Geneva Jackson

A Study of American Popular Music Festivals as Youthful Rites of Passage

Have you ever gone to a music festival? Dietrich College Honors Fellow Geneva Jackson spent the summer attending festivals in Tennessee, West Virginia, Delaware and other locations. Why? She’s researching their role as youthful rites of passage as her Senior Honors Program thesis.

Jackson, a global studies and history major, recently presented on her work. In addition to her field work, she worked with her advisor, History Professor Judith Schachter worked to define what a festival consists of for her project.

geneva presents“We have a working definition,” Jackson said. “There has to be music, even if other arts are present, and the duration has to be longer than one night.”

She also spoke about how she had to narrow her original focus from comparing festivals from the 1960s to today. Instead she will just study modern music festivals.

Jackson talked about the unique position she’s in because she’s part of the demographic she’s observing. She also described the types of data she collected – how she wrote everything she saw, trying to be objective, and what she experienced. She also wrote reflections later about what she learned and what it meant.

Moving forward, Jackson will go through all of her notes to see what fits where and find and read anthropological works on rites of passage.

Learn more about her project.

Mixed Messages: On Appropriation

Hello there!

I spent last weekend at another festival, which means two things; first, I am again facing a number of odd tan lines, the worst of these being a sunglasses mark, particularly visible on my nose. The second is that the time has finally come for me to think about some negative things that go on at festivals. As I’ve been looking into the messages festivals market to audiences through their websites and advertising, I spent a lot of time thinking about the ideas being pushed on audiences. While doing so I saw mostly great things, like love and the spirit of cohabitation, but I also started thinking about some no-so-great parts of festivals. From drug use and public intoxication, to theft and violence, music festivals do not always provide a positive experience for festival-goers. Something I, and many others before me have grappled with is the presence of cultural appropriation in the clothing, marketing, and performances at festivals.

Before you click off the page or get the wrong impression I’d like to preface with the probably clear fact that I love music festivals. I am spending a full year researching all about them simply because I think they are the site of a remarkable cultural phenomenon, and I would like to examine why. Additionally, they make for some great views, like the image below, and a lot of exciting memories!

Here's a picture of this week's "study spot" not a bad view, I must say!

Here’s a picture of this week’s “study spot” not a bad view, I must say!

So when I decided to call out the cultural appropriation I have noticed, it is not out of some attempt to discredit festivals as a generally positive experience. More specifically, though I will be using examples from the most recent festival I attended (All Good in West Virginia), I am not by any means discouraging people from attending this festival in the future (I truly enjoyed myself!). I also do not mean to claim that this is the only location in which I’ve witnessed negative appropriative behavior.

So on to these instances of appropriation I keep talking about. As a global studies and history student, I completely understand the need for cultural exchange; in fact I think it is a vital method through which we can advance society and has resulted in a number of amazing shared experiences since more or less the beginning of humankind. That being said, I also recognize the value of knowing the difference between sharing cultural elements and cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is defined on its wikipedia page (check it out for more basic information!) as “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture”.

For many, the term contains a very negative connotation, synonymous with stealing, disrespecting, and distorting cultural elements. The format of this negative appropriation ranges from offensive use of sacred symbols, to reinforcement of prejudiced stereotypes through media, to appropriating clothing and hairstyles in an effort to be funny or edgy. From my perspective, cultural appropriation results from actions or representations that, when enacted by a member of the dominant culture, are celebrated at the expense of the oppressed culture. This “celebration” can come in terms of the action being seen as funny, edgy or cool, or attractive–but only when the action is done by a member of the dominant culture.

As an example of this, let’s talk about “All Good’s Gangster Time.” Once a day, a group of people on stilts would come out together in matching costumes and walk through the festival. It was unclear if these people worked for the festival, or simply were a group of patrons who had come to entertain. On the first day I thought this was a cool, idiosyncratic part of the All Good festival. However, on the second day, a set was interrupted by sharp whistles. And there, clad in all gold, fake afros, metallic dollar sign chains, and even some aluminum foil grills stood the stilted people. They wove through the crowd holding large posters, one of which declared that is was “All Good’s Gangster Time” and pausing to take pictures with people doing “gang signs” and leaning their shoulders in a “thuggish” manner.

These words conjure a certain image to mind. It’s no secret that thuggish is coded language for black, or that black people wear their hair in the afro hairstyle. The problem with this costume is just that: white people dressed up in this manner as a costume. Beyond reinforcing negative images of black people in society, as well as linking hairstyles, which are integral to black culture, to a certain socioeconomic status, Gangster Time was just another way for white people to participate in a joke about a group which excludes those that it is about and gets its humor at their expense.

In addition to this event, the All Good Festival also featured a large white statue of a laughing Buddha. The platform around it acted as a meeting point and seating area, especially at night when fluorescent lights illuminated it. While I don’t know much about the teachings of Buddhism, I feel that using a religious figure as a large advertisement probably crosses some boundaries. This goes along with, at least two Native American headdresses I saw, another symbol often appropriated by people of dominant cultural groups.

The problem here is not the intent, for I don’t believe any of the events occurred purposefully to offend anyone. The problem is that when you use a symbol from a culture that is not your own with the intention to get a laugh, create a mascot, or as a purely aesthetic fashion choice, you disregard the significance of that item for those to whom it belongs. It is not cultural exchange in a meaningful way, stemming from understanding of the symbol’s past or uses, it is appropriation. And it’s a part of music festival culture that needs to stop.

I know this post is kind of heavy, but again I think it’s important to consider the behaviors we take part in that are damaging. Unfortunately I have never attended a festival without seeing these and other items used in a disrespectful manner. Despite this, the messages of festivals are overall really positive, and All Good was a very fun experience. From the Hollywood-esque illuminated letters reading “Welcome to All Good” (pictured below) and later “Come to Love All”, to performers telling the crowd “Thank you for letting me be myself” and to “Stay Good” everyone at the festival encouraged optimistic views on living and a healthy respect for fun. I would certainly return to wild and wonderful West Virginia, I just hope that someday soon I could do so and see a little less of these off-putting images.

The good vibes abounded at this incredibly laid-back festival and I can't help but think "Come to Love All" could be the catchphrase of festival culture itself. 

The good vibes abounded at this incredibly laid-back festival and I can’t help but think “Come to Love All” could be the catchphrase of festival culture itself.

Until my next post, thanks for reading!

Learn more about my project.

“It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times” … or Getting a Grip on Teen Angst

Hey there!

As the title suggests, I’ve been considering teendom for the past few weeks. Since my project focuses on music festivals as a site for youthful rites of passage and identity formation, I have spent recent days trying to understand teenagers. Specifically, I’m looking at the ways in which their identity as a group is determined by factors outside of themselves (parents, school, social groups), as well as thinking about how they view themselves. The following includes some of my 21-year-old “wisdom” and a retrograde sense of dissatisfaction, paired with some pictures demonstrative photos of teenaged Geneva. Promise not to use them against me!

Being only recently out of adolescence myself, it’s been easy to break out those middle school punk pop tunes and revisit all of the parts of growing up that caused my personal teen angst. And frankly, negotiating my understanding of the place young people are  given in our society has made me even more angst-y than I was growing up.

Here's me at 15, clearly deep in the midst of some angsty teen stressors.

Here’s me at 15, clearly deep in the midst of some angsty teen stressors.

Is there ever a more complicated, confusing, contradictory time then those dreaded high school years?

Being a teen means reliance on parental whims; curfews, allowances, and permission slips manage youth’s time, economic power, and location. It also means reliance on yourself; budding interests, increasing responsibilities, and less indulgence encourage teens to discover and explore.

Teens are given a lot of leeway, from indulgent teachers, to parents willing to blind-eye their children’s shortcomings, to even some police and media accepting teen as a synonym for . At the same time, they are expected to grow out of childish bad behavior without any clear indication of when they get “too old”, and are given ever higher standards for success in academics, in athletics, in creativity.

Youth is fetishized. Older actors portraying teens give unrealistic images of what a teen body looks like, “sexy” becomes a goal and adjective used to describe younger and younger girls, and boys begin worrying about sexual experience as an indication of masculinity. Youth is also shamed. Stigmatization of teen pregnancy and more widely teen sexuality in general, paired with abstinence-only sexual education, and “slut-shaming”, or the condemnation of female sexuality, leaves teens confused and conflicted by their feelings and urges, or lack thereof with not enough information.

Is it any wonder that teens feel unsure about who they are, what is expected of them, or how to grow-up at the “right pace”? And beyond the odd conglomeration of indulgence and strictness or conflicting messages and images, adolescents change biologically, physiologically, and psychologically as well. Just thinking about it is exhausting. But beyond a sort of rant-y revisit to the pitfalls of growing up, my recent work has solidified for me the importance of sites like festivals. Whether you think I’m on to something calling festivals one of them, I think we can agree that teens need spaces to learn about themselves–with limited authority, plenty of free time, and a lot of other people just like them.

Because at the heart of it, the term teen means nothing more than people of a certain age. They are as varied in experience, creed, outlook, interest, and so much more as people of any other group. Sure they are developing, but teenagers just young adults. There is no threshold after which you “grow up”, there is no unique formula for successful transitioning, there is no badge or secret wisdom passed on that suddenly makes it all clear.

So I say give your teens (or yourself, if you are one) that space. Send them to summer camp, or let them get a job, or go on a road trip, or attend a conference. Let them choose what to involve themselves in, and what to spend their money on, and who to associate themselves with. If their taste in music hurts your ears, or fashion today looks silly, remember how your parents felt about your popular culture. We all get to experience it, as universal and unique as it is, and I just think it is so important to remember that.

If this post made you as nostalgic as it made me, go listen to some throwbacks or look through your yearbook or think about being misunderstood for old times sake.

Ahhhh to be young and bubbling over with excitement...

Ahhhh to be young and bubbling over with excitement…

Thanks for reading!

Learn more about my project.

Going Out in the Field…Literally

Hi again!

I come to you fresh(ly showered, finally) from my first true music festival adventure of this summer (Dover, Delaware’s Firefly Music Festival), and what an adventure it was! Through plenty of mud, sweat, and a few (happy) tears, I’d mark this weekend as a success.

We tried to pack light...but things were still a little stuffed in the back seat!

We tried to pack light…but things were still a little stuffed in the back seat!

We began the weekend with a car packed full of supplies. So many supplies, in fact, that after a 6 hour drive to the thoroughly rain-soaked camp ground we got stuck in the mud…twice. Despite this, and a second rainstorm which cancelled Saturday night’s headliners, Kings of Leon, and gave way to impromptu mud wrestling in our campground, the weekend was hot, sweaty, and sunny, a left me with many-an-awkward tan-line.

The heat didn’t deter many from taking full advantage of the festival’s 5+ stages, bouncing from show to show with seemingly boundless energy. Luckily for us, the festival did have a few air-conditioned brewery tents, and some shady umbrella stations dispersed throughout the grounds, as well as one pavilion stage. It was at this stage that my parents (yes, parents!) took refuge, listening to DJ after DJ, and only venturing to other stages for a few favorites like Paul McCartney (of Beatles’ mega-fame) and Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion, as he is rumored to prefer). In addition to broadening their musical horizons, riding behind the scenes on golf carts (my Dad received ADA access, so they got rides to platforms at each stage set aside for people with disabilities), and making friends with the some of the staff, they spent the festival making mental notes about what to buy to make a festival trip an annual occurrence!

My parents were all smiles for a lot of the festival, and definitely are looking forward to future ones. Who'd've thought!

My parents were all smiles for a lot of the festival, and definitely are looking forward to future ones. Who’d’ve thought!

As you know my research has been focused on young adults using festivals as a site for the formation of personal identity. While I took plenty of notes on this topic throughout the weekend, I also noticed a distinct and fairly sizable 30-and-older population enjoying the festival as well. Potentially the result of Paul McCartney’s appearance as Friday’s headliner, this trend has nevertheless caused me to consider the appeal of such events to an older audience, and in what ways festivals play a similar role in their lives. It’s a wide open question for now, but certainly something I’d like to keep in mind as I do more reading this summer.

Though there were a fair share of low moments, which reminded me that this festival is young and as such hasn’t quite worked out all of the kinks, Firefly was an amazing experience. Highlights for me include a beautiful acoustic set from old favorite, Andrew McMahon in the intimate “Coffehouse Stage” setting, a sweaty closing night set by the Killers, which had everyone shouting along with glowsticks flying through the air, and seeing newer favorites Hozier and Borns live.

Though there were plenty of remarkable moments, Paul McCartney’s show of course has to be at the top of the list, with an amazing 2 and a half hour extravaganza. Everyone, performers and fans alike were amazed to be at a festival featuring Paul McCartney, with many wishing him a happy birthday and commenting on his set throughout the weekend. My friend and festival partner Emily had camped out all day to get the center of the first row for Sir Paul, and my mom and I were broadcast (to about 80,000 people!) on the giant screens showcasing the crowd during an over five-minute-long rendition of Hey Jude, the chorus of which carried all the way back to our campsite, where my dad could hear it! Definitely a concert for the books, and for it to come as part of a weekend full of great shows makes it that much sweeter.

Clearly my foray into the field left me with plenty to say, and plenty of memories. That’s why I’m leaving a link to this website, Music Festival Junkies, which I have used to find a thorough list of festivals all over the US and the world. I would strongly encourage you all to find a festival that appeals to you, no matter your age. I bet you won’t regret it!

I’ll be back soon with another update, but for now enjoy this slightly awkward photo of me with the giant festival entry sign! Thanks for reading!


Read more about my project.

Laying the Groundwork

A simple Google search for the word “festival” returns 1,160,000,000 results in under a second. Adding the words “American music” before hand still leave you with 112,000,000 webpage results. Clearly, my search to explore American music festivals needed a bit more definition. My research seeks to examine the setting of a music festival as a site for the formation of youth identity, considering both the festival boom of the 60s and that recurring today. But with endless lists of events, one-off concerts, reunion tours, food fairs, and local carnivals, it was time to narrow my focus.

And so for the past week, I’ve aimed to define the sort of event I’ll be examining. I’ve spent time parsing through the larger history of festivals and festival-like activities in the United States, eliminating some criteria, like a cultural focus or the inclusion or religious elements, while keeping others, like the communal camping ground, or music genre diversity. The current difficult part is simplifying the list into something concise and workable.

The second task I have undertaken this week has been, frankly, much more fun: looking for festivals to attend and do some hands on fieldwork. In doing so I’ve reflected on my festival experiences thus far, looking back to remember any trends or interesting things I noticed when attending the first time. Following that I’ve made a list which, if all goes well, should result in me attending around 5 festivals over the course of the summer, which is really exciting. The first of these, though it doesn’t quite fit the definition I am moving toward, is happening right here in Pittsburgh for the next week.

The Three Rivers Arts Festival, is a ten-day arts fair, which includes performing arts and showcases the Pittsburgh Cultural District in Downtown. As a native “yinzer”, I’ve been going to the festival for years, and took this year as an opportunity to volunteer and learn more. Though the event doesn’t involve some of the elements I want to examine in my paper, it does offer me a great opportunity to observe and also have some fun. The vendors are all hugely talented, and it’s a really fun atmosphere with families and dogs everywhere. If you are in the Pittsburgh area, take a look at the TRAF website to learn more, and keep an eye out for yours truly!

My friends and I at last year's festival, posing down at the Point. You may not be able to see our faces, but check out that view!

My friends and I at last year’s festival, posing down at the Point. You may not be able to see our faces, but check out that view!

All in all, the past week has been very exciting with things getting underway, and finding my footing has been pretty fascinating. I can’t wait to see how the rest of the summer goes, and hope you’ll enjoy the ride with me!

Picking the Venue

I am beyond excited to get started researching the American music festival. As a person who thoroughly enjoys outdoor concerts (no matter the music), the idea of a festival study immediately enticed me.

Whilst at my most recent festival experience, Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, I found myself doing a lot of people-watching. It was truly fascinating the way that patrons followed an unspoken code of conduct, in the form of widespread motto, “Radiate Positivity.”

From there I got to thinking about the reasons people go to festivals, along with the reasons I can deal with the smelly people, mud, and heat, while some other true music fans I know cannot. No matter what people try to say, it’s not just about the music. The only answer I could think of was about how the atmosphere plays a part.

Geneva Jackson 1-1

The view from inside our information tent at sunset on opening night, Bonnaroo 2015, Manchester, TN

The idea kept building as I processed the weeklong experience, compounded by a trip abroad in Spain, giving me the opportunity to listen to entirely different outdoor music. From street performers, to church festival music, to a flamenco show, the live music experiences I found while traveling in Spain differed dramatically from that in the U.S., so I didn’t connect the two until a peer of mine while abroad took an impromptu trip. She decided, completely last minute, to show up to a Spanish music festival in Granada with some local artisans she had met. Hearing her recap her trip, reveling in the experience despite distinctly not being the “festival type”, only served to confirm my thoughts that something about the atmosphere and collective act of watching a show is significant.

Geneva Jackson 1-2

Street performers in El Parque de Retiro also at sunset, Madrid, Spain 2015

What to do with this information, or how to pursue it further, didn’t dawn on me for a while after returning home. In a very odd realization one night late last August, I realized that maybe the thesis topic I was already trying to come up with which synthesized my unconventional course of study at CMU, and the pet theory about group identity and music festivals I had been harboring could be one in the same project! And so the ‘venue’ appeared: I could explore festival culture, at once expounding upon my interest in the general culture of the 1960s and 70s, as applying that study to the modern day. I could combine my interests in music, group dynamics, and outdoor lifestyles with my experiences putting on shows, and cultural studies. I got to learn about the music industry as I prepare to hopefully enter it, while still using my talents as a writer and historian. This research endeavor is truly the culmination of my high school and college interests, coming together in a way I never would have predicted. I feel so lucky to have you along for the ride!

Learn more about me and my project.