Fyre Festival: Burning Down the House
- January 26, 2019
I wasn’t aware of the 2017 Fyre Festival till I watched Netflix’s new documentary last night, and it was fairly jawdropping and astonishing viewing. It would be disingenuous of me to deny that there’s something morbidly satisfying about watching thousands of rich narcissists arrive on a Caribbean island for a non-existent festival, only to find themselves trapped in a mini JG Ballard-meets-William Goldman dystopia.
It’s the stuff of a certain kind of fiction, but it’s also a very 21st century tale which began in December 2016, when a conman/charlatan named William McFarland began to organise a ‘luxury music festival’ on a Bahamian island in order to promote the Fyre music booking app.
The ‘Fyre festival’ event was promoted through Instagram through various ‘social media influencers’ like Kendall Jenner and the model Emily Ratajkowski, who were paid by Fyre to post an image of the Fyre ‘flame’ logo on their Instagram feeds.
Viewers clicked on it to find a video showing bikini-clad models cavorting on a yacht and a Caribbean beach, accompanied by text promising ‘ an immersive music festival…two transformative weekends…on the boundaries of the impossible.’
As McFarland puts it in the programme in a rare moment of honesty, the video was a fantasy aimed at ‘the average loser’ and it initially proved to be strikingly successful.
McFarland attracted investors from the fashion industry and beyond, all seeking to make money from a festival on an island supposedly used by Pablo Escobar to transport cocaine to the US, because I mean dude, how cool is that, right?
In the end the event was not held on ‘Pablo Escobar’s island’ after all but on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma.
While McFarland roamed back and forth in Maseratis and private jets schmoozing and scooping up investments, thousands of hipsters paid anything from $500 to $1500 for tickets, in addition to extra payments for ‘modern, eco-friendly, geodesic domes’, luxury houses and meals by celebrity chefs, jet skis, metal credit cards, cool wristbands and other luxury extras.
Many of these payments were made for things that did not actually exist. When the punters turned up in April they found no luxury houses, only mosquito-filled geodesic tents lined up like a hedonist concentration camp in a dismal gravel lot covered with imported sand.
There were no luxury meals. Many punters had no food at all, and others got only processed cheese sandwiches. Often there was not even toilet paper. A tropical storm the night before had soaked most of the beds in the tents – for those guests who were lucky enough even to get a tent.
Organisation was so chaotic that there were no charter flights out. Crucially, there was no music.
Thousands of people watched their dreams of the ultimate party come crashing down, and watching them posing and pouting for their Instagram selfies beforehand you couldn’t help feeling that a lot of them really deserved everything they didn’t get and everything they did get.
As Marx once said, all that is solid melts into the air, and there was absolutely nothing solid about this nonsense.
In effect, McFarland was working a very 21st century scam, with its intersection of hip capitalism, wealth, hedonism, Instagram, social media apps, tawdry glamour, and the seriously unending quest to make as much money as one can while doing nothing of any tangible benefits to society.
Most of the people in the programme were young, and too hip for their own good. Many of them seemed to have more money than sense in their inane references to McFarland’s ‘energy’ and ‘positivity’.
McFarland’s attractions were entirely lost on this particular viewer. And even though you felt for the employees who were told by McFarland that they were not going to be fired but they were not going to be paid either, many of the people in the programme seem as shallow, greedy and self-obsessed as he seems to be.
The documentary does have some genuine laugh-out-loud moments though, such as the gay member of McFarland’s team who plaintively describes how he was instructed to ‘suck dick’ in order to get Bahamian customs officials to release the festival’s supply of bottled water.
In a world where 26 people have more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population combined, the Fyre festival embodies certain aspirations to fame, money and glamour that are part and parcel of ‘globalisation’.
McFarland is now serving time for fraud, and good riddance. But the scam he tried to work has wider implications that go beyond a single ‘operational sociopath’, as one of his former employees described him.
In a slightly peripheral and tangential way, the fantasies that he exploited go a long way explain why the world is so dysfunctional.
And the Netflix documentary may not have been intended as a moral tale, but it turns out to be just that.