For most people who live in some form of civilization, the thought of living on the ground (or at the very least, in a mobile vehicle) for an entire weekend is a terrifying prospect, even when enticed with four days of incredible music. Bonnaroo is a community of nomads; no matter where you normally hang your hat, at Bonnaroo, you live on the farm, under the shadow of the insane clock tower. Your neighbors are those who randomly take up camp next to you, and they may be from very, very far away. Your community probably will try and sell you illegal drugs. And your life is reduced to a microcosmic society of music, art, and getting wasted, in no particular order, 24 hours a day. The festival is as much a displacement as a destination, and at times the abundance of camps, dust, dudes wearing bandanas on their faces, and intoxicated zombies make it feel a bit post-apocalyptic. A festival for folks looking to completely escape their everyday lives, or just those adventurous enough to avoid showering in lieu of cohabitating with old men wearing tutus. Bonnaroo is unlike all other music festivals because it is not just an event. It's an experience beyond just seeing some musicians play a few songs. It's a forced attitude adjustment.
This year, I attended both Coachella and Bonnaroo, two of America's largest annual music and arts festivals. They both occur outdoors, and contain musical performances with food and drink available, and that's about the end of their common qualities. These two events could not be more radically different in vibe, mentality, execution, and values. That's not to say one is better than the other, but like two distinct religions, they present two very different belief systems. When you ask someone who they came to Coachella to see, they usually know right away (often it was the Tupac hologram). When you ask someone at Bonnaroo who they came to see, the answer is almost always a puzzled look, followed by a few half-hearted guesses. People don't go to Bonnaroo to see, they go to Bonnaroo to do
. Bonnaroo is an active festival.
Coachella is a very singular experience. When you go to Coachella, your fantasy only lasts for your time inside the grounds -- at the end of the day most go back to a house or hotel (some people camp, but the vast majority don't). You meet people, but most are wholly disinterested in anything but enjoying the music in front of them. Celebrities can wander around the back corridors, avoiding the commoners if they please. There are entire VIP sections devoted to segmenting the audiences. Main attractions are rarely a surprise and you do not have to hunt them down. People are dressed nice and everything feels very normal. Coachella occurs in the desert, but it's a popular desert town where many West Coasters go to vacation. Everyone is too cool to be your new friend, but you at least feel cool as well. Lonely, but cool.
Bonnaroo is a collective experience. Once you've arrived, you are living with all the attendees (the vast majority of people camp on the farm). The "mood" of the festival is much more explicit. There are VIP amenities but most are rooted at the stages or campgrounds with better proximity to the gate. The sheer volume of people in the general admission category make this feel irrelevant. Everyone looks like a refugee, some by choice. Bonnaroo takes place on a gigantic farm, deep in the American South -- a place inhabited by some of our most culturally backward citizens, and yet, at Bonnaroo, I've never met a nicer, more convivial group of accented folks. You have to go out of your way to avoid interacting with strangers. You have to hide if you don't want to make any friends. There's a booklet they distribute with a code of conduct attached, and a whole philosophy of experience from open-mindedness to enlightenment.
Some of Bonnaroo's most memorable moments were spontaneous surprises only experienced Bonnaroovians knew to look for (and still didn't know when, or what, exactly). Alabama Shakes led a ridiculous parade through Centeroo after their performance. The Questlove-helmed Superjam on Saturday night featured D'Angelo. Lionel Richie popped out during Kenny Rogers' set. Kenny Rogers popped out during Phish's set. I only stumbled into one of those special events, but heard of the others only through word of mouth. Rumors spread like that because they had to -- literally no one had cell service, even the press tent's internet was spotty at best. Bonnaroo did its best to cut us off from the outside world, forcing us to exist within its boundaries. It certainly kept things exciting.
At Coachella, I enjoyed what I thought I would enjoy, with little outside influence. At Bonnaroo, my perception of the shows were radically affected by the crowds. Somehow I enjoyed fun.'s set more than Radiohead's simply because of fun.'s ravenous crowd and their prescient approval of nearly every song. At Radiohead I was stuck in the back with a less enthusiastic bunch, none of whom were familiar with any of the most recent albums (the majority of their set, mind you). It was a strange and somewhat disconcerting phenomenon. But when you think about it, the spirit of the music festival is a collective one -- a place where a ludicrous amount of fans can congregate and interact based around music, with little to no discrimination of musical or personal archetypes.
And while the two modes of festivals past
both had a presence at Bonnaroo, it didn't feel like there was a split in the audience at any point during the four day fest (save for a very polarizing set from Phish, an acquired taste to say the least -- half the attendees left during their festival closing set). People of all walks were hanging out together, talking about music, and it began to feel like the age-old cheese-ball adage of secondhand Italian foodplace The Olive Garden -- when you're here, you're family
. But this unlimited salad came with plenty of mushrooms.