Over the weekend, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California transformed into the ultimate haunt for the harbingers of darkness young and old as the venue held the 2023 edition of Cruel World Festival. The edgier sect of the ’80s new wave crowd and their children, teenaged goths revamping old school mohawks with eco-friendly hair products, and anyone who could pass as an extra in The Craft all came out for the one-day-event-turned-two (May 20th-21st).
They were all drawn to catch macabre legacy acts like Siouxsie (in her first North American performance in 15 years) and darkwave staples like Boy Harsher during the day-long experience. This year, however, Cruel World proved just how cruel Mother Nature can be, as a lightning strike and subsequent mandatory evacuation by the Pasadena Fire Department cut the day short. The sever weather alert came a third of the way through punk godfather Iggy Pop’s hour-long set, resulting in his mic being cut during the iconic, “The Passenger.”
While this left many fans disappointed (bottles were thrown, boos were taunted), the cancellation could also be seen as a blessing in disguise; festival producers Goldenvoice rescheduled headliners Pop and Siouxsie for Sunday evening, extending the latter’s set from an hour to an hour and a half. The additional date also gave attendees a second chance to enjoy electronic pioneer Gary Numan, who returned for an encore set, as well as experience DJ Club Doom Dave on the main stage.
All in all, it only seems fitting that these creatures of the night would bring lightning and inclement weather to the usually sunny and clear Southern California. Despite the sky’s ill-timed pyrotechnics and a few last minute cancellations (Adam Ant and The Motels being replaced by Squeeze and Berlin, respectively), Cruel World once again became the supreme destination for alternative, post-punk iconoclasts and their legions of fans.
Long Live the ’80s
Say what you will about the trends of the ’80s – your hair would likely agree with you, but somewhere between the neon and Reagan, the era’s musical tastemakers gave us a plethora of hits. From karaoke classics like “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin and “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League, to tongue-in-cheek anthems of pleasure like “Dancing with Myself” by Billy Idol and “I Melt with You” by Modern English, the music of the time was catchy, exciting, and continues to inspire even the most begrudging listener to sing along.
In short, the enthusiasm cannot be denied and the impacts cannot be understated. And for those lucky attendees of Cruel World 2023, the icons could not be missed. With the aforementioned acts all in attendance — in addition to Echo & the Bunnymen (a welcome sight considering they missed the inaugural year due to visa issues), ABC, Gang of Four, and Love and Rockets, to name a few others — the festival could be considered a family reunion for the bands that essentially helped launch MTV. While old and new fans alike may have come for the hits (“Fine, we’ll play that song now,” Modern English’s Robbie Grey quipped before launching into “I Melt with You”), they were left blown away by the feverishness and ferocity that demonstrated these new wave legends still got it. From Gary Numan’s face paint and high kicks to Berlin’s Terri Nunn’s foray into the crowd atop a security guard’s shoulders, the stars of the ’80s were alive, well, and ready to rock.
It might surprise a subculture outsider to discover the breadth of crossover between modern day fans of ’80s hits and the electronic darkwave scene, but where there’s a synthesizer, there’s a way. As Molchat Doma (a Belarusian band popular on TikTok) and the beloved Boy Harsher took the stage, eager listeners drifted from the poppier performers of ’80s days gone by to those bands that took up their synth mantle and brought it over to the dark side. Electronica is eclectic by nature, and it should come as a shock to no one that goths have always loved to dance. Whether bopping to the brighter Ela Minus or shuffling to the atmospheric Glass Spells, the black-clad crowd of Cruel World came to shake off their beloved cobwebs.
A (Second) Day to Remember
It should go without saying: Siouxsie and Iggy Pop took Cruel World for the ride of a lifetime, and everyone in attendance was an exhilarated and willing passenger. While the pair didn’t perform the song they share in common (Siouxsie and the Banshees covered Pop’s “The Passenger” in 1987), they held the crowd in rapture during their respective sets. Siouxsie’s performance was a particular thrill, a welcome comeback from the night before which saw tears and eyeliner streaks at the possibility that the Mother of Goth might not get a chance to perform her only scheduled North American show.
But the tears were traded for shrieks of joy as the next day, Pop, shirtless as ever, returned to writhe on the floor with his mic in his pants, and Siouxsie finally graced the stage in a shimmering silver hood to the opening overture from Beauty and the Beast. To see the two legends in the flesh is overwhelming; their command of the crowd incomparable. As artists and as headliners, the pair exemplify what Cruel World 2023 did best: gather together the outcasts, the strange, and the original nonconformists in grateful celebration. As Siouxsie said halfway through her set, “We’re happy here.”