We Attended a Music Festival with a Bunch of Fearless Teens
“My dad has no idea where I am right now.”
All photos by Jennica Abrams
“How well do you know my mom?” the teen asks me.
“We’re doing candy flips.”
Confession: I have, or had, no idea what candy flipping is. And I certainly wasn’t about to risk the embarrassment of having to ask. I’m hoping it’s slang for something innocuous, like, say, Snapchat Truth or Dare (Is that a thing? God, I'm old.), but I know it’s probably drugs, which discrete Googling on my phone soon confirms.
“I’m gonna pretend you didn’t just tell me that.”
I’m covering FYF and have somehow ended up as the adult point person for no fewer than three groups of teens at the request of various parents I know. Which, after this article, I’m sure will be the last time an adult ever trusts me with their children. It’s a role I’m happy to play, but it quickly has me wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.
“Wait, so you’re here for work?” a 17-year-olds asks as we walk to get a spot for Shlohmo, a set they will later describe as “life-changing,” though I have a feeling that had little to do with the music.
“You’re getting paid,” the other pauses, "to be here?” I can almost see the light bulbs appear over their heads. And so, much to the inevitable dismay of their parents, a new generation of music journalists is born.
My own well-worn experience with festivals is in part why I’ve been asked to help keep an eye on the kids. This is my seventh time at FYF. It all blurs together after awhile, so it’s hard to resist the temptation of experiencing it through the younger eyes of first-timers—ones whose excitement for seeing their favorite artists has yet to be tempered by the realities of long lines, casual racism, overpriced everything, and work in the morning.
“Dude, we’ve been talking about going since the lineup came out,” one says.
“I remember that day,” another chimes in, wistfully. “I was in the middle of math class.”
If festivals are adult Disneylands, for teens they’re oases of freedom and that all-important rite of self-expression. Crop tops, piercings and the full spectrum of Manic Panic hair dyes are on display. Body glitter is back in a big way. Still, it all somehow feels more evolved than the clumsy, self-conscious rebellion most associate with high school: the girls proudly sport unshaven armpits; their bedazzled eyelids match their FKA twigs-inspired septum rings. They’re devoted to punk but have already discovered dance music; they love Death Grips and DJ Harvey. It’s still DIY, but learned through YouTube rather than a cool older sibling or trial-and-error.
“A lot of it is getting to feel more in charge of yourself and independent, but still being somewhere you know that you'll be OK,” one says of fests' rising appeal with teens. “We have the freedom to be by ourselves and make our own decisions, but I’m never worried that I’ll get hurt or lost or anything at FYF, or any festival, because there are so many people there willing to help if you need help.”
While that may not always be the reality (see: the dozens of kids who've overdosed at festivals at the hands of neglectful peers or adults) there's still something to be said for that taste of escape. Their parents trust them enough—or are clueless enough—for them to get here, and the kids are smart enough to know how to make the most of their folks’ absence. And with this being the last weekend of summer before school starts, why shouldn’t they?
“My dad has no idea where I am right now,” a platinum-haired 16-year-old shouts shouts over Metz. “He doesn’t know anything, ever."
Monday morning is the first day of senior year.
“Yeah, we’re fucked!” a friend adds.
This particular bunch crossed state lines to get here, a mad dash on an hour-and-a-half of sleep that ended in them napping on Venice Beach. It’s the culmination of a summer of late nights and long drives spent in part following one of their top-draw FYF bands, Death Grips.
Their enthusiasm borders on evangelical. “This tour they’ve been doing, they come out and for 90 minutes all they do is fuckin’… they do not stop,” one explains.'
“I’ve seen them do the same set twice in a row and you could tell the second time they were getting a little tired, but they were still fuckin’ on it,” another adds.
“I don’t know how they’re gonna do it again. We’ve driven to three different states to see them. We just took my car and went. We didn’t even stay the night. We drove in the morning, went to the show, and then drove back and got home at 2 AM.”
Other top draws among the weekend’s teen posses: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Flume, FKA twigs, ALVVAYS, Belle and Sebastian, Health, Flying Lotus. These kids are definitely cooler than you. They don’t know who Bloc Party is.
“It’s with a ‘c’ no ‘k,’ right?” one says. “I might’ve heard a song. I don’t know.”
It’s hard not to feel jealous that this is their first FYF, and for many, their first music festival. This year’s edition was particularly well-run, an entirely pleasant experience that managed to eschew the dust, long lines and egregious set clashes of years past. Even the weather was on point.
I didn’t go to a music festival proper until I was in my twenties, in part because there just weren’t that many to go to. It’s easy to forget that ten years ago, when I was in high school, festivals had yet to metastasize into the billion-dollar ubiquity they enjoy today.
This was the era of proto-festivals like Warped Tour and commercial radio events like KROQ’s Inland Invasion (RIP). FYF was a single-day affair at the 350-person Echo, headlined by local upstarts who wouldn’t stand a chance of landing on the lineup today. There was Coachella, of course, but the closest my friends and I got was being forced to sell the tickets we’d secretly saved up for after our parents discovered it was the weekend before AP exams (And how did we think we were going to get there, anyway? Where were we gonna stay?, as my no-bullshit Hungarian immigrant mother astutely pointed out, because she sure as hell wasn’t gonna let us borrow the car.).
If the weekend means a taste of independence, the mystique of adulthood is still there. One teen keeps texting to meet near the “21 and over area,” a.k.a. the beer garden in adultspeak. Others want to know if my friends and I smoke pot. It feels cozy. It feels safe, even if that'll never be completely true. They’re barely on their phones, to the point where I’m self-conscious using mine.
As the weekend goes on, I’m struck by their camaraderie—friend groups merge, old friends are bumped into, new friends are acquired at sets. Gone are the days of loitering at Hot Topic or sneaking into sketchy house parties in hopes of meeting kindred spirits. For those who can afford it, these are greener, parent-free pastures where they can operate comfortably within the bubble of their own social ecosystem.
“Every LA teenager is here,” one first-time festival-goer says. “It’s so weird. It’s like they all just migrated.”
Which reminds me: Where did the candy flippers go?
You had one job, Andrea...
After several very long minutes, I find them gawking at some rainbow-lit fig trees nearby.
I ask if we can catch a few minutes of Run The Jewels before Shlohmo, and while they’re not familiar, they oblige. I immediately feel bad. “We can leave after this song, it’s cool,” I offer. Instead, one of them grabs my wrist and leads a full charge to the front of the crowd. “Nah, we’re doing this!” she says. We squeeze and snake our way through the crush, the kind of crowd etiquette faux-pas I’ve been a victim to enough times that it now sends me into a full get-off-my-lawn rage. I want to apologize to all the people we’re shoving past, but instead I find myself giggling, and then, as we near the pit, just no longer giving a damn as we mosh and throw elbows to “Blockbuster Night Pt. 1.” We whoop and pogo and laugh. People hate us. We leave a few songs later, sweaty and grinning, so the girls can finally go catch Shlohmo.
Damn, I needed that, I think to myself. Where were they when I was in high school?
While the end of the weekend meant back to the office for most of us, for these teens it was back to school. They’ve arguably got the bigger reason to be grumpy, but their enthusiasm stands as a reminder of the unblemished bliss of a good festival.
“We both didn't even realize how much fun we were having there until we got back home,” one of them texts later. “I'm dead set on going back next year, almost regardless of the lineup. I fucking LOVED the sets I saw there, but it’s more than just the music. It's being there with everyone and feeling like you're a part of something bigger."
Andrea Domanick is a terrible chaperone. Follow her on Twitter.