Life is Beautiful and Unreal: The Music Festival as Constructed World

At today's festivals, feelings matter, but are they simply relative?

Las Vegas is a twilight zone. The city is a bubble of excess built atop a concrete slab, and surrounded on all sides by sand, mountains, and miles of nothingness. The burning neon lights of the hotel-casino-skyline are in contrast to most other metropolises, where branding for banks and corporate mega-structures dominate the airspace. The established advertising wisdom that what happens within Sin City limits, stays there, drives Midwestern tourists to spend money on garrish souvenirs and overpriced spirits, and binge on slots, roulette, blackjack, craps, or sex with strangers. But maybe the real truth is that what happens in Vegas, can only happen in Vegas, or spaces of a similar nature, because we see these places as isolated oasis; populated by tricksters and ruled by chaos.

Vegas is its own constructed reality. As is the contemporary music festival. And after a recent trip to the desert city for the Life is Beautiful festival––a twilight zone inside of a twilight zone––I’m back home in L.A. (don't call it LaLaLand) wondering how much of my surroundings are really just part of an exercise in guerrilla marketing disguised as a cultural experience. What is genuine? What is real? What is simply relative to any feelings of belonging—if only temporarily—inside of a putatively self-contained, artificially defined and sustained community? 

I’m not so sure, at least not at first. 

Inside Life is Beautiful, it’s easy to feel as though my fellow festival-goers and I are sharing a secret with one another. But as thousands of them crowd Fremont Street, or pour from stage-to-stage en masse, and as other photojournalists or bloggers crowd the photo pit harping for a shot and poaching angles, it’s like we’re willingly pulling a veil over our own eyes. If an energy drink granted me wings, wouldn’t I fly away from its VIP-sponsored tent? I hope so. For now I willingly drink the punch, and it goes down with supreme ease.

A University of Lincoln analysis examined how gender is displayed in such spaces, through photographic imagery of the Glastonbudget festival, an annual three-day music festival held at Turnpost Farm in Wymeswold, Leicestershire, England. The University of Lincoln analyst sought out inversions of societal norms brought out by the “carnivalesque” nature of the music festival, concluding: 

“The carnivalesque during Glastonbudget represents a festival space which consolidates normative notions of gender hierarchy via a complicated process of othering.”

Whatever these findings actually mean in English, I sense their presence in my surroundings at Life is Beautiful, especially when young people dressed in outfits that suggest allegiance to a post-apocalyptic army, or wearing brightly colored underwear and nothing else, approach and ask me to take their picture. Most of them don’t even ask to see the photo afterward, instead leaving and continuing on without any knowledge of who I am, or where said photos will end up, or even if the image came out, at all

Others shout their Instagram handles at me while running off to catch another act.

Nearly 50 years ago, a small farm-town in upstate New York became a place in the sun to many thousands of young people because it was allegedly a location of emerging ideals, diversion of thought aimed at changing the status quo, and good ol’ fashioned rock and roll.

Attempted replications in Indio Valley, or Beyond Vegas, or at any electronic carnival that can be conceived, sold, and re-packaged on social media, never fully capture the “Woodstock vibe.” It cannot be reproduced. The sun-shade on my Las Vegas hotel room window during Life is Beautiful is actually a photo of a festival crowd—to the best of my deductions, from Woodstock 2008. Interpreting any inversion of societal norms from this picture would be a far stretch.

I had an amazing time at Life is Beautiful. I had an equally immersive experience earlier this year at Further Future––a niche, futurist event produced by Burning Man alumni. 

But metal gates enclosing sponsored stages, and food trucks selling $12 coffees, and kids on drugs with their clothes painted on their skin, is not enough to create, never mind transcend, the liminal barrier between worlds. When you go to a music festival, you’re more often waiting in line than you are standing on the threshold of the in-between. 

All images by the author.