The anticipation nearly killed hundreds of viewers as the clock neared 5 pm Saturday afternoon. Despite the technical difficulties that delayed FemFest by an hour, the virtual event was a stunning success and gave music lovers a taste of what it was like to spend a chill weekend baking in the sun while listening to their favorite indie-rock artists.
Hosted by the Student Assembly Gender Empowerment (SAGE), 2021 FemFest made its virtual debut on April 3. Proclaimed as USC’s “counter-patriarchal” music festival, FemFest is about embracing and amplifying the voices of female artists, queer folk, and people of color. Musical acts, drag performances, and poetry readings filled the five-hour event. The festival director, Nicolo Pizzati, described the annual event as “more than just a music festival, but a digital space filled with mental and sexual health resources, educative literature, links to femme/queer-owned businesses, as well as communal spaces for people to meet.”
The festival consisted of three stages: The Dream Stage, Hyper Stage, and Dark Stage. Ayoni kicked off the Dream Stage with her song “Divine.” Ayoni’s soothing vocals left the audience starstruck and were the perfect way to open the night. Raveena closed off the Dream Stage with a thirty-minute set that was nothing short of ethereal. At the end of her set, Raveena paid her respects to the artists that have influenced her. She recalled “so many black and brown artists...and the multitude of things that [she] consume[s] as an artist that allows [her] to be in this space with you.”
Following the Dream Stage performances, Mykki Blanco, a queer performer, poet, and activist, performed a selection of their poems. As they spoke about their struggles as a queer person, they brought an intimately candid atmosphere to the stage.
With a virtual festival, each artist fully expressed themselves through all aspects of their performance, as demonstrated through the Hyper Stage acts. Fraxiom, the second act on the Hyper Stage, performed in front of moving greenscreen scenes of cityscapes while Caro <3 sang behind her electric keyboard and in front of a wall of plushies.
Celia Bartel, a SAGE board member, said that her favorite act of the Hyper Stage was Dorian Electra. She recalls how “their performance was so energetic and unique, and everyone in the stream was saying how comfortable and affirmed they felt by their music. It was great to be in such a safe space online meant to celebrate LGBTQ folks.”
The final act of FemFest was the Dark Stage’s Caroline Polachek. Polachek filmed her set with ambient lighting, complete with candles to set the mood. Polachek’s stunning performance included her hit song “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’' and a stripped down cover of Judee Sill’s “Lady-O,” leaving the audience awestruck.
FemFest’s most challenging hurdle was the transition to an online format. After the cancelation of the 2020 festival, the team knew that they had to meet high expectations for this year’s festival. Katherine Yi, web development team member said that when she first joined the team for the event in 2020, “it was to collaborate on interactive installations that would both elevate the performers’ acts and give festival-goers playful and beautiful experiences to share with each other.” She said that while it was a shame not to have produced the event in-person, “[the FemFest team] actually became thrilled about the opportunities for reimagining this year’s event in an online setting.”
The online site that hosted the event included a live stream of performances and an audience live chat. The event housed several small businesses and resources to LGBTQ+ sex resources. The most impressive feature of the online experience was Topia, a 2D virtual world in which attendees could interact with each other. Every aspect of the virtual event allowed festival attendees to experience a fully immersive online concert.
“What is extra special about Femfest 2021 being online is that it is able to connect and create communities amongst people who might be trapped in queer-phobic cities or households,” Pizzati said. “The internet has been an essential part in the way queer identities connect, so hosting an event in a way that enables those people to share a space is extra meaningful.”
Despite the challenges that the FemFest team faced while planning for the highly anticipated event, 2021 FemFest’s stunning lineup and fully immersive online experience gave festival-goers a chance to experience the uniting, intangible power of live music once again.