Óbuda Island, Budapest
Formed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1993, it’s safe to say that what first began as “a rock festival with no toilets” has undergone several evolutions to become the Hungarian institution that it is now. Along the way it’s lost contact with its more countercultural roots, growing into a sprawling week-long event that brings in hundreds of thousands of festival-goers to the dusty grounds of Óbudai-sziget year on year. After 2017’s edition, the organisers aimed to curate the festival as an event that’d lean more on providing an experience rather than the bookings, but with the backing of an American sponsor for its latest chapter, Sziget was able to enhance both – and an experience it certainly was.
This year proved the festival to be on steady course with 565,000 people flocking to the large Danubian island for Sziget’s Love Revolution. When uncovering the site by foot, it’s demonstrably clear that the festival was backed by advertisers; ostentatious cars gleamed in the VIP area and were parked as advertisements around the island. T-Mobile logos shone bright in the darkness of the dance arena, and an Aldi stood on the grounds – an incongruous structure against the island’s forestry. However, the festival’s commercial sheen also seemed to pay off; the wide space of the island was packed with art installations and constructions – marking one of the ways in which the festival had reinvested its money into the site. And furthermore, its line-up boasted expensive bookings of A-list and celebrity acts.
The Hungarian festival has a reputation for bringing boundary-pushing artists tapping into the cultural zeitgeist and titans of the industry to its stages. In the past, the event has hosted icons such as David Bowie, Prince and Patti Smith. 2018 saw the festival continue this tradition, being one of the few events to snag Kendrick Lamar, and though Lana Del Rey released Lust for Life last year, there’s no doubting her star power.
That said, Lana Del Rey’s mannerisms contained a touch of awkwardness at times with the slight readjustments of her pout and posture atop a piano – though, perhaps, even this was a part of her practiced performance and persona. She certainly mesmerised the audience with her sweeping widescreen sonics, vintage visuals and the melancholic, universal trope of chasing the immeasurable romances fed to us via the silver screen. Running through well-loved hits such as Born to Die, Video Games and Summertime Sadness, a standout moment was a cinematic medley of Change and Black Beauty segueing into Young and Beautiful. Yayo was a particular highlight that captured the slow and hypnotic quality of Del Rey’s swooning vocals; and upon a fan request, she performed an a capella version of The Blackest Day for the very first time, marking the festival with an exclusive performance of the one song she’d never sung live. While the last track, Off to the Races, was lost on many being a lesser-known song from her first album, it proved to be an epic closer. The singer had saved her best visual sequences for last and the vintage vignettes that informed much of her style during her ascent back in 2011 unravelled to a track that was a perfect summation of early Del Rey: diamonds, wealthy men and cocaine. Life is never quite like the movies, as the pathos in Del Rey’s songs seemingly conclude, but as the singer walked off stage to sign her autographs surrounded by camera flashes, on the black and white screens it seemed for a moment that she could’ve fooled us into believing so.
Taking over the main stage on Sunday night was Dua Lipa, who stands as the most streamed female artist in the world right now. Getting off to a strong start with a multitude of bangers and crowd-pleasers in the first half, the latter end of her set suffered from a dip in energy that lasted a few tracks too many, though she managed to rouse the crowd again by ending on New Rules and an explicit warning of giving fuckboys the middle finger.
Liam Gallagher brought the Mancunian swagger to the same platform during an early evening slot. Though his off-the-cuff banter (“Top city. Nice buildings. Lovely people”) made for an entertaining watch, and though Wonderwall inevitably caused a sea of phones to ripple across the audience, tracks from his solo debut failed to pique as much emotion in the day’s heat. Arctic Monkeys, who drew one of the largest crowds of the entire festival, did better at smuggling in rock star moments, with the anthemic riff of Do I Wanna Know galvanising the crowd into a mass singalong.
At the festival’s Colosseum venue, a round open-top structure that hosted the underground sounds from international and Hungarian selectors, Paula Temple and Rebekah’s back-to-back set appropriately began at midnight. Ushering in the shadowy corners of dance music, the two brought the darkness to the dance with a brutal set of heavy industrial sonics shot through with acid and techno. In contrast, a dynamic back-to-back set between Afriqua and Polarize saw the two freewheeling across a spectrum of genres and percussions, ranging from the extraterrestrial and alien to tribal beats, disco and deep house with brass elements weaved in.
In line with the size of its bookings, the Hungarian festival certainly maintains an impressive appearance. The attention to detail could clearly be seen on the site, and whether the line-up appeals to the festival-goer or not, Sziget has curated the winning formula of balancing it with an overall experience: a beach, karaoke, a sky bar, a secret party and a wide array of stages. The festival has a long history tied in with its home city, and as the organisers continue to refine their methods and book acts that are relevant to its broad audience, it’s clear Sziget is here to stay. Considering it began as a way to fill the city’s empty summers after the disappearance of its Socialist youth camps, it’s since made its mark by interweaving itself into Budapest’s cultural fabric, maintaining a gigantic presence in its summer seasons.