PILTON, England – It’s the world’s largest greenfield music and performing arts festival and after 46 years the most important, with more than 1,000 performances on nearly 100 stages over five 24-hour days. So it says something that Kanye West, who headlined Glastonbury on Saturday night, managed to make it all about him.
Previously, an online petition calling for his removal from the bill had attracted more than 133,000 signatures, while Paddy Power listed odds of 2/1 that he’d be booed off the iconic Pyramid Stage. Emily Eavis, the daughter of festival founder Michael Eavis who’s assumed greater organizing duties in recent years, told the Times of London that she’d received death threats over the booking.
This is all lunacy, not least because it felt like a conversation that had already happened when Jay Z – previously the festival’s most controversial booking – became the first hip-hop artist to headline the Pyramid Stage back in 2008. That choice prompted outrage from Noel Gallagher – the Oasis frontman called it “wrong” and against the festival’s roots – and launched a thousand thinkpieces about what it all meant. (Of course, Hov’s Glasto set is generally regarded seven years on as one of the festival’s most memorable performances.)
Perhaps a self-styled, unapologetic luxury brand like Kanye isn’t a natural fit for Glastonbury, but 1) why the f*ck not? and 2) it’s difficult to argue that Kanye – no lower than one of the three biggest rap innovators since the ‘90s – was unworthy of the booking on both form and body of work. Guys like El-P (whose Run The Jewels ripped up the West Holts Stage on Friday afternoon) and Timbaland may have gone further afield creatively while maintaining a visceral feel, but Kanye has reinvented commercial rap music five times already. He works with the best producers, makes the most cutting-edge mainstream rap and is unafraid to strike out at something different. The mark of a true artist is not being concerned with playing it safe.
The idea Kanye needed to prove himself is laughable on paper, but that sense among the crowd – roughly half of the 170,000 on the 1,000-acre farm in Somerset (including Lewis Hamilton, Kim Kardashian, and Chris Bosh) – felt strangely palpable. Despite nearly two dozen Grammys, 21 million in record sales and four albums that have topped the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll – putting him level with Dylan for most all time – it was still up to Kanye to deliver before a crowd with definite hostile elements.