Turns out that if you're a 31 year-old man walking around Splendour by yourself wearing a hoodie and a bum bag, lots of people are going to assume you're a dealer. It’s a new feeling for me. I’m not used to being profiled. But the security team had me picked as soon as I approached. I saw them skim through the bags ahead of me, take one look at my outfit, then decide 'This is it, this is the guy.’ A Jonah Lomu-sized security guard gently ushered me to the side of the queue and proceeded to remove each item from my bag for inspection. My Eclipse tin was opened and shaken about to check for secrets in the chewy mints, the canister in my asthma inhaler was dislodged, and my tiny torch was unscrewed (at both ends) so the batteries could be removed and the cylinder could be analysed. When he didn't find anything illicit, he moved me along but not before giving me a conspiratorial little wink.
At this point I had to hold in the giggles, because the wink said we were both in on the joke: that using this security method to confiscate drugs was like erecting a barbed wire fence to hold back a flood. The joke got funnier when the wink on this amiable giant's face began sliding from his eye socket down his cheek, almost to his chin. Which made him look a bit like he’d done a winning try through a Picasso into a wet puddle of glue. He looked like this because I’d ingested some strong, clean acid, which I’d smuggled all the way from miserable old Melbourne to sunny Byron Bay.
If security found my drugs I could’ve gotten in bad trouble. But I did it anyway, because I love drugs. I love them so much that I know I could never be a drug dealer. Things would spiral, and not in a funny way. I've lost friends to addiction and mental health problems in recent years. Members of my family have struggled with addiction. I know drugs aren’t just a bit of harmless fun. But I still love them. And I must really give off that drug-loving, drug-pushing energy because when Kendrick’s set ended and the staggering swarm filtered out of the amphitheatre, this one kid with a shaved head––he must have been 18 or 19––weaved his way right up to my face, grabbed me by both shoulders and whispered: "Oi, do you have any drugs that'll get me fucked up?"
I was so tired (and out of drugs) at that point that all I could do was apologise and say, "I wish I could help you man, but I’ve got nothing." And, in that moment, I did wish I could’ve helped him. I was leaving for the shuttle bus soon. I didn’t want to be high anymore. So if I had small amount of really strong, really pure drugs, maybe I would have handed them over. Because I knew he would probably take them back to camp, and (if he wasn’t an asshole) he’d share them with his friends. And once he and his friends were high they’d chat, and laugh and talk over each other and get desperate to play their favourite songs on a portable speaker system. If his crush was sitting on the fold-up camping chair next to him, maybe he’d work up enough synthetic courage to actually talk to them. Maybe he and his friends would test the boundaries of their attraction and make some genuine connections. Maybe they’d solidify friendships that would last them all the way into their 30s.
I’m sure this could’ve happened because that’s what happened to me back in 2006, when I last visited Splendour. This isn’t to say you need drugs to make genuine connections. In my experience, the synthetic courage (and wit and dancing ability) that’s powered by drugs mostly leads to synthetic connections that don’t last long. Or, worse, the connections do last but the relationships they facilitate end up being sneaky and abusive. Because drugs are a shortcut to pleasure. Good relationships and lasting pleasure don’t benefit from shortcuts. They take work. So if you’re confident and well adjusted enough to make connections without drugs or alcohol, good for you. I’m sure you’ll lead a long and happy life, but the truth is, lots of people aren’t well adjusted. Lots of people need a shortcut.
Judging by the wild expression on that shaved-headed kid’s face, he needed a shortcut. So he wasn’t going to stop at just asking me (a random older guy in a hoodie) for something to “get him fucked up”. He was going to just keep asking people until he found something. Which, fine, I love drugs too. But I love them enough to know asking randoms for drugs is foolish. You often end up with the bad (or potentially even super poisonous) drugs. Of course, an effective way to ensure you’ve bought the good drugs instead of the bad drugs is a pill testing kit. But I didn’t see any at Splendour and that’s a real shame. If you disagree with me, that’s fine. I won’t try to change your mind. The harm minimisation debate is complicated. But you know what’s not up for debate? The fact the human body has a physiological need for water. I did so many laps of the grounds over the course of the festival and I only counted one public water tank. For a place that’s supposed to give 30,000 people the best time of their youth.
So the high thirsty kids lining up to buy water after Kendrick bummed me out. I needed to escape this feeling and lie the fuck down. I stumbled back to my tent, rugged up, lay back and watched the canvas breathe with the wind. But, of course, I couldn’t sleep. These young men had spooked me. They were high as hell and enjoying Splendour. They were just like me in 2006. But I wanted nothing to do with them. Why was that?
It was stressful question. So I tried to work on my festival review to distract myself. At least then I wouldn’t be worried about my deadline. When you’re that high you have to start simple then extrapolate. I know the simplest way to discuss music is to assign everything a star rating. In a way, it’s a really beautiful method because it’s so precise and clean. Problem is, the rating system works best when you want to differentiate between items that are expected to be very similar to each other. It’s a flawed way to judge music because it’s too rigid a methodology. So I instead tried to think about Splendour in terms of hierarchies. Who is considered the best? And how did they get there? Is Kendrick the best rapper in the world, and why? That question is endlessly fascinating, but I didn’t know enough about rap to answer it. My neighbours were blasting toothless skip hop, so I knew they couldn’t help me. I was deeply alone.
It eventually occurred to me that while I may not fully grasp the rap game, it didn’t matter. Because the night before, I’d discovered the most powerful hierarchy at Splendour: the hierarchy of access. First, you have ‘Level One’ access, which is a ticket to the festival. That ticket gets you all the music plus all the beauty of the Byron Bay Parklands. I’m a proud Victorian, and I happen to believe The Grampians National Park, Wilson’s Prom, and Griffiths Island are the three most stunning parts of the country. But if we’re talking natural beauty per square kilometre, nothing compares to the area surrounding Splendour. If you’ve flown in to Coolangatta from the Melbourne winter you get off the plane and the air just changes. It’s got a slight subtropical thickness but in July, the humidity is tempered by a freshness that blows in from the coast. The sea sparkles like a turquoise jewel. The sand is so fine and just so comfortable. The sky, too, feels bigger. Travelling south down the Pacific highway, you can see how Mount Wollumbin juts and scoops the horizon with its craggy volcanic grandeur. Everywhere you look the grass is lusher and the leaves are a little brighter. And when you get to the festival site, the place is flanked by a dense growth of gum trees the size of buildings.
So ‘Level One’ gets you access to a festival set in a natural paradise. Plus it gets you live music. Plus it gets you stuff. I’d already been to Splendour once. I knew there’d be stuff. But it turns out I was unprepared for the amount of stuff they have there now. I’m serious. Anything you can think of is at this festival. But you can’t settle on one thought for too long because it’s instantly a replaced by a new idea. Want a slow-cooked pork or chicken? Sure. Want paella? Sorted. Want ‘urban’ pasta? Cool. Got a sweet tooth? Try some mini Dutch pancakes. Need a bank loan? Try the Visa stall. Makeup wonky? Head to the Maybelline tent. Are your cheek sparkles fading? There’s a tent for that too. Want to fling goo at performance artists living in a white-washed living room propped on stacks of shipping containers? No worries. Got a hankering for a felt hat of some kind? You can make your own at Kraft Mafia area. Wanna know why frogs croak? So do I, see you at the science tent tomorrow morning. Wanna live life as a ‘stay at home gypsy’? There’s a homewares tent for that. Are you sick of being a gypsy? The Mr. Simple tent is just around the corner, and they sell clothes made in more neutral tones. Are you over the sound of professional musicians and want to belt out a cover of “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls? I salute you, let’s head to the Kontiki karaoke area. Are the Goo Goo Dolls irritating you? That’s okay, let’s check out some art instead. Turns out the ‘The Cool Shit Collective’ have attached Snoop Dogg’s face to some giant inflatable hot dogs.
But all the stuff, all the music, all the nature, that’s just ‘Level One’. Luckily, I’d evolved past ‘Level One’. I had ‘Level Two’ access. I had a Golden Ticket, baby. And I was smug about it too. Because I earned my ‘Level Two’ access working in the music media. Which meant my opinion mattered. Only, the Gold Bar wasn’t too dissimilar from all the other bars. The queues were no shorter and the music was no more interesting. To me, it had none of the joie de vivre you’d expect from a VIP experience.
But that’s just ‘Level Two’. That’s for bottom rung VIPs. And it just so happens the moment I ended up having some serious fun at Splendour coincided with when I ran into an old friend from Brisbane with AAA access. That’s ‘ Level Three’, motherfucker. And the best thing about Level Three is it gets you entry to an area that’s situated behind the Gold Bar. That’s the AAA bar. And, knowing what I know about the Gold Bar, I was so curious. What’s AAA like? Is Lorde back there doing lines off Khalid’s diamond Rolex? Are the couches made from red leather? “Nah dude, it’s just another bar,” my friend informed me, “but have you heard of the [REDACTED]*?” I hadn’t. It was a super secret bar that opens when the main stage closes. I wanted to be above it, but I wasn’t. I had to know what it was like.
And as it turns out, my friend knew someone who knew someone who was willing to be convinced to give me (a lowly VICE writer with ‘Level Two’ access) a guest pass to the [REDACTED]. So Vampire Weekend ended (I was also deeply unprepared for how good they still are, by the way) and I was on a great buzz. I was extra excited because I was lining up for the [REDACTED]. To get to the [REDACTED] you line up behind this fence that’s [REDACTED] and you listen to people who aren’t actually allowed in the [REDACTED] try and convince the bouncers that you should be allowed in. When that fails, it’s your turn. And you feel special, because they’ve checked your pass and you have ‘Level Four’ access, [REDACTED] access. But the [REDACTED] isn’t just behind the fence. That wouldn’t be very secret. You have to walk. You trudge up hills and down hills and [REDACTED] until finally there it is! The [REDACTED].
You can see why they’ve called it the [REDACTED]. It’s decked out like an [REDACTED] made from corrugated iron where people might [REDACTED] on some old farm somewhere. But it’s cooler than that, because there’s a dilapidated [REDACTED] parked next to the [REDACTED]. The [REDACTED] has tables and chairs, so you can go into the bus and do some bad cocaine. On some level, you know what the drug war is doing to Central America, but at the end of the day, you just want to get high. And when the cocaine mixes with the LSD and the alcohol it makes you feel invincible. So you take that invincibility onto the dance floor. And this dance floor has actual joie de vivre.
These people have worked hard enough to evolve beyond standard AAA people into [REDACTED] people. So they’re letting off some serious steam on that dancefloor. The guy playing the records is dressed a bit like Colonel Sanders, and you think that maybe that was a bit distasteful because the KFC guy was a Confederate sympathiser of some sort, or something, which is bad enough, but particularly on the nose when, your headline act is so concerned about the race war that’s still raging in the US. But maybe that’s to be expected at a place that books the current king of Compton rap while trapping the previous king in inflatable hot dogs.
But, fuck it, you’re high as hell by this point, and this Colonel is forgiven because he’s spinning one your all time favourite songs: James Brown’s ‘Get Up Offa That Thing’. You don’t have to be a Gold-level VICE writer to know that none of the great music that happened at Splendour 2018 would be quite same if it wasn’t for the godfather of funk. You add drugs and dancing and friends to that kind of legendary music and your body just moves. It’s undeniable. It’s too joyous to describe.
But the thing about acid is it can send you into philosophical vortexes. I was dancing my little body into a frenzy when, all of a sudden, the joy just evaporated. Because I remembered a shitty, nagging detail about James Brown. He was an abuser. He beat up his family. How could James Brown do that? How could a man who brought such joy and love and connectedness to Earth beat the shit out of the people he’s supposed to love? Obviously I can’t answer that. I’m not James Brown. But more than that, I have no way of understanding the power of a black man’s anger that’s germinated in a segregated America. But, at the end of the day, this is a masculinity problem. It’s one of the few real issues that transcends class, race and sexual identity.
So what I can do is grapple with a uniquely Australian anger, frustration, and violence. The feelings you feel when you’re ‘one of the boys’. I went to an all boys private school, the kind of place the richest families in Victoria send their boys to be shaped into world leaders. I have an older brother who used to bully me. So, in a way, I’m perfectly placed to understand this specific breed of misogyny.
And, at Splendour, there was this one example of toxic behaviour that made terrifying sense to me. I was on my way back to camp on Day 2 when I saw a group of ‘the boys’ slouching near the gate. The joker of the pack was brandishing a flesh-coloured dildo and sticking it in women’s faces, using it like a microphone for a vox pop session. But he wasn’t asking these women something misogynistic, he wanted to be cleverer than that. So he was asking questions like: “What do you think of climate change?” and “What are your thoughts on animal cruelty?” It was, you know, a juxtaposition bro: using a penis-shaped object to ask something a ‘snowflake’ might ask.
His crew were losing their shit: cackling, and slapping each other on the back. So, the joker kept it up. The first young woman just laughed awkwardly and kept walking, but I saw her expression turn to stone as she kept walking. The second young woman used her opportunity with the mic to tell this guy to go fuck himself with it. But the challenge had no discernible effect. The guys just found her retort even funnier than the passive response. It was a classic Australian misogynist power play.
No one necessarily needed me to stand up for them in that moment. But I know braver people than me who’ve found the best way to deal with homophobic, sexist, transphobic and sexist jokes. They simply get the ‘jokers’ to explain their punchline until they realise they’re punching down. If they jokers aren’t too far gone they might even realise punching down is stupid and mean. Still, I just stood by and said nothing. Why?
I have my reasons. None of them are good enough. I just need to stop being so afraid and get on with it. But the incident got me thinking about why the toxic male pecking order can feel so indestructible to so-called ‘good men’ like myself. If you ask me, this power doesn’t always stem from a hateful place: a hatred of women. It comes from a love of men. Unless you’ve spent your formative years as ‘one of the boys’ you can’t understand the true power of this love. The special feeling you get from being in the crew. It’s driven by a loyalty and camaraderie that’s unlike anything else. It affects you to your core because it comes from socialising in such a rigidly defined hierarchy. When you’re ‘one of the boys’ you know your place. And knowing your place makes you feel safe and good and loved. You can give each other shit, but no one’s allowed to seriously challenge anyone else.
If you do destabilise the pecking order (or decide you seriously disagree with it), you’re out. No more love from ‘the boys’. No more safety. No more friendship. You’ll never text each other again and no one will ever discuss why. It’s brutal and it’s insular. But that’s what makes it effective. Nothing legitimises power like insularity, agreement and the fear of authority. Groups of men being subservient to authority is traditionally how wars have been fought, how companies have been run, and how sports have been played (or, at least, that’s what I was led to believe at my private boys school). And sport, money and war are the things ‘the boys’ cherish most. They fucking revere this stuff. Music tends to be just a fun decoration (which is why ‘the boys’ tend to have such horrible taste in music).
Which isn’t to say team sport and business success can’t be positive. Groups of men co-operating and figuring out how to do something difficult can create magic. I love festivals because I feel like they’re Aussie traditions that have potential to disrupt toxic male hierarchies.
Look at band like Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. I know some of those guys. Their Splendour set was very Australian and it was very masculine. But it was also magic. To me their songs capture all the adventure, poetry and freedom that we like to believe can be ours if we’re lucky enough to grow up into Australian men. And you know how they got so good at writing songs? They don’t bully each other when they jam. They play until they find a bit they all agree sounds amazing. Then they move on. Yes, some bands work better as benevolent dictatorships, but they never seem to last as long.
Music can break down bullying like nothing else. I know this because my relationship with that older brother of mine stopped being about bullying and more about friendship when we moved on from just kicking the footy and started a band. If obsessing over music isn’t your thing, that’s cool too. Maybe I should just use a football analogy for all the toxic men who don’t get it: the only reason the Dees have a chance at the finals this year is they’re playing with a complete team, not a couple of ‘superstars’.
But what if you love football but you’re a still a bit weak or uncoordinated? What if you’re not rich? What if you have asthma and you’re not particularly good at sport? How can you become one of them? Well, the good news is there’s still a way. And the very best way is to become ‘the joker’. You do the silly dares. You make the crass gags. You rip the most bongs. You throw up first. You’re the comic relief. That’s your place in the pack. And you’ll find all ‘the boys’ have genuine affection for you, because everyone loves a good laugh (especially at a place like Splendour). But you’d better punch down, not up, because––as I said––any real even the most miniscule deviation from ‘the boys’ code of conduct will be punished. Severely.
But again, that’s not an excuse for a 31 year-old ‘good man’. So I need to keep working on it. But say I keep working on it. Say all us ‘snowflakes’ keep working on it finally challenge the fuckwits? Will things change for the better? The rates of sexual assault and domestic violence will plummet. But what about what I consider to be the most powerful hierarchy at something like Splendour? Entry to hierarchy of access: access to pleasure. Or, forget pleasure, how about something that’s actually essential like access to clean drinking water. Or how about access to safe space? Will a dismantling the patriarchy change this kind of access?
That’s a doozy of a question. My girlfriend told me that Melbourne techno legend Simona Castricum is doing some really interesting work on how architecture fits into this equation. Maybe they should ask Simona to be a panellist at the next Splendour discussion about consent. It’s never been enough for the journalists, lawyers, industry-types and artists to talk among themselves. Tracy Spicer told the crowd at Splendour’s “Consent in the Post-#MeToo World” panel that stories change hearts and minds. You change enough hearts and minds and you change the world. And, on one level, of course she’s right. But she’s also full of shit. Because the last time pop culture got this excited about music and stories building utopian communities, it didn’t work out. You just have to take one look at the consumer hippies living in Byron to see where it went wrong. Their brand is about community, but their life is about dominating access to pleasure. So a lot of the kids at Splendour who are trying to have their very own hippy moment, who are trying to dance and take drugs and be free? They’re doing it in the knowledge that the generation who ushered in the concept failed. They’re the same people locking them out of the housing market, enslaving them in debt and refusing to take climate change seriously (yet forbidding them to take magic pills that erase the terror for a few hours).
Which isn’t to say changes can’t happen. In 2006 there were way less grammable distractions for sure. But the culture was different too. Mos Def was there making super intelligent hip hop. But the Mighty Mos Def wasn’t Kendrick, he wasn’t the hottest ticket at the festival. Baker Boy (the true redeemer of masculine Aussie hip hop) wasn’t on the bill back then either. And that’s just hip hop. What about guitar music? The most feminist-minded band had to be Sonic Youth. I’d argue few bands have worked harder to dismantle the system than them. But Kim Gordon always buried her activism in poetry and noise. She disguised that message in most abrasive and creative way possible. That’s how Sonic Youth won control of their creativity in an industry run by men. But Lorde’s fulfilment of the DIY pop dream on Friday might just prove feminist success doesn’t need to be about punk aesthetics anymore. These days, feminist-minded music has more licence to be vulnerable and open. Stella Donnelly can use the incredible strength in her voice to openly tell men their behaviour isn’t good enough. And the crowd bloody loves it.
That same kind of space didn’t exist in 2006; back then, Splendour kids didn’t have smartphones to connect them with like-minded people. Technology can connect like-minded people, just like music can. Tech and music can’t save the world by themselves––they never could. Right now it seems they’re just funnelling conversations and communities into battle mode.
But I desperately need to believe “music solves everything”. If you love getting high at festivals, I have a feeling you need to believe it too. By the time Sampa the Great played, the drugs weren’t working. I was just exhausted and over-analytical. Then Sampa took the stage dressed in a blue more brilliant than the Coral Sea. Her soul and sass lifted me out of my sullen mood. It gave me hope for the future.
I’m going to follow Sampa’s example and talk about my little sister (she brought her little sister out during her set). My sister is eighteen and she loves music festivals. A few years ago, a festival ran a national poster design competition and she won it. Her poster is a painting of a sunburst electric guitar that’s laying down flat in an open, tranquil field. The instrument is just lying there, like it’s ready to be played by anyone who wants a go. This field isn’t just tranquil, it’s strange. The trees have eyes, the fungus is vivid and the deer are curious. So you can see why she won the comp, right? She managed to capture the feeling of a really good festival experience. She just dreamed it into existence.
So as I lay there after Kendrick, watching the tent breathe with the wind, thinking about whether I would’ve given that gacked kid drugs. I had to confront the idea that someone might offer my little sister some drugs at festival. And I like to think I’d be okay with it. I just hope if she makes the decision to try something, she’s safe about it and can find some free water. But, more than that, I hope she doesn’t end up using drugs as a crutch for confidence like I sometimes do. I hope she knows she’s far too wonderful a person to need that. And if someone shoves an unwanted dildo into her face, they can fuck right off. Because that’s not clever or funny. In the end, that joke just about access to pleasure. It’s a young joker who wants to impress ‘the boys’ and win approval from the pack. His pleasure and their pleasure are the most important things in that scenario. That’s so fucking boring.
It’s a stupid joke masquerading as a clever one. A bit like Snoop’s face on a hot dog. The artist’s say they were inspired by pop art. When asked about their process they said they hoped to “package it up, put it on display” and “bring pleasure to people”. But pop art wasn’t just about bringing people pleasure. It was about our culture’s obsession with manufacturing pleasure. Maybe Cool Shit Collective know this and maybe they’re trolling me. But that’s boring too. It’s nothing more than a “juxtaposition, bro”.
Despite how boring and exhausting Splendour 2018 could be, it proved to me that we have an actual cultural shift on our hands. That shift has been fuelled, in part, by the rise of social media. But we have to be careful. Because if phones have the power to help cultivate this moment, they also have the potential to destroy it. After all, social media follows the same rules that undid the hippy counterculture and punk: this idea you can take something as powerful and mysterious as music or attraction or art and distil the mystery into something that’s about rating pleasure. You transform the mysterious into a numbers game and you insulate the access with a closed hierarchy. All serious dissent is punished with rage, intimidation and abuse. It’s the same logic ‘the boys’ use to rate women's bodies out ten. So if my little sister goes to Splendour one day, I hope she doesn’t buy into the toxic parts of the culture too much. I hope she just finds some fun people and has a sick one.
And if I’m ever cooked on acid again, I hope it’s never when I’m alone at Splendour. Because, despite how high I got, I barely talked to anyone and had no big epiphanies. In the end, the best I could up with was this: the most important hierarchy at Splendour is access, access to the pleasure of live music. In an age of rapid capitalist expansion, more and more forms of access seem to be shielded by a combination of wealth and cultural clout. To me, the live music at Splendour falls into this category. It takes the most popular parts of diverse and democratic scenes then stages them in an expensive place. I’ve been pushing my brain to try work out how this relates to the toxic, entitled behavior I witnessed. And I think I might have the beginnings of an idea: according to some economic theories, capitalism relies on the tension between networks and hierarchies. To really succeed you have to diversify, consolidate and monopolise power. Social circles (and social media) can seem to mirror these power structures too. These phenomena also tend to thrive from the tension between networks and hierarchies. The popular kids at my school guarded their social power with bullying and insularity. If the rich boys end up running the world (like they’ve been taught is their right) then breaking down their pecking order will be difficult. Because even the most privileged ‘good men’ like myself have internalised the toxicity that helps hold the ‘boys club’ together. I sometimes I look around and feel like this toxicity is strong enough to seep through barriers between race, gender and sexual identity. I think maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised toxic masculinity has found its way to places like Splendour. Then I lay back and watch my tent breathe. I listen to my favourite songs and remember: music has a unique weirdness and fluidity that resists being reduced down to questions of wealth or power. It has the potential to break everything down and remould you. Drugs can help when they disrupt your thought hierarchies and social circles. They can make music sound better and people seem more interesting. Small epiphanies can form and break apart. You can even latch onto some lasting ones. But you have to be careful because, in the end, drugs are just another shortcut to pleasure. They should never be used to try boost self esteem. So try not to overdo them. Just sip some water and remember to sit on the grass now and then.
Sam West is a cultural critic and editor from Melbourne. Follow him on Twitter.
Photos provided courtesy of Splendour in the Grass.
*NOTE: A previous version of this article made specific reference to a private bar at Splendour in the Grass. At the request of Splendour in the Grass, the name and all specific details about said bar have been redacted. This article remains otherwise unaltered.