This year, Primavera Sound’s organisers made a huge promise for the 19th edition of the festival: at least 50% of the festival’s acts would be women. ‘The New Normal’, as it was called, promised total gender parity – that “this is the edition in which everything changes”.
Initial public reaction to the mission was mixed, with old-timers questioning the move from primarily indie rock and more towards reggaeton and hip hop. ‘Bring back the old normal’, many called out on social media. There were concerns – not so much about the aim of gender equality, but more that Primavera was losing its way.
A shame, really – because they missed the chance to watch history in action at what was Primavera’s most popular year yet.
And history was not just made by the female headliners – the astonishing stage presence of FKA Twigs and Janelle Monae, the fun-loving pop of Carly Rae Jepsen, Robyn and Rosalia.
History was made by all female artists across all stages taking part in this celebration of women. There’s ‘The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices’, featuring beatboxing, traditional folk instruments and an extensively trained choir who use vocal techniques rooted in Byzantine and Ottoman culture.
There’s Haru Nemuri and CHAI, who shatter all previous conceptions of Japanese female artists and creating, in CHAI words, ‘neo-kawaii’; in Nemuri’s words, “Japanese pop for the new generation”.
There’s infectious modern soul and R&B flavours from Lizzo, with a crowd that spilled out over the beach to the beat of her irresistible finale song ‘Juice’. The Beths, Miya Folick, Little Simz, Nilüfer Yanya, Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, Big Thief and so much more – embodying the best examples of their genres.
History was also made by the inclusivity from male artists. And there’s no better example than that shown by Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, who worked to form a women-only mosh pit and help female fans have a safe space to crowdsurf for the first time, where ‘men and strong women’ could support them to the barrier. Male feminists are given a hard time, but Frank Carter showed us all how to talk about equality and rethink the language we use on a daily basis.
Take Sons of Kemet too. Saxophonist extraordinaire Shabaka Hutchings, accompanied by tubaist Theon Cross and their four mighty drummers, takes us on a tour of latest album ‘Your Queen is a Reptile’. Jazz is the fiery language that portrays the nine influential black women on this album, including Shabaka’s own grandmother. Sons of Kemet deconstructs the whole idea of hereditary monarchy, asking people to question instead: ‘Who is my Queen?’ ‘Who do I consider my Queen?’ ‘Do I have a Queen?’.
And finally, history was made when attendees had the chance to consider what “the new normal” might look like. This happened at J Balvin. The relevance of his exaggeratedly masculine performance, the hypersexualised form of the woman, jarred with the festival’s vibe. Some stayed; many escaped. Stereolab was one of these refuges; even the most tired of feet were soon tapping to electronic indie pop until the early, early hours.
Chasing gender parity as a goal raises inevitable questions about the sustainability of this vision – should all festivals be equal genders, even male-dominated festivals like metal or math-rock? Should we be aiming to entrench gender splits, rather than relinquishing them? But in leading by example, Primavera went a long way to answering these questions, simply by demonstrating what that reality could look like – and by expressing the hope that one day, gender parity won’t need to be formalised or structured, because women under-representation will no longer happen.
Primavera Sound goes from strength to strength, leading even when it’s hard to lead. This year was the festival’s most popular – more than 220,000 attendees, plus another record-breaking Saturday of attendance. And with the announcement of Barcelona opening sister festivals in new locations next year – Los Angeles and a currently unannounced location, tipped to be London – people across the world, far from the stages of Parc del Forum, will be able to experience the 2020 vision for themselves.
One thing’s certain for female empowerment in music and the arts: there’s no place for the old normal. The new normal is here. And, in the words of Primavera’s 2020 vision: “What is coming has just begun”.