Barcelona's Primavera Sound Was An Optimistc, Warm Triumph Driven By A 50/50 Gender Split

Written By Sam Murphy on 06/05/2019

Diversity on festival lineups is not as cut and dry and some make it seem. It’s been a buzz word for festivals, particularly in Australia, as more and more pressure has been placed on the industry to improve their gender split and racial diversity. Defences for not doing so have ranged from there not being enough female headliners to they weren’t available, with the others achieving it by booking female, queer and POC acts in the lower-echelons of the bill, rather than awarding them with top line spots.

When Barcelona’s Primavera Sound announced its lineup this year, it proudly declared that it was the first major scale festival to achieve a 50/50 gender split. It wasn’t a gimmick to draw publicity but a distinct move to lead the way for other festivals. Primavera organiser Marta Pallares Olivares called the excuses that there are not enough female acts out there “simply a lie”. Women weren’t pushed to the bottom of the bill to fill the quota. Of the 32 ‘big font’ names, 16 of them are female-fronted with Solange, Janelle Monae, Rosalía, Miley Cyrus, Charli XCX, FKA twigs and more sitting alongside the likes of Tame Impala, Interpol and Mac DeMarco.

Amazingly, not booking all white male bands at the top of the bill, didn’t stall the festival. Ticket sales were good, the crowd was inclusive and the standout acts were strong believers in the festival’s ethos. Obviously, it takes more than just achieving a gender split to create an inclusive festival but there was really an overwhelming feeling of positivity that radiated from every aspect of this year’s spectacular Primavera Sound.

For those that haven’t been, Primavera isn’t like a regular Australian festival. Set just on the outskirts of Barcelona, it runs from the late afternoon right until 6am in the morning. Crowds in Australia at sunrise would likely be looking a little spotty and worse for ware but the Spaniards are belt for this kind of AM partying and there were stages still heaving in the very hours of the morning. It felt safe and joyous, boistered by constant reminders about appropriate festival behaviour, particularly in regards to assault of any kind.

While the crowd was excellent, you can’t help but think that the festival wouldn’t have been able to achieve that atmosphere if the acts weren’t also a perfect representation of the diversity they were promoting. From the first act of the weekend, Christine & The Queens, the highlights of the festival were all female, POC or queer artists who made us feel very excited about the future of festivals and pop music.

Christine & The Queens, who now prefers to be known simply as Chris, brought last year’s Chris to the stage, hitting us with a warped version of Broadway. She struck hearty poses and delivered stern vocals, strangely getting the crowd dancing about things like nihilism (Doesn’t Matter) as she intertwined the hits with Prince dance-breaks and David Bowie acapellas. Hours laters she returned to the same stage to debut a new song with Charli XCX, Gone - the most explicit pop move Chris has ever made. Charli may occupy a different realm of the pop spectrum but the pair both know how to command a stage. Charli’s set way high energy from beginning to end, starting out with new single Blame It On Your Love and even giving her Spice Girls remix Spicy an airing. The show is surely going to develop into something spectacular once she finally drops her third record.

Over on a beach stage flanked by an Aperol Spritz bar, SOPHIE gave a transcendent set of slolwy unfolding instrumentals and strobing synths. She may be better suited to club shows but there was something special about watching her fluorescent lighting glow-up and dim the crowd. It was a stark difference to the act before her, Sigrid, who delivered a pure pop set of tightly-written, crisply produced pop songs. It was a no frills affair with the Norwegian star dressed simply in a white top and jeans. She coloured it, however, with the euphoric vocals of Don’t Kill My Vibe and the singalong-worthy Strangers.

FKA twigs showcased her stunning new set that seemed to mix together Hamilton and baroque art with some spine-tingling vocals. Her newfound love for pole-dancing elevated the set to impossible levels while her far more elongated, ballad-like new songs showcased her voice like never before. It was a triumph and an unforgettable set even with a blurry 4am finish. Mykki Blanco closed out the first day with a chaotic, energetic two hour set that placed him as both a hypeman and a rapper. He began with Teyana Taylor’s WTP and raced straight into his verse on Charli XCX’s Femmebot.

Day two kicked off with Carly Rae Jepsen, giving one of her first performances since the release of her new album Dedication. She pulled a big, diverse early afternoon crowd elated by favourites like Runaway With Me and Call Me Maybe sitting effortlessly alongside new cuts Want You In My Room and Too Much. In case you were wondering - yes - she was gifted a sword.

The main stage brought the goods all day, peaking with a one-two hit of Janelle Monae and Robyn. Miley Cyrus was jammed in between the two and while she threw in a favourable Trump condemnation, her new rock-ready set packed with new songs felt overbearing. Monáe’s set beforehand, which also saw a Trump slur, was a far more joyous affair mixing a love of dance with a heartening message of inclusivity and sexual liberation. Make Me Feel, sent to the heavens with a pulsating dance intro, felt like pure sex and Electric Lady was laden with directions to dance to which the crowd happily obliged. She’s one of the best main stage performers in the world right now, as is Robyn who followed her with an emotional and euphoric pop performance - one of the best you’re likely to see ever. From an unaccompanied crowd singalong to Dancing On My Own to a finessed, gentle performance of Honey, Robyn’s set radiated love. The crowd was heartbroken together and in the early hours of the morning it was an overwhelmingly beautiful experience.

On paper, day three’s promise of Solange and James Blake suggested a more demure day but it was quite the opposite. Rosalía drew the biggest crowd of the festival, playing a triumphant hometown set. She brought out Blake for Barefoot In The Park but he was cast in the shadows by her overpowering presence. She’s a superstar - one that could silence the crowd with dizzying acapella vocals and then send them into a frenzy with the reggaeton song of the year Con Altura. The clash of the day followed with Solange, Lizzo and Tierra Whack all playing at the same time, a move that Solange brought up, singing their praises. It’s an atmosphere that many of the artists harboured for the weekend, lifting up their peers.

While it was a difficult choice, all artists won. Lizzo delivered an energetic, gut-wrenching set of bangers and flute while Solange brought When I Get Home to the stage with crystalline vocals and angular dance moves. She described overcoming disease and pain to fall in love with music once again. The result was a lofty, joyous set that had Solange whipping her hair and getting down at any opportunity. The album’s groovier moments like Stay Flo and Almeda confidently sat alongside heavy-hitters like Losing You. More than any other artist at the festival, she transformed the space, making it completely her own while inviting her WOC peers into her world.

“I’m rollin’ with the LGBT,” Cupcakke rapped immediately following - just another reminder of how much these artists have done for inclusivity and safe spaces. Cupcakke is a ferocious, explicit rapper who is somehow able to effortlessly pair lyrics about mental health alongside, “Hump Me! Fuck Me!” It was a glorious, endlessly shocking end to a festival that just felt so right from start to finish.

The sun rose as people filtered out, calmly wandering the streets of Barcelona. Experiences differ from person-to-person but it felt like the end of an optimistic, celebratory weekend that acknowledged the work still to be done to achieve diversity in music but also triumphed in giving female, POC and queer artists their rightful place on big stages. As it turns out, white male bands don’t really make festivals that interesting at all - who’d have known?