There’s no getting around the fact that the crowd at Leeds Festival was very young. It’s been that way for years, with the festival gaining the reputation of being what The Guardian called a “GCSE festival”. Though that might not seem “cool” for more experienced festival-goers, there’s an upside to this being the target demographic. After all, youth culture shapes all culture. Gen Z listens to everything, and today’s “indie kids” more resemble “indie and hip-hop and weird electro-pop kids”. The days of the subculture are gone. That eclectic diversity finds itself reflected in the festival line-up, with Kendrick Lamar, Fallout Boy, Let’s Eat Grandma, Rex Orange County Dua Lipa and Post Malone all occupying the same poster.
While some see this as part of a steady decline in the festival’s history, I see it as the opposite. Reading and Leeds’ former identity as big rock festivals formed during a time when rock music and white culture dominated. Rap and hip-hop were at the margins of culture, with rock holding the crown of “real music”. But times have changed, and what was once marginalised has become mainstream. The toxic masculinity in rock culture also led to women being largely excluded from past line-ups. While this year’s wasn’t revolutionary (most of the women are listed lower in the line-up, with the exception of the world’s current pop obsession Dua Lipa), it was certainly an improvement. The festival’s partnership with the Safe Gigs For Women initiative, which aims to create a safer environment for women at gigs and festivals, was also a much-needed step in the right direction.
This newfound diversity makes for a festival experience for the streaming era. Friday evening saw rockers Kings of Leon bringing a winning headline set to the main stage, with one hit getting too much love compared to their other songs — “Just wait for Sex On Fire mate, you’ll know it”. Rock fans got their fill, with Courteeners and The Vaccines also bringing the energy with their anthemic indie rock. Yet, across the Bramham Park grounds, Norfolk’s Let’s Eat Grandma wowed the BBC Radio 1 Stage with their surreal indie pop, Hinds brought an exciting slice of Madrid indie rock to the Festival Republic stage and Diplo closed the evening, managing to make songs as popular as “Lean On” feel fresh.
Post Malone’s set on the Main Stage was welcomed with just as much cheer as Friday’s offerings, with the crowd going wild for the chill trap pop hits “Congratulations” and “Psycho”. Though the crowd wasn’t as enthusiastic for Travis Scott, the rapper still shined performing tracks from his 2018 album Astroworld. The Kooks and The Wombats brought some traditional indie rock to the day, but more interesting were the smattering of offerings elsewhere; Wolf Alice and Maggie Rogers energised the BBC Radio 1 Stage, Bicep brought their funky house offerings to the Dance Stage and Thunderpussy thrilled The Pit with their controversial subversion of 70s rock.
The Sunday was arguably the biggest day. Mike Shinoda and Sum 41 joined each other on stage to perform an emotional tribute to the late Chester Bennington, Shinoda’s former bandmate. Brockhampton, the self-proclaimed hip-hop boyband, brought an unparalleled energy to the BBC Radio 1 stage, with the crowd moshing, and hanging onto every word of every song as the band bounced around the stage. But ultimately, the biggest event was Kendrick Lamar, who closed the weekend; the Compton-raised rapper’s set was an explosion of sound, bars and visuals, a spectacle only slightly marred by the overwhelmingly-white crowd’s willingness to yell out the single word they should have left out.
Despite the naysayers, all the above is exactly why Leeds Festival is not going away anytime soon. The organisers have shown a willingness and ability to adapt to the world’s changing musical tastes, embracing the new instead of rejecting it for the old. In effect, the festival felt like a microcosm of the current musical landscape, where moving from stage to stage felt like traipsing between real-life Spotify playlists. It isn’t for the person whose tastes fall solely within a specific subgenre, but rather for the person whose tastes lie all over the place. Diversity, it turns out, can do a lot in keeping up with the times.
Image credit: Matt Eachus