Outside Lands and the Nihilism of the Fake Counterculture

Festival culture is the anti-Charlottesville.

Joshua Mellin

Across the continent, Nazis bearing semiautomatic weapons and garden-supply-store tiki torches made a show of force at the University of Virginia. After protests and counter-protests, someone was killed. It feels redundant to condemn it, but in short: Nazism, domestic terrorism, and the insistence that white mediocrity must always triumph are unacceptable. But Charlottesville isn’t something liberals can just dismiss with gauzy “This is not who we really are as a country”-style earnestness. Violence in defense of white supremacy is a core American trait. UC Berkeley College Republicans might want to consider all this the next time they insist on inviting vainglorious white supremacists to speak on campus solely for the purposes of riling up antifa. Sooner or later, one of these incidents is going to be the Fort Sumter of the Second American Civil War.

But here in Golden Gate Park, a couple hundred thousand people — mostly young, largely white, and overwhelmingly intoxicated — have gathered together yet again, almost without incident. Outside Lands is surprisingly apolitical — I’ve seen a few beardos in Bernie shirts, but that’s pretty much it — and I don’t expect anything that happened in Virginia to register much on these stages. The possibility of nuclear war with North Korea feels blissfully remote here, too.

James Hetfield of Metallica (Joshua Mellin)

At every festival I’ve ever been to, I’ve marveled at how peaceful and amiable people are — almost without exception. You get a few line-cutting douchebags here and there, a little bit of bad smartphone etiquette, and plenty of public urination, but that’s about it (at least since Woodstock ’99). The one time I went to Bonnaroo, I camped next to people who stayed up until dawn getting high and talking about the ancient aliens who built the pyramids, but how bad is that, really? (I wanted to murder them at the time, though.) And if you compare Outside Lands or Coachella or the quasi-defunct Treasure Island to a sports event of a similar size — or the near-riots that follow a championship — the vibe is not even close. Here, if somebody accidentally whacks your shoulder while they pass by you in a hurry, they whirl around and apologize, eyes wide. If you drop something, people run up to you to repatriate it. There isn’t even much testosterone-fueled shouting (although a photographer in the media tent is sharing an image of a would-be festival-hacker who made a fake press pass that simply said, “PRESS PASS”).

Mass pleasantness lot of this has to do with the 60-40 female-to-male gender breakdown, of course. But there’s still tens of thousands of young, drunk men here, the exact demographic that in another context would be the ideal candidates for radicalization or a nihilistic, let’s-fuck-shit-up approach. The norms that sustain liberal democracy are dissolving in real time, but the hippie-derived ethos of festivals doesn’t get the credit it deserves for policing itself. Outside Lands is not communism — definitely not with $15 cocktails, anyway — but it’s communitarianism, and that is the only way forward for this broken world. Vilifications of millennial entitlement and bros need to take this into account. The alt-right likes to advertise itself as the new counterculture, but after a few days at Lindley Meadow or on Interstate 580, you see how transparently absurd that marketing strategy is. Mercifully, there are no Nazis here to punch, not even in 2017, after they’re officially unafraid to step into the daylight, tattoos uncovered and with their vicious ideology in full splendor.

And Warpaint‘s set was pretty fantastic. 

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