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1 July 2024

From the feral to the glamorous at Glastonbury 2024

Little Simz and SZA made Coldplay look bland in a festival full of politics, nostalgia and peeing in cups.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

The joy of festival-going lies in juxtaposition. Glastonbury is the nation’s biggest festival, and therefore both the most glamorous and the most feral; one of the only places in the world that you are guaranteed to see a lot of celebrities and a lot more of other people’s faeces. One moment, your face is bathed in the glittering light of fireworks, as you sing along to one of the world’s most famous bands alongside Tom Cruise and Gillian Anderson. The next you’re turning away as a grown woman urinates in a paper cup after being held for several hours in what could be fairly described as a pig pen, waiting for Charli XCX to perform an hour-long DJ set. You can listen to earnest roundtables on inequality and geopolitics at Left Field in the early afternoon, and, in the 35-minute queue for compost toilets at 3am, eavesdrop on what are truly some of the worst conversations you’ve ever heard.

And then there’s the music, a lucky dip of contrasting genres appealing to wildly different demographics. Glastonbury is so big that it becomes something of a build-your-own festival: there are enough stages to choose from that most do not see a large percentage of the line-up, and any handful of attendees are likely to have a completely different experience watching completely different acts.

In the late-afternoon sun on Friday, the performance artist Marina Abramović invited the crowd at the Pyramid Stage to participate in a work she called “Seven Minutes of Collective Silence”. Wearing a sculptural white tube dress with winged sleeves that, arms outstretched, cast her body into the shape of a peace sign, Abramović asked the audience to stand with their arms around each other in total silence for the full seven minutes. They did: the only sounds in the field were the flapping of flags in the wind and the distant ambient festival noises (men chanting, drums thumping).

That evening, the festival’s first headliner, Dua Lipa, gave her ethereal pop more edge – with a set that included club remixes, frenetic dance breaks, grumbling bass and some very sexy leather outfits. She promised to “make 150,000 people feel like they’re in a small little nightclub”. But it was Britain’s avant-garde pop darling Charli XCX who created her own exclusive underground club at the festival – her appearance at the Levels stage was the buzziest booking of the festival, after her zeitgeisty sixth album, Brat, was released earlier this month. Some forwent all headliners to secure a place at her wildly oversubscribed “Party Girl” DJ set, arriving in the early evening for a slot that didn’t start till after midnight; hundreds more gathered beyond the barricades, trying to listen in. Dressed in a puffer jacket and sunglasses, Charli played several tracks from Brat alongside club classics, and brought out Robyn and Romy for their remix of Robyn’s beloved “Dancing on My Own”.

On Saturday morning at the Park Stage, the artist-turned-actor Johnny Flynn played a laid-back set of banjo-heavy indie-folk to a hungover crowd in the beating sun. (“Thanks Glastonbury, this is is the best,” he told the crowd, joking, “Well, top three.”) On the Pyramid Stage, a 71-year-old Cyndi Lauper, with a mess of punky grey hair, wearing a long tulle-adorned blue blazer over a silver corset and trousers, gave a wobbly performance of her 1980s pop hits. In the middle of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” Lauper paused for a spiel on sexism and her charitable fund, Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Rights. “It’s time the world understands that women are half the population of the world, and we deserve to be treated equally no matter where we are from!” she said.

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Glastonbury has a habit of overlapping with political events – the Brexit vote in 2016, the Corbyn surge in 2017, and now the 2024 general election campaign. At Left Field, in the early afternoon, there was a discussion between the Guardian’s John Harris, the mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin, the New Economics Foundation’s Danny Sriskandarajah, Compass’s France Foley and the former New Statesman political editor Stephen Bush. The conversation about how far a new Labour government can change Britain dissolved into an argument for electoral reform, as panel members and audience members alike bemoaned the need to tactically vote out the Conservatives. (Angela Rayner had been booked but pulled out: “She’s said she’s ‘got other stuff on’,” Harris joked.) As Bush told the crowd: “The Labour Party does have the same relationship with electoral reform as I do with my gym membership – I say I’ve committed to it, but then as soon as my trousers fit again, I stop going.”

Elsewhere, artists made brief political interventions on stage. Both Damon Albarn (a surprise guest of Bombay Bicycle Club) and Charlotte Church urged the crowd to show their support for the people of Palestine. The theatrical, Florence-and-the-Machine-influenced indie-pop band the Last Dinner Party paused before their popular single “Nothing Matters” to tell the crowd: “I think we all know who we’re voting for but it doesn’t end with the Tories being kicked out… Keep going to protests, keep signing petitions… Protect each other. Have some fucking empathy.”

Other Saturday highlights included an intimate set from bedroom-pop artist Soccer Mommy at Woodsies, and a packed-out performance on the Other Stage from the lads’ lads favourite act the Streets, in which Mike Skinner participated in perhaps the most heavily trailed crowd surf of all time. Fifth-time headliners Coldplay gave a predictably crowd-pleasing but unquestionably corny set. There may have been mass singalongs to their classics (“Yellow”, “The Scientist”, “Clocks”), as well as their hits of the 2010s (“Paradise”, “Viva La Vida”, “A Sky Full of Stars”), but there were also several lulls, and Chris Martin did little to dispel rumours that he is an alien being doing his best impression of a human (“Let’s see those beautiful British arms!”).

Instead, the stand-out act of the day was Little Simz, who gave an astonishingly self-possessed performance – a bravura exercise in charisma and stage presence – to a delighted Pyramid Stage audience. For the first few tracks, she was completely alone on stage, wearing a leather jacket emblazoned with her own name and a long kilt, delivering furious, complex verses with steely composure. “Glastonbury,” she said seriously, “I need you to understand that right now, you’re witnessing greatness. I don’t say that with arrogance, I say that with confidence.” “Introvert”, “Venom” and her climactic hit “Gorilla” were all crowd favourites, but her nostalgic ode to her childhood, “101 FM”, was the most joyful moment, with Simz smiling and skipping across the stage against a projected backdrop of “Little Simbi’s” fruit and veg shop and a north London tower block.

Nostalgia dominated much of the Sunday line-up. On the Other Stage, Britpop’s James performed their Nineties hit “Sit Down” to a middle-aged audience. The artist who soundtracked female millennial adolescence, Avril Lavigne, was treated to a packed and extremely rowdy crowd of 30-somethings (leaving Janelle Monáe’s set at the Pyramid Stage comparatively empty). Dressed in a distressed Union Jack hoodie and a red and black fraying kilt, Lavigne played an hour-long set of fan favourites from her first two records, including “Complicated”, “Sk8r Boi” and “I’m with You” – asking the audience: “Does anyone here own a copy of my first album?” to a chorus of deafening screams. And in the “Legends” slot on the Pyramid Stage was a much-anticipated set from Shania Twain (the festival was dotted with signs bearing pink cowboy boots and the immortal words “Let’s Go Girls”). Hers was perhaps the biggest crowd of the festival – for the first time, I saw stewards directing people away from the front of the stage. Dressed in a flowing pink tulle coat, black mini-dress and, of course, leather boots, Twain shouted to the pink-cowboy-hat wearing mass: “You guys are country music… FANATICS!!!” before performing her hits “That Don’t Impress Me Much”, “Still the One” and “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”. (As afternoon turned to evening, many festival-goers were glued to their phones, watching the England-Slovakia match. At the campsite by the San Remo bar, one attendee had brought their own standard-size TV, plugging it into a giant battery pack and balancing its legs in two buckets. That attendee was One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson, who held the remote control as a huge crowd formed around him.)

Twain was a marked contrast with Sunday’s headliner, SZA. The singer-songwriter of spacey, introspective, vulnerable hip-hop has a huge audience in the US thanks to her viral hit “Kill Bill”, but is nevertheless less of a household name for most of Glastonbury’s audience. Against an elaborate staging of giant insects and looming blades of grass, with costume changes including a green dress with fluttering dragonfly wings and a revealing bodysuit with oversized thigh-high boots, SZA was a slick operator of undeniable talent. She delivered self-lacerating lyrics via smooth vocal runs, and performed complex dance routines with apparent ease. Songs from her first album, Ctrl, including “Go Gina”, “Drew Barrymore” and “Normal Girl”, were particularly moving; for “Kill Bill”, she rapped while wielding two swords. The crowd was noticeably small for a headline set but – drawing younger, devoted fans who rapped along to every word – it was a brave, relevant booking for a festival that too often gives safe choices the top billing.

[See also: Taylor Swift’s Eras tour conquers London]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain