Pashminas & Pinecones
I suppose I should start by giving you some background on my history in the festival scene. I didn’t grow up in the festival scene. I might go so far as to say I grew up in its antithesis, at least within the spectrum of festival culture/the party scene. I grew up in Miami, FL, where the party scene arguably celebrates exclusivity rather than inclusivity. Despite being underage, everyone from my high school somehow managed to party at LIV, Miami’s most notoriously exclusive club. LIV never appealed to me, but my friends and I were also the dweebs that didn’t know how to get fake IDs and just wanted to figure out the least sketchy way to buy weed. When I imagine LIV, all I can picture is a bunch of rich underage private school kids spending their parents’ money on tables and Grey Goose. I heard stories of people being arbitrarily turned away for “not looking a certain way,” and of bouncers rejecting guys as they desperately tried to control the female ratio. Once I acquired my fake ID, I remember struggling to find New Year’s parties in Miami that were under $400, and I remember noticing that men’s tickets were always twice as expensive as women’s.
Then there was Ultra. Fucking Ultra. This was my only exposure to festival culture, and it was anathema to me. I never even went and I found it completely aggravating. I couldn’t stand the kind of people that went and the intentions they went with. Nearly everyone from my private high school went because everyone had money. But I didn’t, I was on a scholarship. I also didn’t have the balls to ask my parents to spend $400+ on my Ultra ticket. Everybody just went to be seen, and I didn’t want to be associated with that scene.
I know I sound like a snob, so let me set the record straight. My friends affectionately refer to me as the "anti-snob snob." In other words, I'm snobby about people who are snobs.
I was just starting to get into electronic music towards the end of high school—it’s hard not to in Miami. My first rave was a Deadmau5 show at The House of Blues in Boston. I remember my friend burned me three CDs: one was dubstep, one was electro house, and one was trance. The dubstep one was my favorite—I gravitated towards Bassnectar, Zeds Dead, and Rusko. Instead of going out on South Beach, I found myself attending grimy dubstep shows at The Fillmore and the late Grand Central. I liked these venues because they were neither pretentious nor exclusive (plus, most of the events were 18 and up). There is so much more to partying in Miami than South Beach. I'll let you know what some of my favorite spots are someday.
I enjoyed what veterans would consider shitty EDM until I met my partner. He played Emancipator for me, lived for Pretty Lights, and loved attending music festivals that I had never heard of like Electric Forest and Camp Bisco.
He brought me to my first camping festival in the summer of 2014: Electric Forest in Rothbury, Michigan. It’s very immersive as far as music festivals go, to the point where I felt like I was on a different planet. There’s a large forest in the middle of the festival that you have to walk through to get to the other side. Many festivals are just a party (and there’s nothing wrong with that). Electric Forest encourages you to expand your experience outside of music by pushing you to explore. The forest is filled with installations, structures, activities, and performers. The way that it is illuminated at night is stunning and legendary. Plus, I had never seen The String Cheese Incident before, and Electric Forest is their festival.
My first year I made the rookie mistake of not only missing their Saturday night extravaganza, but also neglecting to catch a full set over the course of the whole weekend. I was still getting into the jam/jamtronica scene—you have to realize that there is no jam scene in Florida. I humbly thank the Westcott Theater in Syracuse, NY for intimate shows with bands that I now love like Papadosio, Dopapod, and Lettuce. I remember my partner and I were walking across the festival to catch one of his favorite house DJ duos, Soul Clap, and we stumbled upon Cheese’s Saturday night extravaganza. I had never seen a party this lit in my life. There were Pac Man and Super Mario visuals on the screens, and people were running around chasing giant inflatable ? blocks around. I had never seen people so shamelessly happy. I’ll never forget the song that was playing as it as now become my favorite: The Valley of the Jig.
It seems obvious to say, but camping festivals are fundamentally different than city festivals. A corollary to this is that festivals with a corporate influence (such as Live Nation or Insomniac) are fundamentally different than festivals without that influence. This is too much for one blog post, though. It’s something that I have observed over my few years in the scene. No two festivals are alike, even if their lineups are similar. What I’m trying to say is that there is a lot going on—socially, anthropologically—outside of the music. That’s what I want to explore with this blog.
Festivals are a subculture in and of themselves, and I think there are subcultures within the subculture. I think that most people within the festival subculture have a common vernacular, attire, and ethos, among other things. I notice this when I use words like “wook,” “heady,” and “custie” in social contexts outside of the festival scene. I find that I am explaining myself a lot. Where did these words come from? It fascinates me that we share a mutual understanding when using this vernacular. In terms of attire, you don’t see pashminas and pinecones anywhere else. The vast majority of the scene (though there are some bad apples) shares an ethos of love and radical acceptance.
I used to think that festivals were only parties. And I used to think that my writing was incompatible with this scene—that it had no potential for any kind of intellectual discourse. I realized I was wrong once I started attending more festivals and had points of comparison. I realized that there is a spectrum of experiences. There are festivals that are mostly a space for partying (like Camp Bisco or Ultra), and there are festivals that offer the potential for transformative experiences, like Lightning in a Bottle. I don’t think it’s worth writing off festivals like Camp Bisco, because Camp Bisco is arguably responsible for the massive friend group that I have today.
I know that music festivals are nothing new. Some of the oldest contemporary ones include Burning Man (1986), Coachella (1999), and Shambhala (1998). Woodstock seems to be the universal hallmark for American festival culture, but festivals themselves have been around since the beginning of time--they're even mentioned in the torah (I only know this because I'm in the process of converting to orthodox Judaism, which I'll tell you about another time). I would suggest that what is new is the oversaturation of the festival scene. The EDM bubble burst several years ago, and the subsequent proliferation of music festivals is unsustainable.
Sometimes it takes a new voice to offer a fresh perspective. Take Michael Pollan's new book, "How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence", for example. In his interview with San Francisco's Psychedelic Seminars linked above, he admits that he is a newer voice and still has a lot to learn. But even as a newcomer, his observations are worth exploring. In fact, I think he (or perhaps the moderator) suggests that it's difficult to read books about psychedelics from people who have been immersed in the culture for some time. It can be abstract to outsiders, and I hope that my forthcoming musings on my psychedelic experiences are accessible.
What I'm trying to say is that I'm not an expert. I do not have an anthropology degree. But I do have an English degree and a journalism background, and I think I have finally found my narrative and the angle through which I would like to explore this unique scene. I have watched this scene evolve over the last few years alone, and I'm interested in exploring the causes and effects of that evolution. I’d like to invite you to think about the festival scene with this framework in mind. I hope this blog has the potential to be a collaborative project.
Next time, I’ll talk about the profound clarity I experienced at Lightning in a Bottle, and how it functioned as the zenith of a dramatically transformative year for me and helped to emancipate me from trauma I experienced when I was younger.