You hear a lot of things about Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest, namely that it’s the city’s all-around-best music event, and that it’s a different and specifically less corporate type of festival. We can agree with the former — its 10th anniversary this past weekend functioned remarkably well despite rain Saturday and other setbacks — but is the festival really so different from others in form?
Headliners last weekend included Cheap Trick, Wu-Tang Clan, Jane’s Addiction and Lauryn Hill. FFF brands itself as the only festival in the country to group acts onto stages based on the genre of music they play (which is meant to suggest a greater diversity of acts) and also emphasizes its effort to assemble rarely seen reunion acts like Wu-Tang Clan. It’s true that the acts were diverse — more than 150 performances fell across the music spectrum, representing hip-hop, psych rock, electronica, punk and indie. Comedians and lecturers also took to mics, and spectacles like wrestling (“Tame Your Tickle,” sponsored by Luden’s) and a skate park were interspersed between stages.
Still, none of those offerings felt particularly unusual. Most major festivals — even the others in Austin, like ACL or SXSW — encompass a bunch of different genres, resurrect dormant acts and feature other entertainment, often with interactive or educational components. The “Nites” programming — the sets that kick off at Austin’s clubs and bars after the headliners at the Auditorium Shores site have exited the stage, free with your festival wristband — is one of the coolest aspects of the festival because of how it's integrated with the city. But SXSW certainly accomplishes the same feat.
Likewise, it was awesome to hear a NASA scientist, dressed in a hip, all black, leather ensemble, speak about sound waves and building skateboards with NASA ball bearings, but we expect these kinds of experiences from music festivals now, too. FFF Fest may be the best festival, but the supporting evidence most people cite — that it’s special, more authentic, less mainstream — is the wrong evidence.
It’s just that the mainstream is getting to be more avant garde, and therefore harder to recognize. Festivals now are typically as much about capturing a lifestyle and the interests and preferences of a generation as they are about the music. They’re about flattering the people who buy tickets with swag and making them feel sophisticated and “in the know.” Trends across food, music and clothing nowadays celebrate the niche and the intellectual. Festivalgoers ate fries topped with cheese curds (poutine), got retro haircuts at a barbershop tent and grooved to Grimes — all of these trends that would have been hard to predict a handful of years back, and which appeal to people who pride themselves on having slightly bizarre, unique taste. And yet if you looked around FFF fest, everyone’s “eccentric” outfits looked pulled from the same handbook of ways to be offbeat. FFF may not be entirely corporate, but there were plenty of sponsors there trying to bend the appeal of radical individualism to their cause.
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The Camel "experience" tent revolved around their In Focus campaign, which has something vaguely to do with traveling the world and seizing the moment. It doesn’t exactly make sense. How does smoking cigarettes equate to embracing a fuller life? (Except perhaps in the live fast, die young sense?) But the staff shows you some pictures of Iceland, hands you a free phone case with your silhouette on it and gives you the chance to buy cigarettes for a dollar. They know you won’t ask too many questions. Free phone case! One girl we heard walking away from the Cafe Bustelo tent, which had a spin-the-wheel promotion where you could win prizes, ranging from a plastic bucket to a T-Shirt, won something she was unhappy with and claimed the company had been “cheap” in their giveaways. It's hard to blame a festival for being corporate given the high expectations and frequent shallowness.
Far from taking a bold stand, FFF Fest, like other festivals and their sponsors, wisely panders to a wide variety of tastes. It can’t have a solid identity because it knows that the average person’s collection of preferences today isn’t very coherent either. How else can you explain the $1 immune booster shots being passed around by juice shops in front of a cigarette tent, of which there were three (Camel, Marlboro and American Spirit)? Or the Skinny Pop popcorn being inhaled by the same mouths that consumed artisanal sausages? (See a recent New York Times article, “How Salad Can Make Us Fat,” which exposes that people who drop kale into their grocery carts are much more likely to also indulge in vices such as doughnuts and beer. Our tastes are becoming increasingly extreme and conflicting.)
What makes Fun Fun Fun Fest good then, if none of these things? It’s simple: It’s smaller and better executed. Navigating between stages can be done quickly and easily, which means it’s possible to catch most of, it not all of the acts you want to see. (If you can hack the State Fair crowds, you’ll find yourself asking, “What crowd?”) Everyone who worked the festival was friendly and accomodating. When we were waiting in a long line to enter the gates Saturday afternoon — admission was held up by rains — staffers passed around bottled water and snacks. When the gates opened they herded everyone in quickly and efficiently. Sets ran on time. Port-a-potties were clean and plentiful. Last minute cancellations by D’Angelo and Desaparecidos were handled adeptly.
Fun Fun Fun isn’t the radically unique, more authentic festival it’s made out to be, but so what? It has all of the crazy, incompatible things you want anyway, and with less hassle. Let's let that be enough.