Cosmic Slop #132: Queering Glastonbury

By Shaun Ponsonby
Thu 21 March, 2019

After the expected furore over the Glastonbury line-up, Shaun Ponsonby sees an event full of women, queer icons and topped by a black British rapper that shows an invigorated, forward thinking festival.  

It happens every year. As inevitable as false “they’re trying to ban Christmas” outrage, or the most recent X Factor winner being dropped; the Glastonbury line-up is announced and people with nothing better to do start crying into their twitter sandwiches about how terrible it is and that they can’t wait to get a refund. Every year. Without fail.

The criticisms are usually the same, so presumably the crying comes from the same crowd; not enough rock bands.

When Kanye West headlined in 2015, the petition to remove him even demanded that he be replaced by a rock band. When Metallica topped the bill before that, people were pissed off that a metal band were headlining. So apparently Kanye wasn’t rock enough, and Metallica were too rock. So what is the sweet spot for these people? Indie bands, presumably.

But I, for one, was pleasantly surprised when I saw the first wave Glastonbury line-up this year. People complaining that it isn’t anything approaching an innovative line-up are missing the bigger picture. More than probably any other major festival, Glastonbury are showing a particular direction they are willing to head in. It’s not all there yet, but it’s on its way.

Stormzy was the first headliner announced; the first ever black British rapper to top the bill. That’s huge. Admittedly, it is a big ask for an artist with just one album to take that spot, but then it could also be a huge moment for UK grime artists. Just this week, there was a report from members of parliament that stated “Prejudices against grime artists risks stifling one of the UK’s most exciting musical exports” (read: racism and probably classism). If Stormzy really takes this moment, and brings out other grime artists as guests, he could create a real moment not just for grime, but for British MC’s generally.

Although none of the people topping the bill are women – not that anyone told Janet Jackson – the female presence on the initial poster is astounding.  42% of the acts so far announced are female. Jackson, of course, switched the bill around to put herself first on social media. Some have argued that this was a protest to the lack of female headliners, but I imagine it was more that her PR team reframed the poster for her immediate audience.

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Janet Jackson is of course, one of the most successful artists of her generation – male or female – with over 100 million sales worldwide and holds the record for the most consecutive top 10 hits on the Billboard chart. Significantly, she is a black feminist icon. At Glastonbury, she is the highest ranking female artist of colour that also includes Janelle Monae, Ms Lauryn Hill, Lizzo, Jorja Smith, Little Simz, Mavis Staples, Stefflon Don and Neneh Cherry – all performers of considerable pedigree in prominent positions.

What also strikes me about the line-up is the number of queer artists and/or gay icons performing. Janet has been an LGBTQ+ icon for decades, as has Kylie Minogue. In fact, I found it significant that they announced Stormzy, Kylie and Janelle Monae ahead of time. It was like a signifier of where they were heading; a black British MC, a gay icon and a queer black woman, whose latest album is about her experiences as a queer black woman. Lizzo, too, is extremely popular as an LGBTQ+ ally, and much like Monae’s Dirty Computer, Christine & The Queen’s 2018 LP Chris was a defiantly queer statement. I don’t recall seeing this much queer representation at Glastonbury since Kylie joined the Scissor Sisters on stage in 2010.

In fact, predictably for the times in which we live, it’s the rock bands who come out of this looking stale. Someone like Janet may not have had many hits recently, but what she did at the height of her career is far more relevant to what’s happening now. No Janet, no Beyonce. No Lady GaGa.  No Rihanna. She was a trailblazer who influenced pretty much every successful female artist working today. But no Snow Patrol and all we have is one less song for use in pretentious adverts.

Take a look at the boys with guitars that take up the top few lines. The Killers have been around for around 15 years now – their best days are probably behind them, and they’ve headlined Glastonbury in the past. I love The Cure, but haven’t had a hit album since 1992, and again have headlined before. Liam Gallagher is still riding off the success of the first two Oasis albums from a quarter of a century ago, George Ezra is popular but blander than Ed Sheeran (he doesn’t even have the good sense to be a ginger stereotype), and the less said about Two Door Cinema Club, Bastille and Snow Patrol, the better.

And that kinda sums it all up for me. Growing up, the Glastonbury line-ups often struck me as kinda wank. I was coming of age when you couldn’t move for indie landfill. Though I’m aware that there’s more to Worthy Farm than the line-up, on paper Glastonbury looked like the dullest group of soggy mop bands I’d ever seen and didn’t give the tiniest shit about the vast majority of them. If I could be arsed spending a weekend in a muddy tent, I’d have spent most of my time at the West Holts stage, where traditionally you’d find a lot of these acts who are now being promoted to higher positions. And good news for people who liked that old indie boys – because, as you can see from the list above, those soggy mops are still filling the stages.

But although Glastonbury’s veterans are bitching about the line-up, it’s clear that they’re entering a new phase. You can tell Emily Eavis has taken over from her father, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s for the better. It isn’t perfect, but they are certainly moving with the times, and welcoming people who maybe wouldn’t have felt welcome before, and actually starting to show some of the values that they have always professed to embrace. Bravo.