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Finding euphoria, unity and a glimpse of utopia at Roskilde

06 July 2023, 09:00

The magic of Denmark’s Roskilde Festival is a diverse blend of music, art, and activism, but at its core lies the dedicated community who come together to build it, writes Amy Albinson

Each year, 30,000 volunteers unite to bring Northern Europe’s largest music event to life, forming a temporary urban metropolis in the south of the city from which it lifts its name. Boasting a genre-spanning collection of headliners – from Kendrick Lamar and Lil Nas X to Rosalía, Blur, and Lizzo, Roskilde’s brilliance lies in more than just the music.

There’s a familiar dusty fog of sepia-toned summer hanging low in the air over Roskilde’s festival site. As the afternoon sun beats down, it’s a warm haze that feels aptly suited to an event where orange is not only a colour but an emotion.

Encapsulating an aura of carefree wellbeing, love and openness, “the orange feeling” has no direct translation, but the notion is seemingly well-understood by the 130,000 attendees that descend upon the music and culture event each year.

As the temporary community becomes Denmark’s fourth largest city during its 8 day duration, this year’s event marks not only the festival’s 51st year, but also a fresh beginning in the form of a brand new guiding principle: ‘Utopia’.

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Every few years, the Roskilde Festival Charity Society – who have organised and run the event as a non-profit since 1972 – decide on a new theme to become its mission statement. Governing all aspects of the multifaceted programme’s curation from the musical line up through to the artworks on display and food on offer, the theme gives direction to an event that continuously aims to be a force for good. Since its inception in 1971, Roskilde has turned over more €55 million for humanitarian and cultural charities, with an estimated 13-15 million Danish Krone (€1.8m) raised this year.

On a bench backstage, the organisation’s Head of Communications, Christina Bilde, explains that settling on the theme of ‘utopia’ was the result of a conversation ongoing for many months. Following last year’s festival, the team reached out to their network of activist groups, NGOs, and artists to discuss the biggest issues currently affecting the planet. The overwhelming response, Bilde shares, was to look toward a young generation living through a climate and biodiversity crisis, the war in Europe, and financial insecurity. Today’s youth, she shares, are lacking any trust in the future.

This insight fast became the catalyst to invite a utopian perspective into their curation. Aiming to show what’s possible when people come together under a united cause, Roskilde Festival asked attendees to not only imagine but to fully immerse themselves in what a better world could be like. With utopia settled on as its guiding principle, the event looks to both challenge and inspire attendees because, as Bilde notes, “hope is fundamental in making a change.”

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With a curatorial eye set firmly on the zeitgeist, this year brought 205 acts from 38 countries. Though showcasing an impressive diversity of genres – from rap, hip-hop and amapiano to pop, post-punk and hardcore – it was Roskilde 2023’s legion of powerful women that truly reigned supreme.

Thursday night saw Swedish pop royalty Tove Lo bring her gritty, sex-positivity to the Orange Stage to rapturous applause. As a mid-set outfit change from gleaming gold bodysuit – complete with fake breasts – to a black mesh number sent the crowd into a frenzy, she coasted through a host of tracks from newest record Dirt Femme alongside fan favourites like "Talking Body" and "I like u".

Over to the east of the site, Rina Sawayama gave a lesson in theatrics with a fierce and unrelenting performance. With a shortened cover of Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” weaved into her set, a green strobe-filled performance ofHold The Girl’s “Frankenstein” and a whip cracking display for 2022’s “This Hell”, her shout out for queer rights on the final day of pride month met a heaving audience cheering back in support.

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At the walled-in Apollo Stage, where frenzied strobes and flashing LED screens surrounded the crowd, Alice Glass returned to Denmark in full force. Though at times her auto-tune effect came close to drowning out the words, her beat heavy set brimmed with a defiant confidence and bristling energy.

Roskilde’s Arena Stage claims to be Europe’s largest festival tent with its capacity of 17,000, but it failed to contain the crowds spilling out the sides for Spanish songwriter, and Friday joint-headliner, Rosalía. In a bewitching show brimming with ethereal vocals and flamenco moves, her critically-acclaimed album MOTOMAMI proved her well-deserving of the bubbling excitement, casting a microphone into a crowd who sang back in perfect Spanish.

As a fully independent festival, Roskilde is able to handpick its performers carefully, ensuring they’re well-suited to the event’s overarching theme. Although slot times are based on popularity – as with the majority of large-scale music events – it’s notable that Roskilde has made the effort to level the playing field, doing away with terms like ‘new’, ‘introducing’, or ‘emerging artist’. All who play the festival, from its star-studded headliners to lesser-known newcomers, are treated equally and offered access to the same crew support and sound system.

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A stand out show came in the form of headliner Lil Nas X, who orchestrated a spectacle of puppetry when joined on the Orange Stage by an array of fantastical creatures. From summoning a huge metallic snake during "MONTERO" through to mounting a renaissance-esque horse for "Old Town Road", his performance felt more like a masterclass in stagecraft than a concert.

It’s well worth noting that while Roskilde attracts an impressive international line up, the festival continues to support Danish acts and their neighbours as well, with 32% of this year’s performers hailing from Denmark and 40% representing the Nordic countries. Danish pop sensation Tobias Rahim delivered an enlivened set in front of a gigantic golden sun, dropping in a surprise cover of Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina, while Copenhagen collective Ganger weaved Danish poetry and heavenly melodics on "Bye Bye", dancing amid strands of illuminated confetti draped high overheard.

As the party continued late into the night, the post-headliner acts were out in full force. Despite Thursday’s rain, Sweden’s Yung Lean summoned his cult-like following. Stepping on stage soundtracked by a gospel choir, the cloud rap icon emerged from a haze of purple lights like an ultraviolet spector. With a head to toe white outfit and angel wings glinting on his microphone, he recalled "this song dropped when I was 16 and it changed my life," before launching into “Ginseng Strip 2002”. Despite the early hour, the crowd stay in high spirits, and cans of Tuborg dance in the air as fan-favourites like "Hurt" and "Kyoto" play out.

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On the heavier side of the genre-spectrum, Saturday evening saw French synthwave act Pertubator deliver a gothic smoke show of slamming kicks and pulsating bass beneath a skeletal LED pentagram, while electro-punks Wargasm took to the Avalon Stage to fire off pyrotechnics and glitter confetti alongside a cover of Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff”. Closing out the final night’s after party, cryptic DJ duo ‘’][‘’\/\/[[O]] SSS}}{{EE\\_\\_ (read: Two Shell) melded techno and hyperpop on the Apollo Stage in a futuristic display of strobing lights that encircled the venue.

In what was both a Roskilde highlight and likely the strangest set of the festival, Christine and the Queens’ Héloïse Letissier appeared on a stage decorated with life-sized grecian statues. Declaring the show a ritual, he cries "it doesn't matter what body I have, I know my soul". It’s a performance interwoven with prayers to the celestial heavens, promising to summon archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael to save us all as Letissier proceeds through tracks from brand new album PARANOÏA, ANGELS, TRUE LOVE. Donning giant white angel wings, he turns to the audience and embodies his own mother: “you must forgive my son, he’s nuts”. With a heavenly backdrop of streaming smoke lit in pale ghostly green, there’s an undercurrent of mania to the show that feels uncomfortably close to the bone. As the set draws to a close, Letissier tells the audience that their mind’s eye is now open, before abruptly disappearing.

While music may be the draw for many, Roskilde’s lofty yet dedicated ambition to create a glimpse of utopia is also found outside of its impressive line up. With the festival covering ground equal to 350 football fields, everything within its borders has been strictly vetted to ensure they meet the event’s sustainable ethos. Even Tuborg, the festival’s most prominent sponsor, has been encouraged to serve only organic draft beers.

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Unlike many other festivals, no advertisements or sponsorships line the fences here, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, posters for green initiatives and environment-focused talks are tacked up beside art sculptures and volunteer-made creations. One hidden gem in particular, tucked amid the western stages, is the Do Good Market. Offering everything from vintage clothing and upcycled DIY creations down to sunglasses and biodegradable festival glitter, above each shipping container-housed shop the signage brandishes their ethical credits: ‘circularity’, ‘local & fair’, ‘low carbon footprint’, ‘recycled materials’.

Alongside the activity in the main festival site, it’s also worth adventuring a little further afield and winding through the various campsites – each with their own on-brand theme. In particular, the ‘Dream City’ camp brings the creativity and community of Burning Man to Denmark, with festival-goers working for months beforehand to create their own small city. In the midst of a sea of tents, wooden buildings are erected resembling libraries, a bodega, and even a fire station equipped with pole. It’s here the after parties continue long into the night, at attendee-made night clubs filled with DJ decks, disco balls, and fairy lights.

As Roskilde draws to a close on Saturday night, the positivity and joyous energy of pop queen Lizzo feels like the perfect send off. Clad in latex with a mid-show guided meditation in tow, she pulls no punches as the self-love preacher declares Roskilde her “favourite fucking festival” – and it’s easy to believe her. With a set topped off by flute solos and a cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow”, she leads the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to her dancer and pauses to sign items for the audience. When she calls into her diamond-encrusted microphone “I want all of Roskilde to feel this love, I want all of Denmark to feel this love,” it’s emblematic of the warmth of community that the festival has created. While the rest of the world may still be a very long way from utopia, Roskilde has managed to forge a truly tangible glimpse.

Tickets for Roskilde Festival 2024 are on sale now

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