The Psychology of Music Festivals

""We’re trash you and me, we’re the litter on the streets / Just trash, me and you, it’s in everything we do" – Suede, Trash

In an age where society seems fragmented, with each individual left somewhat isolated, our atavistic need for collective experience appears to reassert itself through music festivals. After all, why else would anyone wish to go? As a rule, the conditions vary from being best described as uncomfortable to being almost intolerable, while the vast majority of those present will see previous little of the bands they have paid so much for. However, such theories do little to account for the full irony of such experiences, as with the bizarre spectacle of hundreds of people obliviously singing in unison to Suede’s anthems of alienation.

Upon a visit to the Reading festival some years ago I’m struck by the rather homogenised nature of the festival market. It has every stall that you imagine a festival to have, and indeed they are almost certainly exactly the same stalls that every festival does have. Eventually, I find a stall selling leather wristbands. "The people who make them in Tibet don’t ask for payment," the owner rather implausibly states. "They have a higher system of values. Not like us in the west." "Indeed," I politely reply. "Speaking personally I’m entirely corrupted." She laughs nervously.

The other thing that deeply impresses itself upon me is the odd nature of the dialogue between the artists on stage and the audience (or should that be congregation?). When Echo and Bunnymen perform I see the first illustration of this. "I don’t mean to be sarcastic or anything, but do you really like festivals … " He is forced to break off as a loud roar of approval is heard. He then shrugs and gives up. Later on The Prodigy appear and express moral indignation at being asked not to play a song, which they know full well to be offensive. "The way things go, I do what the fuck I like," they proclaim. This elicits yet another roar of approval from the crowd. Later on the same holds true for the irate response to this comment from The Beastie Boys, and I wonder how many people cheer both times, and decide that an great many of the people there would have cheered regardless of what was said. One wonders what Pavlov would have made of festivals like this.

Finally, much the same happens during Drugstore’s set. The singer, Isabel asks if the audience want a miserable song or a life-affirming song. I’m rather amused by the fact that the cheers are equally loud for both options, and appear to be coming from the same people.

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