Slouching Towards Instagram
Lessons From Didion, Fyre Festival, and Being Born in 1995
No one can say for sure when a generation is born. Even now, as I straddle the line between Millennial and Gen Z, the distinction feels like a game of socio-historical “Hot or Cold.” I remember the world before everyone had cell phones, but not before they forever altered our social lives. I knew the Great Recession was bad, but I wasn’t as scared as my parents or the people on TV. 9/11 was an unexplained early dismissal from kindergarten.
However, as a society, we have much less trouble pinpointing when a generation “ends.” In every era, there comes a point where the spotlight of the zeitgeist begins to dim, where the mainstream goes out to the ocean and whatever youth culture exists in the tributaries flows in to take its place.
Lately, two works have had me examining these moments for two different generations. Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays consists of a former actress’s observations of the ennui that sets in as the Silent Generation loses their grasp on what would no longer be known as Old Hollywood. FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened chronicles how one music festival went from being marketed as an idyllic millennial fantasy to exposing the emptiness behind that generation’s desires. Together, the bridge between two works reveals a very tired truth: for every generation, the end of your era looks more or less the same.
In every era, there comes a point where the spotlight of the zeitgeist begins to dim…
For a novel first published in 1970, Play It As It Lays reads like it was written yesterday. The book opens with three brief introductory chapters, each written from the perspective of a different narrator. However, only one of these voices will be the one to tell us what we need to hear. This is Maria (that’s “Mar-eye-ah”) Wyeth, who, from the novel’s iconic opening line, refuses to hide any of her acerbic worldview. (“What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.”) She’s a native Nevadan turned New York model turned Hollywood actress, not that any of that matters to her now. She was married to a famous producer, but their relationship crumbled when their daughter was sent to a mental hospital, similar to the one Maria’s living in now. The end of her story is harsh, and the journey she takes to get there isn’t any easier. As Maria recalls the past few months of her life, she’ll get divorced, have an abortion, and watch the only person who might understand her overdose on painkillers while she falls asleep in his arms.
In Play It As It Lays, Didion brings the same critical eye to the superficial bliss of late 60’s Hollywood that she does to the tweaked-out Haight-Ashbury depicted in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her landmark essay collection published only two years before Play It…. Despite this, Didion never judges Maria. Most of the time, she seems like the most grounded person in her world of flighty actresses and self-serious “auteurs.” Maria knows that the party of the last decade will be over soon, and that the next morning’s hangover is going to hurt like hell. She also knows that after the headache finally fades, there’s still an entire life left to live, so it’s no use complaining.
Not that any of this stops Maria from indulging in the same chemical cures as everyone else around her. Over the course of the novel, Maria takes a small pharmacy’s worth of medications, and washes it down with whatever liquor is available. Perhaps this contributes to the novel’s hazy, jump-cut narrative. We’re never really sure what’s happening in any given moment or how much time has passed from one moment to another. Granted, this could just be another facet of the novel’s social commentary. Every generation hits that point where they lose the plot and never find it again.
The stars of Didion’s Hollywood are perched at the edge of a generational cliff. They didn’t fight in a World War, like the Greatest Generation before them, but they have to live in a world filled with its wreckage. Similarly, they can see the change coming on the horizon, but it’s not close enough for them to enjoy the freedom that the Baby Boomers will have. When fate deals you such an unlucky hand, there’s only one thing you can do. While you’re at it, you might as well make it the title of your novel.
Every generation hits that point where they lose the plot and never find it again.
While the personalities in FYRE aren’t any less hedonistic than those in Play It…, they sure have more fun in the process, albeit at others’ expense. Fyre Festival was a music festival organized by CEO wunderkind Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule in 2017 as a way to promote Fyre, their app that they described as “the Uber of booking talent.” With a promotional video produced by the viral marketing specialists at Jerry Media featuring supermodels Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski, Fyre was advertised as the entertainment event of the decade.
Unfortunately, it was a promise that McFarland and Co. couldn’t keep. Through a series of astounding logistical failures, seemingly every aspect of Fyre Festival fell far short of expectations, resulting in one disastrous weekend during which drunk, angry festival attendees resorted to looting each other’s hurricane shelter “villas” after having been denied access to food or water. The festival was cancelled, the partygoers were sent home, and McFarland cut and run, leaving a trail of unpaid bills and pending lawsuits in his wake.
FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened tells the story of the infamous festival from everyone who made it, well, not happen. It’s a story of what happens when gross incompetence meets the cult of personality that surrounds messianic start-up founders. One by one, FYRE introduces ordinary people who were sucked into McFarland’s vision of providing consumers with an experience as fulfilling and lucrative as the Instagram-ready promotional video. At first, you can’t blame them. Who wouldn’t want to make a fortune selling the ultimate weekend getaway to a generation famous for prioritizing experiences over goods?
It’s only when the plan goes awry and the money begins to run out that we’re able to see how the motives behind this pursuit devolved from industrious determination into white-knuckle insanity. In one notable segment, Andy King, the NYC-based event planner who served as a mentor to McFarland, tells the story of how McFarland asked him to “take one for the team” by performing oral sex on the customs agent who had seized a shipment of drinking water for the festival. The uncomfortable laughter that King’s story induces is the wide eyed, jaw-dropping variety that leaves you asking how someone could delude themselves to the point where even literal prostitution seems like a good idea.
Unfortunately, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an answer. FYRE doesn’t pay much attention to the greater story behind the debacle, what the failure of this one festival says about the generation that made it happen. What does it mean that McFarland made his (admittedly fraudulent) millions by selling a dream of celebrity-endorsed luxury to a generation that has built its identity through filtered photos and 140 character taglines? And what does it mean that despite its democratic appeal, that dream was really only available to those with celebrity-sized wallets? Did Fyre Festival vindicate an entire generation who suspected that there might not be anything behind the marketing? Or was it just another headline on our Twitter feeds, something to laugh at in a world that had long ago reached a fever pitch of online outrage?
Midway through FYRE, King recalls calming himself before the festival’s disastrous opening night by thinking to himself “How many people died at Woodstock?” While King’s thinking is alarming at best, he’s not wrong to compare Fyre to the Baby Boomers’ generation-defining festivals of the 1960’s. However, he’s in the right neighborhood, but the wrong house. Fyre Festival was not the Millennial Woodstock. It was their Altamont.
You can forgive him for missing the mark. Just as Altamont followed Woodstock by only four months, less than a year passed between Fyre Festival and the weekend when McFarland and Co. shot the festival’s promotional video. Because, as several disgruntled Fyre employees remark in FYRE, the promo shoot was the real Fyre Festival. McFarland, Ja Rule, and their influencer friends had their epic party on the beach, and they brought along a professional marketing crew to document it. The final product was beautiful, luxurious, and completely unattainable.
Fyre Festival was not the Millennial Woodstock. It was their Altamont.
Looking back at Play It As It Lays and FYRE, I don’t know if there’s any lesson that can be retrieved from the ashes of a fading generation. After all, the Silent Generation didn’t go extinct once the Baby Boomers stormed Hollywood. The Millennials are still eating kale and killing everything from real estate to retail. Furthermore, with each successive generation outnumbering the one before it, there’s no way one book or movie or song could define the multiplicity of experiences contained within that number. In 2019, the idea of a generation is almost passé, a term of economics and business that should never have been applied to living, breathing people.
Then why bother reflecting on these generations, if we’re so willing to acknowledge their obsolescence? It’s partially a matter of convenience. The benefit of hindsight makes it much easier to tie a bow on certain people born in an uncertain time. Further to that point, a generation, like most widely repeated history and armchair social science, is just a story. As such, it has the mysterious effect of easing the existential anxiety that comes from contemplating your place in the landscape of which you and your contemporaries only caught a glimpse. It’s an attempt to wrestle with history, to prove that this group of people played the hand they were dealt to the best of their ability. We want this to be true, if only because so much of life feels like being trapped in the casino: that bright room filled with loud music and cigarette smoke. Angry conversations with old patrons who have been playing the slot machines too long. Another invitation to another party that’s never going to happen.
You can buy Play It As It Lays at your local bookstore. You can stream FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened on Netflix. You can like this post with the button below.