In a fractured world, the Glastonbury Festival is an indispensable sanctuary

I first learned that the United States Supreme Court had overturned Roe vs. Wade, the decision guaranteeing abortion rights, when Phoebe Bridgers said she had had a “shitty day.” Addressing the John Peel stage at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, the California indie guitarist asked the crowd, who spilled out of the sides of the tent and into the surrounding field, to say “f*** the Supreme Court”. We shouted. She was fed up with “those dull old motherfuckers telling us what to do with our bodies.”

Bridgers’ mid-series interlude was remarkable. His performance, which clearly stood out on a weekend of transcendental music, marked the first time many UK listeners had heard live the touching songs from his career-defining second album, Punisher, which came out in the summer of 2020. Her statement was particularly poignant because in May, with admirable candor, Bridgers shared on social media that she had an abortion while on tour last year. The ability to access safe and legal abortions is something, she said, that “everyone deserves.”

Such swear-laden political calls have this year filled Glastonbury, which, after a two-year absence due to the Covid-19 pandemic, celebrated its 50th anniversary late last weekend at Worthy Farm, Somerset. Young American women were unquestionably the loudest. During her visceral set, Billie Eilish, who at 20 was the youngest artist to ever headline the Pyramid Stage, described Friday June 24 as “a really dark day for women in the United States”. . On the other stage on Saturday afternoon, former Disney star turned pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo defiantly addressed the five judges who voted to knock Roe vs Wade by name, telling them, “We hate you .” She then invited British pop singer Lily Allen on stage and together they sang a song dedicated to the Supreme Court. It was Allen’s 2009 hit “F*** You” that encouraged the vast public to raise their middle fingers. The following afternoon on the Park Stage, alt-pop artist Caroline Polachek urged her British audience not to view news from her home country as something happening elsewhere: we too must protect our access to the health services with all our might; we never know when they might be removed.

[See also: Macca and the Stones? The past has a death grip on our culture]

For the idealists among us, a festival is a sanctuary. Stepping through the doors, you escape the hardships of real life and plunge into an ephemeral world where music reigns, where everything is covered in glitter and – depending on the weather – mud or dried grass, and where the shower does not doesn’t matter. Festivals are easily idealized but, as Crowded House’s Neil Finn said on Friday afternoon, these events show how humans could better live together in communal spaces. They are in many ways experiments for new ways of living. In an increasingly fractured world, even brushing your teeth next to a stranger can feel oddly liberating.

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Although the 210,000 festival-goers descended on Glastonbury to lose themselves in a weekend of hedonism, the political unrest from the outside world continued to seep in. Some things couldn’t be left at the door – and neither should they be. One of Glastonbury’s many admirable traits is its long history of merging the political with the cultural. The most important organizations around the site were not lager brands but Greenpeace, WaterAid and the CND. It seemed natural for Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to deliver a typically astute speech about the intersection of political ineptitude and environmental disaster before the shiny-haired Haim sisters took to the same stage for an hour of pop-rock deliciously feverish.

It wasn’t Pete Doherty’s Libertines who really opened the festival but Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, who appeared via video link before the rock band’s opening set. “Glastonbury is the great concentrate of freedom these days, and I ask you to share that sentiment with all those whose freedom is under threat,” he said, beginning a weekend where support for the Ukrainian people – well that less urgent than the cries against the Supreme Court of the United States – was omnipresent. He even reached the Hare Krishna tent, where spiritual leaders shared free food and invited everyone to join them in chanting and appeals for international peace. Paul McCartney – at 80, balancing Eilish’s youth as the festival’s longest-serving headliner – waved a Ukrainian flag during his encore on Saturday night after a set full of sing-along Beatles tunes. In the early hours of the previous morning, Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra, fresh from their Eurovision win, played a boisterous set on the Truth Stage, their first in the UK. The band – wooing the crowd by playing their winning track “Stefania” twice – brought an unparalleled energy with their hip-hop/folk mix; Oleh Psiuk, their pink hat singer, was excited to share Ukrainian culture with new audiences.

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Even more serious were the panels held in the Left Field arena, hosted by activist and songwriter Billy Bragg. On Saturday morning, weary festival-goers crowded into the shaded tent to hear Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester and a likely future candidate for Labor leader. Speaking at a panel on the crisis of politics, Burnham passionately called for a “complete rewiring of this country”, which he said should include a proportional representation voting system for the House of Commons and the abolition of the House of Lords. More promises from the Labor left came in the form of Zarah Sultana, the MP for Coventry South, who spoke at a panel on the cost of living crisis, a phrase she said “is a euphemism for class warfare. Audiably frustrated, she expressed her disappointment at Keir Starmer’s lack of support for striking railway workers. The assembled Glastonbury crowd – thousands of whom had rerouted their journey to the festival due to the strike, backpacks and tents in tow – roared in agreement. Why didn’t the Labor Party as a whole support this action, Sultana asked. “It’s in the fucking name – it’s supposed to be the workers’ party.”

Of course, the real appeal of Glastonbury is the euphoria that only live music can bring. It was evident from Thursday night, when psychedelic-folk fusion band Kangaroo Moon enthused their audience in the Green Futures field in a spontaneous ceilidh, through the weekend and into Sunday, when the staggering mastery of American rapper Kendrick Lamar’s scene and his demanding Narrative Force closed the pyramid scene with aplomb.

I felt it the most during South Londoner Kae Tempest’s sublime Friday afternoon set. The artist, who is also a poet, playwright and novelist, came out non-binary in 2020, changing her name from Kate to Kae. Performing their unique brand of spoken electronica, Tempest had never sounded so serene on stage. Several spectators cried: we were looking at the music as liberation in action. “I feel so free,” Tempest said, beaming.

[See also: Will Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” usher in a new era of dance music?]

This article originally appeared in the June 29, 2022 issue of The New Statesman, American darkness

Jan G. Gilbert