I did not know what to expect from or what to plan for during this four-day adventure in Manchester, Tennessee, so I rounded up a troupe of trusted friends to act as my guides and possibly double as a brute squad if a situation ever got rough. First, I had my Manchester Native who now lives in London and does the books for Satan. No, not really—she does tax work and is very impressive etc., etc. Second, I recruited my friend who is father to my godbaby and husband to one of my dear friends. I shall refer to him as Baby Daddy. Third, Bonnaroo Goddess, who was about to embark on her 8th Bonnaroo. She knew exactly how to pace herself during this marathon of a festival. She explained to me the significance of taking naps, but not just any naps: Bonnaroo naps, induced by pot or beer or both, which were the best naps she took all year. And, (bonus!) after she woke up from these deliciously restful naps, there were concerts waiting for her to enjoy.
I asked Baby Daddy why he thinks people come to Bonnaroo. He said without pausing to think, “People like Bonnaroo because it’s a holiday from morals.” When I asked Bonnaroo Goddess the same question only a few hours later, she replied, “It’s a vacation from reality. You don’t have to think or worry about anything when you are here. There’s no judgment. Do whatever you wanna do.” Manchester Native said it was because people want to be able to tell other people that they went to Bonnaroo, as though that has some sort of cache. “It’s like saying you went to Woodstock,” she said. As I was walking into The Farm the last day of the festival, I met a raising senior in highshcool who walked with me into Centeroo. I asked her if this was her first Bonnaroo experience. She said that she attended last year but she only saw one show and smoked pot the rest of the weekend. She asked me if I was planning on smoking that day. I think she was asking me this because she was hoping that I might be a generous Bonnaroovian. When I told her, no I am not smoking, I have to work and take notes about all the shows, she looked at me and was utterly confused. Her eyebrows made those squiggle lines that cartoon artists draw to indicate puzzlement. The conversation ended at my answer. There was no more need to talk to me.
My crowd-sourced opinions reflect the intentional design of the festival, it seems. Only a few months before the festival began, I attended an interview between the founder of Bonnaroo, Ashley Capps, and Rick Farmen, co-founder of Superfly Presents. Farmen stressed throughout the interview that Bonnaroo is an “experience.” It’s not just a festival, not just a series of concerts on various stages, but something more. The music that pours out of the speakers is an excuse for a gathering; the music is a backdrop for most Bonnaroovians. Sure, some people have come to Bonnaroo to have a furlough from the constraining morals that have been imposed upon them by society, or by their families, or their own consciousness, etc., etc. Reality is a construct that we all need some vacation from is an idea many people (particularly the under 30) believe to be true. Bonnaroo for some is an excuse to just let go, chill out, not be judged by anyone, and just be.
Now, maybe that isn’t completely true. Perhaps a great majority of the attendees were there because of the incredible range of music acts that were playing this past weekend. One act that was particularly inescapable in the Bonnaroo world was Kanye West. I mean that it was inescapable because someone or someones had spray painted on a stretch of port-a-potties “F**k Kanye.” Someone else had written on the Bonnaroo Public Works wall “#WhatWouldYEEZUSdo?” to which someone else had replied, “#forgive Kanye.” I saw at least 5 people wearing t-shirts with “F**k Kanye” written in all capital letters during my first day on The Farm. Every once in a while, someone (it was always a different shirtless man) would yell “F**k Kanye!” into a crowd of people to which some other man would gargle “yeah!”.
With this attitude permeating The Farm, I was surprised at how many people attended West’s show on Friday night. The “What Stage” was packed full of people waiting to see Kanye West. I think the gross majority of people were there for either two reasons. They wanted to see if West would have a melt down or if he would arrive late. West was a headline in 2008 but didn’t take the stage until 4:45am. He was scheduled for 8:45pm the night before. For whatever reason they were there, they wanted some kind of drama to unfold. It’s that sick part of human nature that lusts after seeing disasters. (Think about those comments Glenn Beck made about the Broadway Spiderman show, or all the times you have slowed down to see the car accident that is on the side of the road).
The two-hour set was heavy with dark, anger-ridden songs. West didn’t want the audience to dance or even enjoy his show. He would start a song only to yell for whoever was working the sound board to “Cut it! Cut it!”. He would then begin reciting some monologue of vitriol, at one point aimed at the press, another time aimed at the audience. He stated that Shakespeare had had his day. Beethoven had had his day. And now, he declared, was his day! I don’t think Kanye really understood what he was saying because I don’t think he really understands who Shakespeare and Beethoven are and why they are important. Shakespeare and Beethoven revolutionized their fields by being masters and innovators that not only affected their artistic fields ,and subsequently, they are still relevant 600 and 300 years after their births. Their works are still analyzed by scholars, discussed in academia, and performed by professionals for money and lay people for fun. And, I believe their work will continue to be performed, studied, and admired for hundreds of years more.
Kanye West does not lack for confidence, and maybe, quite possibly, today is his day. But, will the future peoples of the world be talking about West’s music in 600 years, or analyzing the rhythmic structure of “Gold Digger”? Not so sure. I will give West some credit. He has, much like Shakespeare, added new words to our vernacular, including Yeezus. So, maybe there is hope for him to be the next Shakespeare…
The aspect of West’s career that he does not comprehend and that bothers him greatly is that people don’t like him. There is no attraction to the persona that he projects. There is no cult of personality that surrounds this diatribe-loving rapper. People like his music. No one likes him. But it isn’t enough for West that people only want him to perform their favorite songs. He wants you (yes YOU) to respect and admire the man that refers to himself as Yeezus. This is the reason why West constantly needs to explain to you why the Press and all his critics just don’t get him. They don’t adequately report on his genius. In his infamous online rants, he writes in all capital letters SO YOU KNOW THAT YOU NEED TO TAKE HIM SERIOUSLY! TAKE HIM SERIOUSLY MAN! He thinks by yelling “Cut it!” and using capitals he can convert you to a West acolyte. He needs adoration from his fans, critics, and all the people who occupy his space. It’s his world. We are just the imbeciles who don’t know it.
Jay-Z, West’s contemporary and sometime collaborator, is a man that fans respect in the sense that they find him cool. He wears beautiful suits, sits front row at basketball games, was once a drug dealer and is now a successful businessman with the hottest, most devoted wife and a daughter who makes headlines at the age of one year old. Jay-Z is a badass and, what’s more, he doesn’t care if you like him or not. He doesn’t need you to respect him. His fans do it without him commanding them to. Royalty is not royalty because they have a title but rather because people treat them as such. This is something West refuses to accept.
People booed West. All around me people were shouting and sarcastically yelling, “It’s the new Shakespeare everybody!”. And then they started to leave after the first 30 minutes of the show even before the major monologue commenced which lasted fifteen minutes. The angry spectacle that is Kanye West is not as enjoyable as the Kanye West that raps “All Falls Down” and “Touch the Sky”. That’s the man that could endure and that’s the man people really want to see. Most people don’t care or even know what critics say about their favorite musician. The fans just want the musician to show up at a decent time and play the hits.
I am glad that I went to the Kanye West concert that day because it provided a conversational currency I could use the rest of the festival. Before the Damon Albarn set, when the entire audience was sitting in front of the “What Stage” trying to hydrate and smoking, one simple mention of Kanye West’s show set off a long dialogue with the man next to me and then in turn with the people who were sitting behind us. It was an unobtrusive, and easy way to talk with a stranger and in everyday life it is hard to find the right conversational topic that will allow for one stranger to begn talking and getting to know another stranger in a way that is light hearted and still engaging. “Kanye West! Yeah that concert was ridiculous. Did you stay for that weird prayer part? Did you know he is the new Shakepeare? He told me so.” What subjects can we talk about with strangers that aren’t upsetting or alienating? Not religion. Not politics. Not TV shows. I remember reading a Chuck Klosterman article where he suggested that the only conversational currency we have is the topic of celebrities like Jennifer Aniston who are talked about so often and are fictionalized we all can safely have opinions about them. But, I am not completely convinced that is the case.
So Kanye brought many people at Bonnaroo together by the shared experience. Thank you Kanye. The other topic that you could easily bring up with anyone whether you were standing in line for the port-a-potties or lounging under the few and precious trees on The Farm was the smell. Tennessee in June is hot and humid which, usually equates to a miserable outdoor experience. During this time of year bug spray and body odor hang and commingle in the heavy wet air.
The man next to me at the Arctic Monkeys concert was an enthusiastic dancer. His arms would fly up and down, sway right to left, and every time his arms were tossed up to heaven, a pungent and potent smell comparable to biological terrorism assaulted my face and senses. The problem wasn’t that it was an occasional event during the 75 minute show. No. It was an AK-47 attack on my olfactory senses from which I did not recover quickly. Smelly people are to be expected during a four day long event where most people are camping. I understand this. But, before every show, I would inevitably stand next to a girl who would curl up her mouth and nose and ask “why does it smell like shit?” My response was always a shrug. I couldn’t shrug off the smell of this man. I tried to do some mental exercises that involved astral projection. I am not here with this fetid man. Nope. I am up on stage with Alex Turner. His foul effervescence is actually rose-wood with a hint of lavender. Nope. That didn’t work either. At one desperate point I tried to tell myself that the human body and all it’s mechanics are natural and beautiful functions. This man is healthy! I should be happy for him! But, this didn’t comfort me at all yet, it did allow some funny exchanges of stories with other people. The survival after rancid smells became battle stories.
This is what the Bonnaroo experience was for me, the easy way that I or anyone could talk to other Bonnaroovians about an event. By entering the gates into Centeroo, a community was automatically formed and that rarely happens in adult life. The effortless and straightforward way that college life provides community and friendships disappears upon graduation. I have this conversation a lot with friends who are moving to new cities where they know no one. How am I going to make friends? It’s a serious and frightening question. How am I not going to be alone? Sure, they could make friends at their workplace but the camaraderie that people find in co-workers usually ends once one of them leaves that workplace. Commonality of work is different than the bonds that form between people at college.
So, I wonder if Bonnaroo exists because we need in our lives, even if it’s just for four days, a sense of tangible and easy community. Scholars, psychologist, sociologists, bloggers, and moms have all written reams about modern life and how technology has effected our communication and awareness of community. I remember talking with a co-worker at one of my low-rent jobs who was regaling me about the wonders of Facebook. “You reconnect with all these people in your life from grade school or whatever, and it’s really cool to know what they are doing now. So the other day, my best friend from kindergarten friended me and I got to see that he now is a computer programmer and has two kids. It was really cool.” “So you talked with him?” I asked. “Oh no. I just looked at his pictures.”
It was an absurd question I asked. Facebook isn’t for communication with former friends or for inviting new friends into your life. It is for posturing and forming your own cult of personality. It’s a ridiculous idea to believe that anyone has 3,289 “friends”. That simply isn’t possible. Acquaintances? Possibly. Friends? No way. The community that Facebook creates is the community that most people interact with and it is a false community. The average American spends eight hours a month on Facebook alone. Then factor in the length of time the average American watches TV, which is five hours a day and then think about the jobs (and yes I mean multiple jobs) that most Americans have and there isn’t any time left over for just hanging with other people and enjoying one another’s company.
Over the Bonnaroo weekend a dear friend of mine died. I woke up that Saturday morning tired and dehydrated from the activities of the day before. It was not an extraordinary morning even though something had happened.
It’s the part of life that utterly sucks and I mean sucks in the vulgar and ugly sense of the word. The sorrow and pain at the loss of a friend is a feeling that is vulgar. It shouldn’t be seen or practiced in normal society. Grieving is a sort of disease with no antidote except the marching of Time away from the event. That’s it.
And I find it so frustrating the fact that Creation ruthlessly refuses to acknowledge the grief and pain that is experienced everyday. The Earth doesn’t stop, refrains from even shuddering when your own world is shaking and breaking apart. The world just continues. The pain is all internal. It is not shared. The tragic part of human existence is the fact that the only perspective I will ever have is my own. All my experiences are created and confined within my own mind. I am the hero in my own story. I am the center of my universe, etc., etc. And, the incredible gift of friendship is that it allows us to expand (in a very small way) our own perspective. It enables us to adopt the experiences, the joy and pain, of others. It reminds me that I am not the only actor on stage. My friend who I wish I had more time with expanded possibilities in my life. I do not regret one moment I spent with her instead of being somewhere else, doing something else. My phone turned off, my computer far away, my time with her was always uninterrupted communion, and every time I was with her, I felt better afterwards. I can’t say that about Netflix, or WordPress, or Facebook. Friendship pulls the mind and spirit into a sort of harmony with the Creation. Friends and the face to face communion with them is essential. It what differentiates us from beasts and god.
So what does any of these series of digressions have to do with 80,000 people gathering in a 750 acre field in Manchester, Tennessee? I think Bonnaroo Goddess was absolutely right. It has to do with taking a break from reality, from our computer screens, our normal beds, and our normal routines.
Yonder Mountain String Band ended their 75 minute set with a cover of Bob Marley’s “One Love”. In case you don’t know the chorus is,” One love. One life. Let’s get together and feel all right.” they sang the chorus over and over again until the whole audience was singing with them. Smiles on their faces, dancing along to the acapella chorus, people looked happy. And, I think that was the moment I realized why Bonnaroo or events like Bonnaroo are important. They allow us, encourage us to forget about the ruthless world that is so far away from Manchester. That doesn’t provide us with enough time for rest, enough time to just sit with other people and be with them. Bonnaroo enables a massive group of people to seek and form a community for a long weekend. Yonder Mountain String Band could not have ended their show with a better song. “One love. One life. Let’s get together and feel all right.” Amen.