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.