It’s absolutely clear by now: this year, Budapest’s legendary Sziget festival is all about chart-topping pop. For empirical insights, follow the trail of money – the three sold-out days with 95,000 visitors, the world’s biggest radio (or is it now streaming?) idols, i.e. Dua Lipa on Wednesday, and Justin Bieber Calvin Harris on Saturday. Unsurprisingly, Bieber and Lipa were also the most expensive headliners, and all three were supported by other prominent names in pop, like Milky Chance, Stromae, and Lewis Capaldi. In the grand scheme of things, there’s little to complain about regarding the lineup; both 12 and 13 August were a humongous triumph of good spirits, with people sticking around long past the Main stage curfew of 11 pm to dance, drink, and be merry.
In line with Sziget’s eternal party credo, the two weekend days were laced with more spectacular pop/electro live performers on smaller stages, namely Jungle, Slowthai, Woodkid, and Sevdaliza. None of this would be even remotely noteworthy at an event known for its unprecedented commitment to escapism, exuberance, and pure joy were it not for a tonal shift in the past decade that sparked a debate regarding the festival’s actual diversity. Big digression follows.
Until 2006-2007, most Main Stage and A38 (nowadays known as Freedome) headliners were rock or even alternative and metal bands. The Metal stage was perhaps one of the five most popular stages, with dozens. I remember clearly TOOL and Nine Inch Nails co-headlining in 2007; in 2008, it was Iron Maiden and REM, while, for example, in 2013, we had Blur and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, among others.
Today it would be next to impossible to imagine any of those bands returning to Sziget. Why? It’s not (just) the organizers’ whim: the last time around, in 2019, The National co-headlined the Main Stage on 10 August to the smallest crowd for a headliner I’d ever seen in my 15 years of attending Sziget. It was a wonderful show, and those present enjoyed it massively (and so did I), but the wide open space was simply… empty. Correspondingly, the famous tent, Sziget’s second largest non-DJ stage, saw progressively diminishing crowds at indie and alternative concerts in the past years. The Metal stage also ceased to exist some years ago since headbangers had little interest in DJs or mainstream pop, thus losing their incentive to stick around altogether.
One way or another, looking from the perspective of branding, sheer logistics are at odds with party-leaning profiling; if you have a six or a seven-day event that costs millions no matter how you flip it, advertising it as “something for everyone” is, now we know, deterring both the majority that would purchase a full festival ticket and the ones who’d come for a day or two. At a three-day event, one could easily cluster performers of a certain genre and have plenty of people come on the one or two days of interest. Still, Sziget is expensive for Hungarians and travel-heavy for the rest, meaning you’ll only show up if you get a bang for your buck through and through.
In Sziget’s case, the (much-welcome) abundance of non-musical content and the magnitude of the event necessitate a particularly painstaking curation of acts, with only four stages hosting world-renown musicians, two of those being dance arenas. If a local pays $80 + food and drink expenses for a day ticket, they will expect to see more than just one or two bands from their preferred genre, something an event that is not fully tailored to their taste can offer. The same goes for weekly tickets, as few would pay $350 + travel expenses for five or six concerts they might enjoy.
In reality, this aesthetic conflict has only one blanket solution: pop or, at the very least, radio-friendly performers that will keep the party spirits alive throughout. This approach has worked wonders for the organizing team, as they are no longer selling “just” a big batch of diverse concerts but an atmosphere, an event that’s equally famous for its chart-topping lineup as for its six-day-long nonstop content, dozens of small venues, workshops, and its influence on Hungarian tourism. This success, which saw Sziget grow to its maximum capacity of 95,000 people per day (so as not to overwhelm the island’s nature), has a twofold explanation. One, people who want to escape their daily lives and isolate themselves on a beautiful island to party will come for the party itself, provided there’s enough of it. (There is more than enough.) Two, if anyone’s going to pay top dollar to come only for one or two acts, it will be teenagers and students who’ve either badgered their parents into submission or who’ve worked their young asses off to save up enough money to cry when they see a topless Justin Bieber.
All of the above is OK. Yes, older spectators would prefer to see more indie or hard rock acts, and, yes, many journalists have complained about “kiddy pop” taking over in the 2010s, but these are futile complaints. There are more than enough concerts and festivals for anyone’s taste in Hungary and across the continent; there is no need to humiliate Sziget for becoming more oriented toward younger audiences to survive. (There are other things one could criticize the festival for, especially this year.)
Lastly, Sziget is still a well-balanced affair, and there are still plenty of rock and indie acts to go around; it’s just that the crowds the festival pulls in aren’t as big as those commanded by pop, rap, or DJ headliners. This year it’s evident in the more modest ticket sales for the three days headlined by Kings of Leon, Tame Impala, and Arctic Monkeys. Unfortunately, since the press office isn’t issuing numbers or reports this year, I cannot specify the discrepancies. (This, on the other hand, would be a criticism; I hate not having accurate data).
Anyway, Friday, 12 August. I had to leave for a family affair, so I missed the gargantuan phalanx of Beliebers who camped out in front of the Main stage from the early afternoon, not breaking formation even for physiological purposes. There’s an in-depth report from a colleague in Index here, which you can translate from Hungarian if you so desire. Otherwise, acquaintances tell me that the Belgian hip-hop sensation Stromae gave an incredible performance, with shows by Jungle, Woodkid, and Slowthai at the Freedome tent most often cited as some of the best shows of the festival. I remember Woodkid bringing the tent down in 2013 with his astonishing visuals and richly layered indie pop. A colleague who’s seen him then and at this event confirms he’s only improved with age.
As for Bieber, this was his first time playing in Hungary, and a full house was a certainty. I see that hundreds of fans naively tried to lay their hands on the hottest ticket of the summer outside festival doors (i.e., the K bridge), only to be scammed by shameless scalpers. As for the show itself, I hear wildly disparate recounts; some were impressed with Bieber’s positive energy and light-hearted tunes, while some described him as “soulless” and “bland”. Either way, it was evident on early Saturday afternoon that everyone was exhausted from the night before, which should count as mission accomplished. The Devil works hard, but Sziget’s video production works harder, so you can already enjoy a brief but bombastic clip from the many shenanigans of Friday.
Saturday started slowly, and I took the time to visit some of the several smaller venues with diverse cultural content. At 2 pm, I managed to squeeze through to the Cirque du Sziget, a circus and acrobatics venue with an inspiring crossover of conceptual performances. Midsummer Night’s Dreamers are on, a fabulous theater and circus crossover feat reimagining Shakespeare’s classic through dance and acrobatics. Seeing wholly absorbing yet novel shows like this is as good an explanation as any regarding why Sziget remains colossal in terms of its scale and scope. The theater is packed with young Szitizens, many of whom (myself included) would not easily get an opportunity to witness such an experience.
Around 4 pm, I try stopping by the Global Village for a National Water Puppet Theater of Vietnam show, a magnificent display of Vietnamese cultural heritage, but the place is packed. I pack my Sziget passport and roam on, trying to take in as much as I can before the party is back on. Too bad I’m missing the stilt walkers from Togo, but we still have Sunday and Monday.
After crossing paths with the always-hilarious Traveling Funfair, I am told there is a fortune teller located further down the road; however, the fortunes are told only in Hungarian, and I have to make peace with ambiguity and move on with my life. While my long-term prospects seem satisfyingly positive, the short-term outlook is much more…dimmed. The issue with dust, which we touched on in the first report, hasn’t improved since the first day. On the contrary – the enormous clouds of dust, often 20-30 feet high in the evening, keep lingering even in the daytime. Layers of soot cover many of the tents, and breathing becomes increasingly difficult as soon as one approaches any popular spot. I won’t even mention the state of the feet of those in sandals and sliders. I think I’ll have to throw my sneakers away when I return home. Local newspapers report that the dust issue this dire hasn’t been observed in the past two decades. As someone who’s been to Sziget for the past 17 years, I can confirm this and sincerely hope the organizers will be vigilant enough to bring back extensive rubber covers and sprinkles next year.
Before I know it, it’s past 7 pm, and the Main Stage is about to be taken over by Lewis Capaldi. To the uninitiated Szitizen, hearing about a 25-year-old Scottish singer-songwriter setting the stage up for Calvin Harris and Alan Walker (at the Arena), two of the biggest pop DJ names in the world, might seem like an odd choice. In reality, it’s anything but. The young Glaswegian, often compared to Ed Sheeran (both being ginger is a clue), is a powerhouse singer whose emotionally charged ballads bring out the catharsis that, in younger audiences, easily spills over into frantic party mode. Accompanied by a quartet of bass, guitar, percussions, and piano, Capaldi quickly took to an acoustic guitar, pouring his soul out, with many young ladies wiping tears and glitter from their faces along the way. He might only have one album to his name, but Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent is a record that begs to be sung at top of one’s lungs in a vast open space. Funnily enough, Capaldi already performed at Sziget in 2018 when he impressed a full house at the Freedome tent. “I was much slimmer then,” laughs the Scotsman, whose brisk, spitfire, self-derogatory humor contrasts with his gentle and intimate tunes.
I can’t stay until the end as I must rush to the Freedome. Sevda Alizadeh, known as Sevdaliza, easily gave one of the most inspired performances at the festival and set the tone up for an evening of EDM and grinding. The Iranian-Dutch wonder brings a fantastic mix of trip-hop, electronica, alt-rock, and R&B to an audience mesmerized by the heavy beats and her majestic mezzo-soprano. A solid crossover between James Blake, Massive Attack, Aaliyah, and more, Alizadeh impressed the most when she incorporated world music themes in her loaded arrangements. Toward the end, she treated us to a brief DJ set, which saw dozens of enthusiasts running into the tent to check out the atmosphere.
I want to go back to 2010, when a relatively popular but not yet star Calvin Harris played one of the small former venues with a full band, singing and playing the synth along the way. It was, hands down, one of the best shows at the festival this century, and I remember it vividly to this day. Back then, he “only” had I Created Disco (2007), and “Ready for the Weekend” and insane energy to his name. The tiny was bursting at the seams; as the show progressed, seeing the audience jump, hundreds tried to join, to no avail. It was one of those shows few attended, but everyone talked about. The few surviving videos of appalling quality (2010 was 200 years ago, right?) are testament enough to the time we had then.
Fast forward 12 years, an epic Main stage, and the 38-year-old Scotsman (the main stage going two for two with him and Capaldi) just knows how to do it for everyone. Long recognized as a DJ/producer, Harris is ludicrously popular; his on-and-off three-year residency in Vegas earned him a cool $200+ million between 2018 and 2020. Thousands at Sziget tonight are here for him alone. Lasers dart around the sky and on the ground amid the smoke machines, 60,000 plus people from all walks of life take their phones out to record the concert, and scream and jump to the beats as he coyly smiles from behind elevated turntables. While Harris is keen to mix other artists’ work, it’s the hits he produced that hit the hardest, most notably “Blame”, “Summer”, “Feel So Close”, and of course, “What You Came For”. The atmosphere is great, though I would cautiously say that the night was not sold out. Again, there are no official numbers on this (yet) this year, but that’s irrelevant right now. The party – and the dust – is at its peak.
Or just about. After Harris’ exhilarating show, I take a short breather and try to secure a drink, which takes half an hour, and it’s already time for Alan Walker at the Party Arena. As the Norwegian-British wunderkind opens the intense set with “Faded”, there’s barely any breathable air left under the dome and hoards trying to squeeze in from the outside. I can’t say I’m too old for a back-to-back party, but I definitely am too tired to be squeezed for hours after midnight, so I chug my wine and slowly head back to the hotel. Luckily, the crowds were leaving after Harris’s show, so I could swiftly slip into a taxi and return to my hotel room to wash. I’m sad that I missed so many intriguing acts each day of the festival, especially on smaller stages, but Sziget is a huge event. I’m happy to have seen Tame Impala and Arctic Monkeys. While there’s no shortage of support for pop and EDM from this reviewer, my preference still lies with the rockers.