The Glastonbury Festival sits uneasily between Disney and democracy, says John Street, who wonders if there is any 'counter' left in its culture.
Just four bands played when the first Glastonbury Festival was staged 35 years ago. The event was free, but those minded to make a donation could do so by throwing change into a milk churn. Back then it would have been inconceivable that the festival would one day charge £125 for entry and that 120,000 tickets would sell out in three hours. Few, if any, could have imagined that the same ramshackle event, set on a Somerset farm, would become a staple of the summer calendar, a rival to Ascot, Henley and the Proms, that it would fill the front pages of the national papers and that the BBC would devote hours to the hundreds of performers. And no one could have conceived that at Camp Kerala, just outside the main site, the well-heeled festival-goer could pay Pounds 6,000 for butler service and luxury accommodation. But three decades ago it would also have been impossible to think that rock stars would become international statesmen, laying down the law on the conduct of the world economy to presidents and prime ministers.
The Glastonbury story is a revealing tale of our times. The media reporting this year may have been dominated by tales of biblical floods and divinely ordered thunder and lightning, but all this was premised on the assumption that Glastonbury was no ordinary rock festival.
Even without the photos of submerged tents and mud-wrestling revellers, there would have been stories of the goings-on at Worthy Farm. What started as Michael Eavis's desperate bid to pay off the mortgage on his recently inherited farm, later became a symbol of countercultural dreams and is now a conjunction of charities, corporations and celebrities. Like much of the food served by myriad pathside stalls, Glastonbury is an odd mixture.
Driving around the perimeter you see the two sets of security barricades. A metal fence circles a high concrete wall, making access to the site tougher than for the G8 talks at Gleneagles. Entering the festival is akin to crossing an international border: ticket holders are required to produce photo ID - indeed, many use their passports. Once inside, it seems you are entering another country, one that bears a family resemblance to the one you just left but slightly off kilter. It is similar to the unsettling experience of visiting a theme park, not so much EuroDisney as Glastoland.
With the population of a provincial city, an internal economy of some £14 million and its own security service, it is a self-contained kingdom. And as with a Disney park, Glastonbury is zoned. In the Left Zone, there are campaigners for Fairtrade and against the Cuban blockade. In the Green Zone, you can receive the benefits of the Emotional Freedom Technique ("ask for Suzanna in the Moonbeam Cafe"). And in the Press Zone, hanging around in the hospitality bar, are tabloid gossip columnists truffling for stories about Kate Moss and Gwyneth Paltrow, just as they would at Chinawhite or some other metropolitan club.
There are also Disney-like queues. Instead of awaiting their turn on some gravity-defying ride, people stand for two hours and more to buy wellington boots, while various enterprising entrepreneurs unload lorries of fresh supplies. Other stallholders offer alternative solutions to the appalling conditions - Headfunk, for example, promises "legal herbal highs and stuff".
Like Disney, contemporary Glastonbury is marked by the presence of its sponsors and corporate partners. The Guardian has its own showcase tent and is, it seems, the only newspaper available on site. Meanwhile, another sponsor, mobile phone company Orange ("Glastonbury's official communications partner"), announces that it is giving fans the chance to "chill and charge". The benefits provided by a further sponsor, Budweiser, are evident everywhere.
There is also a sense of the benign order and sheer pleasure that theme parks produce. It is hard to imagine a more contented and good-humoured crowd of people. Even as the mud spreads and congeals, as reports warn of E. coli as sewage seeps from the toilets and as the queues for those toilets grow to bladder-bursting lengths, people (a high proportion of whom appear to be students) give every sign of having a great time. And who could not? Where else could you wander - in the space of a few metres - from the beauty of the teepee field at twilight, the statuesque white constructions standing serenely, knots of people chatting quietly around campfires, to the Lost Vagueness field with its offering of kitsch on stilts (literally) and an Oxygen Rehabilitation Bar, to the sounds of the Scottish duo The Proclaimers, igniting a crowd in a communal singalong to their anthem I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) ?
The analogy with Disney is, of course, both glib and unfair. Glastonbury still retains strong connections with a very different kind of utopia. From the beginning it has claimed for itself a tradition of egalitarianism mixed with mysticism - Glastonbury Tor can be viewed from almost every spot on the site in the Vale of Avalon. It has continued to retain the best of (much-maligned) hippy ideals in its association with good causes. From CND in the early days, to Greenpeace, Wateraid and Oxfam today, the festival has given away huge sums of money to charity (more than £1.24 million last year), as well as fuelling the local economy.
This year the festival's romantic politics were focused on what became known as "the 4pm moment" on Saturday, when Bob Geldof urged the crowd to hold hands and chant, "Make poverty history". And they did, their linked arms held aloft in a gesture of hope and expectation. That utopianism was in keeping with the festival's persisting spirit, if not with the harder political lessons it has learnt.
Glastonbury has, in a way, been an experiment in political order. Not only have there been the protracted local politics over the licensing of the festival, but there have also been the internal politics of the site itself. The more relaxed security policy of the early days, and the reluctance to allow the police inside, led in the 1980s to a festival scarred by ruthless drug gangs and virtual no-go areas - from Rousseau's natural idyll to Hobbes's state of war. The security wall, built at a cost of £1 million, was the price of order. Now with the police on site, the horses of the mounted officers attracting the affectionate pats of punters, the crime rate is reported to have fallen by nearly 50 per cent.
The music, too, tends to the safe, to the aspirationally new Labour. No one is going to storm the barricades to the maudlin beauty of Coldplay's Yellow or Keane's - Coldplay's younger brothers - Everybody's Changing . Even the Kaiser Chiefs' enthusiastic performance of I Predict a Riot suggests that, if their prediction came true, it would provoke no more than toe-tapping at the Bank of England. Almost all the music played on the main Pyramid stage tends towards heart-warming populism. Only the surly Primal Scream, late on the last night, threaten the general mood of bonhomie in which each band earnestly expresses the hope that we are having as good a time as they are.
Even away from the main arena, on the many other platforms, the mood retains a bucolic cheeriness, epitomised by the cockney choruses of Chas 'n' Dave, men old enough to be the grandparents of the fans who sing along with them. But there are signs of music that threatens to unsettle or challenge. Martha Wainwright's song Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole , a daughter's bilious response to a father's desertion, is especially moving and disturbing amid the rural beauty. Even Nigel Kennedy's experimentation with jazz-fusion, his violin tingling chilled spines, proves that he is more of an enfant terrible than the media's chosen occupant of that role, Pete Doherty and his band Babyshambles (never has a group been more aptly named).
Perhaps the "counter" in the cultural at Glastonbury is not to be found in the music so much as in the fields where circus acts and theatre troupes ply their trade. Here, actors dress as lollipop ladies to accost passers-by, a duo commits, in their words, "random acts of jazz" or "marriage" ceremonies are performed in the Chapel of Love and Loathing.
These left-field elements of Glastonbury do not feature much, if at all, in the media account of the event. And that, of course, is what Glastonbury has become - a "media event", and one presented in a very particular way.
While the memories of the 120,000 ticket holders will be etched with their own experience of mud and music, for the larger world Glastonbury is presented in a very different form. The BBC's coverage, for example, plays up relentlessly the popularity of the bands - all those (very middle-class) fans saying how "brilliant" they found Razorlight, The Killers, Basement Jaxx. In the process, too, the broadcasting enshrines a particular (white) pop history, exemplified by the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. The BBC gives viewers and listeners privileged access to the acts: live in your home, not stuck in the mud, crushed so tight together you can barely move an arm, or standing on the edge of the arena, miles from the barely discernible performers, whose music is carried away on the wind. Meanwhile, the print media invent a Glastonbury that mirrors their own world, a world in which, as we learnt on Saturday morning, The Sun "saved" Glastonbury with its double-decker bus, "lovelies" on board. For the moment at least, Glastonbury sits - uneasily - between these worlds of tabloid gossip and media hype, of corporate marketing and of utopian political experiments - not Disney, but not democracy either.
John Street is a professor of politics at the University of East Anglia.