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I came across the following sentence in a The Atlantic article:

Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation.

English is my second language, so it got me confused. I can understand wars and technological leaps. But how does a concert shape a generation? And why particularly a free one? Why does it take place in the mud?

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    This is a great question; I'd imagine many native English speakers would not understand it either just due to generational differences. I was more thrown off by their use of the word 'outsize' — that's not a common one, especially when referring to something non-tangible. – kayge Jan 4 '18 at 18:52
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    Seems more a generational gap than a language barrier. – DWin Jan 4 '18 at 22:08
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    Ask Max Yasgur :-) – Mawg Jan 5 '18 at 11:48
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The concert in question is the 1969 Woodstock concert. It became a symbol of the changes in western society during the 1960's.

Wikipedia:

It is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history, as well as the definitive nexus for the larger counterculture generation.

At some point, because of the overwhelming amount of people trying to get in, the organisation announced "this is now a free concert" - the words became kind of famous.

Because of the rainy weather, the whole thing was a pretty muddy affair.

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A 'free concert in the mud' is an example of an oblique reference: a turn of phrase where the speaker indirectly describes some specific object as if it were a class of objects - with the idea that the intended audience will realise based on context that it actually refers to the specific object.

So in this case, the author refers to 'free concerts in the mud' as a class of generation-shaping event. However, to the intended audience - people familiar with western popular music history - that class can describe only one thing: the 1969 Woodstock Concert.

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In the UK, summer music festivals are famous for being rained on and the whole event turning into a mud bath. Also summer concerts are an essential part of growing up, so much so that people still go to them when they're in their 50's and 60's.

Putting up with a concert that becomes a mud bath is considered to be a initiation ceremony into adulthood. A formative experience that binds friendships, starts romances and is remembered with affection and laughter, "Do you remember Susie falling over in the mud at Glasto. LOL that was so funny" and so on, for years afterwards.

See Glastonbury 2016 mud bath and Glastonbury Festival backgrounder

Glastonbury is so big it's broadcast live on BBC national TV see BBC Glasto 2016 and all the national papers have daily commentaries on the acts along with pictures. But there are lots of other similar festivals throughout the summer, with equally unreliable weather.

Hence the phrase "a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people" would be understood by anyone living in the UK.

You usually have to pay though, so the 'free' part of 'free concert in the mud' is misleading.

  • Oh, one man's formative experience theguardian.com/music/2004/jun/28/glastonbury2004.glastonbury2 – John Small Jan 5 '18 at 14:32
  • Yes: This is not just Woodstock. There are tons of outdoor concerts where mud is a problem. Concerts held in rural or rural-ish areas or on playing fields where the vegetation has been trampled to death. – Lambie Jan 5 '18 at 14:39
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    @Lambie - There tons of outdoor concerts in the mud. Most of them, though, don't go on to define/symbolize an entire generation the way Woodstock did. – J.R. Jan 5 '18 at 20:41
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    +1 for bringing in cultural relativity. It was so immediately obvious to me, as it would be to most middle-aged Americans (The Atlantic's primary audience), that the original article was referring to Woodstock that I didn't stop to think about what the phrase might evoke for people outside the target audience. – arp Jan 7 '18 at 10:48

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