No Dickheads? We Need To Talk About Meredith Music Festival

It's time to face some uncomfortable truths.

It’s about 8:30PM on Friday night at Meredith Music Festival. My friends and I are standing watching ESG, the iconic NYC no-wave band playing their last Australian shows this year. A man runs in front of us and starts dancing wildly. It’s nice — he obviously cares a lot about this band, and he’s having a good time.

He’s pretty intense, and sometimes he bumps into my friends and I or steps on our toes. ‘It’s probably not intentional,’ I think to myself, ‘This is Meredith — No Dickheads Allowed, right?’ So I ask him to stop stepping on our toes. He gives me the finger. Nice. He turns around and begins bumping into us again. What was initially charming is now irksome. He steps on my toes again, and I push him forward. He gives me the finger again. Sick one, bro. Finally, when he does it again, I poke him. This is the final straw for him. “Have you even been to Meredith before, man?”

Of course, it’s not a question. It’s a quiet warning — ‘If you get stroppy at me for disrespecting your space you won’t seem very chill’ is the implication. And, of course, being ‘chill’ is the Meredith way. No dickheads allowed — this is a chill festival. Got any critiques of the event? Save them, man — don’t go sounding so negative. This is a chill festival.

I have been to Meredith before, in 2014. During a Cloud Nothings set I was sharply elbowed in the head and fell to the ground, which elicited a ’Fuck yeah, man!’ from the person who elbowed me. Then, later, not one but two separate punters came up to me asking for the cricket score. When I asked the first one why he thought I’d know the score, he said ‘Come on, man, the match is against India!’ and when I asked the second one if it was because I look Indian, he replied with a blustery and drawn-out ‘Nah, it was just, I thought, I dunno’. When I told the first guy to “fuck off,” he replied with “Come on man, no dickheads here — I just wanted to know the score!” Hmmm.

It’s a tale as old as time — vaguely progressive communities tout equality and then use their supposed progressive-ness as an excuse to take up the space of those who aren’t cisgendered or white or male or straight.

Photo by Katie Fairservice

Don’t get me wrong: Meredith is a great festival, and it’s an incredibly valuable cultural enterprise. The placement of smaller bands in prime slots is wonderful, and the line-ups have been getting more diverse and more interesting every year. But there are issues, as there are with any cultural institution that’s been going on this long.

The ‘No Dickhead Policy’, while well-intentioned, is just used as an excuse to enact dickhead-ish behaviour, as with the rowdy ESG dancer or my ‘no dickheads here’ cricket guy. As the saying goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions and lined with white dudes who will tell you you’re overreacting if you call them out on something.

“Don’t get me wrong: Meredith is a great festival, and it’s an incredibly valuable cultural enterprise”

The first couple of times I experienced this vibe at Meredith I was willing to put it down to coincidence (I had heard that this festival was just so chill!) but by the end of the Friday night this year it feels like my suspicions were confirmed.

During Total Control — a band I like a lot, and who I was very excited to see — the crowd, mostly young white men, begins to get rowdy, pushing and shoving, pouring beer on other punters. The friend I’m standing with asks one of the beer-pourers to stop. The beer pourer stops for a moment, smiles a fiendish smile, and starts spraying his beer on the crowd again. ‘Why would I stop when I can keep inconveniencing the rest of the audience without consequence?’ his eyes seem to say.

The rest of the set is pretty much the same — pushing, shoving, little care or respect for the space of others. Total Control are playing songs from their latest record, Laughing At The System; this feels more like reinforcing of the system. (At the time, I felt that I might have been overreacting; in the morning, though, I ran into a friend who told me she went to bed straight after Total Control because she felt uncomfortable in such a “bro-y” crowd. This morning, I got a message from a friend, a big Total Control fan, who said he had to leave two songs in because of how uncoppable the crowd was.)

It’s an uncomfortable truth to face, but Meredith has a masculinity problem. In terms of lineup, the festival is miles ahead of anyone else in the game; plenty of women, people of colour, trans people and queer people played Meredith this year. But the culture of the festival hasn’t quite caught up. What’s the point of having a representative line-up if marginalised punters still aren’t having a good time?

The rest of Friday night is a write off; Warpaint are excellent, but I’m perturbed by the two dickhead incidents in quick succession. I think Warpaint’s albums are very okay — there are some good tracks here and there, but I don’t have the attention span for their murky, winding jams. Live, they’re a completely different beast: dynamic and driving, propelled by Stella Mozgawa’s drumming. They might be the most dexterous band to take the stage across the whole weekend. I’m not usually one to froth over technical skill, but the way the four-piece play together is magnetic.

Photo by Katie Fairservice

Saturday fares a lot better than Friday, with a pretty solid run of great programming for the whole day. Big Thief, back in Australia for the second time this year performing songs from their new album Capacity, provide an early highlight. While they’re only touring as a three-piece this time around, lead singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker is still an incredibly compelling frontperson; the tension between folk and full-on rock that exists in Big Thief’s records is just as present in Lenker’s performance, too. During songs like ‘Real Love’, a heart-breaking slow burner from their debut, she’s impossible to look away from.

Rhode Island punk band Downtown Boys prove best-in-show for the weekend with a blistering and deeply uplifting set. The five-piece, led by lead singer Victoria Ruiz, are brazenly political; Ruiz screams about white supremacy and class divide and numerous other injustices. Each song is introduced individually, with Ruiz providing notes on their themes — usually class disparity, or empowering queer and brown people.

A highlight is the bizarre and beautiful cover of Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’, prefaced with a call for us to “not be afraid of the dark.” It’s striking to see the contrast between Downtown Boys’ set and Total Control’s set the night before. Both political punk bands, both playing loud and somewhat aggressive music — but there was a sense of safety in numbers during Downtown Boys’ set that just wasn’t present during Total Control’s.

Noname and Miss Blanks, playing early on Saturday evening, put the heavyweights playing after them to shame. Noname, the Chicago rapper born Fatimah Nyeema Warner, is received rapturously, and she seems visibly stoked, interacting with the audience and running through a series of highlights from her excellent mixtape Telefone. Her band is small, but the show doesn’t need to be flashy — a surprisingly large portion of the crowd is already familiar with her music, and anyone who isn’t is won over by her immense charisma.

Miss Blanks only has a 30-minute time-slot, but it’s in a prime position between Harvey Sutherland and Hunters & Collectors’ Mark Seymour. She makes the most of it, quickly running through tracks from her new EP Diary of a Thotaholic, as well as older singles. It’s one of Miss Blanks’ biggest shows yet, but she doesn’t seem nervous; backed up by a DJ and dancers, she prowls along the stage like a veteran.

Miss Blanks // Photo by Atong Atem

The rest of Saturday night features back-to-back crowd pleasers: Mark Seymour performing some Hunters & Collectors songs, as well as solo material; Future Islands, playing that one Future Islands song that everyone knows; and Todd Terje, playing that one Todd Terje song that everyone knows. Before the festival I was skeptical of the booking of these artists, but it’s undeniably fun to be able to let loose to ‘Inspector Norse’ or ‘Seasons’ in the amphitheatre.

The Sunday morning wake-up is painful, but I drag myself out of my tent to see Emma Russack, who fucking owns the stage, even though there are few in the audience. Clad in a muscle top, Russack is in full rock-god mode, even if her songs are slightly more mild-mannered than ‘full rock-god’. She makes a joke about her latest “hit single”, but it might as well have not been a joke — these songs are well and truly hits, impeccably crafted songs that are funny and weird and devastating.

Japanese Breakfast, the Philadelphia artist Michelle Zauner, is currently on her first tour of Australia and exceeds all expectations. I’m a big fan of both her records, but this set is something else entirely, a sleek and muscular set that somehow manages to feel cohesive despite the tonal shifts between straight-up indie rock and more abstract territory. Zauner screams as she finishes the breathtaking ‘Machinist’, a song that sounds good recorded but is transcendent here.

I begin walking back to my campsite as The Meredith Gift — the festival’s annual nude run — begins. I’ve seen enough pricks for one weekend.

Shaad D’Souza is a freelance writer from Melbourne. Follow him on Twitter here.

Article image by Katie Fairservice