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  1. The Staggers
3 March 2023

Can’t Glastonbury do better than its dull, white, male headliners?

The rockers that make up this year’s headliners make the festival seem like a relic from the past.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Emily Eavis knows she needs to do better. That is the resounding sentiment from her announcement of the line-up for this year’s Glastonbury Festival, detailed in an interview with the Guardian today.

The headliners, joining the already announced Elton John, whose Sunday night slot will, he says, be his last UK show, are Guns n’ Roses and Arctic Monkeys. That’s three acts comprised almost entirely of white men. (Slash, the Guns n’ Roses guitarist, is of mixed heritage and the band’s touring line-up includes the keyboardist Melissa Reese and drummer Frank Ferrer, who is Cuban.) It’s an infuriating announcement for those who see Glastonbury as a bastion of progress in the music industry.

It is a “pipeline” problem, said Eavis, who co-organises Glastonbury with its founder Michael Eavis, her father. “We’re trying our best so the pipeline needs to be developed. This starts way back with the record companies, radio. I can shout as loud as I like but we need to get everyone on board.”

Eavis is quite right that the music industry is a big ecosystem, and equal opportunities need to start at the very bottom. We should be paying attention to who gets signed, who gets radio play, who is touring local pub circuits, who has access to music lessons and instruments at school age, not only who is headlining the world’s largest greenfields festival.

[See also: The return of the Beatles vs Stones wars]

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But Eavis doesn’t acknowledge her enormous power in this system. A prominent Glastonbury slot makes a career. Glastonbury is the most highly regarded rock and pop festival, the agenda-making event of not just the British festival season but arguably the international cultural scene. The festival sells out before any acts are announced. It has the immensely privileged position of being one of the few festivals – perhaps the only one – that has total freedom about who it bills. 

Eavis’s suggestion that there are just not enough women or people of colour who are popular enough to have the headline slot is unfounded. Taylor Swift was due to headline the 2020 edition of the festival that was cancelled due to the pandemic, and she is probably the act Eavis said was due to headline this year but “changed her touring plans” and pulled out. 

But the responsibility for a diverse line-up shouldn’t fall to one artist – and needn’t. The American singer and rapper Lizzo has been given “joint headline billing” – whatever that means – but is really opening for Guns n’ Roses. She should have a headline slot all to herself. Lana Del Rey, who appears further down the line-up, could have a top slot. There are countless other hugely influential acts who could have headlined. What about Dua Lipa, Rihanna, SZA, Pink, Madonna, Megan Thee Stallion, Halsey, Rosalía or Frank Ocean? I would love to see the world-conquering K-pop girl group Blackpink in one of those headline slots.

[See also: Is techno about to die?]

It’s not like Glastonbury hasn’t taken “risks” before. The choice to have Kanye West headline in 2015 sparked controversy among those who saw the focus on hip-hop as diluting what had traditionally been a rock and pop festival. Even Billie Eilish’s headline slot last year might have surprised some – she was 20 at the time, had released just two albums, yet still put on an engaging Saturday night set. And let’s not forget that Stormzy’s headline set in 2019, when he also had just two albums to his name, will be remembered as one of the festival’s most magisterial and politically significant performances. The festival has proven that remarkable headline sets often come from acts who might have been considered left-field bets. So why didn’t the organisers do that this time?

Even worse, the headline trio they have gone for is musically dull. Guns n’ Roses’ immersive rock will be a welcome break from the Coldplay-esque guitar-lite that has been all too prevalent for far too long. But Elton John’s classic pop really could have sat in the Sunday afternoon legends’ slot. And Arctic Monkeys? Sure, they had a new album out last year. But what makes 2023 the right year for them to return to Glastonbury, after headlining in 2007 and 2013? I can think of few bands that feel less relevant right now.

Of course, this is Glastonbury, and of the 55 names on the partial bill that were announced this morning, there is a wealth of choice. As a whole, it is diverse: 53 per cent of the acts are male, while 45 per cent are non-white or feature non-white members. I will be running across the site to make sure I catch the ethereal indie pop of the Californian singer Weyes Blood, the cross-genre funk of the Scottish trio Young Fathers, and the desert blues of the Saharan group Tinariwen. I won’t let the stale choice of headliners affect my weekend.

But it’s the headline acts that make the news, that come to define the year’s Glastonbury as it will go down in the history books. This year’s line-up announcement was a strange one, coming as it did with Eavis’s evident disappointment in herself. At least she isn’t blind to the significant step back the line-up represents.

Read more:

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

The BBC’s Glastonbury TV coverage is a hellish nostalgia generator

Paul McCartney at Glastonbury? Rolling Stones at Hyde Park? Our culture is stuck in the past

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