Photo: Scott London
Location: Burning Man, 2015
One of the central preoccupations of the late, great British science-fiction author J. G. Ballard was “theme-parking.” Writing predominantly through the latter half of the twentieth century, his work often explored how the safely choreographed experiences and highly regimented, monetized “fun” of theme parks was seeping out beyond the entrance turnstiles and overrunning many other facets of society. “We theme-parked the future just as we theme-park everything,” he said in a 1996 interview with Index Magazine. More than twenty years on, we are living in that future. But looking out upon today’s event landscape—at the SXSW trend forecasters, the tech-elites of Burning Man, the city-marauding Venice Biennale visitors—one could argue that we have evolved to a point where theme-parking everything has instead become “festivalizing” everything.
Festivals, of course, have existed far longer than theme parks (The Nevruz festivities enjoyed predominantly in Iran and Turkey are believed to have been celebrated for 5000 years). However, the Newport Folk Festival, widely regarded as the first modern American music festival, debuted in July 1959—just four years after the first Disneyland opened its doors in Anaheim, California. Yet, where the vaguely utopian futurism of theme-parks came to define a specific set of thrills and pleasures for the majority of halcyon-minded baby boomers, festivals remained comparatively on the fringes—places for the long-haired freaky people to turn up, tune in, and drop out for a few days. It is only in more recent times, as millennials have begun to exert increasing financial influence, that the cultural currency of festivals has exploded onto the forefront of the mainstream. Once all-conquering, theme parks now resonate most prominently today via nudge-wink Michael Crichton adaptations and the heavy-handed satire of Banksy’s Dismaland. In the festival age, mechanical queuing systems and hyper-mapped itineraries are replaced by (at least the semblance of) free-roaming open spaces and improvised “happenings.” It is a sea of change in the event landscape that arguably exemplifies millennials’ attempts to negotiate and free themselves from their parents’ societal constructs.
Festivals offer a unique allure for millennials. They are an escape from the suffocating professional pressures that late modernity insists on. It is a way to lose oneself in the transcendent qualities of music, of learning, of intoxication. That lighter-than-air remove, however, is also appealingly grounded in the tangible: in the churn of the mud that swamps the fields and footwear of the heavy metal festival Wacken Open Air; in the reassuringly solid familiarity of a close-pressed crowd moving as one to a relentless techno beat set against the backdrop of Melt! Festival’s lakeside setting. Ours is a fractured, distracted generation that all too often feels like it is precariously skipping along the surface of things, free from the reassuring essentialism that anchored our forebears. Festivals then are the ultimate playground in which to explore the more liberating elements of individualism, while also indulging a rare moment in which we can feel part of something concretely bigger than ourselves.
Like Apple products and streetwear and countless other transactional identity markers, festivals have transcended their initial niche appeal. It used to be that festival wristbands were coveted because only a few like-minded souls were also coveting them—now people go to festivals because everyone is going to festivals. For proof of how ingrained FOMO is to the millennial mindset look no further than the present-day mania surrounding Britain’s iconic Glastonbury Festival, which originally launched in 1970 with an audience of just 1,500 revelers. Each batch of the total 135,000 tickets last year largely sold out within minutes, and mostly before the lineup had even been announced. It is the ultimate fear of missing out, without actually knowing what exactly we’ll be missing out on.
It’s easy to be cynical about much of this, particularly with the ever-increasing and much-documented presence of corporate interests at so many festivals. Yet, one common denominator remains at the core of the best festival experiences: the opportunity to nurture a sense of community. In a 2017 study conducted by Eventbrite, 84% of millennials surveyed said they would rather live in the moment than share that moment on social media, and those moments are for the most part not defined by the logo on their plastic cups or the VIP access stamp on their tickets. They’re defined by an authentically shared sense of wonder: at the art being witnessed and the knowledge being gained. At the opportunity to experience life not in terms of relentless career trajectories but in terms of moments—spectacles, weekends, festivals—together, in person. “The notion of the community as a voluntary association of enlightened citizens has died forever,” wrote Ballard around the turn of the millennium. The most successful festivals of the future, whether business or recreation-focused, will be those that joyously and innovatively recognize their opportunity to reverse that “death.”