“Duran Duran” and the Ordinary World
This weekend the Austin City Limits television show aired the Duran Duran episode that was taped on October 5th of last year, making it a great time to take a look back at the 2021 ACL festival. You can stream the episode on PBS.
The protest movements and ensuing social changes of the 1960s are permanently associated with that era’s music. Think of Bob Dylan telling us, “The Times They Are A- Changin” or Barry McGuire telling us we’re on the “Eve of Destruction.”
Half a century later we’re in a world with different problems. Women’s rights are threatened, the Covid pandemic rages and climate change is disrupting our daily lives with extreme weather.
In an echo of 60s activism, the first weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival had multiple musicians fighting for women’s rights. Alas they were doing it at a festival stuck in an outmoded model of the festival world, a fun version of festival life that wasn’t that concerned about the dangers of the Coronavirus and impending climate change.
The 2021 ACL Festival took place in Austin, Texas over the two weekends of October 1-3 and 8-10, and drew people from around the country. While it might seem silly to focus so much on a festival that many just see as a bit of fun, festivals offer a way of looking deeply into the culture, much the way an X-ray looks into a person.
Extreme weather before the first weekend of ACL delayed the opening gates, so my first taste of the event’s activism was at the first weekend’s Friday afternoon set by Finneas, brother and collaborator of ACL headliner Billie Eilish.
A hot topic at the first weekend of the festival was the new Texas abortion law known as Texas Senate Bill 8 (SB 8) which limits abortions in the state to around the first six weeks of pregnancy.
On that first day of this year’s ACL Festival, Finneas flashed a “bans off our bodies” logo on the video monitor, then told the audience he’d be donating his ACL paycheck to Planned Parenthood.
The next day, Finneas’s sister Billie Eilish flashed the same logo during her Saturday night set on the first weekend, telling the crowd that she had almost cancelled her Texas show because of the ban.
Between the two festival weekends Eilish’s popular Instagram account featured a photo of her at the festival with the “bans off our bodies” graphic.
According to Caren Spruch, director of Arts and Entertainment Outreach for Planned Parenthood, Billie and Finneas had requested the “bans off our bodies” art to use in their ACL sets. The graphic is part of a nationwide pro -choice campaign from Planned Parenthood.
The first Sunday of ACL 2021 featured filibustering former Texas State Senator and one-time Texas Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis on the “Bonus Tracks” stage with musician Kathy Valentine. Unlike her Go-Go’s hit song “Our Lips Are Sealed,” Valentine had much to say about SB 8. Valentine discussed abortions she had at 12 and 14 after being taken advantage of by family and then raped by a college-aged boy. Valentine then played a SB 8 protest song styled after 50s Lesley Gore classic “You Don’t Own Me.”
Spruch said that during the first weekend of ACL, 11 artists used logos or gear from the “bans off our bodies” campaign from Planned Parenthood. Nearly half those artists were men.
How did the ACL crowd feel about the issue? During the first weekend, the festival shop quickly sold out of their 70s groovy “Pro Roe 1973” shirts.
“If they can sell out of those shirts by the 2nd day, how do they expect us to support SB 8?” said Austin resident Kristine Kovach, 55.
Between the festival’s two weekends U.S District Judge Robert Pitman temporarily blocked enforcement of SB 8, following an emergency request from the Justice Department. While medical providers were scrambling to resume abortion services, that ruling was quickly overturned by the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals during the second weekend of the festival.
Phoebe Bridgers, whom you might remember for smashing a guitar on Saturday Night Live earlier this year, had her sound cut during a popular song at the end of her set at the second weekend of the festival. ACL quickly apologized and tried to make it up to her by making a donation for abortion access in her honor.
While musicians are leading the fight for women’s reproductive rights in the festival space, the rest of the ACL music festival is stuck in a version of the “before times” — a mindset from before the Coronavirus pandemic upended our lives and pressing climate change created so many disruptive weather events.
This year’s ACL festival required proof of vaccine or a negative covid test for festival entrance, but that seemed the extent of Covid precautions, at least during the first weekend.
On the first Sunday afternoon of the first weekend of the festival, two women in pink ACL shirts were distributing facemasks at the main festival entrance…while nearby staff searching guest’s bags were wearing their masks under their chins.
That first weekend, more facemasks littered the ACL grounds than covered faces. Plain black and white signs reading “No chair zone, masks required” were ignored during the first weekend. Those signs didn’t stand a chance amid the dazzle, hustle and flim-flam of the festival. The only place I saw facemasks being handed out inside the festival: right outside the store selling the festival’s own branded merchandise.
In addition to not doing enough to make me feel safe about the precautions taken against Covid at the festival, ACL also needs to make changes to the festival to address this new climate reality.
NASA explains the causes of climate change via the greenhouse effect:
Scientists attribute the global warming trend observed since the mid-20th century to the human expansion of the “greenhouse effect”1 — warming that results when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth toward space.
While ACL brags that they’ve shifted 41 million-plus dollars to the Austin Parks Foundation, they’ve really done little for the environment. That’s a problem, because climate change not only delayed their opening gates this year, but it impacted many people visiting Austin for the festival. Massive disruptions to the Southwest Airlines flight schedule on the final weekend of the festival —which the airline partly blamed on weather– resulted in a cancellation of over half the flights the airline had scheduled out of Austin that Sunday. This meant that multiple ACL visitors got stuck in Austin or in long lines at the airport following the festival.
ACL may be a lot of things, but it isn’t a sustainability leader, unlike the UK’s prominent Glastonbury Festival and California’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
ACL’s “Rock and Recycle” program where you can earn a “free” t-shirt in exchange for bagging beverage cans during the event might have been progressive….once.
ACL has BYOB (bring your own bottle) hydration stations, but lines for the environmentally sound option are usually much, much longer than at the multiple festival bars. One ACL partner is “Liquid Death” Mountain Water, which tastes exactly like liquid death to the planet as the canned water is moved many miles.
In stark contrast is Glastonbury’s “Refill Not Landfill”:
“In a concerted effort to make Glastonbury Festival more sustainable and to help Festival-goers consider their use of single use plastics, drinks water bottles will not be available at Glastonbury Festival 2019….Water bottles can be refilled for free at every water tap and at the many WaterAid kiosks throughout the festival site.…. Refilling a reusable water bottle makes a huge difference in the volume of plastic bottle waste.”https://www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk/information/green-glastonbury/refill-not-landfill/
As of 2019, Glastonbury had a reusable £5 metal pint beer glass that can be refilled at the festival, then either taken home or returned to get your fiver back.
Coachella, presented by Golden Voice (under the Anschutz Entertainment Group, a division of the privately held Anschutz Corporation) also has Coachella at least talking about supporting environmental sustainability.
They have a sustainability pledge on their website, a “Carpoolchella” reward program to encourage carpooling to the festival and they encourage guests to shop their own closets for festival looks.
Car maker Honda is a major ACL partner. Their ACL booth displayed three vehicles, but only one hybrid. Given the Texas power grid’s spectacular failure in February 2021, Honda missed a fabulous opportunity to showcase their sweet emergency generators. Climate change means those are products Texans will certainly be needing again, unless major improvements are made to the power grid.
Given the big money involved–with three-day general admission wristbands starting around $300 for the 2021 festival, VIP tickets at $1300 per weekend and Platinum tickets at $3800 per ticket, per person per weekend–ACL can afford to do more for the earth. The ACL festival is a C3 Presents event, of which a 51% stake is held by Live Nation, a publicly traded company whose stock hovers around $100. Revenue per employee is around $225,000. They can afford some Glasto style metal pint glasses and a few solar power arrays.
During both their Sunday night headlining show and their between-weekends ACL television show taping, Duran Duran lead singer Simon Le Bon talked about the changes to the meaning of their 90s hit song “Ordinary World.”
Le Bon said following the loss and devastation from Covid, the song is now about people finding their way back to an ordinary world.
At the television show taping, Le Bon, the lead vocalist and lyricist for the group appeared to get nearly as verklempt as me at the song.
But I won’t cry for yesterday
There’s an ordinary world
Somehow I have to find
And as I try to make my way
To the ordinary world
I will learn to survive
We’re all going to have to find a way back to an “Ordinary World,” though it’s probable that in the future our ordinary world–both at festivals and in the world at large–will be different from the one we all knew before the Coronavirus pandemic and pressing climate change have forced huge changes on us.
While musicians are leading us forward with their activism, we all must insist on big changes at events like ACL to ensure that we all find a way to survive on our planet.