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27 June 2022

In a fractured world, Glastonbury is a much-needed sanctuary

Festivals are easily romanticised, but alongside the glitter and the dancing they demonstrate how humans might better live together.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

I first learned that the US Supreme Court had overturned Roe vs Wade, the ruling guaranteeing the right to an abortion, when Phoebe Bridgers said she’d had a “shitty day”. Addressing the John Peel stage at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, the Californian indie guitarist asked the crowd, which spilled out of the sides of the tent and into the surrounding field, to say “f*** the Supreme Court”. We yelled. She was fed up with “these irrelevant old motherf***ers telling us what to do with our bodies”.

Bridgers’s mid-set interlude was notable. Her performance, a clear stand-out during a transcendent weekend of music, marked the first time many UK listeners had heard live the affecting songs from her career-making second album, Punisher, which was released in the summer of 2020. Her statement was particularly poignant because in May, with admirable candour, Bridgers shared on social media that she had had an abortion while on tour last year. The ability to access safe, legal abortions is something, she said, that “everyone deserves”.

Such expletive-laden political calls filled this year’s Glastonbury, which, after two years away due to the Covid-19 pandemic, last weekend belatedly celebrated its 50th anniversary at Worthy Farm, Somerset. Young American women were unquestionably the most vocal. During her visceral set Billie Eilish, who at 20 years old was the youngest artist to have yet headlined the Pyramid Stage, described Friday (24 June) as “a really dark day for women in the US”. On the Other Stage on Saturday afternoon the former Disney star turned pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo defiantly addressed the five justices who voted to overturn Roe vs Wade by name, telling them: “We hate you.” She then invited the British pop singer Lily Allen on stage and together they sang a song dedicated to the Supreme Court. It was Allen’s 2009 hit “F*** You”, which encouraged the vast audience to hold their middle fingers aloft. The following afternoon on the Park Stage the alt-pop artist Caroline Polachek urged her British crowd not to look upon the news from her home country as something happening elsewhere: we too must protect our access to healthcare services with all our might; we never know when they might be taken away.

[See also: Macca and the Stones? The past has a death grip on our culture]

For the idealists among us, a festival is a sanctuary. Upon entering the gates, you escape the trials of real life and dive into a temporary world where music reigns, everything gets covered in glitter and – depending on the weather – mud or dried grass, and showering isn’t at all important. Festivals are easily romanticised but, as Crowded House’s Neil Finn said on Friday afternoon, these events demonstrate how humans might better live together in common spaces. They are in many ways experiments for new ways of living. In a world ever more fractured, even brushing your teeth next to a stranger can feel strangely liberating.

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Though the festival’s 210,000 attendees may have descended on Glastonbury to get lost in a weekend of hedonism, the political turmoil of the outside world kept seeping in. Some things could not be left at the gates – and nor should they be. One of Glastonbury’s many admirable traits is its long history of merging the political with the cultural. The most prominent organisations around the site were not lager brands but Greenpeace, WaterAid and the CND. It felt natural for the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to deliver a typically astute speech on the crossover of political ineptitude and environmental doom before the glossy haired Haim sisters took to the same stage for an hour of deliciously febrile pop-rock.

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It was not Pete Doherty’s Libertines who really opened the festival but Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, who appeared via video link before the rock group’s opening set. “Glastonbury is the great concentration of freedom these days, and I ask you to share this feeling with everyone whose freedom is under attack,” he said, beginning a weekend where support for the Ukrainian people – though less urgently expressed than the cries against the US Supreme Court – was omnipresent. It reached even the Hare Krishna tent, where spiritual leaders shared free food and welcomed all to join them in song and appeals for international peace. Paul McCartney – at 80 balancing out Eilish’s youth as the festival’s oldest ever headliner – brandished a Ukrainian flag during his encore on Saturday night following a set full of sing-along Beatles tunes. In the early hours of the previous morning, the Ukrainian group Kalush Orchestra, fresh from their Eurovision victory, performed a raucous set on the Truth Stage, their first in the UK. The band – wooing the crowd by playing their winning track “Stefania” twice – brought incomparable energy with their hip-hop/folk blend; Oleh Psiuk, their pink bucket hat-wearing lead singer, enthused about sharing Ukrainian culture with new audiences.

More earnest still were the panels held in the Left Field arena, curated by the activist and songwriter Billy Bragg. On Saturday morning weary festival-goers packed into the shady tent to hear from Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester and a likely future candidate for Labour Party leader. Speaking on a panel addressing the crisis in politics, Burnham passionately called for a “complete rewiring of this country”, which he argued should include a proportional representation voting system for the House of Commons and the abolition of the House of Lords. More promise from Labour’s left came in the form of Zarah Sultana, the MP for Coventry South, who spoke on a panel addressing the cost-of-living crisis, a phrase she said “is a euphemism for class war”. Audibly frustrated, she expressed her disappointment at Keir Starmer’s lack of support for striking rail workers. The assembled Glastonbury crowd – thousands of whom had re-routed their journeys to the festival because of the strike action, rucksacks and tents in tow – roared in agreement. Why wasn’t the Labour Party as a whole getting behind this action, Sultana asked. “It’s in the f***ing name – it’s meant to be the party of the workers.”

Of course, the real appeal of Glastonbury is the euphoria that only live music can bring. It was apparent right from Thursday night, when the psychedelic-folk fusion band Kangaroo Moon excited their audience in the Green Futures field into a spontaneous ceilidh, across the weekend and into Sunday, when the American rapper Kendrick Lamar’s staggering command of the stage and exacting narrative force closed out the Pyramid Stage with aplomb.

I felt it most during the south Londoner Kae Tempest’s sublime Friday afternoon set. The artist, who is also a poet, playwright and novelist, came out as non-binary in 2020, changing their name from Kate to Kae. Performing their unique brand of spoken-word electronica, Tempest had never looked so serene on stage. Several audience members wept: we were watching music as liberation in action. “I feel so free,” Tempest said, beaming.

[See also: Which city could host the 2023 Eurovision song contest?]

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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness