The culture of festivals – progressive or pretentious?

The past few decades have seen the rise of a millennial culture that is progressive only in symbolic terms. Yuppie hipster culture and modern hippie culture have moved away from political activism and social movements and towards a brand that instead merely projects a façade of progressiveness.

The documentary Hypernormalisation by Adam Curtis reflects upon artists like Patti Smith as contributing to the rise of a ‘new kind of individual radical’ who, instead of trying to actively change circumstances, simply focused on experiencing it with a cool detachment. While it is natural for artists to turn to art in order to form a critique of society, artists are also often at the forefront of counter culture. This counter culture today has been compromised, in part due to disillusionment on behalf of artists and millennials.

Apathy and individualism have given rise to a new kind of post-modernist resistance rooted only in the conceptual realm. It is as a result of this proclivity that millennials find themselves faced with sub cultures that are only about symbolic aspects of being progressive.

To be alternative now has become to subscribe to a carefully constructed brand enabled by capitalism.  It is non-conformist and alternative only on the surface. It caters to politically disengaged individuals with disposable income, to those that justify their privilege by engaging in movements that are progressive only in symbolic terms.

Festivals are a prime example of a capitalist marketed counter culture that exudes an aura of progressiveness. The hippie movement, as reflected in festivals of the 70s such as Woodstock was not limited to sex, drugs and rock n roll. Instead, as Brent Green of the Denver Post notes, festivals such as Woodstock were the focal point for a generation intent on protests and social movements.

Today, however, music festivals are no longer the nexus of subversive culture as they once were. In part this is because of the fact that most music festivals are now commercialised, as Roxy Robinson notes in her book, Music Festivals and the Politics of Participation. Instead of a spontaneous gathering of politically engaged individuals, festivals are now profit ventures.

Harry Levin at EDM Chicago talks about the importance that Hippie culture and festivals like Woodstock have had as a movement and how the companies such as Desert Hearts and The Do Lab are trying to capitalise on it today. As a result, the very political counterculture that has traditionally been exuded by festivals has merely become a brand.

I am struck by this particularly when I attend festivals. I have always, perhaps somewhat naively, viewed festivals as microcosms of subcultures where subversion of social expectations was pervasive and encouraged. I always expected a culture of inclusivity and acceptance. Furthermore, I imagined a sort of progressive utopia, critical of capitalism and inclusive towards women and minorities.

Music festivals and doofs, especially the latter, present a very laid back culture. Many festival attendees will brazenly  tell you that it is a sacred space where boundaries between people melt. Festival goers do not see colour and they are not bound by social expectations. Social divisions evaporate under the stars and the booming music. It is easy to get swept away by the come all ye faithful attitude.

However, to pretend that festivals are a space where social hierarchies and expectations are left behind is misguided. The image that a lot of festival and doofs present is often simply a façade. Personally, I have experienced fairly blatant sexism and racism at music festivals.

For example, female artists are highly underrepresented at music festivals in spite of making up almost half of the attendees. Al Newstead at Tone Deaf talks about the issue of male dominated line ups in festivals. The lack of female artists ties into the insidious aspects of festival culture which can actually be quite misogynistic.

Furthermore, cultural appropriation is also rampant at festivals. While criticisms about this in the media have been ample, few pause to consider that cultural appropriation is merely a symptom of an underlying toxic ethos that views minorities as symbolic. While minorities may be welcome at festivals, they are nevertheless oppressed when their culture is westernised. Being of Indian heritage, regardless of whether or not I am personally offended by cultural appropriation, bindis at music festivals convey to me that my culture is not respected or understood and therefore, somewhat insidiously, not welcome.

The inclusive image that many festivals project is, to a large extent, a façade. Most festival attendees today have lost sight of the politically transformative nature of festivals. This is not necessarily to proclaim that the youth of today or festival attendees are indifferent to issues like climate change and inequality. Today, however, their concern seems to be accompanied with a level of apathy and a culture of individualism.

What lies at the heart of the issue is the fact that millennial culture now focuses on escapism rather than engagement. Festival culture is designed to provide a subversive haven where one can escape societal issues through music and drug use. There is nothing wrong with enjoyment through escapism. However it is worth considering that by failing to utilise the transformative nature of festivals, we are missing crucial opportunities to enact change.

Humbereto Braga, on his blog calls for festivals like Burning Man to work towards the creation of a sustainable and self-sufficient community. While calling for a complete upheaval of festivals as we know them might be a step too far, what cannot be denied is that music festivals, because of their very nature, could be used as a basis for creating dialogue and taking a step towards enacting meaningful change.

Being progressive is about more than dreadlocks and pink flamingo signs. It is about more than being experimental in terms of music, clothing or the drugs that you ingest. Being progressive is about social and political movements, most of all it is about inclusivity. It is about enacting social change through action and the power of unity.

Festivals have such power purely because of the communitarian aspect. Yet to use them as sites of political transformation, we must first recognise the hypocrisy present in doof and festival culture today. We cannot go into the woods and pretend that we have truly left society behind unless it is truly a ‘Lord of the Flies’ situation, in which case all bets are off. What might be far more effective is to engage with political issues and give disenfranchised groups a space where they can be heard.

Festivals are about incredible music but they historically have been and have the potential to be about so much more. It is time to make festivals truly progressive. After all, not only are creativity and subversion perfectly matched, they also have the potential to be highly effective.

Image: Aranxa Esteve


Since Neha Mulay’s recent graduation, when she not being consumed by existential angst, she is observing, reflecting and writing. She has been published in Demos Journal and Woroni. She has performed poetry at several events and hopes to publish her poetry one day. Through her writing she aims to capture the complexity of human experience with an emphasis on women and migrant experiences as well as mental health issues. While she writes because of an innate need to do so, Neha hopes to publish her writing to help alleviate the sense of isolation present in modern life.


  • George commented on July 6, 2017 Reply

    This is a very personal and expressive article Neha, and I think that’s great. My interest in commenting peaked when you mentioned “westernization” and “post modernism”.

    Your wonderfully worded experience regarding the westernization of your culture explains a good example of appropriation that has been well documented. I am keen to share the thought that it’s a inevitable occurrence that your culture (as a minority in this particular country) has been occupied . Much as any culture, through trade and academia, we share many wonderful things. It is truly unfortunate that through this sharing of culture, there is often a disconnect.

    Furthermore, if you choose to strongly identify with your culture and heritage, you will inevitably want stronger borders between you and “them” (that misappropriate it). I am not nearly wise enough to tell you what to do with what I’ve shared (with you) on this, so I’ll leave it at that.

    Lastly, your explanation of “resistance” toward post modernism, consisting of two parts “apathy and individualism” is particularly intriguing. As I think apathy is hard to define as a type of resistance. Then as for individualism, it is often deconstructed right? I do not see why you cannot apply this same deconstruction to the opposing ideology.

    Hope I’ve offered some insight if you happen to read, thanks.

  • Vi commented on July 6, 2017 Reply

    Curious to hear how you would go about this – after all, it’s easy to say change is needed, but harder to specify how promoters and event producers should go about enacting said concepts.

    • Neha Mulay commented on July 8, 2017 Reply

      Hi Vi,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I have always really enjoyed going to festivals primarily for the incredible music. However I do think it is important to be aware of issues in festival culture.

      Firstly there is the issue of sexism and racism at festivals. There are a number of things that organisers can do to address these issues. Holding workshops on the harm that cultural appropriation can cause would be beneficial. It would also be really helpful to create a safe space with a facilitator at the festival where anyone who has experienced such issues can talk about what their experiences. With their consent such discussions could also be made public and through social media and on the festival website, which would help create awareness about the issue of sexism and racism faced in individual interactions at festivals. Having general information on the festival website about these issues would also be helpful. Furthermore, promoting female artists and potentially even having a quota dedicated to female artists would be beneficial.

      The second issue is regarding the very culture of festivals which espouses progressivism that is not backed up by action. It is important when someone is being idealistic about the culture of festivals that they are made aware of the issues present at festivals and the hypocrisy in festival culture. This is an individual responsibility so the onus is on all of us to do so. In terms of what organisers can do, it would be great to see workshops held on sustainability and diversity especially providing practical ways that we can lead more politically engaged and sustainable lives. It would also be really great to see some of the profits diverted towards the creation of a temporary or permanent model community that is sustainable and creates a dialogue about pervasive social issues and action plans that can be implemented in society.

      In terms of the broader issue of symbolic progressivism in millennials, I think that the culture is a result of political apathy and disengagement. The way to combat this is through protests and social movements that reach out to and appeal to a broad section of the population. We all have a responsibility to ensure that being progressive does not just become symbolic, that even if it does become a brand we combat this through action whether it is attending a rally, fundraising or installing solar panels. It is also important to change this culture through dialogue about the need for action.

      These are just some of my suggestions in what might help create a safe space for all and a more honest culture. I hope this answers your question!

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