Lez Miserable: "Here's my second coming out: I hate music festivals"

Live music is great. But you know what's also great? Bands not sounding like they’re shouting into saucepans.

With light seeping in from outside, I can just about see my breath in front of me. My head is a pulsating hurt orb. Need painkillers. Now. Torch in mouth, I rummage around the tent, through bags of fermented socks. So many socks. No sign of pills. I think they’re socks now. Everything is socks. I drop the torch (my only non-sock possession) and sit in the dark with my head in my hands. Then the shivering starts. Uncontrollable shivering. I need to put on more layers, but I only have socks. I put socks on my hands. It’s a start. Swampy water has seeped in from somewhere and my sleeping bag is a giant, flaccid slug. The wind carries in the stench of raw sewage. Then come the Outside People. Grotesque human/traffic cone hybrids, silhouetted against the walls of my tent. They’re shouting something about burgers. Sweet Jesus: they’re hungry.

What kind of post-apocalyptic, dystopian nightmare is this? One I paid nearly £200 for, actually. The gangrenous trench foot-like smell of festival season is beginning to pollute the air. And I’ve realised that it’s about time I stop telling my friends that I’d love to go with them to Beefstival/Dick Party/Green Bidet. So here’s my second coming out: I hate music festivals.

One day, when I was seven, a filth-encrusted spectre waded in through the door. It spoke little and when it did, it was in grunts. Its hair was matted, its eyes were glazed and reddish. It was only when my mum addressed The Thing as “Ruth” that I realised it was my big sister. I learnt that she’d returned from something called “Glastonbury”. I vowed never to go there.

But I eventually forgot about my sister’s haunting, post-Glasto thousand yard stare. Nine years later, I went to my first festival. And my God did I pretend to love it. I pretended so hard, in fact, that I continued to go to festivals for many years. See, festivals have us all by the balls. Their organisers and sponsors have come up with a genius business model where they get young people with low self-esteem to spend hundreds of their parents’ pounds on living like medieval peasants for a weekend – wallowing in actual faeces – while vehemently declaring that they’re having “OMIGOD-THE-BEST-TIME-EVERRRRR”.

But what about the music? Sure, I love hearing live bands. You know what else I love? Them not sounding like they’re shouting into saucepans. Let’s face it; outdoor gigs sound atrocious. Imagine an hour of saucepan shouting. Imagine seven hours of saucepan shouting. Imagine three freaking days of saucepan shouting. Throw in some rancid, ersatz falafel and an armpit-load of anonymous bodily fluids and you have yourself a festival. Plus, in one of this year’s viral videos, attendees at the Californian festival Coachella-goers feign  interest in bands that don’t exist. This just goes to show that a lot of festival-goers don’t even know what they’re doing there – “Music? Yeah, great, I guess. I like that band with the guitars.”

These people have been inexplicably lured into a three-day-long masochism fest, worthy of de Sade. I’m beginning to wonder if festivals are manifestations of middle class guilt. Therapeutic weekend-long sessions in which we abandon comfort, in order to feel slightly better about spending £6.99 on single loaves of quinoa bread.  What results is an uncanny circus of young humans in animal onesies and “aren’t I adorably ditsy” flower headbands; each and every one of them pretending to have a fantastic time. To be fair, I hear that the ones on enough MDMA to get a giraffe doing the Harlem Shake are genuinely enjoying themselves. Isn’t it telling that in order to have real-life fun at a festival, you need to self-medicate with a delicious cocktail of class As? For me, drug-taking usually culminates in curling into a foetal position and/or being convinced that Robin Williams is going to murder me. So no help there.

When I got home from Field Day (a day-long festival in Victoria Park) last month I had sunstroke and about nineteen “Where are you???” texts from friends I’d lost in the heaving crowds. What seems like the entire day was spent on the phone to these friends, saying things like, “Err, I’m by a thing that looks like a thing.” Even safe in the knowledge that I’d sleep in my bed and not a soggy tent that night, I came to a life-changing conclusion: I’m too old for this shit. So, mates who invited me to Bestival this summer, here’s my honest RSVP: Not even if I get to share a tent with Natalie Portman.

Let's be honest - no one is really having fun here. Photograph: Getty Images

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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