In 1996, a teenage girl in Plano wrote a fake news report that eerily predicted the life I live today. It was an imaginary review of a theoretical music festival, written by a friend in high school for her radio, television, and film class. I found a stapled two-page draft of it in a recent move and probably had not looked at it in sixteen years. I’m sure it was a copy she had let me borrow to edit and make suggestions, and I still had it. I took a few minutes from packing, and sat in a cramped closet under a dreadful yellow light, and read the draft for the first time in nearly two decades. I smirked at the timeliness of the bands selected therein, which included Guided By Voices along with some others who she pretended to interview. This was all written by a sixteen-year-old girl who perhaps imagined that she would one day be a journalist, a music journalist. I am sitting in the designated media area of an actual festival pondering these connections, and how her vision holds up to the real thing. It’s called Fun Fun Fun Fest, something not even a teenager would have imagined back then.
Fun Fun Fun Fest is named after a Big Boys record, and I’m trying to remember if she liked them. I know she liked the Minutemen, who found the Austin-based Big Boys to be an inspiration. So the Big Boys were a strong possibility. I stop thinking about it though, because there is another media person in this kitschy silver camper I’m in, which is sponsored by Tito’s Vodka. The media person is complaining about her friends who aren’t journalists; the people “out there.” “Walking around sucks,” she says, as she sets up a giant camera to shoot a live spot.
“I hate it when my friends don’t have passes to get back here. Then you feel obligated to go hang out with them, ” she continues. I’m wanting to count my blessings; to be glad to be alive and serving the greater good by covering music, however arbitrary that pursuit may be. “Festivals are not the place to hang out with your friends,” she says. At this point, I’m sighing audibly.
I’m sorry your friends can’t sit in a vodka-sponsored trailer, babysitting their phones by the humming warmth of a charge bay. I guess they’re really missing out. Heaven forbid you get back out there in the crowd and enjoy being with said friends, doing something you supposedly love so much.
As much as I want to chew this woman out in the manner above, I can’t completely condemn her. I’d be lying if I didn’t notice the way my feet ache or that I’m coughing up black stuff into a napkin days later from inhaling so much dust from being in the crowd. A festival can be very disorienting. People sometimes die at these things, not to sound alarmist. But sometimes they get free ice cream.
I remember another vague notion of equality in the girl’s dream report. Something about how bands and fans were treated the same and the environment was not “pretentious.” This is all true at Fun Fun Fun Fest. Artists and press members all huddle under the same tents. This is a far cry from many other fests, sometimes to the dismay of the artists.
“I had to ask permission to get onstage past all the VIPs, even though I was holding my keyboard,” one Fun Fun Fun Fest veteran complained to me privately. In other words, she had to say “excuse me,” but she continued that there were far more people onstage than there were band members. The VIPS, or PIPs as they’re called here, appreciate the privilege. The artists, who are usually national acts, and increasingly so, value their privacy and the green rooms that they’re used to at other events.
The media loves this festival however, and the positive press has always been lopsided in its favor. I ask a local reporter friend “Why?,” and he replies that it’s all in the booking; that the festival books the kind of acts that the media cares to write about. He has an even better theory about how the dangerous, smaller sets have moved to the Fun Fun Fun Fest Nites, while the established acts rule the days, but you should read that for yourself.
On the festival grounds, I run into a former Denton, now Austin musician who had played one of the “Nites” the previous night, Wiccans‘ front-person, Adam Cahoon. I ask him about how his show at the Mohawk went the night before, and I harass him about the fact that I know he’s hard on a particular decade of music:
FrontRow: How was [your show]?
Adam Cahoon: It was fine. There were fireworks.
FR: How boring was Superchunk on a scale of 1 to kill-me-this-is-from-the-f*cking-90s?
AC: I’m more of an Imperial Teen fan. They did the song from the Jawbreaker soundtrack. (Singing) A-WOO-HOO-HOO. A-WOO-HOO-HOO … I saw Hannibal Buress. That was awesome. That’s what I came for, mainly.
FR: That’s it? You came here for a comedian? You don’t care about any of this music at all?
AC: I want to see X … maybe.
FR: “X, maybe?” Why, “maybe?”
AC: … I saw Converge. That was kind of nostalgic.
FR: Converge had their moment.
AC: They are probably the only good metalcore band.
FR: That’s literally what I wrote yesterday … If you had to compare what the social hierarchy is in Austin compared to Denton, how much more corrupt is it, versus Denton? Or is it worse in Denton?
AC: The currency here is cocaine.
FR: What is the currency in Denton?
AC: College sweaters.
Later, we see the aforementioned X, and they do a near-flawless job performing their Los Angeles album in its entirety. A 25-year-old woman in our party named Morgan Rogers chides the group to us for their lack of “stage presence.” But later in the evening she tells me where her heart really lies, when I ask who she was most excited to see. “Bun B, all the way,” Rogers says. “Bun B was the only act I wanted to see all evening. The rest were really lackluster when compared, it was a good show.”
“Are you just a big rap fan?,” I ask.
“I love Houston rap,” Rogers says. I was exposed to it through my boyfriend, who is into Slim Thug, Lil’ Flip … Scarface, mostly ‘Third Coast Rap.'”
It could be argued that a young crowd would go more for rap than they would older iconic punk bands, but what about older iconic rap acts? De La Soul closed the festival out with a set that was quite prickly from start to finish, as the group was not impressed by the sound onstage, comparing it to “karaoke,” before descending into a rant that was as uncomfortable as it was essential. They didn’t just penetrate the fourth wall, the tore through the fifth, and sixth; walls I didn’t even know existed until group-member David Jolicoeur aka “Dave” aka “Trugoy,” unloaded on the audience, but specifically the VIPs behind him: “If we don’t have fun, then no one’s gonna have fun. So, I don’t give a f*ck about the rules. I don’t give a f*ck about none of y’all motherf*ckers back here who think you VIP…”
He is directly addressing the onstage VIP entourage, and he also proceeds to let them know that they are free to perform a sexual act for him if they are so obliged. He then continues, but instead spins around to address the larger audience: “These people are the people who got me up here,” he says to a loudly approving audience of commoners.
This was in direct contrast to Girl Talk’s Greg Gillis, who of course seemed to invite the entire audience onstage. This was perfectly scheduled to delightfully offset a great performance by Public Image Limited, who spent so much of their career successfully lampooning the idea of presentation and commerciality in music, while Girl Talk puts on a stage show with balloons and giant lights instructing the audience to shout “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!” in unison to a Ramones sample. PiL might have tried to be the opposite of punk in some ways, but this is even more “opposite” than that. Girl Talk tears through one generation after another’s most important memories along with forgotten moments, those boring trips to the car wash or running errands with mom or dad. He takes those FM radio samples and twists them into your current storyline of rap, pop, and rap pop; everything the world is always trying to tell you is so disposable. It’s maxed out at a million decibels and shot out into the Austin sky while you dance with several thousand strangers. The applause and screaming comes with every little second of familiarity. These are the hits, and we’re shamelessly celebrating the very idea of music as commerce. When we clap, we applaud ourselves.
At the festival’s end, it’s so dark out that you can barely see the silhouettes of workers packing away the Ben and Jerry’s that was passed out to the press and to the festival talent for the past three days. I have a vision of the future too, like the one my friend had in her news report, but it’s darker. It’s about a group of writers who stayed in the media tent and kept eating the free ice cream without noticing the event had ended. They stay there eating it for weeks, and then months, and the seasons change. The ice cream runs out, and they all have scurvy from a lack of proper nutrition. I’m getting lost in that bleak vision on the way out of the park gates, when I suddenly remember who else she wrote about in that paper. She wrote that she saw Bob Mould in her festival report.
As a teenage girl in 1996, my best friend Jennifer was imagining what it would be like to see Bob Mould as an adult and report on it. But in reality, she never made it to the festival, and never reports on it. Jennifer had an untimely and extremely tragic accidental death at age 20. Instead, I was seeing him live, seeing him scream the same songs we used to sing along to when our parents would drop us off at the movies. As I walked up the green yet dusty hill away from the orange stage where Mould had just performed, my hair stood on end as I came to this realization. It wasn’t my dream. But it will certainly do.
Photo by Andi Harman. For all of Harman’s photos from Fun Fun Fun Fest, go here.