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Laughing at Rich Kids

Ja Rule’s Fyre Festival gave us a chance to laugh at rich kids. It also told us something about modern culture.

Spare a thought for the suffering rich kids of Fyre Festival. Those who paid upwards of $12,000 for tickets to the fest on an isolated island in the Bahamas were expecting one big VIP section. That’s how it was billed by spearhead Ja Rule and its promoters. Gourmet food, haute “glamping” accommodations, spa relaxation facilities — all were supposed to surround attendees in the perfect luxury environment to take in the sounds of Disclosure, Major Lazer, and Blink-182.

As we know by now, that wasn’t what awaited them when they landed. Instead they were greeted with what will probably go down as one of the greatest scenes of ineptitude in live music history. No stages had been built, very little sound equipment had been assembled. How the artists were expected to perform was anyone’s guess, but it was largely moot given that most of them had cancelled because organizers hadn’t paid them.

This wasn’t, however, what truly horrified and shocked the pampered patrons. The pictures that really flew around the Internet were ones of bare-bones tents and cheese sandwiches. Cancelled performances notwithstanding, everything the attendees were subjected to were the mundane indignities any of us proles swallow whenever we attend the likes of Bonnaroo or Coachella: exorbitant prices for substandard food, uncomfortable camping accommodations, and, of course, not having a yoga or meditation class waiting for us when we wake up the next morning. The usual.

In the aftermath of the debacle, Ja Rule has stepped in to take the bulk of the flak (as well as receive a few enthusiastic, jocular nominations for gulag architect). But the real inept behind the curtain is one Billy McFarland, a silver-spoon tech entrepreneur who has evidently mismanaged several other schemes into the ground.

There is little doubt that the Fyre Fest fiasco is a sterling (though certainly not the most catastrophic) example of what happens when a spoiled man-child isn’t told “no.” It also, in its own unique way, represents an implosion of the dominant current approach to arts and culture. At the heart of this implosion is a contradiction: between the interests of the spectacle on one hand, and those of the crowd on the other.

Late capitalism is filled to the brim with Potemkin City Utopias. We all know of the increasingly bloated cultural events — mostly music- but also generally creative-based — that attempt to capture the mythical euphoria of Woodstock in a post-Woodstock world. In a painfully and unavoidably alienated world, these mega-soirées are aimed at embodying unbridled freedom, fulfillment, and creativity. A little bit of Bakhtin’s carnival in a society that regiments our lives into dull grayness and exhaustion.

This is, at best, a woeful delusion. As musician Keith Brower Brown argues:

The rapid growth of mega-festivals is a physical expression of the increasingly aggressive class barriers and inequities that fracture the social economy of art and music. They offer only a few strictly defined identities. You can be a member of the creative elite; an owner of capital; hired staff; or a member of the policed, regulated audience. The fences, hierarchy of privileges, and security guards are a live theater version of our cultural life’s stratification.

Some of us (myself included) are old enough to remember when tickets to Lollapalooza’s traveling iteration were a mere $25. Now a pass to a miserable four days shuffling through the dusty heat of Chicago’s Grant Park in August will cost you more than $350. Nobody ever said freedom was free.

Even those festivals that attempt to embody an iconoclastic “DIY” spirit of social responsibility can’t help but let their real nature peek out. Riot Fest touts itself as being “engaged” with the neighborhoods whose public parks it appropriates. But the controversy that has followed after it turned Humboldt Park into a mud pit, over the objections of a Boricua community being priced out of the area, has shown the gap between presentation and reality.

The cultural cachet of the young and obscenely affluent thrives off this gap. Their Instagram feeds are full of garish flaunting, of smug and petulant revelry in having what we don’t. What they are able to paper over — and what the failure of Fyre Fest revealed so brazenly — is that they have nothing without the labor performed by people who, unlike them, know what they are doing. For Fyre Fest’s denizens, the most appalling part was their brief exposure to the dirt and filth that they deny has always existed underneath their notion of paradise.

Which points to the crux of the modern cultural commons: someone has to construct them, to build them, to reshape them. Even when they are being segregated, sectioned off from the rest of us, there is someone who has to do the building, someone who has to facilitate the space so that artists, performers, and musicians can in turn fill the space.

As with most questions, this one inevitably comes back to labor and the struggle over that labor’s meaning. Take Woodstock. The fabled festival was never truly intended to be the “three days of peace, love, and music” it billed itself as. It was fenced off and ticketed like any event of its kind. What allowed four hundred thousand people to flock to the Upstate New York farm were the actions of organized anarchists, who took down fences with bolt-cutters. Last summer’s infamous “raid” on the luxury White Ocean camp, carried out by festival-goers who wanted to make Burning Man Mad Max again, had similar echoes.

None of this is to idealize the possibilities of the modern outdoor festival. Its limitations are very real, constrained not just by bare materialism but by the Silicon Valley libertarianism that often undergirds it. Yet they also reveal that this cultural space is deeply contested.

On one end is the utopian impulse of the festival as a space of social transformation, that sees the meeting of human minds and bodies as holding untapped potential. On the other is the push to cordon off that space, to rein in its potential, and to harness it for the sake of luxury for the few. The latter always has to overcome its unsustainability — the threat that something could always, and very feasibly, bring the pretense crashing down.

Sometimes it’s nature. Sometimes it’s hubris. And sometimes it’s the belief among believers that if the right to culture and creativity is being increasingly filtered upward, there will inevitably be those who think it should be a genuine right again, and try to ponder what what it might look like for that belief to become generalized.

Nothing quite so deliberate took place at Fyre Fest. But that shouldn’t stop any of us from pointing and laughing. Heartily.