An academic investigation into the weird, communal nature of rock festivals.
Thankfully, Arnold (Rhetoric and Media Studies/Univ. of San Francisco; Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, 2014, etc.), a former rock journalist who is the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Punk Rock, has logged many hours at festivals such as Lollapalooza, so this somewhat dry examination of crowds and social movements has some juice to it. The author begins the narrative not with Woodstock but with a free concert given by famous soprano Luisa Tetrazzini in San Francisco on Christmas Eve 1910 for 250,000 people. From there, Arnold plays a lot of “greatest hits” of festivals—Bob Dylan going electric, the Monterey International Pop Festival, Woodstock, and Altamont—but she also dredges up a lot of influential but less-infamous gatherings, from a 1969 summit between Ken Kesey, Paul Krassner, Mimi Fariña, and Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully to reimagine “the architecture of mass gatherings,” to Steve Wozniak’s doomed US Festival, or “Woodstock West.” The author also admits that the whole culture shifted while she was writing, pointing to vast changes regarding how we consume music, what gatherings signify in our collective consciousness, and the role of diversity in festival culture—specifically that “the rock crowd is essentially normed to the white male psyche” and its attending liabilities. There are plenty of histories of music festivals available, from Joel Selvin’s recent post-mortem of Altamont to Bob Spitz’s Barefoot in Babylon, about the creation of Woodstock. By adding her own experience at a multitude of festivals to insights from influential participants in rock culture, Arnold creates a readable inquiry that demonstrates why rock festivals matter, and she points the way to how they—and we as a culture—might do better in terms of diversity and inclusion.
An interesting examination of the nature of movements “half a million strong,” as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young declared.