Glastonbury: It’s only rock’n’roll

Keep sanctimonious ethics out of music festivals.

Shirley Dent

Topics Culture

It’s enough to make you feel for the kids. Off they go in the time-honoured tradition, all set for making love in the green grass (when they’re not smoking it), in between pogo-ing, moshing, body-popping or whatever it is they do to music nowadays, and what do they get? Sanctimonious hand wringing about the ethics of music festivals.

Glastonbury kicks off this weekend in the humble 400 acres backyard of its founder, Michael Eavis. The festival’s director of sponsorship, Robert Richards, describes the festival as ‘a serious beacon of light in a wicked world’. There was I thinking it was just a big rock concert with tents. And what would be wrong with that? Cutting loose is what popular music is supposed to be about. When you have to work for a living, the sheer joy – and okay, sometimes the sheer agony for Joy Division sorts – of abandoning yourself for a weekend in the music that moves you, is one of life’s pleasures. That’s entertainment.

But it seems that entertainment’s game is up, fingered good and proper by the ethics-into-pop brigade. There will be no enjoyment of music without a good dollop of guilt. Glastonbury is ethically branded up to its eyeballs. One report noted that ‘instead of sponsor names and adverts being slapped across the festival, the likes of Greenpeace, Oxfam and Wateraid get pride of place on billboards’ – which John Sauven of Greenpeace describes as ‘a good branding association’ (1).

Glastonbury’s pop-ethic stars themselves have put ethical brand over musical entertainment. Before the 2002 festival, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, dressed as a giant tap, lent his support to WaterAid’s Glastonbury campaign. Coldplay called on their fans ‘to collect the insides of toilet rolls so that they can help build a “statue of poverty” at the festival to highlight this important global issue’ (2). Martin declared: ‘This is a great cause. Sign your name and bring those loo rolls…together we can play our part in flushing out poverty.’ WaterAid planned to offer festivalgoers ‘African pit latrines’ that would ‘demonstrate how cheaply and easily effective sanitation can be provided’.

It’s one thing shitting in a trench for three days when you are high on the joy of the occasion. But it’s likely that most Africans would agree that a good old-fashioned flushing toilet, like good old-fashioned rock music, is one of life’s little luxuries that everyone should have at their disposal.

Do teenagers really carry the self-righteous burden of their ethics with them like talismans of good intent? Or do they do those daft things in the excitement of their first brush with rock‘n’roll – like the young man of my acquaintance who as a Sepultura-loving teenager stage-dived at a concert, didn’t touch flesh on the way down and broke his nose in two. If the agenda of this year’s Glastonbury is anything to go by, it seems that pop ethics rule. At 4pm – or there about – everybody attending the festival is being asked to join hands to make poverty history. According to the official blurb: ‘This very special Glastonbury “moment” will be carefully coordinated on every part of the site – from the Pyramid Stage right through to the quietest corner of the Green Fields. Get ready to hold your hands in the air and become part of this history-making gesture of solidarity. A gesture that will help…MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY’ (3).

It’s not that I think young people shouldn’t be getting their delicate pinkies stuck into politics, or that they shouldn’t be worrying about shaping the world. Nor do I think under-25s are apathetic, antisocial flotsam who need a few anti-social behaviour orders slapped on them and the hoodies pulled off them. On the contrary, in my experience of working with sixth formers on the Institute of Ideas’ Debating Matters competition (4), most young people take seriously the ideas that influence our world.

Like most intelligent people, they’re unlikely to think that holding hands in a field will change anything. Entertainment is entertainment, and politics is politics.

(1) Glastonbury: a corporate sell-out?, BBC News, 20 June 2005

(2) Coldplay appeal to Glastonbury, 17 April 2002

(3) Join Hands and Make Poverty History, Glastonbury Festival website

(4) See the Debating Matters competition

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Topics Culture


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