Poppycock! It’s Punks, not Hippies

Chris Taylor at Mashable has responded to this week’s press that Burning Man has jumped the shark and rich people are one-upping each other with $25,000/head camps and sherpas. In Chris’s opinion, Burning Man is run by punks, and always has been.

From Mashable.com:

DPW Crew. Photo: Jessica Reeder

DPW Crew. Photo: Jessica Reeder

…Every time I read one of those articles — they are legion at this time of year and invariably seem to miss the point — I feel a bile rising, a furious urge to defend the festival I’ve attended, on and off, since 1999. This week’s New York Times style section story is a case in point. The author, Nick Bilton, is a smart guy, and he’s been to the event. He should know. But here he is telling one of many old and cliched untruths about the place:

If you have never been to Burning Man, your perception is likely this: a white-hot desert filled with 50,000 stoned, half-naked hippies doing sun salutations while techno music thumps through the air. A few years ago, this assumption would have been mostly correct.

Poppycock. That assumption has never been even close to correct…It is, and always has been, ruled by all kinds of techno-smart futuristic punks rather than nostalgic hippies or dippy ravers.

Consider: this is a week-long art party in a handmade city in an environment that is doing its level best to kill you. Either the sun is baking dry ground that is blinding white, leeching water from your body, or the wind is blasting mile-high storms of dust across this enormous barren plain at ninety miles an hour, or a starry desert night is damn-near freezing you to death…

punks headdressesWho thrives in that environment? People who are a little bit crazy, quite a bit determined, and a whole lot of wiry and smart. People with an Iggy Pop-style lust for life. Here are punks of all stripes: cyberpunks, steampunks, biker punks, punk punks. People who do what it says on the ticket — voluntarily assume the risk of death. People who are brought roaringly to life in this killer of a desert, and fight fiercely to build an all-inclusive volunteer-driven civilization that lasts for as long as a mayfly.

…Burning Man is crawling with law enforcement and officialdom; they’ve just gotten very good at blending in. The notion that you have complete freedom to openly flout federal or Nevada state law is a dangerous myth. The idea that, as Bilton suggests, “drugs are easier to find than candy on Halloween” is what leads the guy carrying the “I Need Drugs” sign to his inevitable arrest on the city’s main drag, the Esplanade.

…Leading the charge is the Department of Public Works, or DPW — the roughest, toughest, hardest-working punks of all. These are the men and women who come out to this hostile environment literally months in advance to drive the golden spike in the ground that marks the dead center of vast concentric horseshoe-shaped boulevards, to construct the vast public spaces of Center Camp and the (completely nondenominational) Temple, to build the Man just so you can watch him burn. It’s no wonder the DPW is famous for roaming the streets during the event demanding beer from unsuspecting strangers because “we built this city” (to which the only appropriate response, if you’re daring enough, is “on rock and roll.”)

…But what about the plates of sushi, the ridiculously decadent desert food the billionaires are bringing with them? Hundreds of camps do exactly the same thing — ridiculously overspend, beyond their means, on ridiculously decadent food that they keep in a series of coolers just so they can be ridiculously generous to friends at unexpected moments.

I have attended fabulous and random four-course dinner parties during sunset on the playa. I’ve seen camps bring tanks of liquid nitrogen just so they can make ice cream for anyone who stops by. One year I had the ridiculous notion to take Chinese food delivery orders from my camp long before the event. For those who took me seriously, I ordered, vacuum-packed and froze their meals the day I drove out, then heated and delivered the results to their tent doors in their original containers the next day. That sort of thing happens all the time. Bilton’s notion that nearly all Burners are eating ramen noodles is the column’s other tired cliche.

…The ultimate misconception about Burning Man, though, is that it’ll be around forever. The whole idea is that it won’t. The event is a celebration of impermanence and change — the clue is in the title, and in the vanishing city that gets packed in and packed out.

Larry Harvey, Burning Man co-founder, has long said he’s preparing for the day when it will be no more. Eventually the crush of extra people at an event that’s adding up to 10,000 new attendees each year will get too much, the culture will collapse, it really will jump the shark. It doesn’t matter, Harvey insists — the spirit of Burning Man burns brightly in dozens of what are known as regional Burns, held around the year.

For many grizzled veterans who no longer go, that day has already come. It doesn’t matter. People are always on the edge of phasing out of Burning Man; that’s why “it was better last year” is one of the most common memes on the playa, right up there with “leave no trace.”

So far, however, Black Rock City has absorbed far more immigrants than it has spat out emigrants. There’s healthy stream of new attendees (and yes, new tech billionaires) to replace the old. For all its sham, drudgery and imperfect visions, Burning Man the event, not just the spirit, is still gaining strength.

It’s high time we started seeing it for the phenomenal jerry-rigged punk-built human achievement it is — rather than the oft-ruined hippy fest of media legend — before it leaves no trace one last time.

One commenter here has pointed out that Happy Days went on to its highest ratings ever after Fonzie jumped the shark. Henry Winkler (Fonzie) and Ron Howard (Richie) also went on to hugely successful careers after that moment.

Fred Fox Jr, who wrote that episode, told the LA Times:

HiREs Fonz croppedIt aired Sept. 20, 1977, and was a huge hit, ranking No. 3 for the week with a 50-plus share (unheard of today) and an audience of more than 30 million viewers…All successful shows eventually start to decline, but this was not “Happy Days'” time. Consider: It was the 91st episode and the fifth season. If this was really the beginning of a downward spiral, why did the show stay on the air for six more seasons and shoot an additional 164 episodes? Why did we rank among the Top 25 in five of those six seasons?

What’s the difference between Happy Days and Burning Man? Happy Days never claimed to be changing the world. It was just something fun, for the purpose of entertainment.