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From prawn kidnappings to breast-milk raves: are festival crowds more unhinged than ever?

A fan throwing their mother’s ashes at P!nk and the phone-chucking trend is only the start. Have live music audiences always been this rowdy, or are we straying into new, dangerous territory?

Written by
Henrietta Taylor

Festival crowds are special. True, they’re stuffed with sweaty people, obnoxiously tall people, people who elbow you in the back of the neck to get to the front, and people whose relentless Lost Mary habit obscures your view with smoke. It matters not. These people, over the course of a gig, become your brothers-in-arms. That’s just what a festival does to us.

From Glasto to Bestival, Reading and Leeds to Wireless, the sloppy fields of UK music festis have forever been the time and place for us to escape our gruelling nine-to-fives, boogie-on-down to bangers and get a bit silly, shouty, strange and maybe even disgusting.

Our antics aren’t limited to the crush of a crowd either. We all know by now that this month, P!nk had a weird old time at her show at BST Hyde Park. Not only did one fan present the US popstar with an enormous wheel of brie, but a second chucked their mother’s ashes onto the stage, leaving the artist stunned, saying: ‘I don’t know how I feel about this.’ These recent odd behaviours beg the question: have festivals always made us act this unhinged? 

Letting loose

Well, the simple answer is: yes. Beyond the time-honoured tradition of flinging urine-filled bottles skyward, anecdotes detailing bizarre festival antics are endless.

A few years back, audience members at Boomtown festival in Hampshire dressed-up as prawns and allegedly performed strange, fishy rituals to their fellow punters. ‘They started by giving me a manicure with prawn mayo or something, and then had these foot spas full of ramen,’ says Dan, who was there. ‘Obviously prawn flavoured.’

He says the crustacean gang slathered him in prawn-mayo before treating him to a full-body massage. ‘No one believed me when I first got back to my campsite,’ Dan says. ‘I was like: “just smell my top”’. It’s possible that this strange ceremony may have occurred in a tent called The Prawnucopia Lounge – but Dan remembers it as one fishy fever dream.

Meanwhile, two people who attended the Welsh underground music festival Balter in 2019 have the same scene stamped on their brains: ‘It was such a sunny day and everyone was dancing around,’ says 27-year-old Maisie, a veteran festival fan. ‘There was a woman dancing with her boobies out, squirting milk for everyone who had their mouths open in front of her.’ She adds: ‘I realised that it was even funnier because she was probably having a mummy’s weekend away at the scattiest festival I’ve ever been to.’

Fellow attendee Josh corroborates the tale, adding crucial context: ‘A remix of “Milkshake” was playing.’ Whatever Kelis had in mind, surely it could never have been this. 

So, where is the line between a bit of a laugh and decidedly not okay behaviour – is there one? A quick flick through recent music news suggests that there is, and that crowds are increasingly eager to cross it. 

Violence isn’t fun, guys

Something about putting the artists we love in uncomfortable, potentially unsafe positions feels like a level beyond typical mischief making. Alongside P!nk’s cheese-and-ashes saga, there is a growing number of musicians who have been smacked in the face on stage by hands, phones and other unidentified flying objects.

American Express Presents BST Hyde Park
Photograph: Dave Hogan / Hogan Media

The list of projectiles goes on and on: Lil Nas X had a sex toy flung at him, Harry Styles had a Skittle hurled into his eye, Steve Lacy was pelted in the leg with an unnamed object and in response, broke the offending fan’s disposable camera. Styles (poor lad), Justin Bieber, Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga have all been on the receiving end of a bizarre spate of Dr Simi Doll throwings, while more recently Bebe Rexha was injured by the so-stupid-it’s-dangerous phone-chucking trend. A fan also threw their phone at Drake during a performance, which smacked the champagne papi in the arm. Meanwhile, Ava Max wasn’t so lucky when a man stormed the stage this month and hit her so hard that he scratched the inside of her eye. 

Even tokens of gratitude can be a menace when hurled at speed. Just days after the Bebe Rexha incident, country singer Kelsea Ballerini was forced to stop singing when a fan threw a bracelet at her face, and just few days ago, Taylor Swift almost suffered a similar fate when she had to duck to avoid taking a beating from some flying friendship bracelets as she left her concert in Kansas city. At least she was able to ‘Shake It Off’ – but do these attacks suggest that crowds are getting worse?

R we all ok?

Dr Kirsty Sedgman is an author and lecturer based at the University of Bristol who specialises in media, culture and the audience experience. According to her, the debate on whether audiences are becoming increasingly badly behaved isn’t new: it’s 2000 years old. ‘Plato complained about how people used sit quietly and have respect when they were watching people performing,’ she explains, rather than hissing, groaning or hurling sloppy food or rocks when they disliked something. Sound familiar? 

But even with the debate raging for millennia, one rather unsurprising factor might explain why modern audiences are becoming the actual worst. ‘Historically, it’s been normal to have rowdy, sociable forms of cultural experience, but we haven’t quite seen it at this scale before,’ says Sedgman. It seems that post lockdown, there’s an overriding sense among concertgoers and experts alike that bad behaviour is on the rise. ‘It’s leading to real moments of conflict, and even violence,’ she says.  

Professor John Drury, a lecturer in social psychology at the University of Sussex and one of the leading authorities on crowds and collective behaviour, agrees with Sedgman’s view. According to his research, many live-event staff have reported a change in some audience-members’ attitudes post-pandemic. ‘They’re mostly attributing it to the reopening of live events after they were closed down two years ago during Covid,’ Drury says.

But it’s the bigger stadium size shows and festivals where the most unhinged behaviour tends to play out. ‘I’ve spoken to quite a few people who go to small, intimate gigs and they’re less likely to report this type of out-of-control behaviour,’ he says. The pandemic may well have tipped our modern collective shenanigans over the edge, sending us way back to Ancient Greece.

Crowd mentality 

According to Sedgman, Plato suggested ‘controlling’ unruly audience members with a stick to keep their annoying silliness at bay. Unfortunately, in this day in age, it’s not a realistic (nor legal) fix for this multi-layered, era-spanning issue.

What’s more, alongside our longstanding urges and pent-up pandemic energy, in a time where artists like Lizzo and Harry Styles have taken audience-members’ phones and gifted them with onstage videos and selfies, to some fans, hurling your phone onstage may seem like a proactive way of getting the goods. And, failing that, chucking some random item – be it a sex toy or a wheel of cheese – may at the very least get you noticed.

Lewis Capaldi at Glastonbury
Photograph: Matt Crossick/Empics/Alamy

Many artists have noticed and recently spoken out against phone and miscellaneous object throwing, with Adele notably addressing her Las Vegas audience: ‘I fucking dare you. I dare you to throw something at me.’

Others seem aware that, for most fans, the impulse spurs from some sort of desire for connection. ‘When you’re up there it blows,’ Billie Eilish recently told the Hollywood Reporter. ‘But you know it’s out of love and they’re just trying to give you something.’ Crowds can be unhinged, but as we saw at Glastonbury when the fans helped Lewis Capaldi to finish ‘Someone You Love’, they are also brimming with goodwill. It’s just, when we're giddy from seeing our favourite artists in the flesh, surrounded by thousands of similarly hyped-up fellow revellers and seven or so ciders in, even the most good natured among us can be tempted to take things a little too far. 

Sedgman agrees. ‘There’s a real tendency to say that we’ve forgotten how to behave, but I don’t think that’s true,’ she says. ‘What we’re seeing post-Covid is the hunger for collective effervescence: those experiences of fun, exuberant, collective shared joy.’ So, by all means, get kidnapped by prawns and glug as much breast milk as you dare, but please keep your phones out of musicians' faces.  

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