Ozy Media revels in comparisons. The alternative publication and media brand, founded in Silicon Valley in 2013, has been likened to other digital startups like Vice and Buzzfeed. And like these publications, Ozy (styled OZY) has received funding from high-profile investors, like Laurene Powell Jobs and German media conglomerate Axel Springer.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that Ozy’s two-day festival—aptly called Ozy Fest—would also draw comparisons to similar gatherings of musicians, politicians, writers, and more. According to the festival’s website, the festival has been referred to by CNBC as “New York’s answer to SXSW,” with panels similar to TED Talks. Included in this year’s lineup for Ozy Fest are some big names; think Hillary Clinton, Rose McGowan, Cynthia Nixon, Hasan Minhaj, Roxane Gay, Michelle Wolf, Karl Rove, and the rapper Common. And like any festival worth its salt, there are some musical acts slated to perform, namely Young the Giant, Grouplove, and Passion Pit. While none of these bands are exactly hot ticket items in 2018, they’re fun, palatable indie-rockers who fit right in with the brand of easy-to-digest entertainment Ozy Fest seems to thrive on.
If these panelists and performers all seem a bit too random, well, that seems to be the point. Ozy Fest’s scope is pretty broad—similar to festivals like SXSW, it attempts to combine thought-provoking discussion, relevant entertainers, and relevant musical acts into one glorious celebration of diversity. Perhaps because Ozy Fest so clearly aims to please, however, it all just falls a little flat.
Organizers at the festival were well-meaning, if a little scatterbrained. Checking in was a near-nightmare, and the layout was unnecessarily confusing. But as rain clouds moved in later in the day, staffers came by with trays of candy, rain ponchos, and whole boxes of Insomnia Cookies—all complimentary. The VIP section even got free pizza. And I was stopped multiple times by staffers who wanted to know if I was having a good time or if I was excited for the next panelist.
The politicians featured on Saturday’s lineup were relevant and could have been very interesting to listen to—if they’d been asked the right questions. Instead, festival organizers alternated between giving them a no-holds-barred platform to espouse tired viewpoints, or pairing them with a sympathetic counterpart who wouldn’t dream of challenging them. Cynthia Nixon, for instance, was not “in conversation” with anyone, but instead just offered up her usual boilerplate in regards to Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic Party in a thirty-minute long speech. Grover Norquist, who was in conversation with Florida Senator Mark Sanford, spent much of his time onstage rehashing his long-heard views on tax reform. And what was clearly the crown jewel in the festival’s try hard progressive crown—Hillary Clinton in conversation with Laurene Powell Jobs—quickly turned into another discussion of the dismal state of American politics, with a feel-good video compilation of protesters from across the nation thrown in at the end. Before walking offstage to thunderous applause, Clinton urged all festival goers to vote in the November midterm elections; Powell Jobs beamed and called her “a national treasure of a woman.”
Saturday’s other panelists felt no less forced in their subject matter. Rose McGowan was ostensibly discussing the #MeToo movement, but really just used her time to promote her new book and her ultra-humanistic manner of dealing with sexism and harassment. She repeated various feel-good phrases about loving yourself and reclaiming your agency—gender aside, we all just need to be good humans, McGowan said, glossing over the many other intricacies and structures at play in sexism. Fay Schlesinger, Ozy Media’s managing editor who was in conversation with McGowan, was positively in awe, complimenting McGowan’s new short haircut as a way of beginning the conversation.
A bright point of the festival was comedian and Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj, who poked fun at gun-happy southerners and xenophobia in a sharply funny thirty minute set that almost made standing in the pouring rain worth it.
Ozy Fest seemed like it was catered to older, progressive millennials who’d like to consider themselves “woke.” Most attendees appeared to be in their late 20s to mid 30s, with a few younger people in attendance. Clinton’s panel drew one of the largest crowds of the day, and many festival-goers sported T-shirts with girl-power slogans like “Nasty Woman,” “The Future Is Female,” and, my personal favorite, “Messy Bun and Getting It Done.” Attendees dutifully booed whenever Trump’s name or policies were mentioned, but when McGowan accused the Democratic party of shielding her abuser Harvey Weinstein, you could have heard a pin drop. Progressivism only goes so far, it seems—even despite the best intentions of festival organizers to make it an inclusive, open-minded space.
Near the food and drink area (both predictably overpriced), there was a dry-erase display with prompts like “What Challenges Did You Overcome This Year?” and “Make A Bold Prediction for 2028” situated about blank spaces for festival-goers to write in their answers. Some answers were almost saccharine in their earnestness—“the USA will have a female president!” someone wrote in purple marker—but the harshest one was by far, “This festival won’t exist because there’s no organization.”
Call it a lack of organization, a lack of conviction, or both, but Ozy Fest didn’t land quite as well as it could have. The festival’s dedication to politics at times read as trendy and forced—even the musical guests were using feminist buzzwords like “toxic masculinity” and “slut-shaming” in between songs.
It's fair to say Ozy Fest is off to a good start, but it’s still got a long way to go.