Sticking Up for the Man 

Whiners who tar Burning Man as a giant, dopey rave should lighten (or light) up.

Burning Man 2002. As the first crepuscular rays of a red dawn encroached on the inky darkness of the Nevada spacescape, I found myself dancing full tilt with about five hundred other revelers to the sounds of hyper-digital psy-trance in front of the Bass Waves Marina sound system.

Situated at the very edge of Black Rock City, the Bass Waves camp projected the loudest, crispest, highest-pressure wall of sound I had ever heard at Burning Man, though the sonic bombardment pointed away from the city and out into the emptiness of the playa. The system ran every night, all night, and in spite of its purposeful positioning in what the Burning Man organization terms the "large-scale sound art" zone in the city's hinterlands (an area reserved for all sound systems boasting more than three-hundred watts of power), it could still often be heard as far away as Center Camp.

For me and thousands of other electronic music fans, this astonishingly muscular sound system was a welcome gift, drawing us in night after night to be literally moved, vibrated, and elevated to a higher dance experience.

But as things often shake out at Burning Man, not everyone felt the same way.

As the oppressive burning ball of sun crested the horizon, heralding the beginning of our final excruciatingly hot day at Burning Man, an art car decorated as a military vehicle -- replete with what looked like a .50-caliber machine gun mounted in the back -- rolled up to the edge of the dance floor. The car's occupants were clad in the cookie-cutter black leather/shoulder pads/combat boots/punk rock haircuts sartorial modality favored by the vast majority of Burning Man's Department of Public Works volunteers, the people responsible for building the infrastructure of the temporary city we had all come to enjoy.

After popping a few beers, the Mad Max doppelgängers took turns pointing what turned out to be an ear-splitting air gun at the crowd of dancers in Middle Eastern garb and firing for the next twenty minutes nonstop, sometimes repositioning the vehicle behind dancers so as to startle the living bejesus out of whoever was unlucky enough to be the object of their attention.

Awesome, guys! What a fucking radical mode of self-expression!

The sum effect of these actions was the destruction of whatever cheery sunrise vibe existed on the dance floor; unfortunately, echoes of that destruction immediately crept online after Burning Man 2002 was officially over. Just days after the glitter and tribal face paint had been cleaned off and the geodesic dome shade structures had been lovingly tucked away in storage until next year, the blissed-out smiles and butterfly wings of the week had dissolved, replaced with the flaming, bare-knuckles rhetoric of some really pissed-off people.

The official message board at BurningMan.com was soon consumed by a thread titled "Less Rave More Anything."

"I noticed that this year there was too many rave tents with fancy names," wrote the anonymous poster. "Music playing across the playa with no one there. Maybe there should be more alternative music camps. What happened to Jazz, Rock, Reggae. ... I loved it but worry it will turn into a big Rave as years go by. That would be a shame. Anybody else feel the same?"

This was a profoundly odd statement, as every genre of music in existence -- including the aforementioned jazz, rock, and reggae -- had enjoyed representation at Burning Man. But the stigmatization of the relentlessly hyped counterculture event as one big rave persisted; over the course of the next several months, it became clear that many people did indeed feel the same as the person who started the thread. In short order, the heavy traffic on the "Less Rave More Anything" thread (which would eventually top 2,200 posts) rapidly escalated into an openly hostile rhetorical war over the nature of music at Burning Man.

"I wouldn't mind the amount of 'rave' crap going on if it was better music," wrote one poster in reply. "It kind of blows me away that there are so many camps with huge setups that are playing nothing more than crappy TRANCE and pedestrian HOUSE."

"The DJ infestation made me cry last year when I returned to my first BM in five years," wrote another.

So did this year's Burning Man -- held once again in Black Rock over Labor Day weekend -- make anyone cry?

Probably. But it shouldn't have. If you don't like something you see, hear, feel, or smell at Burning Man, you generally can pedal your bike or walk for about thirty seconds in the opposite direction and find something that's bright, shiny, and suitably mind-blowing. Then again, like the crippling heat that has baked the playa for the past three years, you can never totally escape noise. It's the nature of the beast, and to read complaints about the 2002 event for months afterwards bordered on the ridiculous, especially when you consider that electronic music, while certainly prevalent at Burning Man, has been under heavy attack from the government and mainstream media for the better part of two years, most recently with the passage of the R.A.V.E. Act.

Regardless of people's musical preferences, it seems that if there is any place on earth where those who love electronic music should be left alone to have fun, it should be Burning Man. When you consider that the event's overlords envisioned it as an experiment in radical self-expression and radical self-reliance, printed the motto "no spectators" on tickets, allowed anyone to apply to set up their own sound system in the large-scale "sound art" zone at the edge of the city, and banned sound systems more powerful than three hundred watts from being operated outside that zone, you have to wonder why people would waste their time complaining because they're hearing music they don't like. Camps and individuals responsible for large-scale sound-art installations spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours planning and building their camps -- and anyone who doesn't like what they hear is free to spend their own time and money to build a sound system more suited to their personal tastes.

Or again, you could just walk thirty seconds in the other direction.

These facts seem self-evident. But rather than taking action, the E-Playa prior to Burning Man 2003 was abuzz with people content to barb, jab, and complain.

At the festival itself, I was indeed confronted by numerous people, situations, and sounds not specifically engineered to enhance my own personal enjoyment while co-inhabiting a temporary city containing more than thirty thousand other people. A schoolbus full of gutter punks across the street from my tent were in the habit of singing along to bad metal blaring over their sound system and commanding passersby to stick playa boogers to a piece of plywood in front of the bus every evening at sunset, just as I was trying to sneak in my nightly disco nap.

Furthermore, a truck with what seemed like a much bigger than three-hundred-watt sound system drove down our block at 6 o'clock one morning blaring classical music, and a gag-inducing Kenny G-inflected style of sax-ridden house drifted from a bar a few blocks over for the better part of every day and night.

Boo-hoo. I didn't really care.

Bass Waves wasn't back this year because of financial constraints, but I got my groove on at a dozen sound systems I'd never visited before, and one that's been a favorite in the past: the San Francisco Space Cowboys crew's mobile party military vehicle. As I danced to Underworld's "Two Months Off" and Scott Hardkiss' "Infinitely Gentle Blows" while the sun rose Saturday morning, the aural torture various friends and neighbors had inflicted on me for the better part of the week evaporated. Hundreds of complete strangers -- people naked and painted and costumed, including one extra-happy dude tooting enthusiastically into a pan flute that could be heard over the music -- had gathered to share a pleasant moment in the middle of a desert on a dry lake bed in Nevada while millions of Americans were just about to wake up and mow their lawns or go to the temple or play golf or whatever it was they did to start their Saturdays.

Any temporary hardships -- or sonic inconveniences -- we'd endured to reach this point seemed piddlingly inconsequential in comparison to such a joyous event. In fact, I didn't even think about them at all. I was too busy having fun.

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