Even with the Smiths - Robert and Patti - the Picnic is not just about the music
CULTURE SHOCK:THE ENGLISH ACTOR Ernest Thesiger, when asked to recall his experiences on the western front during the first World War, reportedly replied: “The noise, my dear! And the people!” Which pretty much sums up Electric Picnic – though some of the noise was rather exciting and some of the people were rather interesting.
Festivals are utopias. Rock festivals have a particular brand of utopianism. They persist as the last, faint pulse of the 1960s. The hippie spirit of Woodstock – we are stardust, we are golden – hangs over them like the kind of early-morning mist that can make any familiar landscape seem momentarily magical. But the basic impulse has always been present in the idea of a festival. It is a ritual in which time is intensified. The everyday order of society is shrugged off. Everything acquires a meaning and at least the illusion of purpose. People are allowed to act as if they are equals, fellow participants in the same rite.
One of the things that gets tested at a festival such as Electric Picnic is whether this notion really works any more, even as a coherent illusion. The reason it might not work is that a festival assumes the existence of a common community. Its classic location is the city state, a small, well-defined, tight-knit entity. We know of course, that neither Ireland nor any other modern society is really like this. So what is it that can bring people together and make them act as if they are in fact a community? The answer that came out of the 1960s, and the reinvention of the festival, is, of course, music. A common relationship to certain genres and certain bands is assumed to be enough to create that essential bond. And this idea was obviously highly potent in the age of Woodstock.
It made sense because the music wasn’t just music. It did two things beyond its basic function of delivering pleasure. One was to identify a generation: it belonged definitively to the young, and it helped enormously that it was generally hated and misunderstood by the middle-aged. The other was to convey some notion of a political alternative. However naive and contradictory those politics might have been, they also had some kind of substance. Real questions such as the Vietnam War and the civil-rights struggle were interwoven with the music.
None of this is really true any more. In the first place, the generational identity contained in the music is blurred. The biggest attraction at Electric Picnic were The Cure, who formed in 1976. To put that in perspective, less time passed between the end of the second World War and the formation of The Cure than has passed between the formation of The Cure and now. Other big attractions, such as Elbow and Sigur Rós, seem to appeal equally to fiftysomethings and twentysomethings. This is just the way it is with popular music now: those of us who grew up with it as a badge of youth identity refuse to leave it to the young.
And in fact, if there is a generational divide, the faultline may run precisely through the second thing that made rock festivals seem like more than mere entertainment: politics. The whole notion that the music might have some connection to the political world is embedded in the consciousness of people of my generation. I’m not sure it means anything much to most younger people.
I was intrigued, for example, by the reception of Patti Smith at Electric Picnic. For me, and for friends of my age, she was utterly exhilarating: mesmerising, edgy, pulsing with energy, able to convey an absolute conviction in every moment. She was naive in the way that singers should be naive: you don’t look to Patti Smith for guidance on economic policy; you want to be reminded of defiance, pride, the great howl of non serviam. It was all about attitude, a word that has come to mean mere posturing but that Smith restores to its primal roots in rebellious insolence.
But the crowd at Patti Smith was divided: the middle-aged in ecstasies and the twenty- and thirtysomethings largely bored and uncomprehending. I was behind a group who chatted loudly to each other all the way through. I moved over behind another group who did exactly the same. As they started to drift away, one of them said to me, in a gently pitying tone, “Well, she’d be your generation, wouldn’t she?” Maybe this is largely a male thing – younger women I spoke to afterwards seemed blown away by Patti Smith’s female electricity.
If you wanted to risk a broad generalisation, you might suggest that it’s also an aesthetic thing. Smith is hot: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” was still the most stinging line at the whole festival, nearly 40 years after it was written.
But the prevailing aesthetic of the younger acts, whether it’s Sigur Rós or The xx, is cool. Being naive, sincere or confrontational is not what’s required now. Nor is being bonkers: if you wanted to go off the wall at the Picnic, you had to look to Kevin Rowland (59), John Cooper Clarke (63) or Smith (65) – older and bolder, indeed.
Which leads me to a rather odd but perhaps also rather obvious conclusion: it’s not about the music any more. Rock doesn’t create a generational or political community. It just provides the excuse. Electric Picnic isn’t a gathering of rock fans who take some time out to talk and think about other things. It’s a gathering of people who want – need? – to spend time together in a big field in a positive communal atmosphere, with at least the illusion of a common purpose. We don’t, as a society, really have a name for that need or a definition of that purpose. In their absence, the music provides a simple explanation. Why am I going? To hear The Cure. We need excuses, and this isn’t a bad one.
For that, at least, hail, hail, rock and roll.