The events surrounding what was supposed to be the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas in April and May should be territory well-trodden by now. Ja Rule partnered with a young entrepreneur, Billy McFarland, to create a live music experience at once modeled on and designed to outpace all previous festivals as we have known them. Do you like the open-air adventurism of Burning Man, but not so much the dust, loincloths, and sex magick? Do you like the carnival by way of fashion weeks aesthetic of Coachella, but not so much the desert heat, obscure bands, and problematic attire? Shell out a few thousand—some say hundreds of thousands—of dollars and you can glamp and eat gourmet food in a tropical island in between sets by the likes of Blink-182 and Disclosure. To burnish the pitch, Ja and company commissioned a strike team of conventionally attractive women to be photographed, bikini-clad and smeyesing, on the disease-sounding island of Great Exuma where it was to be located.
I should hope that the creators of that promotional campaign were handsomely compensated (though that doesn’t seem likely), given that it was the only aspect of the festival that was successful by any measurable standard. People bought the expensive tickets, cleared their schedules, made travel arrangements, deposited money into their “Fyre band” bracelets, and maybe hit the gym somewhere in between, all under the guise that their greatest expectations would be met as advertised. We know how that went down, of course, with the intimacy of seeing a car wreck in slow-moving traffic.
People of a certain age can retell this disaster with any level of grotesque relish. Almost nothing was as promised. The island was a glorified gravel parking lot in the shadow of Sandals and surrounded by sharks. The fully furnished “lodges” were disaster relief tents. The food pictured looked airline quality. There was no clean water; there was no beer. The frame of the concierge booth stood hauntingly empty, like a late capitalism-critiquing art school installation project. The island soon reached capacity, so some hopeful attendees were stranded in Miami. (Which doesn’t sound all that bad.) It was all documented in real time on Twitter and Instagram, as if to be curated into an interactive museum of failure.
But when caught up with an experience so live and in color, it is easy to lose sight of how small the events on which it is founded seem in comparison to certain ancestors. The Altamont Free Concert, planned as a western Woodstock, is known more for descending into a chaos that led to a fatal stabbing and beating among other accidental deaths. Woodstock 1999 took a similarly bad turn with negligent security, overpriced water, and back-to-back metal bands culminating in massive bonfires, riots, and sexual assaults. Even the original Woodstock was a scatological mess of Swiftian proportions. In a way, the organizers of Fyre are excused from this infamy. How, indeed, can we evaluate the calamity if the festival never properly started? As the dust settled, it seemed clear that the people behind Fyre had something altogether different in mind.
To have talent producer Chloe Gordon tell it, Fyre was in shambles from inception. The organizers, who’d announced the festival only the previous November with planning going well into March, seemed to have no concept of logistics, or any sense of budgetary requirements. Her brief tenure was largely spent as a lightning rod for complaints from the artists for non-payment. Yet the organizers were oddly confident and cavalier. “To living like movie stars, partying like rock stars, and fucking like porn stars,” Ja Rule was said to have toasted during a site visit. And when it was confirmed that the execution was never going to match the concept, one of the organizers summed up the attitude: “Let’s just do it and be legends, man.”
There are two ways of looking at the Fyre Festival. One way is as a giant misunderstanding between seller and buyer. An enterprising litigator might say that what the attendees wanted out of the festival was #adventure. They did not just want evidence that something momentous had taken place, they wanted to create the evidence, they wanted to place themselves within it, and have others from afar be their witnesses. If the organizers are guilty of anything, it was in giving poor directions. The festival was not meant to exist in a strictly physical prism. Like the best sex you’re not having, Fyre is everywhere and nowhere. It is the breeze through your hair, the smile of your selfie, the palpitations of your heart. It is not an event you attend, or an adventure you have, but a story we tell you. That might impress a judge, maybe. But the better way to look at it might be that the Fyre organizers weren’t really thinking so much of the audience’s adventure as their own.
This is not to say that Fyre was some grand-scale Dadaist sorcery. What McFarland and his cohort did was not quite novel. In fact it has been well known for much of the ‘00s. Call it the Entourage doctrine; derived from the HBO series in which an upcoming actor from New York with his brother and childhood friends in tow seeks to take over Hollywood through sheer force of self-assurance. Adrian Grenier’s Vincent Chase is an icon of the bro ideal, exuding ease and earnestness but little in the way of ambition. Though framed as a typical us-against-the-world clique dramedy, Entourage is most memorable for subverting it to be the world-for-us. The world, through this doctrine, is a vast space to which they lay claim and is to be filled with bodies as needed, whether it is filmmakers they torture, women they fuck, or people they invite to their parties. Everyone is an extra in the group’s grand arc, which bends towards triumph. And when it doesn’t, they can just move on to something else.
As fiction, this was all well and good, and depending on who you talk to, there might have been more to it. But it was only a matter of time before that ethic would not only be taken to heart, but be put into practice well outside of a screen’s confines. Doubtless we recognize, and can even come close to forgiving, McFarland’s let’s-put-on-a-show gumption. It is as much the propulsive force of the American pioneer spirit as it is of punk rock. It is the desire, perhaps even need, to rise to occasions, to meet potential, to accomplish something. But that force is not always in capable hands, it can get misused or corrupted. The Fyre Festival plays out like a Donner party of self-gratification. Hubris, lax standards, and blind optimism could only have expressed themselves so strongly in the situation if no one particularly cared if they were providing a service or fulfilling obligations to anyone but those who wanted to do rather than accomplish something.
In 2010, Saturday Night Live aired a sketch advertising the “Under-underground: 10th Annual Kickspit Underground Rock Festival.” In it, Jason Sudeikis and Nasim Pedrad listed off increasingly ridiculous and vulgar amenities while an even more bombastic announcer listed off increasingly ridiculous and vulgar band names (the video is not immediately available to me, so the only one I can recall is Mr. Potato Dick). The premise was meant to parody the comically long infomercials advertising the Gathering of the Juggalos, an annual festival put on by Insane Clown Posse for their titular fans. The parody was easy, but also needless. The juggalos make no bones about their hedonism and classlessness, and care little for what anyone who isn’t them might think. “It’s like a psycho-porn theme park,” journalist Camille Dodero said. Nor do they need to with the vindication granted them by the Fyre Festival. The Gathering has been held 17 years straight, it is a massive and intricate undertaking that understands and appreciates its audience.
As the Fyre disaster was underway, internet denizens were expectedly quick to point and laugh at the spoiled millennial Instagram brats who deigned to travel to Great Exuma, as if it was a trap we as a culture had set for them. Yet mockery quickly faded to tragedy, of a sort, when it became clear that the dilemma of Fyre was not that certain people wanted to go, but that its creators didn’t appear to think or care about the attendees at all. If they did it seemed to be as an indistinguishable sea of validation to warmly envelop them for the victory they were already celebrating. Instead they came like an irate, infected behemoth ready to devour everything in sight but had to settle for some bland cheese sandwiches.
Legends always have casualties. The Fyre Festival legend is distinctive for spreading the damage so that everyone tells the same story. It is a story at once absurdly comic, bitterly tragic, and refreshingly simple. In a way it is more like an apocalypse, the kind of story that is only supposed to happen once.