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Me, Myself, and Macklemore: Two Days Alone at an Indonesian Music Festival

Have you ever tried to dance to Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk" by yourself? Don't. It's too sad, and people will take pictures of you with their phones.

by Katherine Gillespie
23 August 2016, 12:00am

Last weekend I found myself standing ankle deep in mud, watching Macklemore perform "Thrift Shop" on a festival main stage, with only 2,000 Indonesian teenagers and a plastic cup of pineapple-flavoured vodka for company. I knew my favourite pair of New Balances would never be the same, and neither would my perspective on hip-hop.

Just kidding (am I?). No, I'm not. I would like to say that Macklemore's onstage charisma converted me. But after seeing him live, my stance on the Seattle rapper—that we should strip the fur coat off his body and use it to gently smother him—remains unchanged. Yet after spending two days by myself at Jakarta's We The Fest, headlined by Macklemore himself, a lot of other things did shift. By the end of the weekend, I'd gained a new understanding of music, life, and the overwhelming inherent coolness of Indonesian teenagers.

I entered the festival grounds on the first day fresh off the plane, Melbourne's bitter winter replaced with a thick and uncompromising summer humidity, which rendered my scarf and jacket literally life threatening. Only after discarding nearly all my clothes and find water and shade, could the experience begin. I took a walk around the grounds to get my bearings.

What became quickly apparent, within the first half hour of the first day, is that Indonesia's teenagers are way, way hipper than me—in every conceivable way. Flipping through vinyl records, applying lipstick waiting in line for gourmet burgers, their casual bilingualism, their chic haircuts. Standing, sweating, furiously swatting at the heat with my Smirnoff-branded fan, I was intimidated.

Also, despite the fact that I was one of the only Australians at the festival, and my Indonesian vocabulary was limited to variations on different noodle dishes—that is to say, I am trash and so is the Australian language curriculum—everyone was polite and even eager to talk to me. Which was good, because I was so very, very alone. Have you ever tried to dance to Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk" by yourself? Don't. It's too sad, and people will take pictures of you with their phones.

In a word, WTF (acronym aside) was a classy festival. The traditionally lame hallmarks of the summer music festival—silent discos, colossal merch stands, hot chip vans—were replaced with boutique food trucks serving sushi and burgers, vinyl record stores, and a light-up booth that played Drake's "Hotline Bling" on repeat while allowing festival-goers to re-enact its iconic film clip. There was a section of the festival village that offered MasterChef-style cooking classes. There was an H&M pop up store. In the middle of the second day, everyone paused for 20 minutes to watch a fashion parade sponsored by a cigarette company.

Anyone who's been to a music festival in Asia would be familiar with the far-reaching formula that's popular for line ups there. The idea is to try and please everybody, despite running the obvious risk of pleasing nobody. Even in light of that, WTF's line up was particularly disorientating. You had your Macklemore and your Mark Ronson, but also K-pop queen CL, and Canada's Purity Ring. There were local acts too: YouTube star Rich Chigga, retro psych rockers Indische Party, and critically acclaimed Indonesian band Naif.

All of these artists, as it turned out, were beside the point. What the teens—many of them coming not only from all over Indonesia but also from neighbouring countries throughout South East Asia—really cared about was the line up's inclusion of British band The 1975.

I didn't know much about The 1975 before to passing through WTF's gates. In fact, I knew nothing about The 1975. If you had asked me, I would have guessed that they were mid-tier Coldplay types who'd maybe scored a contract to have one of their songs played in the background of a Vodafone ad. This may very well be the case in the UK—I'm unwilling to do the research—but in Jakarta, they are a phenomenon. These pale, insultingly ordinary British men are godlike figures. No other band even bothered having a merchandise stand at the festival.

As such, I made sure to get a good spot for their set. Here are my primary recollections: the guitarist was shirtless the entire time for no reason, and my phone battery died—forcing me to engage with what was, in all honesty, an excruciatingly dull 40 minutes of music. I am sorry but the teens are wrong about this band. They are objectively very bad.

In the evening of that first day, it started pouring down with hot summer rain, and continued to do so all through day two. It's the dry season in Indonesia, so this was unusual—the first time in its history that WTF had experienced a disruption to its usual balmy weather. The organisers had actually held a traditional Javanese rain stopping ritual—"pawang hujan"—prior to the festival, but it wasn't enough. Earlier, my Uber driver had mumbled something about climate change. Grass turned to mud, and the teens were forced to ruin their curated outfits with disposable ponchos.

Why spend two days alone at an Indonesian music festival? A free ticket had been thrown my way at the last minute, and I guess I was curious to see how the experience compared to the debauched summer nights of my youth. Australian music festivals, you see, involve a particularly sad kind of rowdiness. Overpriced tins of beer coupled with sunstroke. An endless sea of Sportsgirl flower crowns bobbing in time to the Temper Trap. Waking up at 5 AM to the evocative sounds of a drunk 30-year-old man urinating on the side of a non-waterproof $30 Kmart pop up tent. Very bleak stuff.

We The Fest, by far the most friendly and slickly organised music festival I've ever attended, offered a stark contrast to those vibes. It took place in central Jakarta, so there wasn't room to pitch a piss-stained tent even if you'd wanted to. Attendees went home to sleep after the last act played then showed up again, rested and clean, around 3 PM the next day. Also, despite the ubiquitous presence of Smirnoff branding, nobody was drunk—or at least, not obnoxiously so.

This may come as a surprise, but at no point over the two days I spent trekking between stages at We The Fest did a single inebriated dudebro ask me to get my tits out. The bar might be low, but we're talking unprecedented levels of festival safety and comfort.

The festival ended with a DJ set from Mark Ronson. He was literally wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words "UPTOWN FUNK" just in case you'd managed to somehow forget about the feel good hit of summer 2014. Bruno Mars was not present physically, but I felt him spiritually. In all honesty, I'm not sure everyone knew who Ronson was—he unfortunately isn't a member of The 1975—but they were willing to get down anyway.

By the end of the festival, I was so many Smirnoffs deep my complete lack of friends and Bahasa skills became irrelevant. At the end of Ronson's set, I was with my hip new teen companions in the Drake booth, Snapchatting away. Drizzy, as always, proved the great equaliser. I don't remember much after that, but I do know this: dancing to "Hotline Bling" with a bottle of vodka in each hand is fun in every country.

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