Fear and loathing at OZY Fest
OZY Fest — which has nothing at all to do with Australia or, alas, the bat-eating songwriter responsible for "Crazy Train" — rolled into New York City's Central Park this weekend, bringing with it thousands of attendees who had all voluntarily decided that the best way to spend their time and money was by going to something described favorably as "TED meets Coachella."
In the shadow of a Statue of Liberty throwing up the sign of the horns, OZYgoers in orange OZY bandanas braved the blazing sun and threat of thunderstorms to see a somehow-not-photoshopped lineup, where Hillary Clinton was top-billed alongside, uhh, Passion Pit. The festival is put on by OZY Media, a polished online magazine founded by former MSNBC anchor Carlos Watson, which lists contributors like Bill Gates and Condoleezza Rice and boasts that it's "built for the Change Generation." The AV Club branded OZY's two-day event "the music festival of your nightmares."
— KT NELSON (@KrangTNelson) July 9, 2018
While it's easy to dunk on the superbly mediocre lineup, in practice the event was the best argument I've seen yet for why the Democratic Party is in need of a radically new approach — because this lot sure has nothing to say.
Watson, the founder, told the New York Daily News in April that the goal of the festival, which is in its third year, is to bring "diverse voices to one stage, and expose people to unexpected perspectives. In years past, people who purchased a ticket to see Jason Derulo have been totally wowed by Jeb Bush." Which is dubious; if you're trying to wow people, you don't invite Jeb Bush.
But in reality, OZY Fest is a strange, well-funded mutation of the #Resistance, organized and attended by people who are so out of touch and smugly self-congratulatory that "highlights" of day one, which I attended, are limited to Hillary Clinton talking about Russia and DNC Chairman Tom Perez predicting the party will win "north of 23" House seats and "plus two" Senate seats come November.
For a festival with the tagline "Think. Eat. Rock." there wasn't much of anything thought provoking; everything that was said had been said before. (The food was good, though; shout out to the Belgian fries for getting me through the twerk-off portion of the afternoon).
(Republican strategist Karl Rove yacks it up with comedian Chelsea Handler, liberal billionaire Tom Steyer, and OZY Media founder Carlos Watson on day two of OZY Fest. | Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for OZY Media)
Take Perez. Perhaps nothing embodied the fangless, pat-yourself-on-the-back tone of the festival more than the DNC chair, who credited Clinton's election loss on allowing "fear to triumph over hope," only to confirm that "we're winning" now because "we're focused on values." While the words each individually sound fine — "values" are great, I love values! — they are hollow, as superfluous as instructing New Yorkers who paid upwards of a hundred dollars to hear Common talk about mass incarceration to remember to vote. "I support the abolition of Donald Trump," Perez said for good measure, which means nothing at all.
Perez additionally referenced socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's primary win for putting "hope on the ballot," although the elephant in the room was the party's far-left wing, which was conspicuously absent from the main stage. Cynthia Nixon, who is running for governor of New York state on the appealing promise of not being Andrew Cuomo, gave a rote stump speech at the free bandshell stage outside the main gates, name-dropping the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, the Parkland shooting, and the Democratic Socialists of America. A couple behind me at her speech, sporting orange wristbands indicating they had paid at least $99 to be there, murmured "who is she?" and "she's totally crazy."
Perez, meanwhile, has endorsed Cuomo, a politician my colleague Ryan Cooper has claimed would have been "a passable courtier for Louis XVI." But OZY Fest is not a place for off-message nuisances who think so.
Making that perfectly clear, Watson hosted a panel consisting of former New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez, Soulcycle founder Ruth Zukerman (because of course), former New Zealand soccer player Tim Brown, who now sells shoes, and Ryan Williams, who founded a real estate technology company with Middle East peace envoy Jared Kushner and his brother, Joshua Kushner. The panel, "How to Succeed In Business Without a Rule Book," offered helpful advice on being rich, like fly "20 hours" if you have to in order to get to an important meeting. A-Rod had earlier explained how easy it is to go bankrupt when you have $100 million.
That sort of stratification of access was apparent in more explicit ways too, from the free events at the bandshell to the general admission tickets, to the unlimited free food and alcohol in the shaded VIP area, to a ridiculously named VVIP area, for when one V just isn't enough.
(Attendees of OZY Fest brave the rain to hear Passion Pit. | Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for OZY Media)
So why does anyone go to OZY Fest? It certainly isn't to listen to a failed politician in a caftan weigh in on the politics of the day after being pitched softball questions. It isn't to watch Rose McGowan break down on stage talking about #MeToo, or hear Grover Norquist predict the next financial crisis, or see the HQ guy in person, or buy an umbrella shaped like a wine bottle, or drink alcohol out of half of a watermelon (although that probably helped).
OZY Fest exists so people who say things like "madam president" can cheer when the talent tells them to "go vote" or calls the president a "cheeto." It's to lap up words like "freedom" and "justice," which are fired from the stage like out of a T-shirt cannon to applause. It is the arrogance of modern neoliberalism, where you can go home at the end of the day feeling proud you respectfully clapped for Republican Rep. Mark Sanford.
(Hillary Clinton speaks with Emerson Collective founder Laurene Powell Jobs about Russia's threat to American elections. | Brad Barket/Getty Images for OZY Media)
It is with eye-popping irony that OZY Media cites the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem "Ozymandias" as the inspiration for its confusing name. "[Y]up, most folks read that poem as a caution against big egos and the impermanence of power," the website's "about" page explains with a complete lack of self-awareness. "We read it differently. To us, the poem says think big, but be humble, lest you end up 'two vast and trunkless legs … in the desert.'"
Except OZY Fest represents exactly the wrinkled lip and sneer of a political movement that believes itself to be in the historic right, with no notion of the reality outside its cordoned-off hilltop in Central Park. Look on my neon corporate wokeness, ye Mighty, and despair.