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.