Status anxiety

The self-delusion that makes people go to festivals – me included

Is it consumerism wrapped up as subversion? Or just the declining liberal chattering classes huddled together for warmth?

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

I wouldn’t describe myself as a veteran of the summer festival circuit, but I’ve been to enough to have a theory about them. Or, rather, discuss someone else’s — in this case that of Matthew Taylor, head of the RSA.

For those readers who’ve never been to a festival, I will begin with a short primer. They usually take place in a muddy field over a long weekend, often in the grounds of a stately home or similar, and cost upwards of £200 to attend. There is nearly always an adjoining campsite, where many of the festival-goers stay for the duration, although the sanitary arrangements are poor. The festivals usually feature second-tier rock-and-roll bands and a random collection of authors and journalists — these are the ‘performers’ you’re paying to see, although many of them you’d cross the street to avoid. Towards the end of the evening, disc jockeys take over and play loud, repetitive music until 4 a.m., making it impossible to sleep. Perhaps for that reason, a large number of festival-goers will stay up and dance all night, even though they have often brought their children with them. The upshot is that nearly every festival features a ‘lost and found’ tent that fills up with abandoned toddlers after midnight.

So it’s a bit of a puzzle as to why anyone would want to go. Yet they do, and not just anyone. Festivals usually attract educated Guardian-reading types, the sort who pride themselves on being discerning, ‘ethical’ consumers. What’s the appeal?

Well, according to Matthew Taylor, who chaired an Intelligence Squared debate I participated in at a festival earlier this month, they are essentially shopping malls disguised as anti–capitalist protests (I’m paraphrasing). People who would normally feel inhibited about spending £8 on a bacon bap have no qualms about splashing the cash at festivals because they think there’s something vaguely anti–establishment about them. By some sleight of hand, festivals have retained their counter-cultural cachet that dates back to the 1960s, even though they’re about as ‘alternative’ as a five-bedroom house in Kew. Which, come to think of it, is the sort of house most festival-goers live in when they’re not in a bell tent or a tepee.

I think Matthew is on to something here and for those who want to explore this paradox further I recommend a book called The Conquest of Cool by Thomas Frank. Frank is a Marxist cultural historian who convincingly argues that 21st-century consumer capitalism is a hybrid of mercenary, corporate greed and hippie naivety, combining a one-world, peace-and-love, Buddhist innocence with a jaded, knowing, materialist venality. Think of Steve Jobs, the barefoot billionaire, and you get the general idea. If you accept Frank’s thesis, festivals aren’t in any way anomalous. They’re just another example of capitalism’s ability to co-opt its political opponents and become even stronger in the process.

The shortcoming of Matthew Taylor’s thesis is that it fails to account for one of the most striking features of festivals, which is how monocultural they are. You’re unlikely to see more than a handful of black or brown people at a festival. Indeed, you’d be hard pushed to spot anyone working-class, apart from the men in high-viz jackets patrolling the perimeter. No, they are almost exclusively white, middle-class affairs, redolent of the voluntary segregation you find in large American cities but which is less common in London, where most of the festival-goers come from. So what’s going on?

My theory is that they’re an unconscious reaction to the decline of the cultural influence of the educated white middle class. I’m not suggesting there’s anything racist about the people that go to these things, but at the ones I’ve been to there’s always an undercurrent of the liberal intelligentsia coming together to celebrate what is now a struggling subculture rather than the dominant ethos of Britain. In this regard, they’re a bit like religious festivals, where the sense of belonging and community spirit stems from the fact that everyone present is a member of a beleaguered minority. Indeed, most festivals aren’t a million miles from the Conservative party conference.

I don’t mean this to sound superior. I’m the owner of a five-bedroom house in Acton, which isn’t a million miles from Kew, and I enjoy the frisson of ‘cool’ that festivals give off. I just hope I’m a bit more clear-eyed about their real appeal than most of my fellow revellers.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • …have no qualms about splashing the cash at festivals because they think there’s something vaguely anti–establishment about them.

    The twerps. I feel a Harry and Paul coming on. Perhaps with a guest appearance by that great philosopher of our time, Hugo Rifkind.

  • tjamesjones

    and drugs I suppose, you wouldn’t be a million miles from lots of drugs either. I agree with all this – it’s like the parallel world of alternative purchasing decisions (organic, fair trade, local, etc). you’re still reduced in the end to being a consumer.

  • dan

    a little unfair tobes. glastonbury was full of scousers this year, and normally is. upwards of £200 – well glasto is, but there’s plenty that aren’t. 2nd tier performers? well if you want to call say, arcade fire 2nd tier then you’re probs not that down with the kids. whilst glasto, has plenty of beardy sandal wearering hypocrits (and jolly nice they are too) the V festivals are full of normal petit bourgeois just enjoying the summer. as a tory, i really enjoyed glasto.

  • davidshort10

    “educated Guardian reading types”. Shome mishtake surely. The plummeting circulation of the Guardian seems to me to prove that only the thickos have not woken up to the fact that it is full of rubbish commissioned by the thicko public schoolboys and girls that run the rag. It only continues to exist despite huge losses (and huge salaries) because of the subsidy from its sister petrolhead magazine, Auto Trader.

  • JimHHalpert

    It could just be that “black or brown people” have very good taste in music (having invented all the genres of 20th century popular music – excepting C&W).

    • Richard Martin

      “excepting C&W”…and punk…and New Wave…and Glam Rock…and various Metals. And if you insist that Beatles’ style pop music is really just an inconsequential spin-off from Little Richard-style Rock and Roll, then I’ll claim that Aretha Franklin-style gospel music is really just a spin-off from Scottish church music. Your statement is too general to mean anything.

      • JimHHalpert

        Certainly, the genres you name are spin-offs from rock ‘n’ roll – I wouldn’t say inconsequential. As for gospel, it originated in 17th century America among slaves who probably didn’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Scottish liturgy: so, neither 20th century nor European.

        I didn’t think I was saying anything that was either non-obvious or too general. Western classical music is (the clue is in the name) very conservative and not popular. What was once popular European music – folk music – is now preserved in aspic. Genres which are both new and popular naturally tend to be made by people outside the existing mainstream – whether it be pre-abolition plantations, Jim Crow America or the projects of the Bronx.