All photos © Tina Williams

Controlled Freedom and the HFStival
By Neal Shaffer

Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of summer, means one thing to the student, another to the worker, and quite another to the boss. Yet for all of them it brings hope. The promise, if nothing else, of a well-earned vacation. For thousands of mid-Atlantic music fans, a big part of the ritual has, for the past thirteen years, been the annual HFStival. Sponsored by Washington, D.C., based WHFS FM, the festival is a two-day affair featuring virtually every act popular with the 14-30 age group during the previous year. Past performers have included Pavement, Stone Temple Pilots, Stereo M.C.’s, and the Rollins Band. This year’s lineup: Eminem, Papa Roach, Sum 41, Hoobastank, and the Strokes, among others.

There’s something to be said for the sheer volume of top-tier acts the festival attracts. While based in D.C., it is clearly a national event, one that usually warrants coverage on MTV and in magazines like SPIN. While tickets, at $39 per day, are not cheap, they are also not ridiculous. Break it down per-band and it becomes justifiable. It’s a solid weekend of fun in the sun... except.

Altamont and Woodstock ’99 proved how truly dangerous it can be to gather a large group of people and turn them loose in a confined space. That would seem to go without saying, yet there is never a shortage of wolves willing to ignore the lessons of the past. The HFStival is notable in this context for two things that it perfectly represents in microcosm: the extent to which "the market" shapes real experience, and the inevitable, ugly consequences.


There is no benevolent urge associated with the production of the HFStival. It’s hard to say when it happened, but at some recent point advertisers realized that their message was not being received through the conventional channels. So now there is no longer a target "audience," there is a target "lifestyle." As in: "The SKYY Blue drinker is educated, active, and fun. She wants the good things in life, but doesn’t want to stress about finding them. When she goes out she’s looking to enjoy a lively time with good friends... and along the way, maybe make some new ones." WHFS has an audience, and that audience is basically young white people with disposable income. But that audience doesn’t want to be seen in such crass, demographic terms. Having been raised on media, they’re sensitive to being pigeonholed, or at least obviously so. They want to see themselves as part of something larger.

Enter the HFStival. On the one hand it makes no sense for the Strokes and Eminem to share a bill. The two acts have nothing in common musically and no shared background. Theoretically, they should have no shared audience. So one could see the HFStival as a triumph of diversity wherein disparate elements are brought together to bond, mystically, through the power of music. In fact, the music is a nonessential element of the production. Bands play as background to the brand, as a soundtrack to the lifestyle. Who they are, where they came from, and why they sound the way they do is wholly unimportant. What matters is that they have been shown, through studious market research, to appeal to the WHFS audience (and, indeed, to the audience of every other station in the country with an "alternative/rock" playlist). Putting them together ensures turnout, which ensures street-level (and street-credible) exposure for the sponsors.

The Strokes

These ingredients do not automatically add up to a bad experience. The selling of products and ideas is, on some level, at the heart of all artistic expression. There’s nothing inherently wrong with putting it all together and making some money at the same time. The bands, at least the ones with anything interesting to say, seemed to recognize this. The Strokes, N.E.R.D., Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Eminem all played well, and there was nothing compromising in their performances. Indeed, the Strokes (who brought with them a reputation of having a bland live show) were quite amazing. Ditto N.E.R.D., who deserve far more attention than they’re getting. Their music, which proves beyond a doubt that a live band will always be better than a DJ, will someday be seen as having been the future all along.

But there was a wall between artist and audience that couldn’t be broken. Perhaps it was because it’s hard to enjoy a stadium show unless you’re right up front, but that wasn’t all. The crowd, as a whole, seemed as crassly uninterested in the music as the organizers. Many of the attendees seemed to be there for exactly the reason that WHFS wanted them there—to live the experience, to buy the memento, and to be able to say they had been there. During Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s performance several mosh pits sprang up. During the Strokes, the only truly loud applause came during the first notes of "Last Nite," their hit single. And during every set great attention was paid to the line of bikini-clad women carrying Bacardi placards as they patrolled the crowd, tossing out Bacardi beach balls for all to enjoy.

This is to say nothing of the midway-esque outside stage area. Extreme sports (rock climbing, anyone?), cell phones, hemp, etc. were well represented with booth space. A variety of second-tier national and local acts played there, and were summarily ignored in favor of the vendors hawking their wares.

There was a heavy-handedness to the whole affair that could only go one way. By the end of the day there were more fights than one would care to count, and 30 people were injured, two critically, during Eminem’s performance as the crowd surged forward. When he stopped playing and implored the crowd to back up, it took 20 minutes to accomplish the goal. They weren’t there for him, they were there for themselves. They wanted more, and wanted it better, and wouldn’t hesitate to do what it took to get it. After a long day of soaking up an atmosphere of controlled freedom, they did the only thing that made sense: they kept it up, right to the end.


This same scene will repeat countless times as the summer wears on. There’s the Warped tour, there’s the Ozzfest, and there are other one-time-only radio station festivals, notably Los Angeles’ KROQ festival. It’s safe to say that the injuries will mount and the money will be collected, and the whole thing will go down as a success because it doesn’t matter if a few kids get hurt. Next summer the pattern will repeat, except that the bands will be the same. Whatever trend breaks big this winter will become the new reason, and the same kids will turn out again after tossing out their Hoobastank T-shirts and laughing about what a great time last year’s festival was.

The following words—as concise and bizarre a summation of the weekend as one could imagine—come from the lead singer of SEV, a fourth-rate rap/rock/metal hybrid act whose time has probably already passed:

"You motherfuckers are real, and it’s fuckin’ obvious."