We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the hundreds of water bottles we were supposed to give away at SXSW is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on when a person can rightly be considered too old to attend music festivals.
Erin Briskie writes via email: “I just caught myself Googling ‘how old is too old to go to music festivals.’ We all know the answer is ‘never too old,’ but is there an age range where you start feeling like the not-so-wise, probably-should-have-consumed-more-water godfather of the festival circuit? If so, how does one prepare herself? I don’t want the summer festival to act as a catalyst for the downward spiral of quarter-life crisis. Or maybe the feeling is inevitable and part of a twisted adult rite of passage?”
First, allow me to speak for a significant percentage of the people reading this when I incredulously yell, “Quarter-life crisis?!” Yeah, no, you’re not too old to go to music festivals.
That said, you’re never too young to feel old. More than 20 years ago, I spent my last night as a teenager attending a concert by “Weird Al” Yankovic, and when he started to play “Smells Like Nirvana,” a gaggle of us nerds ran up and formed a makeshift mosh pit in front of the stage. When the song ended — which is to say, after four minutes of lightly jostling around with a few dozen “Weird Al” Yankovic fans — I lurched back to my my padded, cushy theater seat and spent like five minutes catching my breath. Thus did I begin to paddle into the vast ocean of my existence in which I routinely moan about feeling like I’m too old to do things.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but there is a series of moments in every person’s life when rites of passage shift from “old enough to do this” to “too old to do this” — and they vary, sometimes radically, from person to person. For me, the first of those moments occurred on the eve of my 20th birthday. But I work alongside Bob Boilen, who is older than most hills and yet possesses the virtually infinite capacity to soak up loud music at festivals (and everywhere else). He is almost literally tireless, and yet there came a point in his life — sometime around the point where he tore a calf muscle skipping to the break-room refrigerator to fetch an ice-cream sandwich — when even he had to dial something back due to age. (The crutches forced him to stick to only one concert per night.)
Plus, music festivals can be absolutely brutal. For every Newport Folk Festival — with its contained bucolic setting, finite crowds and absence of oppressively loud music — you have a SXSW, where you’re blasted with extreme sounds, intense logistics and Mardi Gras-sized free-for-all crowds for five ultra-long days in a row. We each have different thresholds and triggers: I love SXSW and look forward to it every year, yet even I have mostly given up on any outdoor festival that involves standing on boiling asphalt and paying $9 for bottled water in August.
In short, there’s more than one way to soak up live music, and gigantic outdoor festivals are for some people more than others. (There’s also, for that matter, more than one way to soak up a gigantic outdoor festival.) As easy as it is to view festival tolerance as a sign of encroaching old age, it’s far more accurate — not to mention healthy — to view festival tolerance as a sign of, well, festival tolerance. You’ll discover far more compelling reasons to feel old soon enough.