Last weekend saw what was billed as a Special Fuji Rock under Special Circumstances, with those circumstances being the COVID-19 pandemic.
While a limited number of people made the trip to Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture, where the event is held annually, most music fans had to settle for following along on three YouTube channels that livestreamed different stages.
On a purely musical level, the online portion of the event went well, with Saturday headliners King Gnu bringing in hundreds of thousands of viewers during its set. It also allowed people to marvel at the long-running success of musician Susumu Hirasawa, who was compared to a “23rd century religious guru” by one Twitter user.
Much like another major event that was postponed from last year and held this summer, Fuji Rock could not escape the sour notes played by COVID-19. With new cases climbing nationwide, the idea of holding a festival — even an outdoor one as scaled-down as Fuji 2021 was — attracted the attention of those who normally ignore such gatherings, resulting in possibly the most scrutinized edition of the festival ever.
Mainstream media played a role in that, as TV news programs led Friday night coverage with reports from the controversial concert. However, online outlets and social media users powered the bulk of the conversation during and after the event, bringing to it the same anxieties and outrage that surrounded the Summer Olympics.
As the event kicked off on Aug. 20, these anxieties were fuelled by artists like rapper Chinza Dopeness, rock band Indigo La End and folk band Minyo Crusaders canceling because of positive COVID-19 test results. Others, like rising singer-songwriter Yuta Orisaki, backed out due to conflicted feelings over taking part amid the spike in cases nationwide.
Here we have the main dilemma: Artists wanting to perform (and make a living) and their awareness of the optics of the situation. R&B artist Sirup wrote a long Twitter post about why he decided to take part, as did Asian Kung-Fu Generation vocalist Masafumi Gotoh on the Note platform, both of them expressing concerns but underlining why they decided in favor of performing.
However, the internet never forgets.
Prior to the Olympics, both Sirup and Gotoh publicly expressed their displeasure with the Games going ahead amid the rise in COVID-19 cases. Those against holding Fuji Rock — an event that leans left politically — accused them both of hypocrisy, and Gotoh’s Sunday night set in particular drew some politically tinged critiques claiming that he had only been against the Olympics because he wanted to embarrass the government.
Photos and reports from Naeba slowly begame digital meat for trolls and critics to tear into with some noting how crowded the stages looked. The Daily Shincho website bought a ticket and sent a reporter to the event. They recounted how frenzied the fans were and how many of the cars there had Tokyo license plates (which was accurate according to cellular phone data). One dramatic line read, “The cry of health care workers is unlikely to reach here.” By Monday morning, posts about all the litter left behind felt like a trip back to normal times, when the biggest concern for staff was the perception of foreigners leaving trash behind.
The next two weeks will reveal if Fuji Rock 2021 ends up having been a superspreader event or, like this year’s Lollapalooza in Chicago, having had no real impact on the numbers. Either outcome may not matter, though — by the time you read this, the internet will have moved on to the next big outrage.
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