The Fest That Fun Built
A celebration of the underdog’s fight for music.
By Elijah Watson, University of Texas at Austin
Fun Fun Fun Fest.
Its very name implies an excessive amount of enjoyment: a three-day event featuring beer, food, comedy, music, sports and, most importantly, a taco cannon.
In its ten years, the festival has grown from 20plus artists to 100plus artists, one day to three days and moved from Waterloo Park to Auditorium Shores (recently renamed Vic Mathias Shores).
But the road to fun hasn’t always been smooth. Terrible weather conditions, last minute lineup changes, artist temper tantrums (the infamous Danzig meltdown of 2011), sound ordinances, festival entrance problems and, more recently, the possible relocation of the annual Austin event, have all threatened to hamstring the festival at one point or another.
Fun Fun Fun Fest’s track record of overcoming these hiccups is partly responsible for their reputation of making the impossible possible. Also partly responsible—their uncanny knack for giving us exactly what we didn’t know we wanted because it didn’t exist.
Nominees for this category include: memorable reunion performances from Death, Murder City Devils, Neurosis and Run DMC, a wedding officiated by former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins, and, once again, a taco cannon.
As connoisseurs of fun, Transmission Events knows that the headiest varietal of fun is the unexpected and unpredictable sort. And as a result, Fun Fun Fun Fest continues to expand on this idea as each year passes, this fest being no exception.
Although presented as the festival’s 10-year anniversary (and therefore a cause to celebrate), the festivities didn’t really pick up until Friday evening, when performers like Antemasque, Converge, Hudson Mohawke, Rae Sremmurd and Coheed and Cambria took their respective stages.
And even then, the energy of the first day (and those that followed) felt lackluster, the audience noticeably tame: little to no movement, hands stretched to the sky holding horizontal phones, anxiously awaiting a moment that merited an Instagram.
The contemporary music festival is suffering from a syndrome that looks a lot like a show within a screen, within a screen, within a screen. Everyone’s fixated on capturing moments instead of enjoying them. Yes, both can be done simultaneously, but there’s an obvious desire to do the former much more than the latter these days.
For better or worse it’s become normalized—we still talk shit about selfie stick users though, which is reassuring.
But the days of screenless shows are long gone, a romanticized era that our children, their children and their children’s children will never know of.
Yes, I know I sound condescending and cynical as fuck. But can you blame me after seeing Converge, a Fun Fun Fun Fest alumni notorious for their energetic and chaotic performances, giving their all on the Black Stage underneath a beautiful star-filled Friday night sky, and not one circle pit is being conducted? Not even one? That’s a scary sight.
But problems like that aren’t in the hands of our Fun Fun Fun Fest overlords. The masters are here to give us good music and amusing novelties that distinguish their fest from other fests. That’s their job and they do it really well.
Where else can you watch a performance from Peaches (whose set should be taught as a sex ed course in high schools across the country) one moment, and a reunited Babes In Toyland the next? Or watch GG Allin’s comedic counterpart Eric Andre talk about dropping acid while masturbating to Sailor Moon, and then jumping onstage to receive twerking lessons from Big Freedia?
In fact, a crucial part of Fun Fun Fun Fest that doesn’t get talked about enough is its absurdity. The minds behind the festival make a point of packaging performers and spectacles together in a way that no one else has or wants to, and these juxtapositions are a large part of why FFFfest continues to grow.
Of course, all music festivals have to follow some degree of protocol and Fun Fun Fun Fest is no exception, but when they break rules—and they do break rules—you never really know who or what’s going to happen.
For one, the body politic that’s tasked with curating the roster seems ten years ahead of everyone else, and not just because their underground selection. When I told a friend that Afrika Bambaataa was performing, he absolutely lost his shit. “Who else is putting Bambaataa on at their music festival,” he asked incredulously.
Idiosyncrasy like this has always given the fest subtle notes of underdog, and this year—FFFfest’s 10-year anniversary of all years—provided a blunt reminder of what can happen to underdogs. In June, because of recent renovations at Vic Mathias Shores, it looked for a moment like the festival either wasn’t going to happen or was going to have to happen elsewhere.
The area has recently been split into three distinct sections: the main event lawn, the middle lawn and a designated off-leash dog area. Transmission Events wanted to use the off-leash dog area, even though it’s supposed to remain out of the mix when it comes to concerts and events.
Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department and Transmission Events couldn’t come to an agreement, so the City Council intervened and unanimously passed a resolution that gave organizers the necessary acre.
The use of the off-leash acre was a temporary fix though, meaning that relocation is still a possibility in coming years. But for now the battle was won. And what do you do after you win a battle?
The celebration extended beyond Vic Mathias Shores, and went late into the night at Red River Cultural District staples like Mohawk, Cheer Up Charlie’s, Empire and Beerland, as well as at other downtown Austin venues like ACL Live, the Parish and Vulcan Gas Company. And the best part? Free as long as you had your wristband. No additional payment necessary.
Sure, chances are you had to wait in line for 30-40 minutes, but there’s nothing like sharing a sweaty dance floor with people just as excited as you are that Toro Y Moi dropped Evelyn Champagne King’s “Love Come Down.”
The FFFfest Nites, especially in light of recent developments, play an important symbolic role in the fest’s underdog ethos. The construction of downtown condos and their corresponding rent hikes are threatening local venues, forcing beloved haunts like Red 7 and Holy Mountain to close in August and September of this year.
As I walked to Cheer Up Charlie’s for a Nite show, I couldn’t get the grim image of shuttered venues out of my mind. But as we cheered at Cheer Up’s, I was able to forget for a second that owners Maggie Lea and Tamara Hoover still fear possible closure as a result of construction for the new Hyatt House hotel off Red River.
As a friend, myself and the rest of the audience waited for Peaches to take Cheer Up’s outdoor stage, a platform dwarfed by a tidal wave of white stone backlit in pink and blue, we were greeted by CHRISTEENE, the opening act.
A self-described “human pissoir [sic] of raw unabashed sexuality” and “a gender blending, booty pounding, perversion of punk,” the Austin-based performer put on one of the most memorable sets I’ve seen in a long time.
Clad in a thong and flanked by two dancers, CHRISTEENE’s performance was a celebration of sex, acceptance and ass — specifically the asshole. At one point, CHRISTEENE stuck her face in between the ass cheeks of one of her backup dancers and remained there for several seconds.
I thought of Iggy Pop, GG Allin, Sid Vicious and Donita Sparks. I was speechless from beginning to end, mouth agape and eyes wide, never once taking my eyes off CHRISTEENE.
In a nutshell, that’s what’s really special about FFFfest: not only does the event reflect the musical diversity of Austin in its performers, but it also highlights local acts in grassroots venues, paying tribute to the complex root system that it takes to grow that kind of musical diversity. Hopefully that, along with Big Freedia and the taco cannon, will be enough to keep the fun alive.