Buried in Joan Didion’s homage to the Haight-Ashbury hippie culture of 1967, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, is a brief, almost throwaway reference to what Didion called “younger part-time, or ‘plastic,’ hippies.” Once amphetamines began to supersede acid and “grass”—the pillars on which the Haight culture Didion portrayed once stood—these ‘plastic’ hippies, who preferred the “illusions of action and power” supplied by the former, came to symbolize the “general deterioration of the scene.” Later in her essay, Didion describes a performance art Mime Troupe in blackface that handed out fliers announcing:
IF YOU DON’T KNOW, BY AUGUST HAIGHT STREET WILL BE A CEMETERY.
Authenticity was at stake then, and even now it’s still very much the elephant in the room at festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella, and Glastonbury, partly because every contemporary music festival that involves camping exists in the shadow of Woodstock. Due to the helicopters that never stop circling and a ubiquitous network of loudspeakers, these festivals take on an almost refugee camp quality, and festivalgoers, in the tradition of their predecessors, almost universally leave caked in mud, sweat, and ink (that “festival chic” remains such a catchphrase is beyond me). The mythos of that summer haunts the dusty avenues of today’s festivals, from the impossible lines of vehicles clogging the highway entrances to the sunburnt Lolitas wearing flower crowns and white dresses that hang off the bone. There are even ghosts. A few hours after the campground opened in Tennessee, I looked out the window of my car to see a few overall-clad ladies in their fifties, asking passing cars for shrooms and muttering something about California.
When choosing a name and a punchy opening for her title essay, Didion consulted Yeats. “The Second Coming,” written almost a half-century before, prophecizes apocalypse and rebirth—a fitting, if not overly heroic characterization of the struggle faced by the grubby juvenile runaways she spent her days observing in San Francisco. It was only a year after her essay’s publication that this crowd, along with their East Coast partners-in-peace, would slouch towards Bethel, a small rural community forty some miles southwest of the town of Woodstock, where the event was originally scheduled to take place. Didion never wrote on Woodstock—at the time, she was busy meeting with Linda Kasabian, a member of the Manson “family,” at the Sybil Brand Institute for Women to discuss the recent murders—but I chose Didion’s essays to take along as a source of either nostalgia or smarm (according to necessity) for the trip down to Tennessee. I wanted to see how the much-hyped Bonnaroo—an amalgam of the French bon and rue that means “the best on the streets”—measured up to the summer of love, the emergency summer, or whatever you call that rosy age that today’s teenagers lovingly tribute with jorts.
Say what you will about the pastoral charm of every festival’s choice to take place on a farm, but I found Bonnaroo to be a particularly improbable experiment. Woodstock, at least, was nestled in the artistic throes of southeast New York State, not too far from a city bustling with progressive ideas. Bonnaroo is something else altogether. It’s not the Bible Belt, but driving the length of Illinois will do wonders for anyone who would call the redneck an endangered species. On the way down, I noticed two enormous aluminum crosses, one “JESUS IS LORD <3” finger-painted in dust on the business end of a semi, and maybe five sets of signs bearing odes to the automatic weapon:
THUGS WON’T STOP
FOR A COP
GUNS MAKE SENSE
This all stops at the festival gates. To enter Bonnaroo is to travel from the whiskey-fed heartland into anarchy—but only in the best sense. One of the first things to strike you is the sheer size of such an enterprise; over these four days, Bonnaroo becomes the fifth-largest city in Tennessee. When Woodstock’s security director, Wes Pomeroy, grew uneasy about the gross numbers of entrants back in ‘68, he warned, “anybody who tries to come here is crazy…Sullivan county is a great big parking lot.” It’s the same deal here. Apart from the surrealism of its inhabitants—there were, I think, ten or more reincarnations of Jesus himself wandering the festival at any given time—this is a real city, complete with infrastructure and a town square (called Centeroo), yet curiously devoid of laws. Weed, acid, molly are consumed in the open and obtained from either one’s tent city neighbors or grasshoppers in tie-dye shirts that bounce in and out of crowds muttering, “molly” or “coke.”
At one point, a circle of kids nearby was passing around a pipe made from deer antler, when a few deputy sheriffs approached. The girl with the hot potato lowered it down next to her thigh.
“We already seen ya,” a deputy chuckled. Pipe girl looked nervous, so the deputy kneeled down. “It’s okay,” he said, “we jus’ wanted to see what y’all would do if we sat down next to you while you blew one up.” Pipe girl is still nervous. “What’s a matter, girl?” the deputy comforted her. “It’s okay, you’re in Centeroo.”
These are Tennessee deputy sheriffs, armed with twang and pistol, encouraging a group of kids to smoke up. It’s not only the cops who hail from America’s breadbasket, either; in the five or so days I spent at Bonnaroo, I did not meet anyone from California or New England. A freckle-faced blonde girl wearing a military shirt behind me in the line for a port-a-potty cheerfully announced to the line that she’d done molly the previous day, to which a Pinterest board come alive behind her responded that she planned on trying LSD that night. “I’m excited,” she said, knowing that no one would stop her.
The freedom is disarming, but what’s heartening is, it all works somehow. Amid the swarm of critics who chimed in with their two cents in the days after Woodstock, one New York Times op-ed, even after condemning the festival and its attendees’ lack of responsibility, admitted that “the great bulk of the freakish-looking intruders behaved astonishingly well, considering the disappointments and discomforts they encountered. They showed that there is real good under their fantastic exteriors, if it can just be aroused to some better purpose than the pursuit of LSD.” The general consensus seemed to be that any physical discomfort incurred by the rain, mud, heat, and hunger only contributed to the sense of community, release, and mutual nurture by which people would remember it. Climbing over the torn-down fences and baking in the Tennessee heat, festivalgoers of today buy into a similar fiction of cleanliness and peace. Sealed with a dirty high-five, it’s I’m okay, you’re okay here.
In four days, the closest thing to a foil I found was a drooling-drunk kid who’d pissed himself, staggering around Raoul Duke style with a beer in each hand. “You’re bitches,” he growled through clenched teeth to whoever would listen, beers sloshing onto unlucky laps. No one seemed particularly bothered, though—it takes a lot more to shatter the illusion. “That’s what he was saying?” my friend said later. “I thought he was asking for directions.”
So where are all the plastic hippies today? It doesn’t take a witch hunt.
Today, the plastics seem to have taken shape in the throngs of young girls who’ve adopted “festival chic” as their mantra. Cutoffs, flower crowns, and all things “tribal” (however vague and politically incorrect) are apparently the new amphetamines, perhaps with the exception of Ritalin, which is still en vogue. They do not stick out like a sore thumb; in fact, most female festivalgoers ascribe to the same trends in some measure, myself included, and who can say how many of them are as adventurous with substances as my port-a-potty companions. Still, there’s something about their manifestly nostalgic attire—once subversive, now trendy—that demands skepticism. Whether to be skeptical of the crowd or of the festival as a modern enterprise, though, seems to be the question (perhaps even skeptical of their sweat glands, since many of them strike me as amphibian in their invulnerability to the same heat that rendered me a disheveled ball of entropy).
It invites the kind of derision you might expect from anyone who elevates Woodstock as a revolutionary cultural experiment that existed free from artifice. Here are thirty thousand or so young girls—an army—who’ve all found that eclectic top in that hole-in-the-wall vintage store. This army is not the all-girl battalion you’re dreaming of, either; the guys are just as guilty of the fabulous-little-top thing, bonus points for floral patterns. They dare you to call yourself unique, and they do it in white Converse sneakers, a uniform. What’s more, there are a million ways to charge your phone here, which means a constant stream of photos to Instagram, Facebook, and tumblr, some even containing that pesky buzzword, “festival chic.” These people invite you to wonder: if what they’re wearing is now mainstream, is this festival mainstream, and should you even be using the word mainstream. But most of all, their presence, both physical and digital, forces you to revisit the question of authenticity. Once a spectacle, always a spectacle, but this time the spectacle is documenting itself, not merely there to be documented. Maybe the Hells Angels fiasco at Altamont was not actually the anti-Woodstock—maybe this is.
No mud, no kinship, these people are clean. They throw rocks at the illusion even as they attempt to bolster it.
This is the crowd that gets you down.
But they’ve always been there, if in Haight-Ashbury, then so too in the age of the selfie. And they’re not always so easy to categorize, as Didion herself seems to have believed. Your inclination is to call these girls and these festivals sad shadows of their ancestors, to say that Woodstock was like good acid—pure, guileless, impossible, brave. We put big money on authenticity today, even as we struggle to define it, and more ink than is stored in all the vintage typewriters in America has been spilt on condemnations of our generation as selfish, the generation of the “selfie” itself, the descendants of Narcissus, only we turn drowning into a Sharknado-themed pool party. And it’s partially warranted—our generation certainly has the most finely tuned sense of smell to weed out the hip from the square, the weed from the weed, and it’s not simple anymore—it is anticipating the new, the subversive, before it seems like time. It’s wearing a shirt with “Forgive Kanye” scribbled on in sharpie, rather than one with “Fuck Kanye.” It is a never-ending cycle of embracing the outskirts of taste and then discarding it as mainstream culture. It is irony, and the irony of irony, and then authenticity again.
But to wear the rose-colored glasses so often found on those who would glorify the 1960s is to blindly exclusivize our generation as one of narcissism, kitsch, nostalgia, and artifice where nuance exists. Kids haven’t changed that much, and neither have their modes of catharsis, self-expression, or so-called individuality. Even Woodstock wasn’t innocent; Bob Dylan turned down the gig because he couldn’t stand the large scale, highly marketed nature of the event, a corruption of earlier private jam sessions he enjoyed in the Woodstock area years before. Kanye may be shouting, “If you’re a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself,” but Jack White is still there to tell his audience, “I’m not here to floor you, I’m here with you.” These kids may seek it out more desperately, but the festival is still a place to defy rules, to break free, to surprise people, to move together.
Which brings me to Sterling.
Sterling wore a bucket hat with a string under the chin and he had a lot of freckles. I don’t actually know if his name is Sterling; when my friend asked him for his name, what he actually said was, “You can call me Sterling.”
I must have offended Sterling’s sensibilities, because the first thing he did was grab my waist and force it back and forth. “You gotta move your hips more,” he said, all glassy-eyed. He proceeded to do this three more times without permission.
Sterling was trying to get rid of some acid. My friend asked him a question I didn’t hear, and I heard from behind me the same old answer you would’ve thought had grown sour in people’s mouths:
“That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? To live life?” he paused for a minute, revising. “Or at least to escape it.”
A couple hours outside of Nashville, I saw a sign for a town named Sterling. I looked up the name later—it means “genuine”, or “high quality.”
By Gina Hackett ’16