Each year since 1982, Paris hosts an all night musical party on June 21st. This is usually the same night as the summer solstice, and thus, the longest night of the year. The hugely successful event has now been copied in cities and countries across the globe, including Cambridge, MA, Tel-Aviv, and Venezuela. In Paris, amateur musicians are scattered around the city and perform short, free concerts en plein air. The homophone “faites” (for fetes), announces that Paris must make music.
In addition, organizers book globally recognized and locally celebrated musicians to perform on several big stages erected in public places across the city. These are all free and open to the public, and the performance on the main stage is broadcast live on television. There’s much more information on this year’s event at the official web site here.
The effect is to essentially transform the city into a pedestrian zone (at least deep in the Marais, where my hotel was located), where wine bottles are cracked open at the neck and passed among strangers, where the sounds of tuba groups, electronica DJs and all gay men’s choruses float and mingle, chase you down the street and around corners, appear and disappear seemingly at random. It is hot. And it is bright daylight at 8 pm. And it is loud. But it was blissful.
Over the last three years, I’ve been conducting an in-depth study of Nashville’s CMA Festival (formerly FanFest) which is the largest, longest-running country music festival in the world. It regularly generates six figure attendance figures, despite the high ticket prices, the heat, and the heat. (As an aside: I was presenting some results of the study at Penn and was told that I mentioned the heat too often. The suggestion was that I wasn’t toughening up. I challenge that person and anyone who feels similarly to stand outside, in June, during the festival, and conduct interviews and collect photographic and ethnographic information for six hours a day, five days in a row, for two years.)
While Nashville’s CMA Festival (formerly FanFest) rivals Fete de la Musique in its domination of the city center, its iconic place in the cultural schedule of the city, and perhaps also its attendance figures, they are different in other ways.
Most obviously, Fete combines innumerable genres…probably genres that haven’t been, or never will be, invented. I actually heard a capella hymns sung in Latin and French Marxist songs sung on the same corner, within hours of each other. That is a second difference: Fete gives one the impression that they are on a boat in a big ocean of sound. I can’t imagine that anyone actually navigates around the city using the schedule posted on the event’s web site. I certainly never saw anyone holding one. You just bump into stuff. And while CMA organizers have “surprise performers”, they are listed on the program just like that (“surprise performer at evening concert) and festival-goers spend much of their conversation time trying to suss out in advance who the surprise will be, rendering it unsurprising when the Dixie Chicks, or Clint Black, or whomever, shows up that night to perform. Also, while both festivals appear to attract all ages, CMA is more obviously a family affair. I often saw bedraggled, hot teenagers dressed up goth, or rocker, or emo, boot scootin’ along with mom and pops, trying desperately to preserve their cool. At Fete I saw no families together other than those with very young children. Tweens and teens roamed in big packs, looking surprisingly like Avril Lavigne (I misunderstood her to be both passe and not-very-chic), talking like teenagers, and smoking.
What these differences sum to is this: both festivals animate notions of cultural community, but radically different communities. In both cases, cities and their social groups use the festival as both a way to reflect and maintain cultural vitality and identity. In both cases, the objective is to demonstrate the balance of tradition and innovation that organizers and citizens feel defines their world. But while the Paris festival leaves the impression that culture oozes from the cobblestones, that it adheres in anyone and everyone, CMA feels like Six Flags, or any other amusement zone where parents and kids set “meeting up times” and use walkie talkies, and spend time over breakfast figuring out what activities they will attend, hour by hour, in advance. If Fete is like a sailboat
on an ocean of sound, CMA is like a being a conscript on a German submarine.
It also should be said that the CMA is an industry festival, and like any convention, the focus is on improving current sales and projecting and increasing future sales. Performances thus function to reflect popular tastes (with some concessions to the traditions that animate the genre), and as demos for new acts. Label executives operate like A&R departments, fanning out across the event spaces, watching crowd reaction to new bands and new music. Until recently, festival booking was done by the labels themselves who were given “showcases” to schedule as they wished, from artists on the label. The festival is merch heavy, meaning that almost every free space downtown is devoted to selling disposable trinkets, usually those which attendees can adorn with artists’ signatures. Getting signatures, and showing them off, is a main objective for fans at the festival, and so the miniature guitars and straw cowboy hats and even access tickets are mostly valued as empty spaces to fill with signatures.
So, CMA is so hyper-rationalized, so choreographed, and so materially manifest that one gets the impression of yes, of Six Flags. Or Disney Land. Or a Chamber of Commerce promotional video brought to life. But in Paris, the radical disregard of commercial businesses–none of which appeared to be open (save cafes, of course)–made it feel like a city filled with people, and people who made and loved music.