News & Politics

Is Gourmet Foodie Culture Killing the Music Festival?

Foodieism and music are bleeding into each another. What does that mean for the future of both?

Great Googa Mooga 2012
Photo Credit: karlnorling at Flickr

Two weeks ago, the Great Googa Mooga Festival descended upon Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which abuts on its left some of the borough’s nattier neighborhoods. Declaring itself “an amusement park of food and drink” (somewhat cornily) it combined celebrity chefs like Eddie Huang and Marcus Samuelsson with their musical and celebrity counterparts, like Parks & Recreation’s Aziz Ansari and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. The mainstage, which brought a reported 40,000 people, paired lectures on wine pairings and livestock butchering with cool bands like the Roots. And for an extra, whopping $250, attendees could get a VIP pass and see, among other things, a James Murphy DJ set after sharing a nosh with Anthony Bourdain. Hall & Oates, the ‘80s blue-eyed soul duo, headlined. 

As a concept, it was nothing new—the Googa Mooga Web site admitted it borrowed its idea from homegrown food-and-music festivals like Bonnaroo, in Tennessee, and Superfly, in New Orleans. But for some reason, this one irked critics in a way its counterparts didn’t seem to. By the time the festival was over (a day!), some joker had taken the time to print out fake menus making fun of “fudies.” New York Times critic AO Scott embarked on a mild Twitter rampage about the festival ruining the “sacred space” of Prospect Park. (Perhaps he’s never come across a fellow smoking crack or pissing in a tree during his morning jog?) And Slate implied that it wanted to sound the alarm of class war with its screed “The Foodie Hell Experience,” though didn’t quite go so far other than to dis Coolio, who had a stand. But that piece had a point:

"Food is the new music" and "chefs are the new rock stars" are the sorts of things often said by dull people in the habit of comparing dissimilar things in order to sound sophisticated. It’s a terrible comparison. Music is populist. If you’ve got ears and a Spotify account (or a radio), you can enjoy a song—doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from. Fancy food is different. The least expensive entrée at April Bloomfield’s restaurant, The Breslin, costs $21. Bloomfield makes food for rich people to excrete.

In the past few years, the crossover between food and music has been increasingly apparent, both in the mainstream (Coolio on the Food Network) and in the underground. Eddie Huang, who helped organize Googa Mooga and contributes to Bonnaroo, plays cranked up hip-hop in his storefront, while Recette’s Jesse Schenker prefers grunge faves like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. It’s not the newest development: the rapper Jay-Z is a part owner of pork-humping West Village corner haunt the Spotted Pig, and even Q-Tip’s been known to frequent Nobu.

But as the Slate writer expressed, people don’t like it when bougie food encroaches on their music, and tries to commodify it. 

Small-batch food production is a valid and visionary wave of the future, but when that organic packaging and personal time-consumption amounts to $5 bottles of locally produced kombucha, “localism” tends to translate to “your rich friends and everyone they know.” So when you fold in the concept to music festivals, which are already largely corporate, overpriced and often inaccessible to those who can’t score outside transportation to the desert (Coachella) or the woods (Bonnaroo), they become even more restricted, concentrating both food and ostensibly populist music experiences to the most fortunate. (Maybe not the 1 percent, as 85,000 people attended this year’s Coachella Festival per day... the 30 percent?)

At Bonnaroo, the all-purpose music and camping festival in Manchester, TN, which starts this week, the spirit of Woodstock reigns: it’s held on a 700-acre farm and incorporates all types of music, including neo-hippie godheads Phish. But the tickets are pricey: general admission starts at $209, and more than double if you’re looking for parking spots or a special food pass. To obtain a VIP food pass ($200 per person for six meals over three days), you are required to have purchased a general VIP pass ($1,399 for two people for three days). That’s more than New York rent—just to have a spot with a shower and to indulge in gourmet food trucks (all the rage, everywhere) and microbrews.

Coachella, in the desert outside of Palm Springs, brings in food trucks as well, a holdover from the demanding LA foodie climate. Meanwhile, foodies on blogs debate which festival has the best food curation. For the past several years, Lollapalooza’s food director has been Graham Elliot, the tattooed Chicago chef whose namesake restaurants boast clean, basic, modern cooking. Perhaps it’s not so strange that the Googa Mooga chefs thought they could flip the script and build a food festival with music as accoutrements, rather than the other way around.

Still, it’s hard not to separate the encroaching foodiness in music festivals from their inherent bourgeois values. Even the ‘90s nostalgia fest Lollapalooza was masked as throwback to the hippie revolution, the love-ins of Woodstock and Monterey Pop. Foodie culture among music fests might also point to a new, older demographic that they appeal to, that wants to recapture the essence of their youths... but aren’t willing to eat the same kind of crap as 40 years ago. (More power to them.) But most of all, they stake out the rarefied demographic that can even afford to attend most nationally known, non-regional festivals at all: whomever can afford to be interested.

 

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.