Let Us Eat Cake

thoughts on the "no lineup lineup" at Eaux Claires IV

Laura Buchholz

In a recent interview with Volume One (listen here), Justin Vernon addressed the controversy surrounding his Eaux Claires music festival's decision to not release the names of the bands that would be playing this year until the festival itself. In the name of creating a non-commercial experience, a sort of musical Xanadu where the teeming masses of musical supplicants would neither snap photos nor churlishly sing the lyrics to known songs, Vernon has expressed his desire for attracting a refined sort of audience that would so get on board with this “experience” of “community” that they would, and will, buy tickets no matter what, not just this year but every year for at least the next 20. 

Let’s hope they do.

While there is surely something to be said for the pleasure of blind discovery, what the Eaux Claires IV model deprives us of is the pleasure of anticipation. Imagine you’re a high school girl going to prom, but you don’t get to know who your date is until he shows up at your door ...

Vernon also said in this interview that the people who have time to worry about the names of the bands should just go call their moms or something. Welp. I just happen to live very close to my mom and see her pretty much every day, and she agrees with me on this one: the festival should release the names of the bands next year. I also need to point out that, while Justin reveals his good midwestern roots by shaming us all for having free time, he did in fact give us QUITE A GOOD DEAL OF TIME to think about this, as he started selling tickets to the festival nine months ago. We have had a good nine months to mull over and commit to a list of crossed out band names, so excuse us for noticing that this is weird. You don’t need to have a whole lot of free time to develop a feeling about this.

While there is surely something to be said for the pleasure of blind discovery, what this model deprives us of is the pleasure of anticipation. Imagine you’re a high school girl going to prom, but you don’t get to know who your date is until he shows up at your door. It could be Kyle, that cute drummer/tennis player with attitude and style—or it could be Martin, the twitchy kid with the mood disorder and the video game obsession. Maybe it’s a wild card from Chippewa. You just don’t know. Your parents know, because they picked him out for you. “He’s great,” they assure you. “Don’t worry about it. By the way, you owe us 200 bucks for the dress.”

Is this any way to live?

Yes, you might still buy the dress, you might do your hair and do your makeup, but you’d be doing it with a certain spirit of dread instead of excitement. The doorbell rings. Your heart drops. This could go either way. But either way you’ve already lost the pleasure of daydreaming about a positive outcome.  Either way you start in a pit. This is lost time and lost pleasure.

I acknowledge that Vernon & Co. are trying to do a thing, and from what I can tell, part of that thing involves creating an intimate and personal experience that goes deeper than buying a t-shirt, drinking some beer and confirming already solidified musical allegiances. That’s cool and worthy. At the same time, can we acknowledge that there’s nothing particularly wrong with buying a t-shirt (especially a good one), and that if we thought there was something wrong with beer, none of us would even live here? As for the musical allegiances part, I get it. An artistic experience should be an expansion, not an echo chamber. But unless your name is Justin Vernon and you already know everything about every band on the list, you’re already in for some expansion, no matter what. There’s bound to be someone you haven’t heard of. Why not let us do a little bit of pre-exploration instead of loading all the education into the back end, so to speak? 

There is one artistic experience that comes to mind when I think about not knowing what’s coming, and being surprised by an intimate, up-close experience--not unlike the pop-up stages at the Fest, or last year’s  mom booth, or the little trailer where you go in and have to make eye contact with a poet. It’s the Soap Factory haunted house in Minneapolis. I have done this a few years. One year I did it, the final stage of the haunted house involved getting separated from your group and then shoved into a casket by yourself, only to realize that you were not, in fact, alone. There was someone else in there with you – presumably a dead person, but actually an actor whose job it was to give you an experience of a sort in a dark enclosed space. An actor who would go home at the end of the night and have a burrito or something. It’s an artist, sure, but it’s also just a guy in a box.

One of the rules of the Soap Factory haunted house is that you are not allowed to touch the actors, but they can do anything they want to you, because of the liability waiver you had to sign before you went in. These rules are understandable, perhaps, from the point of view of the actors’ safety, but also make it less of an immersion ‘experience’, and more of an immersion ‘performance’. The guy in the box breathed on me and got up real close. I had an experience of a performance, and it smelled like garlic.    

Part of the Eaux Claires marketing says “It’s not about the bands, it’s about the collection of art and artists reacting with the collection of you.”

Well. Call me crazy, but actually a music festival is kind of about the bands. Here’s how you know: remove all the bands. Do you still have a festival? Probably not. And I’m not sure about that reacting part. With this current iteration of festival experimentation, I have to wonder if we’re really just signing up to let someone touch us without being allowed to touch them back.

At the end of that coffin experience – where I forgot to mention, someone was pressing against the coffin door so I couldn’t get out – eventually the people holding me in the coffin dispersed quietly, and I would have been free to go, had I known that I could get out. I didn’t. So I just stayed in the coffin with that thing, a little too long for the thing’s liking, apparently. The thing had made proper introductions earlier, so when I had been in there too long, he addressed me by name:

“Don’t you want to leaaaaaaave Lauuuura? “ he asked in a scratchy, breathy death voice.

As a good midwesterner, I apologized for not understanding that I was supposed to be gone already. And I pushed the coffin door open and found my way to the exit.