Emma Elwick-Bates on the mud and glory of outdoor festivals
Oh, is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel? Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?
Jarvis Cocker sang those words exultantly to 100,000 muddied fans as his band, Pulp, headlined Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage in 1995. Britpop was soaring that June, and I had descended on Worthy Farm for the first time with five friends in celebration of being finished with our exams and free of any parental interference, our excitement diluted by neither the pelts of rain on our army-surplus parkas (topping off our band T-shirts with homemade beaded necklaces nestled beneath) nor the local Somerset cider. We wore our hearts big.
As much as virtual concerts have valiantly tried over the past year, seeing music in the great outdoors isn’t something you can simulate. This spring, I will be making the trip to Worthy Farm again for a festival, but not one as we know it: It’ll be a livestream—of performances by Coldplay, Kano, Damon Albarn, and Wolf Alice, among others—to air one weekend this May, not quite Glastonbury weekend, or, as we devotees call it, the “Christmas of Summer.” Though the 900-acre site will be nearly audienceless, it somehow feels like a happy riff on the norm. We are beleaguered by the pandemic, but the return of live music promises to be euphoric. For many generations we have needed to gather in nature, listen to music, and dance—and we need that more than ever now.
From my early-blooming days as an indie-rock kid to marrying a music agent in my late 20s, I have embraced the festival spirit with vigor, circumnavigating the circuit across the U.K., the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Australia. For each there’s an indelible memory, a lanyard, and an extra crevice in my biker jacket. (When I left Vogue a few years ago, I was gifted with my own faux cover; beneath a photo of me attempting my best model moue was a phrase painting me as the Jules Verne of guitar rock: “Around the World in 80 Festivals.”) I’ve stood arm in arm watching Radiohead’s Thom Yorke stand alone on the stage just to give the crowd another burst of the coda of “Karma Police,” and been squished into Prince’s SXSW closing party at La Zona Rosa in Austin, where he and his 22-strong band (also squished on the tiny stage) wizarded the 1,200-capacity venue with six encores. I’ve even DJ’d at festivals, once stealing Jay-Z’s crowd. (A brief disclaimer: The set time—and my tent’s proximity to his stage—just may have aided my beginner’s luck; I retired that night on a high.) And I simply can’t wait to be back in the sludgy fields of Somerset, the manicured polo grounds of Coachella, and the off-season ski resort of Fuji Rock.
While no two festivals are quite the same, all of them share a sense of unity and a lack of cynicism upon entrance. The pandemic has isolated us and gnawed at our social bonds, but the festival is powered by people pulling together—from the first set to the last encore of the evening. When the Brexit vote came in 2016, Glastonbury provided a welcome cocoon of togetherness,