak summer stench; thousands of Szitizen campers stayed on the Óbuda Island, frying on the sandy beaches by the Danube or relaxing in the shade beneath the trees. The break yoga lessons, an energetic combination of yoga and breakdance, offered onsite daily from 10 AM, were full. Still, otherwise, the majority, including non-Sziget tourists downtown, chose to stay idle in close proximity to a cover from the sun, ideally with air conditioning.

My fate on such days is that I struggle just to leave my hotel room; the AC is simply too soothing compared to the flames of scorching hell of our own making, just waiting to engulf you anytime you step outside. It has to be noted, though, that I’ve been accused of exaggeration regarding this matter; admittedly, the low 90s in August isn’t the end of the world (though we will see about that!), and in Budapest, the sun now sets before 8 PM, inviting cool and breezy evenings, especially on the Óbuda island. I remember editions of Sziget more than 15 years ago, when we’d agonize in 100 F over a full week. This is how I comfort myself. 

Anyhow, given my travel absence on Saturday, on Sunday (August 13), I’m late to the party. An intoxicating euphoria is noticeable all around, as is a dip in the number of visitors from last year. I’ve speculated in the previous article on this year’s festival why this may be the case, but while Thursday was bizarrely solemn, Friday onward the atmosphere – as well as the festival’s trademark clouds of dust – picked up. 

The Freedome (formerly known as the A38 tent) finally rejoiced in an avalanche of sprightly guitar music, with M83, Nothing but Thieves, and Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes blowing the full house away in succession. M83, who took over sometime after 8 PM, were again met with the fervor that awaited them in the same venue in 2016, when they wowed a packed tent, despite shoegaze indie being out of vogue for years now. Anthony Gonzales and his live band showed their creative juices are still in good supply, and a solid crowd quickly grew to a packed tent, with hundreds sprawling on the grass nearby, soaking up the music more leisurely. Banners with messages such as “your songs saved my life” were flying high, and nostalgia for dreamy synth-pop hit hard.

Despite five of the tracks extracted from the new album, Fantasy, released in March, most of the performance was a deep dive into the back catalog, with tunes off 2011’s seminal Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming bringing the show to its climax. Expectedly, “Wait” and “Midnight City” were met with ferocious screams of mostly 30-somethings longing for the carefree days before the inflation and a new global financial crisis. Or maybe that was just me. 

Before I knew it, Mumford and Sons were showered with adulation or, at the very least, laid-back chanting from around the Main Stage. Same as on Thursday, the crowd was relatively modest, not even comparable to the density and intensity of the masses of the weekend proper. This one, however, I’d say is on the organizers. The lauded British folk-rockers already performed at Sziget in 2018 a mere three additions ago, taking into account that the festival didn’t even take place in 2020 and 2021. Worse yet, the band haven’t released an album since 2018: nine out of 16 songs played – more than half of the setlist – were exactly the same as five years ago. If I were to write a recap of the event, it’d be a carbon copy of the recap from 2018

Truth be told, the band have been through a lot in the meantime. Guitarist Winston Marshall quit Mumford and Sons in 2021 after being accused by fans of fascist sentiments as a result of his support of the right-wing journalist Andy Ngo, and Mumford himself spoke out about sexual abuse he suffered as a child, of which he wrote on his solo album, Self-Titled, released late last year. 

None of this, however, factored into the lovely, emotionally resonant performance at Sziget, where British visitors carried most of the singalongs. With a splendid band such as Mumford and Sons, you know any live performance will be well worth the visit. The question that lingers isn’t whether they deserve an audience – beyond any doubt, they do – but whether these audiences are willing to pay a pretty penny to see a bulk of repeat headliners. Florence + the Machine played here in 2015 and 2019 (also just two editions ago), David Guetta performed in 2013 and 2016 (he also headlined VOLT, Sziget’s sister festival in the north of Hungary, in 2015), and – this is the best of all – Macklemore headlined in 2014, 2017, and 2019. He also headlined the fifth day this year, on Monday, August 14.

Speaking of Monday and Tuesday, on these two days, I finally got a breather (not a literal breather, it was still blistering hot), meaning I could do what I love most. I got to explore the island peacefully during the day, mingle with campers and foreign visitors seeking all-day entertainment, and soak up the more nuanced aspects of everything that makes Sziget an escapist festivity par excellence. 

Over the days, sights of stray belligerent youth falling over and puking at 2 PM, coupled with media or otherwise viral hype about an “unidentified billionaire entrepreneur” getting apprehended or “secret toilet parties” (this one’s a real thing, though), will easily trick you into thinking that Sziget is this wild pandemonium of unbridled energy. The reality is, thankfully, something else entirely.

Odd debauchees and late-night bacchanals notwithstanding, most festivals of any sort are, in actuality, congregational spots for the blasé, chillaxed bumming around, something Sziget was made for. From the early morning until the Main Stage curfew around 10:30 PM, families with children, babies even, and large groups of comrades partake in the many extracurriculars, admire the numerous circus and acrobatics shows, or just enjoy one another’s company on the beach or in the nature. Having an entire island, an oasis of greenery just outside Budapest’s city center, helps immensely with instilling a sense of calm and joy in Szitizens of all ages and profiles. 

Throughout the afternoon, thousands crawl all around the island, meandering between the stages, food courts, and relaxation spots. Shows by the FA acrobatics group and Cirk La Putyka at the Cirque du Sziget, Circus Raj, and Ti’kaniki (a genre-less world music band from Lyon) at the Global Village, all draw in good numbers between 4 and 6 PM. The children – of whom there are hundreds – are particularly keen to partake in all available shenanigans, especially the old fan favorites, Traveling Funfair and carnival Walkabout, which engage and wow year after year. Spend a few hours among the families or between the GameLandHub and SportZone, and you might as well forget the musical component of the Sziget Festival entirely. Being in my 30s now, I understand better than ever that, for the majority of adults of any age, a leisurely activity isn’t a party as such – it’s just the opportunity to properly relax and forget yourself in an unpretentious environment.  

I’ve criticized Sziget’s management in the previous report for a lack of diversity in the offering this year, so I’d like to address this contradiction. In many respects, the armature of the festival’s variety of activities remains. Practically all of the stages I’ve mentioned are long-term staples of Sziget, places the crowds have enjoyed for years, and there are still enough art installations, stands, and activities to keep one busy for hours. Without a doubt, Sziget is still the best musical-cum-entertainment event in Europe (and beyond). But with cost-cutting and a fresh focus on monetization, now the title remains partially because this unique event competes with nothing except itself. 

While a good portion of the revered content remains, some much-loved venues, such as the Jazz and classical stages, the TED talk space, the phenomenal Luminarium, the Museum quarter, the wedding tent (!), or the greatly popular chill tent, where penniless foreign visitors could get some rest before catching their train or bus back home (don’t ask how I know), all are now gone. The sheer abundance of activity has been noticeably trimmed down. Perhaps even worse are the issues with food, that is; reduced offerings at increased prices, on which I’ve also commented extensively. With an average meal going at around €15 (ca. $16) and even desserts exceeding €10 (ca. $11), Sziget is no longer even pretending to be oriented toward any Average Joe. 

It is understood that the cost of food has risen by as much as 50 percent over the past couple of years in Hungary, but a handful of fried dough (Langos, a national dish) with a thin spread of sour cream won’t set the vendor back more than €1.5 – though it will be sold to you at an eye-watering €10. The prices at Sziget can challenge even the most expensive Western-European events; in a small country with a modest GDP, the above is a clear indication of the festival owner’s (a venture capital fund) intention to fatten the chicken up before the meat’s sold at a profit.

Festival director Tamás Kádár has insisted that this year, the event has become better because the producers “took a big step to reinterpret the Sziget feeling of life by enhancing the guest experience”, but apart from greatly improved toilet infrastructure (porta potties fully replaced by flushing toilets with seats), nothing else has been for free, assuming it has been improved at all. Charging €50-100 per person per night for “glamping” options or renting out pitched tents isn’t exactly adding value to anything except the pockets of those who run the show. 

Despite – or because of – the extreme effort to squeeze every last cent out of visitors, this year’s event is still not confirmed to have been profitable. The final numbers suggested some 420,000 visitors over six days, a 6.5 percent dip from last year’s 450,000, and a 21 percent attrition from 2019’s 530,000 people. Not a single day saw a full house of 90,000 (some sources say 95,000) visitors, which hasn’t happened in a long time. Last year Dua Lipa had no trouble blowing a packed island away. Shrinking numbers certainly have much to do with worldwide inflation and a steep rise in travel and accommodation costs. Still, Providence Equity Partners and Kádár’s team would be wise to reevaluate their headlining acts and fees. 

And what about the music? Both Monday and Tuesday sparkled with zest all around. Before Macklemore stood up to the task yet again, Lorde crushed it on the main stage and set the tone for two jubilant final evenings. The 26-year-old Kiwi treated some 30,000 fans to a Melodrama-heavy set and a lot of good-spirited chatting, always a crowd favorite here. “How many of you are drunk? How many of you are (gestures holding a joint)?” she teased while the teenage attendees happily screamed, showing off their newly-found “freedom”. 

Talk of Hungary and Budapest being beautiful (absolutely true) also always helps, and a monologue about a Hungarian friend who said, “bitch, you better go there!”, and a ten-year “wait” to meet the fans in Budapest was met with shrieks of ecstasy. For the closing “Green Light”, Lorde invited Caroline Polacheck, who performed before her, to the stage, to everyone’s delight. 

Having ended on a high note, the New Zealand pop chanteuse set the tone for Macklemore’s fourth headlining gig in ten years. If there’s ever been a headlining act in whose capacity to charm and captivate repeatedly I’ve never doubted, it’s Benjamin Haggerty. With boundless energy, phenomenal showmanship, and a vulnerable honesty almost unmatched in showbiz, the guy is worth his weight in gold. Though we’ve already seen him live merely two editions ago, the excitement of the 45,000-strong assembly was as fresh as if it were 2014. As with Mumford and Sons, Macklemore’s setlist contained more than half of the tunes his band already played in 2019, but in his case, that simply didn’t matter. 

I’ve always said Macklemore’s success has plenty to do with his shockingly rare understanding of the importance of trumpets for a good pop song. The only white boy to consistently deploy brass appropriately in his many bangers, Haggerty takes the plunge right away with “CHANT” and “Thrift Shop”, the latter of which is sung verse for verse by the masses. Plenty of intriguing visuals, with lots of footage both from his private life and everyday American reality, and lyrics tackling subjects from homophobia to childhood dreams and being broke but baller, paint Haggerty (“Ben” to friends) as a performer steeped in historicities, a rare beast among today’s pop acts. Global audiences seem to miss these kinds of personal yet universal tales with which most of us can identify, another reason why Macklemore as an act is so adored by many, despite often dressing like the patriarchal Ken onstage. “Same Love”, “And We Danced”, and “Glorious”, all soared with Haggerty’s continuous jumping and chatting. 

A five-minute ode to Budapest and Sziget being “the best summer festival in the world” is only topped by a spectacular dance-off during, you know it, “Dance Off”. Pausing the song midway through, Haggerty prompted the front rows to produce two worthy dancers who’d show us what they know in just 20 seconds. An Israeli and a Polish woman proudly proclaimed themselves up to the task and were introduced to the shouting crowd. These dance-offs, customary for a Macklemore show, usually come down to some clumsy ass-wagging or sloppy air chopping by inebriated folks who’d regret what they’d done the next morning. This time around, we got treated to a triple flip with breakdancing moves and a suspiciously professional drop’n’pop. While we cheered on, Haggerty was near speechless, and now I’m devastated to find out there isn’t a single video of this show-stopper on YouTube. It was a damn good time.

The encore is reserved for “Good Old Days” and “Can’t Hold Us”, as the Óbuda island trembles under the weight of the jumping lot. Ever the one to smile, Haggerty promises to be back, and I know few of us would mind having him yet again. He reportedly costs a quarter of what top bill acts such as Imagine Dragons and Billie Eilish anyway ($2 million and $1.75 million against $500k, respectively).

That’s not to say that the only Academy Award winner born in the 21st century – Eilish – didn’t prove herself to be a massively potent headliner. Having been announced as the biggest star of this year’s bash, she dazzled some 60,000 (mostly) younger females on near-sold-out Tuesday, August 15. Rarely to be seen in Europe, Billie Eilish, one of the undisputed giants of contemporary pop, pulled no punches, performing with a live band, which allowed her dark, experimental pop songs to fully take off. Thousands of youth wearing Eilish merchandise, tens of thousands of visitors who came from all over Europe, especially for her, and dozens of signs reading “Draw me a tattoo” or “Your music saved me” speak volumes about the appeal of the 21-year-old American. 

Deftly navigating both bangers such as “Bury a Friend” and “You Should See Me In a Crown” and acoustic tunes she performed with her brother and producer Finneas, Eilish showed a good range as a performer. Nevertheless, I have to note many of the people in the back looked mildly disinterested in the material, probably because of its omnipresent teen-goth vibe that becomes somewhat of an acquired taste after more than half an hour of live listening. Never mind that when some 30,000 of the peeps squeezed in the front sang every word of every song. The mercurial Eilish, still working on evolving her aesthetic, has nothing to worry about with a fanbase this committed. 

Many other acts deserve a mention in this report, but one person working alone can only manage so much. Girl in Red, Hannah Grae, Ashibah, and many more impressed on Tuesday, but with a 7 AM flight to catch, I must depart and bid another edition of Sziget goodbye. As I rush to get ahead of the crowd, which will clog the exit for hours, I’m met by the banner with “Are you sure you want to exit to the real world?” written on it. When it comes to this singular event, even after six days, one can never be sure, but I’d say the prices and new “upgraded experiences” certainly played a part in making Sziget “more real” than it has been before.

The “upgraded experience” also means that the machine never stops. After confirming that, in their own calculations, next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the event, the organizers promised the most megastar lineup ever – the ticket sale is also already underway. August 7-12, 2024, it is; if you can secure a low-cost flight and early bird accommodation prices, I’m hoping to see you there. After all, there’s only one “island of freedom” anywhere in the world.