Any attempt to satirize millennial culture is doomed to fail. It’s already too absurd and too self-aware. A caricature would verge on the surreal. The best (perhaps only) way to squeeze some fun out of it is through deadpan objectivity, which is the secret to the success of FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.
The sad and hilarious new Netflix documentary tells the story of an ill-fated music festival that was supposed to take place in the Bahamas. Its organizer, Billy McFarland – imagine Walter Mitty meets Bernie Madoff – used the influencer economy to bootstrap into existence the kind of party billionaire rappers fantasize about, with supermodels in barely there bikinis lounging on yachts levitating over a crystalline sea.
It’s not supposed to be funny, but it’s hard not to laugh. The creative director of the company that organized the festival is called ‘MDavid’. Not quite as ridiculous as Charlie Brooker’s character ‘15Peter20’, but not far off.
It was supposed to be the ‘cultural event of the decade’. A slick promotional video announced that ‘the actual experience exceeds all expectations’. It promised ‘two transformative weekends’ and an experience ‘on the boundary of the impossible’. Indeed. You can watch the documentary to see just how badly it all turned out.
On the surface it’s a story about a fraudster and the naivety of those he dragged along with him, but it’s worth pointing out that McFarland, despite being as vacuous as everyone else in the film, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. His scam was only made possible by the culture he was working in.
My problems with millennials aren’t the usual ones. I don’t care that they’re work-shy and hypersensitive. What bothers me is how shallow they are. I fear for the future of the arts – what possible contribution could this generation make to film or literature?
Even if you know nothing about millennial culture, there’s a clue in the terms it uses to describe itself. It’s very telling that its output is described as ‘content’. I always imagine content, as the word is used by ‘creators’, as a sort of homogeneous pink slime that can fill up any container, whether it’s the Instagram grid or a YouTube video. There’s no substance whatsoever, and yet it still functions. The clicks and the likes keep coming, and they can be traded for ready money.
In this environment an authentic-looking experience is hard to come by, and that’s what McFarland was selling. The event was designed for Instagram. It looked too good to be true, which fits perfectly with the ethos of the platform. In creating the promotional video that sold the event, he did what every successful Instagrammer does on a daily basis. He made the scene look so much better than it really could have been, only instead of fairy lights he used Emily Ratajkowski.
The event as it was advertised was like catnip for aspirational millennials. They were promised the opportunity to hang out with models and celebrities on a beautiful private island. A journey in a private plane. Guaranteed social media clout. What they got was more like a stay in a refugee camp, surrounded by people just as awful as themselves. Tell me that’s not hilarious on some perverse level.
I have firsthand experience here. I used to date an Instagram ‘influencer’ with a loyal following. She would cook and bake things she didn’t want to eat, purely to photograph them. In exchange for the currency of likes. Yet she hated being recognized in the street. The impossibility of squaring that circle demonstrates my problem with ‘influencers’. What, exactly, is the point of being one?
I think the documentary makers could have sacrificed a shot or two of pouting supermodels in favor of an interview with one of the hundreds of itinerant Bahamian laborers that were exploited without pay. They also failed to explore fully question I’ve tried to answer here. Why did this scam work? It’s not because McFarland is a genius. It’s because the rest of his generation apparently aspire to nothing greater in life than #numbers and a selfie in the back of a private jet.