The comparison is easy, and I’m sure many are going to make it this week.
In 1969, at the height of the Age of Aquarius, the Rolling Stones and a cadre of other big acts threw a festival at the Altamont Speedway outside of San Francisco. The concert was slated to be a “Woodstock West” — the Woodstock festival itself had occurred just four months before — and in reaction to criticism about high ticket prices for the Stones’ tour, the concert was made free to the public.
Without getting too much into the lore, the resulting event was an unmitigated disaster. A concert-goer was stabbed by members of the Hell’s Angels, who were hired by the Stones as bodyguards, someone else died while drowning on LSD, and the event’s shoddy planning left the approximately 300,000 attendees without proper toilets, medical help, or security.
I’m not a big fan of comparing things that happen in the present to the rosy rock n’ roll past of the late 1960s. It reeks of an Oliver Stone-soaked Boomer vibe that almost immediately makes me stop listening. But when it comes to the tragedy at this weekend’s Astroworld Festival and the Altamont Free Concert, what I find compelling is this example of utter deflation on a mass scale happening in just one moment, a moment where an entire popular cultural zeitgeist is wiped out by one hugely symbolic event.
In the case of Altamont, The Rolling Stones hiring a biker gang who stabbed their fans was a scene that put an end to the swelling power of America’s hippy movement. And in the case of Astroworld, the sight of Travis Scott and Drake flossing on a five million dollar stage while their young fans were stampeded to death is one of those mental images that can never get unseen.
In the 72 hours following the event, the formerly larger-than-life image of the trap music superstar — a mold taken by the most popular and bankable artists of our generation — has felt completely defanged in the collective consciousness.
Just look at how (for lack of a better term) totally wack Drake looks in this post from the tragic evening that he still hasn’t taken down. Or take in the tone-deaf image of Playboi Carti riding into his own concert the next day in one of the Ukrainian SHERP tanks popularized by Kanye West, as though to accidentally say “multimillionaire artists like us can afford to be indestructible.
Or even just look at Scott’s own lukewarm apology on Instagram, in which his signature habit of mumbling and hiding his face — a tick that once seemed impenetrably cool — only served to compound his cowardliness.
The thing about hugely deflating, era-defining cultural moments is that they usually express something that was true all along. Hippy-ism was never going to actually change the world and bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Rolling Stones were just a repackaged version of the same culture industry that existed before them. This truth predated Altamont and was only made literal by the imagery of it.
In the case of Astroworld, it is easy to locate a very similar dynamic. The work of Travis Scott, Drake, and their contemporaries is a celebration of enriching and protecting oneself at whatever cost. Their music is inherently nihilistic, hedonistic, and self-destructive, and that’s exactly what people love about it.
As the movement evolved from the work of predecessors like Lil Wayne and 50 Cent — who for what it’s worth, both aged into "Don’t Tread on Me" Trump supporters — tyrannical clout addicts with abusive pasts like Tekashi 69 or XXXTentacion made this get-lit-or-die-trying ethos too literal for public consumption. But no matter what zone of the genre we're witnessing, what we listened to ultimately felt like variations on the same message: “I live to buy cool shit, fuck everything else.”
In 2016, when I began interviewing some of the most famous rappers in the world, including Playboi Carti, 21 Savage, Young Thug, Migos, and Travis Scott himself, I was drawn to what I still believe to be the most relevant pop-cultural movement of our time. These artists were writing their own rules, not giving a fuck, and embodying a rockstar archetype that many had thought had gone extinct.
And, even more interesting, they were totally self-made content creators, who defined their own aesthetics and intermingled freely with visual culture at large. These men are the stars that many things in the Highsnobiety world rotate around, and like it or not, there’s a reason for that.
Something central that gravitated me to Carti and Scott, in particular, was the way their music brought forth the irrational, irreverent, moshpit mentality of punk to a mass scale that the record store geeks of yesteryear could only dream of.
When I spoke to Scott just months before the release of Astroworld, I was most curious to explore this idea with him, especially how it related to the ways in which his music had been deemed a menace to society. Prior to that conversation, Scott faced ridicule and criminal charges for allegedly encouraging fans to rush the stage and perform other reckless acts during his shows. It was a chain of events that eerily foreshadowed what happened this weekend, and as I re-read the interview, I felt haunted by Scott’s words:
Bettridge: In a couple instances over the past year or two, you’ve faced criminal charges for inciting riots during your concerts. Were you surprised when that happened?
Scott: I don’t get it. Riots are when people are like, breaking shit. I think this gets taken out of context in my shows, mistaking that for having fun. For me, personally, I’m here for everyone’s safety. I want everyone to come to the show and to go home. Whenever the situation gets taken too far, and they start pushing kids, everyone knows that with me and my fans, it’s us against the world. I just try to protect them. I don’t like seeing kids get kicked out. I don’t like seeing kids get thrown on the ground just because they’re getting lit.
Interviewing these rappers who I listened to constantly was more often than not an anti-climactic experience. I rarely got answers to the questions I thought were important, and in many cases, it didn’t seem like the stars I spoke to felt any desire or responsibility to explain their artwork or what it means to the culture. And I accepted that lack of responsibility, even admired it a little bit. After all, who was I to demand that they explain themselves?
But what changes things about this weekend is that the families of the eight who died and the hundreds who were injured or traumatized are owed an explanation — and neither Scott nor Drake have one for them. It’s unavoidable that this fact will forever change how many fans feel about them
Big cultural bubble bursts like Altamont don’t always sink the careers of those involved. In the case of the Stones, while an important tie was severed with youth culture, the band went on to tour successfully for another five decades. And it is equally hard for me to imagine that what happened this weekend will have a material effect on Travis Scott’s career. He is one the most talented producers of our time and there are millions who will always love his music.
The thing Scott stands to lose is relevance, the kind of unstoppable cultural heat that has propelled him to superstardom since the release of his Astroworld album. And this is a standing in culture that won’t be won back by selling kids PlayStation sneakers and McDonald's pillows.
Perhaps the only silver lining in this tragedy is that it could spur our generation to demand more from its heroes, to ask for someone who at the very least stands for something and protects them. Travis Scott could become that kind of icon, but it could just as easily be someone else.