Festivals 2013: An Observation On Representation

They could resurrect Nina Simone and give her top billing, and I still wouldn’t go to Bonnaroo. Or Coachella. Or Sasquatch, Santa Claus, Lollapalooza, Loch Ness—it’s hard to keep track of these massive music festivals that pop up in otherwise uninteresting locations every year across the continental forty-eight. Suffice it to say that the music festival is not my scene. It’s too much heat, too much eight-dollar water, too much vomit, too much traffic and parking hell. Not to mention that it’s unequivocally a bad listening environment. [Why listen to your favorite band for two hours in a theater with great acoustics when you can (barely) see them perform an hour-long set from a quarter mile back in desert heat?]
 
However, I understand the allure. It’s a long weekend in which to see a plethora of bands for relatively inexpensive admission, and it’s a chance for nineteen-year-olds to try MDMA and wear glowstick bracelets. [Surprisingly, neither MDMA nor Glowstick Bracelet are headliners at any of the festivals I’m about to discuss.]
 
Although I have no intention of attending any music festivals in the near future, the announcement posters are ubiquitous this time of year on social media, usually captioned with exclamation points. In the past few weeks, full lineups for four of the more popular festivals—Coachella, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, and Firefly—have come out, and in looking at all four lineups, the underrepresentation of  headlining female acts and acts of color is astounding, and the dominance of all-male, all-white headliners is worth talking about. And I don’t mean to ghettoize, but a juxtaposition of all of these bands suggests that perhaps it’s actually the same four or five white guys with dumb clothes, inexplicable monikers, and ironic-or-are-they glasses.
 
Now, before I get into the data, I want to say first: this has nothing to do with quality or talent. I am no more an arbiter of taste than anyone else, and do not intend to take anything away from any of the acts that happen to be festival headliners. I love many of them! This is little more than an observation about representation.
 
With that in mind, let’s look at Coachella’s lineup first.
 


The headliners, of course, are those names in the largest font—Blur, The Stone Roses, Phoenix, Red Hot Chili Peppers—and, in line with this troubling thesis, they are all-white, all-male acts. Moving down just a tier below, there is only slightly more diversity to be found with the inclusion of the hip-hop groups Jurrasic 5 and Wu-Tang Clan, as well as the female-led Yeah Yeah Yeahs. (And don’t forget Gillian Gilbert on keys for New Order.) But little should be made of this exceptionalism: it reinforces rather than undermines. Because the rest of the acts in slightly-smaller-than-headliner-but-still-bold font support this overarching theory. Modest Mouse, the Postal Service, Sigur Ros, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Hot Chip, Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend, Social Distortion: all-male, and you have to squint against the glare of all-whiteness.
 
In the smaller font that requires bifocals for to read it, you’ll spot Janelle Monae here or Tegan and Sara there, but you can bet the size of the font is proportional to the size of the stage they’ll be playing on festival grounds, and they’re certainly not considered headliners.
 

 
A look at Sasquatch’s website makes the headliners more apparent than this well-designed but ultimately defamiliarizing graphic. Top-billed are Mumford & Sons, The Postal Service, Sigur Ros, Vampire Weekend, and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. All-male, all-white. The next two acts listed—the XX and the Lumineers—offer a female face [though not on lead], but they’re followed by more of the same with Arctic Monkeys, Cake, Primus 3D, Empire of the Sun, Imagine Dragons, and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, a traveling, rotating brigade of six-to-twelve mostly-white, mostly-male members. Grimes is one of three female acts [out of almost fifty!] and her name is the last listed in the lineup’s fourth tier of acts.
 
As with Coachella, the further you scroll down, the more likely you are to encounter occasional racial or gender diversity, but it’s catch as catch can, and again: they’re not the headliners. The stages will be smaller, the sets briefer and earlier in the day.
 

 
When I saw the first three names pop up in the announcement video this morning, I thought it was business as usual. Indeed, Paul McCartney, Mumford & Sons, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, it should go without explanation, are all-white, all-male acts. But then, magically, we got Bjork! [For the sake of full disclosure, Bjork is also one of the three announced acts for the less-attended-but-still-noteworthy Pitchfork Festival, along with R. Kelly who also shows up here. And what a duet that would be.] It’s exciting to see that Bonnaroo has given Bjork some well-deserved top-billing. Further down, we even get our second female solo act in Cat Power, which is equally exciting. In terms of racial diversity, there’s the aforementioned R. Kelly, the reappearance of Wu-Tang Clan, Nas. At first glance, it seems Bonnaroo is doing a bit better than the previously-discussed festivals in terms of offering a diverse mix of acts. However, if you’re fixing for an all-white, all-male act, there’s no shortage of them, and they’re still dominating this festival. You’ve got The National, Passion Pit, Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, Gov’t Mule, Portugal the Man, Gaslight Anthem, Dirty Projectors, and Local Natives to choose from, and that’s only in the first half of the lengthy lineup.
 

 
The Firefly Festival is only in its second year, but let us not ascribe progressive intentions to it for this reason, as their lineup shows no sign of going in a different direction. Largest font? Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Right underneath? Vampire Weekend, Foster the People. All-male, all white. Karen O isn’t far behind as lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (the second time in this list of four that she’s been the exception to the rule.) Calvin Harris, Passion Pit, MGMT? Check. And then we get Ellie Goulding, one of two font-increased solo female acts. (The other, Azealia Banks, also served as an exception to the rule at Sasquatch.) Artists of color are represented in Kendrick Lamar, Alabama Shakes, and Public Enemy, but the other twenty-one headliners, per usual, are markedly caucasian.
 
There are, of course, many music festivals big and small across the country, some of which have yet to release full lineups (Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, Austin City Limits.) One can hope that these festivals may demonstrate a taste that is more inclusive of what must be called minority acts in the festival circuit, rather than recycle. Before they’re announced, while there’s still time to make a few changes, may I offer these suggestions?
 
Give me Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Brandi Carlile, the newly-reunited Breeders. Give me Lauryn Hill, Mary J Blige, John Legend. Give me The Roots! Give me Metric, Neko Case, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey. How about Robyn? The list is endless, which makes the lack of variety and diversity from festival to festival even more frustrating, and even less acceptable.
 
What are we meant to gather?

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