Here's the good news: The mainstream media are turning against Burning Man.
Today's entry: a snarky New York Times article (in the Style section) by hard-hitting journalist Nick Bilton. Bilton breaks the news that uber-rich people go to Burning Man, and some of them pay to have a more comfortable, less gritty experience. How shocking! And how timely -- this has only been going on since 2005!
To be clear, I am all for this kind of piece. Burning Man has become too popular for its own good, and it's losing its edge. This is inevitable, I think -- it's the same reason nightclubs are great, then are popular, then are bad. So anything that can slow that process is a good thing. The more limousine liberal Times readers think Burning Man is a "festival" with "stoned hippies," the less likely they are to go, and make it suck for the rest of us.
I'm also not fond of the "concierge" Burning Man experience that the 1 percent seem to favor. Even if the servants are called "sherpas," it's still extremely douchey to pay people to outfit your experience for you when some of the points of Burning Man are self-reliance, self-expression, and immediacy of experience. When I first experienced this phenomenon -- yes, in 2005 -- I cringed.
But this is what rich people do, right? They pay for things to be easier. And judging from the responses of some (though clearly not all) of the 1 percent-ers who visit the playa, Burning Man still has the capacity to transform and inspire. No, not by doing drugs and running around naked -- the 20-year old cliché that Bilton repeats without the slightest gesture toward actual journalism. But by interacting with new, creative people in intimate ways; by experiencing new forms of art, spirituality, culture, and music; and by celebrating with an ecstasy that would make Nick Bilton cower in his stylish boots.
And no, not necessarily the MDMA kind, Nick. There are several sober camps at Burning Man, many families with kids, and many of us whose idea of a peak experience no longer necessitates chemical enhancement. We have had experiences that you cannot even imagine. And many of them have indeed been in Black Rock City.
For the record:
Burning Man is not a "festival." Festivals are basically big parties, put on (usually for profit) by organizers, which customers come to visit. Burning Man is a participant-created community experience, coordinated by a non-profit, that is about radical self-expression in all its forms. Spectators are scorned. Snarky twits like Bilton hopefully have their minds blown.
The Burning Man "rules" have nothing to do with bringing tents, ramen, and strange clothing. That is pure idiocy. First, there are 10 principles of Burning Man, but they have to do with the values I mentioned above: self-expression, immediacy, and so on. Second, people have been camping in RVs for years. And since 2001, I've come to Burning Man every year but one, and I've never eaten ramen noodles. The idea that Burning Man is about roughing it completely misunderstands what the experience is about. Elon Musk, who Bilton quotes disapprovingly, is exactly right when he tells him "you don't get it."
What's amazing, and dispiriting, is that Bilton himself has been to Burning Man, which he calls "one of the best experiences of my life." And yet it appears to have been so great because "we lived on cereal and beef jerky for a week."
Nick, that sucks! All that indicates is that your camp was poorly prepared and insufficiently creative. If eating shitty food is what constituted your Burning Man experience, please, come back, eat well, and focus on the important stuff.
Finally, why assume that there can be no linkage between a radical community devoted to creativity and an industry devoted to, um, creativity? Again, I'm not defending the douchebags. But why, in principle, is it impossible for Burning Man to productively impact Silicon Valley, which has made its billions largely by working extremely hard to be extremely innovative?
Obviously, "innovation" in its overused sense is not the point of Burning Man. And libertarians, from Peter Thiel to Grover Norquist, seriously misunderstand the nature of Black Rock City if they conflate it with "smaller government." If anything, BRC shows that it takes a village to make a miracle -- a very organized village, with rangers and Earth Guardians and a Department of Public Works.
But this almost feels like quibbling. It's no surprise to me that great ideas come out of Burning Man, because some of mine did as well. Hell, even Adam Lambert told Rolling Stone that his persona was born there. Lambert's great ideas were about entertainment, queering pop music, and fashion. Musk's were about space rockets. They have more in common than not.
The people diluting Burning Man aren't the techies, as irritating as they are. They are the frat boys, douchebag EDM-party people, and others who come because they hear accounts like Bilton's, and want to get in on the action. (And of course, the scalpers who feed them.) They are the people who think "strange clothing," rather than self-expression, is the point -- and so they all tend to look alike. I wonder if Bilton looked like them.
Fortunately, Bilton's article is one of many to slag off Burning Man in recent weeks. Keep 'em coming, mainstream media. Keep telling people that Burning Man sucks. If you keep it up enough, maybe it won't.
Follow Jay Michaelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaymichaelson