PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

'The Pop Festival' Seems to Have Missed the Music

The Pop Festival is largely an overly self-serious look at an essentially less-than-serious pop cultural event.


The Pop Festival: History, Music, Media, Culture

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Length: 234 pages
Author: ed. George McKay
Format: Paperback
US Publication Date: 2015-05
UK Publication Date: 2015-07
Amazon

The origins of the contemporary pop music festival as we know it today has its roots in the idealistic experiments of the hippie generation. While there were certainly music festivals prior to the veritable explosion of festivals in the late '60s and '70s, few had the lasting cultural impact of Monterey Pop, Woodstock and, for better or worse, Altamont. Purporting to be solely about the music, these were deemed utopian notions of communal living and featured the harmonious, shared enjoyment of a musical happening. Whether or not this was actually the case, history tends to favor the romanticized notion of the pop music festival, using Woodstock as its preferred archetype.

Ironically, these often humble, idealistic notions have long since been coopted by those with an eye on the (financial) bottom line. Now functioning as for-profit, often corporate-sponsored events, pop music festivals have become the antithesis of their original intention. In having sacrificed their idealism in favor of commerce, the very notion of the pop music festival as a relevant form of social interaction can be called into question.

At least that’s what seems to largely be at the heart of The Pop Festival: History, Music, Media, Culture, a somewhat overly academic series of essays analyzing the history, ideology, sociology and legacy of pop music festivals. While several prove quite interesting in their look at specific subgenres (psytrance, Love Parade, and the history of pop festivals in general), most try to be far too high-minded to be taken seriously, relying heavily on abstract, multi-syllabic terms which ultimately do little more than cloud the authors’ meaning.

A compelling subject matter from a historical and cultural standpoint, only a handful of these essays bother to spend much time contextualizing their arguments. Rather, the majority attempt to afford what is ultimately a lowbrow form of entertainment and culture an unnecessarily philosophical approach that tends to bog down the book.

The absurdity of the Australian music festival entry, entitled “Festival bodies: The corporeality of the contemporary music festival scene in Australia” by Joanne Cummings and Jacinta Herborn, finds its authors utilizing high-minded academic language to preface the monosyllabic responses of their “test subjects”. Given the less-than-insightful first-person responses meant to provide support for their already tenuous thesis, little is added to the argument beyond a direct spelling out of the basic concepts in a more basic, everyday language.

This particular essay is perhaps the high water mark of the ridiculous within a collection possessing more than its fair share. The authors’ treatise on communal sweat and how unpleasant it is (one festival goes so far as to complain about having to buy a new T-shirt, “because you’ve just got fat people sweat all over you and you wanna get rid of that shit”) is one of the more laughable passages in a book full of unnecessarily high-minded approaches to a fairly proletarian subject matter.

Those that focus more on the historical and sociological aspects of festivals and festival culture tend to succeed where those that strive more for philosophical or high-minded theses fail. Approaching the subject of festivals from the perspective of an anthropologist, several of these essays border on the ridiculous with the Wild Kingdom-esque narration and approach to the subject matter. Granted these types of gatherings do warrant their fair share of anthropological discussion, several of these essays seek to make something out of nothing, however, and with predictably disastrous results.

But this isn’t to discredit some of the truly compelling work by a handful of the collection’s more polished essayists. As mentioned, Sean Nye and Ronald Hitzler’s “The Love Parade: European techno, the EDM festival and the tragedy in Duisburg” offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of an often misunderstood subculture. By affording it the proper contextualization, these types of gatherings take on a greater meaning for their participants.

Similarly, Alice O’Grady’s “Alternative playworlds: Psytrance festivals, deep play and creative zones of transcendence” explores the rationale beyond what, from an outside perspective, might be viewed as childish or absurdist behavior. Positioning it as a form of contemporary escapism, O’Grady helps shed light on the motivating factors that lead participants to travel all over the world to take part in Bacchanalian music festivals.

Coming at the notion of the pop festival from a historical standpoint, only Gina Arnold’s “’As real as real can get’: Race, representation and rhetoric at Wattstax, 1972” and Nicholas Gebhardt’s “’Let there be rock!’ Myth and ideology in the rock festivals of the transatlantic counterculture” seek to get at the why of the pop festival, exploring the social and cultural forces that drove their initial appearance and the historical significance inherent in each. While the Gebhardt essay explores a broader range of festivals to make his point, Arnold tackles the standalone Wattstax festival, exploring the racial underpinnings that shaped the festival, its location (urban versus the rural Woodstock), its performers and the overall feel of this decidedly black music festival as opposed to its predominantly white counterparts.

While there are a few compelling essays that lend themselves to further investigation, The Pop Festival is largely an overly self-serious look at an essentially less-than-serious pop cultural event, one that lends itself more to unbridled and even cathartic fun and self-expression than overly academic analysis. Had several of these authors bothered to put down their notebooks, drop their academic pretense and enjoy the music, they might have reached this conclusion themselves.

5

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.