As the semester begins and we are swept back into the world of exams, extra-curricular activities and above all, the social norms that influence our collegiate experience, I would like to reflect on my experience of a culture so deviant from our society that not even a summer abroad in Kenya could compare: the 10th annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival 2011.
Bonnaroo, a festival named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 50 moments that changed rock and roll history, is a four-day music festival that takes place on Great Stage Park farm in Manchester, Tenn. The large-scale event, produced by Superfly Productions and AC Entertainment, features a diverse group of musicians scattered across Bonnaroo’s many stages as well as a comedy tent, a cinema tent, a silent disco and many other entertainment options.
A bulk of the 700-acre farmland is divided into various campgrounds, each with a distinct and colorful name; when looking for my campground, I simply asked where I could find “Pussy Galore.”
The center of the Bonnaroo location, where the music and attractions that include a Ferris wheel and water slide can be found, is aptly named Centeroo.
If you asked, most Bonnaroo attendees will say they came for the music. And though music may be the motive, it is not the lone voice of Bonnaroo, or even the loudest. When 80,000 people gather in one insular place with the sole and shared purpose of hearing music, they are stripped of their urban identities — their job titles, salaries, degrees, goals, orientations — and labeled as simply music lovers and concertgoers.
With this equalization arises a distinct, yet ephemeral, culture.
As my traveling companion and I made the long drive from Philadelphia to Manchester, I wondered what exactly I had so eagerly signed up for.
There’s no sensation quite like seeing a much-loved band perform live: the anticipation that leaves your stomach knotted and your phalanges tingling, pushing your way through a hoard of sweaty strangers to the front of the stage — close enough to feel the bass pounding in your chest and the tangible thrill that runs through the crowd as the lights dim and the first chord whines on that electric guitar.
Subsequently, I drew the conclusion that 10 or more such experiences could only lead to amplified bliss.
But as Jim Dale’s soothing voice drifted through the car, regaling us with the trials of Harry Potter and those coveted Deathly Hallows priming us for a weekend of poor British accents, I started to worry that I had been lulled into a false confidence by my self-identification as an audiophile.
I had been briefed on the music (top five bands to see over the summer: Arcade Fire, Gogol Bordello, My Morning Jacket, Deerhunter and Mumford and Sons — all accomplished at Bonnaroo) but knew nothing of the culture.
One hour at Bonnaroo was a more than educational introduction. There seemed to be an implicit agreement to act cordial and lend a helping hand whenever possible.
Not even the scorching heat deterred this kindness. After attaching a lawn hose to the sink spigot, a kind Canadian exclaimed, “That’s what people from Canada do. They buy a hose and give everyone free showers.”
In the absence of skyscrapers and paved streets certain social norms were also absent — like the desire to wear clothing. Any way you looked there would be at least two topless women, some with elaborate designs painted across their chests. One gentleman saw no problem with walking around naked looking for his lost bathing suit. The lack of visible security units led to open and frequent drug use. Friends passed around joints at every concert, often offering the drug to whoever was standing near them.
Despite paying $5 for a cup of coffee, Bonnaroo proved to be a four-day haven from expectation and responsibility.
— Contact Arianna Skibell.