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Sober, Safe, and Focused: Meet the Teenagers of Reading 2016

“I’m not drinking and I don’t do any drugs. I don’t like the idea of never being able to have fun without the help of a substance when I’m older.”

by Angus Harrison
Sep 6 2016, 12:30pm

Tom, George and Felix, all 16 years old, are sitting in a circle, decked in baggy white tees, 6-panel caps and bum-bags slung purposefully over one shoulder, talking about fashion. “I think music affects what I wear a little bit,” Tom explains. “I wear the bum-bag because it’s convenient, but over the shoulder rather than round the waist ‘cos it looks cooler like that.”

In suburban mythology, Reading and Leeds are music festivals for the teens who have forever lived on the edge of something. The under-18s from satellite towns whose Saturday nights until this weekend have been spent listening to the low hum of Strictly Come Dancing through their bedroom floors, downloading torrents and eating 12p packets of supermarket-brand tortilla chips. Now though, for three days – following a train ride past power-plants and places called ‘Parkway’ – they turn to Reading, to drink, dance, and shout into the abyss of a silent disco. Normally following GCSE and A Level results, the bank holiday event is briefly the centre of the universe for kids from Farnborough, Maidenhead and Bristol – all unwittingly eyeing up the rest of their lives. As such, it’s the perfect place to profile and understand the British teenager of 2016; to understand the actual lived experiences of a generation too easily defined by their online presences. What music do they listen to? Do they care about politics? What do they want from the future? How did they smuggle their booze in? All questions waiting to be answered.

The boys with bumbags (a trio from “somewhere north of London” they weren’t prepared to specify) are at their first Reading Festival celebrating their GCSE results. Despite the music already being in full-swing they are all sober, and politely welcome us into their circle. We start talking about what music they want to see (“Jack U, Boy Better Know, y’know, a bit of grime’), and before long we’ve covered politics (“Labour obviously” ) and even the housing crisis. For three 16-year-olds at Reading Festival, it’s a clarity and quality of conversation I wasn’t anticipating.

“Are you guys not going to party pretty hard this weekend?” I ask them. Tom, the smallest of the three – with a face young enough to be 12-years-old if he didn’t sound so intelligent whenever he opened his mouth – responds coolly: “I’m not drinking and I don’t do any drugs. I don’t like the idea of never being able to have fun without the help of a substance when I’m older.”

I’m a little taken aback, and after thanking the boys for their time, I start to wonder how much Reading – and by extension how much being a teenager – has changed in the decade since I was here. The site is familiar. Still an arid plain, tufts of beige grass punctuating the dusty ground, surrounded by the black scaffolding of the various stages. There, in the near-distance, trains pulling off to Slough and beyond slice the skyline. Yet the mood is less volatile than I remember. Groups meander from point to point, all dressed like ASOS Marketplace models, some in fancy-dress or sporting phrases like “FREE KISSES” in neon paint across their backs. Girls pose for selfies, which once hashtagged they can send to two massive screens flanking the main-stage. That’s not to say it doesn’t look like people are having fun, just that everyone seems very… in control.

Next I meet 18 year old Jess from Northampton, and ask whether she thinks everyone her age is tame. “I enjoy going out,” she replies, “but I don’t do any drugs – I don’t want to feel out of control and I don’t like seeing other people on them.” She is at the festival with her sister, Beth (16-years-old) and their mutual friend Fraser (18-years-old), both of whom are nodding in agreement. “I think people older than us go out a lot more,” Fraser interjects. “I’ve never been to a nightclub – I’d rather play Pokemon Go.”

The more we talk, the more it becomes clear that being sensible is almost an ideology for generation Z. None of them are interested in university – they all maintain they’d rather wait, work and maybe apply later once they know what they want to study – and they speak pretty disparagingly of their peers who have gone, convinced they are only there for the drinking. If there is one area that leaves them a bit confused it’s politics. “I voted out,” Jess tells me slightly sheepishly, “but it was bullshit, it was so unclear what I was even voting for.”

CHVRCHES are starting soon, and the group are keen to move on. Before they leave I ask Jess – given that she’s slightly older – are there any patches of her teenage years she regrets? Are her wild days behind her already? “I was really into rap, like Giggs, awful Radio 1Xtra stuff,” she says, pointing towards the stage of the same name behind her, “but I’ve grown up a lot since then.”

Continuing through the crowds, past kids collecting totems of cardboard cups and the occasional “dicks out for Harambe” flag, we stop for other brief chats. Two boys from Bournemouth, waiting for their mate to finish pissing, tell us they’re house heads, looking forward to Disclosure the most. Not on MDMA though, unsurprisingly – one of the lads brought a bit of weed in with him, but he’s since thrown it away. For them, they tell me, it’s all about ‘the vibes’. “Back at home we go to house parties,” says Ben (16-years-old). “We’ll listen to whatever, it’s just whoever gets on Spotify.”

This raises the other strange tenet of the modern Reading Festival teen. In place of the tribalism of days gone by – the age of Topman-clad lads watching Maximo Park, neon-coated girls waiting for Hadouken! and heavy-metal heads dragged down by knee-high leather boots – the under-18s stalking the field are all pretty much one-and-the-same. They’re a homogenised group of soft-core Wavey Garm disciples, sporting looks that sit in an amorphous stylistic grey-zone somewhere between Joey Essex and Novelist.

It’s a confusing state of affairs when you consider the lineup. From Die Antwoord, to The 1975, Boy Better Know to Biffy Clyro, you’d struggle to find any semblance of a coherent scene at all – let alone any recall to the now ancient idea of Reading as a ‘rock festival’. Tom (16-years-old) from Hertfordshire tries to explain this new world order. “Nah, it’s so chill now,” he laughs, when I ask if he’s worried about getting his tent set on fire on Sunday. “Everyone is together, vibing off the same energy, so nothing crazy like that happens.”

Tom talks like a rapper tweets, or DJ Khaled Snapchats. He speaks in inspirational platitudes, straight off a billboard, as though he’s convinced everyone he’ll have a good time if he talks about it enough. “There are some heavy metal kids, house kids, grime kids, but they’re all cool,” he adds. “We’ll pretty much listen to anything.” Tom isn’t interested in drugs, but reckons he might have a beer later if his mum and dad – who are at the festival – will buy him one.

The pattern continues into the early evening. The teenagers of Reading prove themselves unanimously level-headed. As ambivalent towards drugs as many of them are to politics, or the idea of going to university (which is referred to as a “waste of time” on numerous occasions) they seem content with little more than the setting sun and an Alunageorge set. To be clear, I’m not suggesting they can’t be having fun without drugs, but there’s a disquieting lack of adventure. The festival is built on a real sense that it will have been a weekend well spent if the Snapchat story says so.

We settle down to talk with a group of four girls, Becky, Tash, Helen and Steph. At 19, they are a little older than everyone else we’ve spoken to, so we figure they might able to shed some light on the new breed of apparently moderate Reading teen. They’re definitely the drunkest group we’ve spoken to all day, but the message remains the same.

“We’re all about that career life!” Helen exclaims. “My issue with university is if you don’t know what to study then it’s pointless. Also if you don’t have a degree they can pay you less so you can work your way up quicker.” Her sentiment is echoed by Steph. “My brother set a really good example for me, he worked at a leisure centre as a lifeguard, then became the supervisor, now he’s duty manager. I think you can be prouder if you’ve worked your way up.” I ask them if they think they are more sensible than teenagers were ten years ago. Tash agrees, “I would say that’s true. Since I’ve had a career, I want to stay in bed on the weekend and watch a movie.”

The girls are from different parts of the UK, split across Windsor, Slough, Scotland and the East Midlands. They all work full-time and describe Reading as a nice little holiday, far from part of an extensive period of partying all summer. “I don’t go out that much anymore, I’m working towards my future,” Becky adds.

I ask them if they used to be wilder when they were younger. Do they have any regrets? “The only thing I regret is how rude I used to be,” Helen admits, to a clamour of agreement from the group. “Yeah,” Becky joins, “I used to be so sassy even though I’m really small. I’m so polite and open now.”

I left Reading Festival 2016 with a confusing impression of the modern teenager. On the one hand what exists is a sort of youth-topia; a world where disparate threads of music – heavy metal, dubstep, grime, house and indie – are all spun together into a seemingly drink and drug-free party powered by 'good vibes' and nothing else.

Yet this commitment to clean-living felt like it was predicated on something else. The Reading of six or seven years ago was a messier affair, sure, but at least it was clear what was at stake – an ill-advised weekend of sloshy hedonism before the grim ascent into adult-life began. Far from escaping adulthood, the teenagers of 2016’s festival seemed like they couldn’t wait for it. Reading was another excuse to enjoy this even more – check some bands they’d heard about, maybe enjoy a couple of drinks and hopefully be asleep by 2AM-ish. I couldn’t help but wonder why none of them seemed scared, excited, or curious at the prospect of their first music festival, the mention of political upheaval, the suggestion of drug-taking, or the promise of university. Maybe in the information age, the promise of the unknown has become a thing of the past. Kids have always been told they should know better, now they finally do.

Of course our time at the festival can’t account for everyone, and maybe the real renegades were too far into the dance tent for us to reach, yet as we left, I realised I would have to settle for the benefit of the doubt, that somewhere in the mess of the crowd somebody was discovering something beyond a new snapchat filter.

As if by fate, momentarily before I left I met Dan – 17 years-old, sweatband around his head, small lycra shorts, and nothing else – who was more than happy to chat as far as his rolling jaw would let him. “House, we’re all about house,” he told me, pointing over his shoulder at his identical friends. “We’re from Middlesex but we get Ubers to raves in Vauxhall every weekend. We brought all our own gear in, two grams of mandy, bit of kezza as well for the end of the night.”

Taking a punt, I asked Dan what his long-term plan is. “To be rich, and to live on the beach,” he answered, before bounding off to catch the start of Disclosure.

Good vibes.

You can follow Angus on Twitter.