When I thread through the crowd at the Sasquatch music festival, I dread seeing my own 15-year-old face. Among the hoards I’m now tempted to call “young people,” I’m scared to see that girl I was, waiting for my friends’ band to start, black X’s on the back of my hands to brand me as underaged. Back then, if I saw people in their thirties at a show, strangers I would have been tempted to call “old people,” I would squint my eyes at them and think, “Ugh, get a life.” Now 33, I scan for dirty looks like the Secret Service scans for snipers, while I flow between stages and sets, holding onto the hand of my boyfriend, who isn’t thinking about any of this.
Sasquatch isn’t just any show. The bands we’ve been waiting months to hear live are enveloped by a backdrop called The Gorge, where the setting sun casts shadows upon foothills for miles and a river glistens into the horizon, meandering through a canyon’s cliffs. Barely a set goes by that the singer doesn’t pause to say how lucky they feel to be right there, right then.
We sit on the grassy slope. I people-stare. I feel and resist and feel and resist the usual worry. I’ve asked people about it and Googled it. As I compare myself to the girls frolicking on the hill, skipping, holding hands, and taking pictures, as I search for people who look like me, I wonder about it, yet again: Am I too old for music festivals?
The Internet has said yes, and the Internet has said no. It has given me lists of signs I might be too old. It has given me resignation letters from former festival-goers, and manifestos from people who vow to never stay home. It has given me inspiring advice columns about doing whatever you want, which I try to absorb.
At the show, I’ll take a few hits off a bowl so weed can do that thing where it relaxes me, but sometimes it will do that other thing, where it only cranks up the tumbler of my brain and flops me around in thought. Should I even be here? Am I a part of this? Is someone giving me a look, thinking, “Ugh, get a life?” Should I indeed get a life?
I’d feel better in a group, but when we try to get our friends to come, they say, “God, all those 16-year-olds.” Yes, around us there exists a plane on which this is a wild party with the first instances of boob-touching in tents, first all-nighters, first a lot of things parents will never know about. We inhabit a different plane. We camp a quarter-mile off-site in a place with showers we call The Retirement Community. At the festival, we let the partying go on around us, while we have the equivalent of a lovely day at the park that just happens to have live music. In your thirties, sitting is awesome, so we mostly lounge. It takes a band as good as Tame Impala to get us up. We stood packed in tight to a guy with dirt crusted behind his ears to be close for them, and it was worth the smell.
I like to dance, but I’m also scared to be caught on camera and turned into a meme. My dancing is subdued, now, mostly in the shoulders and face. Whereas other girls have outfits that bloom, flow, and flash, say This is What People at Festivals Look Like, I’m out to blend in. Black t-shirt, jeans, and Converse—with supportive inserts. I feel apologetic for my face. Apologetic for my body. I’m sorry I’m not contributing to the Neverland fantasy. I want someone official to come over and announce, You are allowed to be here.
Last year we met a couple in their fifties, who I talked to so we could feel young again. They mentioned their kids being there. “That’s so cute,” I said, “that you came with your kids.”
“Oh, they’d die if they knew we were here,” the mom said, doing a mom dance. “They think we went home.”
I asked one of the bands playing Sasquatch this year how they felt about it. Benjamin Verdoes, one of the guys in Iska Dhaaf, said, “The thing I don’t like in most realms of life is when people make fake rules for themselves. I think one of the saddest things is when people shut themselves off from what they want to do, what they care about. Most of it is just fear.”
It is fear. I’m scared all the time, of most things, which they call anxiety. Just one of those lucky people. In my teenage years and twenties, it was much worse, it just filled in the blanks with other reasons to feel bad.
Over the years I’ve worked to de-escalate my anxiety from a screaming banshee to an insistent whisper over which I can at least hear the music. Back when I was the age I feel like I should have been for festivals, I never felt the way I should have felt. It seems like now’s my chance to do the things anxiety ruined before, even though my brain still overthinks everything.
So why do I even go, if it causes so much internal turmoil?
Because even though being around crowds can push me further into my head, art and music are what get me out of it. I slog through the oceans of youth and the feelings, all the damn feelings, for moments I don’t get anywhere else, moments like one I saw last year.
Kendrick Lamar took the main stage at Sasquatch. I didn’t know his music well yet (like a fool!), but he looked right into us with those Jesus eyes some artists have, and I knew it was going to be one of those shows that ends up feeling like something happened.
Halfway through, he asked who knew all his lyrics. If this had been Salt-n-Pepa before some of these kids were born, I could have been all over it. He pulled up a girl named Payton, who tugged on her shorts, adjusted her shirt, and said, “I’m gonna pee my pants.” At the sound of her voice in the mic, at the cheers from 10,000 people, she turned away, covered her face. “Look at me,” Kendrick said, calming her down. This wasn’t some stunt where he sung to her on bended knee. He was inviting her to rap with him.
“Follow me,” he said, as the guitar riffed the song. He started her on m.A.A.d. city—“Brace yourself…” is all he sang—and she just took it. Killed it. Hand gestures, swag. Every word. On the big screen, Kendrick’s face beamed like, Look at this girl go. He had created this moment, and now he was just enjoying watching his creation unfold.
I was in the crowd, grinning like an idiot. Because, imagine if I had said to a friend, “I had this dream last night that I rapped with Kendrick Lamar in front of 10,000 people.” We would say, That’s a badass dream, right? Well, here it was, in real life, Kendrick Lamar making an entry in the encyclopedia of possibilities.
On stage, they faced each other, sang together, “Aw man, God damn, all hell broke loose…”
I stood mouth open, in awe of what was happening. I skipped over the part where I was sad that it wasn’t happening to me. I still felt a part of it. Somehow I forgot to feel too old to enjoy it.
After the song, she ran over to Kendrick and hugged him. “I love you,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
Every time I tell that story, every time I hear that song, I get goosebumps, remembering. And ok, maybe I practice the lyrics a little bit when it’s on, just in case. And how sad, how so very sad, if I had missed that moment because of what some teenagers might think when they see me, because of what someone wrote on the Internet, or because of what I thought back when I was 15 and judged everyone, myself most of all. I worry that someone might look at me like I’m pathetic, because in my thirties, I choose to enjoy live music, even though many other people my age choose not to, or are too tied down to do so.
But why are festivals so different from art openings, plays, or film screenings, for which no one would ever tell me I’m too old? Perhaps it’s the physicality of some kinds of music, though I’m more of a sad-guy-with-a-guitar-and-a-story-to-tell kind of fan. Maybe it’s music’s essential role in parties, which in America are mostly age-segregated. Maybe it’s because we obsess over youth, and don’t allow older people the dignity of a soul or even hints of a sex life. Maybe it’s because you can look at art or film without knowing if the person behind it is going gray.
The people I admire most are the people who give zero shits. One of my heroes is a Paraguayan woman in her eighties, who I knew when I lived with her family. She smoked cigars, played poker past midnight, and nudged me at parties to pass me the bottle of cheap liquor before hitting the dance floor, smiling with one ancient tooth hanging on while she danced with her grandson. I love seeing happy older people enjoying wild clothes, pink hair, and a cocktail in the sun.
My boyfriend said when he saw people in their thirties and forties at shows as a young person, he hoped he’d still be going to see bands at that age. With all my belief in supporting other kinds of diversity, why can’t I allow myself to stand out, if standing out is required for enjoying what I love?
What would really be pathetic would be if, at my age, I let the imagined opinions of others, even en masse, decide how I live my life. I make art my religion, and Sasquatch is my revival. As someone who wants to live as an artist, I have to keep remembering that no one is going to give me permission to live this life. That is something I can only keep giving myself.
Paulette Perhach is a writer living in Seattle. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Marie Claire, and other publications.