It’s not Woodstock anymore when ATMs and phone charging stations line the muraled walls of Bonnaroo, a lone spray of “F**K CAPITALI$M” graffitied atop a psychedelic wonderland.
Music festivals like Bonnaroo have become an integral part of millennial culture in the last few years, as summer has now become “festival season.” Yes, festivals have been around for far longer than today’s youth, but it hasn’t been until the last decade that the American institution of festival going has transcended from an isolated and mysterious rite of passage enjoyed by the brave and adventurous few, to a mass broadcast, mass attended amalgam of consumption, media, and homogenization, topped with the cherry of music. When the biggest mainstream clothing retailers are advertising their criminally overpriced shredded shorts and factory-made “vintage” crop tops as a “festival line” to mall rats, it’s time to lift our idealistic veil about today’s festival culture.
This isn’t an awakening necessarily. There was plenty of hate going around the internet in April about Coachella and the kinds of people who attended (just watch this video.) But Coachella, like many things bred out of the Inland Empire, is unafraid to be cheap, artificial, opportunistic and covered in glow sticks. To put it simply, Flaunt magazine hosted a “New Guantanamo” themed party for attendees, so yeah, Coachella is the LMFAO of festivals. But all of the country’s festivals are carefully curated to have a specific flavor. Lollapalooza is for the urbanites, Hangout is for the fraternities, Austin City Limits is for the hipsters, Red Rocks is for the hippies and Burning Man is for a special category of people I like to call crystal lickers. Not to say that all of the festivals aren’t attended by vast demographics, but if boiled down to their essences they are not created equal.
Perhaps then because Tennessee is my home, and I tend to suggest that anything done within the confines of those rolling hills is done better, Bonnaroo always felt somehow still pure. Maybe because it’s held on a remote, sprawling farm in Manchester that it retains a level of mystery and isolation necessary to still be magical despite the changing festival landscape. There is a ruggedness to Bonnaroo that none of the other festivals have. People peddle drugs loudly in the fields. People are policed by the chubby local law enforcement on horseback who don’t tend to dismount. People unfortunately die. There is a post office and a hospital. For four days it is its own self-sustaining world, the last frontier of festivals.
But that ruggedness is transforming, and I’ve seen it from my first time there to my last. When I was 16 I attended Bonnaroo for the first time and accidentally consumed a drug salad of sorts, the unfortunate combination of being young, dumb, rebellious and surrounded by dozens of friends with the same problems. To make an incredibly long story short, I hallucinated to the point that I had to be taken to the hospital. My friend Minty, a cynical, emaciated, trust fund, Westchester gay who had been throwing trash on the ground for “the hippies to eat” the entire time, went down the rabbit hole with me. As nurses tried to give us saline IVs, the only thing they can really do for kids in that situation, Minty was screaming, “You’re not classy!” Ultimately we woke up the next morning with a long road of introspection ahead of us, and a strong desire to go home. What was astounding to me though was that despite how much of a child I obviously was, no nurse, no doctor, no authority figure, no one ever asked if I wanted my parents called, or even inferred that anyone should be responsible for me other than myself.
That might not be the most kosher story to reveal about myself to millions of people on the internet, but my point is how much of a different universe Bonnaroo used to be. A few years later I went back, a much tamer adult, this time to watch undercover cops in dreadlocked wigs and tie-dye give a friend a wildly expensive citation for pot brownies, and refrain from hauling him to a hillbilly jail only because they heard the cries of someone selling ecstasy in the distance. Last year I went back again, this time as a volunteer for The Gulf Restoration Network, and I watched as a young girl almost got eaten alive by the Foster The People audience as she fainted from a heat stroke.
As I’ve read pre-festival coverage this year for the event that begins tomorrow I’ve found a lot of it less than charming. Survival guides implore young people to bring as many ways to charge their phones as possible, lest they endure the trauma of being without Instagram. These guides are also telling people to make sure they’re stylish because the blogaratti will abound. On a grimmer note, after the Boston tragedies, security is arbitrarily not allowing people to bring in spare nuts and bolts, but will allow five-gallon propane tanks. The scariest of all though is this Forbes article about something called “Hackeroo,” in which a New Orleans based company, Codemkrs, has teamed up with Bonnaroo to integrate technology into the festival as much as possible from within and from the outside.
This is something that should make us all weary. The weird transitions of youth culture, or lack thereof, are one thing, but the consorted effort of conglomerates to monetize and tech-i-fy an experience that was originally designed to be the opposite is something we should all guard against. Ultimately, Bonnaroo has always been distinct in having multiple earth-shattering headliners, a vast array of genres, while showcasing smaller acts at the same time. It’s a musical smorgasbord, and for the time being that has not changed. The annoying baby acid hookers will be out in full force, and there will be people trying to tech you out around the clock, but also there will be people there of all ages and interests, who will let their phones die and help a stranger out. So in the infamous words of Timothy Leary my advice to all of you lucky Bonnaroo goers is “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” and drink a f**k ton of water.