Bonnaroo: From Harmless Hippie Fest to Corporate Scam

In a perfect world, we would be stuffed together in plastic tents under the hot sun, breathing in the dust, absorbing the music. We would gorge on carnie food, smoke dope, snort coke, eat mushrooms, ecstasy, and acid, hydrating with cans of beer. We would strip down to birthday suits +1, meet sexy strange lovers and copulate in the moonlight. We would purchase and consume and toss the containers as if the Earth herself were hungry for more garbage. We would band together into loose-knit tribes, wandering mile upon mile, day after day, an endless parade of ogling eyes and perked ears searching for that perfect moment—the song that hits so hard you burst into tears.

American music festivals are a long-standing tradition, a postmodern rite of passage is rooted in pilgrimage and peak experience. The blueprint for Bonnaroo—one of Woodstock’s more well-known offspring—was laid back in 1967, when fifty thousand kids were drawn to San Francisco for the Monterey Pop Festival. These kids were California dreamin’, yearning for a perfect world beyond stiff suburban routine—peaceful, egalitarian, in harmony with Nature. Two years later—when Woodstock enticed over 300,000 kids to turn a tiny New York farm town into a mud-spattered orgy porgy, pulsating to the beat—music festivals attained quasi-religious status. From Altamont’s acid-fueled ultra-violence later that year to Wozniak’s tech-savvy US Fest in 1982; from the gentle nomadic culture of Grateful Dead tours to the jock-driven rape scene at Woodstock 1999; America’s wide array of summer events caricature the many faces of each generation.

From my perspective as a temple technician, today’s faces wear a blank expression. I climb the stages during the day, then wander among the people as night falls—doing as the Romans do. I’ve been with Bonnaroo from the beginning, watching her evolve from a neohippie free-for-all into an elaborate, biomechanical pleasure machine with a finely-tuned money funnel. Like Las Vegas casino culture or Disney World, Bonnaroo’s temple of Entertainment is a parody of society at large.

In the upper middle class, fans populate a sprawling suburbia of tents and RVs, crawling out every morning to drop dollars on the central marketplace. 80,000 fans are worth $20 million in tickets alone. Once you add up prices that resemble dire inflation predictions—$6 pizza slices, $12 bug spray, and $40 t-shirts, not to mention phenomenal spending on gasoline, portable luxuries, and an avalanche of drugs—you start to see this sun-blistered target audience through the steady crosshairs of corporate interests.

“I couldn’t help but wonder what fantastic behavioral studies are being done around this clever social experiment. A human ant farm, swarming from this stage to that stage. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether you see the logos or not—the logos see you, and they’ve got your number.”


For instance, Chase Bank credit-card holders were granted access to the “Chase Freedom Lounge,” where they could enjoy cool drinks and air-conditioning. There was the Ford Fiesta live video feed, or the Wheat Thins “Crunch Den” where you could get your picture snapped while munching free crackers (courtesy of the Altria Group). A boomtown economy has grown up in Manchester, TN, with such trusted names as McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and BP providing for the created needs of festival-goers. As Bonnaroo co-promoter Jonathan Mayers told Billboard.biz: “We continue to grow our relationships with Fortune 500 companies.” Rock n fuckin’ roll.

Which begs the question: Is the integrity of Art compromised by corporate interests?

When I saw Rage Against the Machine play at Lollapalooza back in 1996, their backdrop was an inverted American flag tagged with “666.” It was an ominous warning that a predatory hegemony loomed on the horizon. A decade later, bands played Lollapalooza on the “Bud Light Stage,” the “MySpace Stage,” and the “PlayStation Stage.” Of course, Rage Against the Machine played the “AT&T Stage” in 2008. Is that why they call it a revolutionary act?

As the helicopter circled overhead throughout Bonnaroo—filming everything—I couldn’t help but wonder what fantastic behavioral studies are being done around this clever social experiment. A human ant farm, swarming from this stage to that stage. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether you see the logos or not—the logos see you, and they’ve got your number. Like the medieval Catholic Church or the visionaries of Silicone Valley, marketers are getting more and more creative at selling dim shades of your perfect world.

Of course, even the New Jerusalem needs a working class. Will they be stuffed into circus tent ghetto blocks, like those found backstage at Bonnaroo? Will broken air-conditioners create moldy saunas, will muddy drainage seep from the floor? Only God knows, but let’s hope that the Messiah’s balance of generosity with His bottom line shows more grace than AC Entertainment and Superfly Presents.

So why do people choose to work Bonnaroo, serving the coddled hordes? The same reason anyone goes to work in the morning. Whether peering over the fence at Patrician partygoers or polishing Nero’s toilet at the Hilton, there is an understanding that your “cool shit” is our bread and butter. As one of the better-paid stewards of the Church of Entertainment, I have to appreciate the fact that my checks don’t bounce.

Of course, workers who consider the finery of artist hospitality—the palatial regalia, fine liquors, and porcelain thrones of the 1%—may grow goblin green with envy.

Not me. I was invited to stay in The Grove. Founded by Atlanta riggers and surrounded by barbed wire, The Grove is sacred ground for a tribe of misfit elitists. I fit right in. It was us against all others. Climbing the main stage—we hang that badass Bonnaroo sign, by the way—was a sweat-drenched playground, as always. I loved the steel like hippies love crystals. I loved The Flaming Lips and The Crystal Method like superstars love clean cocaine. I loved Terrible Ted’s smoked brisket like Terrible Ted loves karaoke. From my reinforced bunker, I fell in love with the world, carving my own little niche on the dark side of Utopia.

I hope a good time was had by all.

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