I wouldn't consider myself a music festival aficionado. I've been to some small ones and some big ones, some ones for electronic music and some more mainstream ones. I like them a lot, enough to attend a few a year. But now that is all ruined. Screw Governor's Ball. Forget Detroit. And I don't mind if I never get to go to Coachella or Lollapalooza. Because I've been to Burning Man, and suddenly everything else is just awful and not worth the money, effort or time. Here's why:
1. It's so beautiful.Most music festivals aren't aesthetically pleasing. Imagine a giant field with trampled grass populated by scaffolding and branded tents. Or a stadium, populated by scaffolding and branded tents. But damn, is Burning Man beautiful. It started even before we reached Gerlach, the closest town. We witnessed entire lakes appearing and then disappearing, mirages, and the sun blushing as it set behind the dry desert mountains. Once we arrive to the Playa, we saw how the Playa dust sparkled white on the ground, but turned gold when kicked up into clouds. One day we climbed to the top of a DJ booth overlooking the city and watched the sun go down behind the mountains. It sank with fantastic silvery-gold rays of light shooting out from the clouds, like Renaissance painting of heaven. In the morning the sun lifted itself, blood red, from the flat-line horizon. At night, we entered the center of the Playa, and beheld a rainbow tapestry of flashing lights close and far, their beams weaving amongst each other, their bone-rattling bass washing over us from every side. We could dive right into this Tron film, this nebula of exploding stars and inhabit it fully. Sure, there are a lot of drugs available on the Playa, but you don't need them to have your breath taken away. For once, the present was so wonderfully otherworldly, that my attention was fully arrested in the now.
2. Bros and basic bitches hate it here.There are a lot of weirdos and dweebs and misfits at Burning Man, but no judging is allowed. You can choose your RV and campmates, but you cannot choose the type of people you will actually rub shoulders with for 20 hours of the day. You cannot take long, luxurious showers and you cannot use your expensive shampoo. Sexuality is fluid and nonconforming. It's hard to get away with wearing gender-conforming, "normal" clothes, especially if you're a guy. You can buy coffee here, but it is not Starbucks. There are no menus--you get what you get. You cannot wear high heels. No one wears yoga pants, even to yoga. Nobody cares what you do for a living and they won't ask about your bonus. There is no Internet. There is no reality television. You cannot Instagram your outfit (until later). There is nothing conventional about Burning Man. You will have heart-to-hearts (yes, with men, too. Real heart to hearts.) Alcohol is free, but you will only get one cup and then you have to move on, so it's actually pretty difficult to get wasted. Everything will be out of your comfort zone. You will forget to brush your teeth, because it's such a hassle to do so. This festival is not about you, it is about everyone else. You are less important than everyone around you. It's like a really difficult camping trip. (No, not glamping.) Nobody is impressed by your Coachella outfit. All of these reasons are why the basic bitch and the bro are such a rare sighting at Burning Man. And that is such a wonderful, wonderful thing.
3. Get close to your favorite musical artist, no elbowing required.This is a big one for me. At a lot of big music festivals, you must spend 20 minutes winding and elbowing and pushing and shoving to get halfway close to the stage. But, oh crap, your second favorite band starts in 20 minutes at that other stage across the festival! So you spend 20 minutes fighting your way to the back and then sprinting across the festival so you can fight your way into another crowd. And so on. At Burning Man, you park your bike and walk ten feet and there you are. You might be inside a tent with 20 people, or in a crowd of a 200 in front of the Robot Heart bus, but you do not need to shove to get there. You just glide right in. All is wonderful in the world. All your favorite DJs are here. The very biggest party I saw was at Opulent Temple for Carl Cox, and I was shocked by how crowded it was. It was about the size of a typical music festival crowd. But that's OK. We walked up onto a platform and got a great view, and I didn't get shoved once.
4. No trash!At typical music festivals, there are trash cans everywhere, and still, no one uses them! It's like they cannot take the energy to walk 15 feet and deposit their plastic beer cup in a receptacle. I remember at Governor's Ball, I clung to my empty plastic beer cup for 20 minutes because I was in the middle of one of those huge crowds. Finally, my friend said, "Let me take care of that for you," took the cup, and threw it on the ground. He was right, the ground was already covered in millions of cups. Mine didn't make a difference. But it still made my heart hurt to see all that waste. At Burning Man, you do not litter. You bring a reusable cup that you clip back on your belt when you are done drinking from it. You don't drop anything on the ground. If you finish a can of beer, you smash it and put it in your MOOP bag. (MOOP is short for Matter Out of Place. Basically, litter.) If you see a stray piece of MOOP, you pick it up and put it in your MOOP bag. And because you know you need to pack out all of your own MOOP, you bring in less waste, too. It's so wonderful to look around a festival after eight days of 65,000 people partying, and not see one piece of trash on the ground.
5. Everyone around you is a risk taker who does amazing things.Burners are a self-selecting group of people. I can only imagine the first year it was out in the Nevada desert. How everyone must have had Playa foot, and barely enough water, and not enough warm clothes for night, and not enough sunscreen for the day, and several people must have accidentally wandered out into the desert and gotten completely lost, and there was no Center Camp or RVs or air conditioning, and yet they said, "Wow, I want to do this again next year." It's a little more civilized now, but the preparation and warnings about Burning Man is terrifying. You must go on six shopping trips to the thrift store and camping store and grocery store and other random places to get everything you need to survive. You will wait in line for five hours to get in. You will be covered with dust immediately and the entire time you are there. You have to wear boots the entire time, and they will get ruined. You will barely sleep, you will fight with your significant other, you will cry. And you cannot buy your way out of difficult situations. You have to look at them square and hike right through them with your dusty, blistered feet. The kind of people who know all these things and go to Burning Man anyway, are incredibly inspiring to be around.
6. No one is annoying.You know how at normal music festivals, there are all these little moments where you want to punch someone in the face? Like when you're standing in line for a $10 beer for a half hour and someone butts in front of you and demands one for themselves? Or when you're dancing in a crowd of 2,000 and someone knocks that precious beer out of your hand to the ground and doesn't even notice? Or when someone is elbowing their way by and in the process pressed their lit cigarette into the back of your hand? How about that dude who is blowing his whistle the entire freakin' DJ set, or screaming nonsensical, juvenile obscenities? Or the guy or girl who, without permission, grabs your ass and grind against you? All those things happen at other music festivals, but not at Burning Man. During eight days of being in the desert, I can count the number of times I was even slightly annoyed by someone on half of one hand. Maybe it's because the people who go to Burning Man are self-selecting (see #5), but they are all really pleasant to be around. They are rarely drunk, and when they are high, most of the time it's the sort of high that just makes them more loving and considerate. They know that this is a special event for you too, so they wouldn't do anything selfish or entitled to ruin that for you. They all live to make you happy, whether it's with a gift, or good conversation, or helping you with something.
7. Serendipity exists.You know all those old classic movies, where the plot revolves around hijinks or serendipity, missed connections, mysteries, journeys, lost people? Those movies don't make sense anymore, now that we have cell phones and internet. If I meet a mysterious man at a bar, I could probably find him in Facebook the next day. When I arrive to a foreign country, I already know all the best things to do, and can find them on Google maps. There are no longer any accidents. But at Burning Man, where there is no WiFi or cell phone service or social media, serendipity exists. We didn't realize a good friend of ours from NYC was at Burning Man, until he found us at Robot Heart. Afterward, we wondered if he had just been apparition, if he had really existed. We ran into old, old friends by accident, which made it so much more sweet. We wandered in circles, got lost, found camps and people and art, found ourselves. We let the universe make decisions for us, and the result was magic, over and over and over. We kept looking at each other like. "Holy shit, did that just happen?"
8. Too much art.I've never seen so much mindblowing art in one place. (Of course, I've never been to Basel or the Vienna International Art Fair.) The closest thing I can compare it to is MoMA PS1 on a good day, replicated 350 times. I didn't try, but I imagine only if you dedicated your entire Burning Man week to seeking out art would you be able to see it all. There is art in the camps, there are art cars, there are performances, conceptual art and visual art, and there are pieces of art large and small located deep in the Playa that you have to seek out and find, that change in character from day to night, and even from hour to hour. There is amateur art and professional art, art that took a few hours to make and art that has taken ten years to reach its current iteration. So. Much. Art. Too much art.
9. There's no Powers That Be.Burning Man is located on Federal Land. So federal rules about drinking age and murder apply. But local legislation on nudity and permits and when you can serve alcohol don't. Rangers are around, but they largely have a very hands-off presence. You might see one go rolling by in a truck and give you a wave. They'll show up if someone gets in an accident, but they don't march around giving you the stink eye and trying to catch you doing drugs. As for the Burning Man gods--as I call them--they exist solely to facilitate. They give your camp a spot on a Playa in order to maximize people's enjoyment of what you are providing. They dole out funds to help art projects happen. They build Center Camp so that you can get coffee and ice. They make rules for the media so that a naked pic of you doesn't show up on the cover of Newsweek. They ask that you don't litter so that they can get a permit to make Burning Man happen next year. There are no bouncers, body guards or security dudes. There won't be a moment when you feel like cattle being shoved through a shoot as a police officer yells, "Party over, you don't gotta go home but you can't stay here!"
10. Grassroots production means more creativity.At one point, as I gazed around the night Playa and observed hundreds of art cars, ranging from pedi-bikes to double decker buses wandering around like insects in a lush jungle, I said to my boyfriend, "This is what happens when instead of 'producing' an event, you invite people to do whatever they want." Yeah, some of the results are mediocre, laughable or bizarre. But when allow 65,000 people to do whatever they want, a lot of beautiful, wondrous things come out of it. There were dry ships with twinkling masts and gently bobbing carousel horses sailing peacefully by. There were entire clubs with the front door ripped off pouring their music out into the night. There were tree houses that threatened to fall down as a hundred feet danced on the dusty boards. There were lasers shooting across the sky and us cycling through the night on our lit-up bikes, music in our veins. There were rumors of more magical things out there on the playa, you just needed to find them. But first we would need to tear ourselves away from this perfect thing right here, which really was impossible. We embarked on journeys more magical than to Neverland, to lands more beautiful than Narnia, and saw things more fantastic than Where the Wild Things Are. It was like a children's fairy tale set in outer space with characters played by porn stars. It felt like we were standing on the edge of the earth, on the line between fantasy and reality, next to Mount Olympus, and if we kept walking, we would discover even more fantastical things. We danced all day and all night and then fell, still dusty, into our RV bed, sleeping fitfully and dreaming of monsters and gods.
11. The people gather.I actually didn't care much about the actual burn of the Man, until it happened. I wasn't sure it could be that interesting. Yay, a thing burning? Oh, I was so wrong. The burns were my favorite part, whether it was The Embrace, the Temple, or the Man himself, because I've never seen a gathering of people like it. At other huge gatherings (the Ball Drop, sports games), the crowd jostles and shoves and yells and jeers. There are shouts and fights and trash trampled underfoot. But when Black Rock City gathered to see burns, it was like ... how to describe it. Like the final scene in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, where the Whos of Whoville all come together in a circle and sing in perfect harmony and happiness. But 70,00 of them. With electronic music. And lights. About an hour before the burn, people on bikes and on foot would journey to the structure, slowly, peacefully, forming a huge circle. Flashing art cars playing music (or not, in the case of the Temple burn) would slowly sail toward the circle and join, people hanging off all the sides and perched on the top. For the burn of the Man, fire dancers juggled and whipped fire around in bright arcs around the circle, and every single person danced. It felt like I was part of something. I felt more belonging and inclusiveness than I ever had before, more than when I played on a sports team, or gathered in the school gym for a rally, or sat waiting to get my diploma. It's a city of likeminded people coming together to witness something beautiful. And watching the quick and purposeful destruction of art is a unique experience.
12. You earn your pleasure.Most music festivals, you buy a ticket, you show up, you have a pretty good time, you pay for a hot dog, you go home. Not at Burning Man. You have to earn it. Yes, it will be one of the best experiences of your life, but it will also be one of the hardest. The outdoor shower you take at 5 p.m. as a cool wind whistles off the Playa will be one of the most uncomfortable you've ever taken. The art car you ride that night will be one of the most beautiful things you've ever interacted with. The fight you get in with your significant other will be the most demoralizing. The DJ set you dance to with your significant other a few hours later will be the best you've ever heard. It will be the most beautiful sunrise, and the hottest day. You will feel so beautiful, and so ugly. You will find enlightenment because you broke open your soul in the temple. You must bare yourself in order to find love. Every wonderful thing that happens will happen because you trudged through the desert for a half hour to get there, or you got out of bed after only three much-needed hours of sleep. You gotta earn your bliss. No fakers allowed. During the day, the heat dragged on my feet and the dust blew up into my nose. Everything seemed so far away, and I felt that I finally understood the true exhaustion of crossing the desert, wanting nothing but water to wet the tongue. But that was OK, because there was so much beauty and chaos around me. There was always alcohol for my cup, water for my water bottle. My arms were always full with hug after hugs and smiles and happiness. I never had to ask, "How much?" for a drink or a yoga class or a workshop. I only had to smile and say thank you. Thank you so much.
13. Best port-a-potties ever.No lines ever, 95% of the time there was toilet paper, emptied twice a day.
14. Sexual harassment what?I can't walk outside in NYC with a pair of shorts on without hearing from strange men on the street about it. Apparently, many men at music festivals across the country think groping is A-OK. (One woman at a UK music festival even got punched in the face when she confronted her groper.) And yet, at Burning Man, I can walk around for 12 hours without a top and hear nothing. At Burning Man, it isn't assumed that because I'm dressed scantily or in nothing at all, that I want to get groped or raped, or even that I'm interested in sex. It's assumed that I just feel more comfortable in the heat wearing a bra and underwear. How novel.
15. It's worth the money.At Governor's Ball, for example, if you buy a VIP ticket for $500, you get three days of musical acts, plus some more fabulous amenities liked a shaded area, massage, ping pong, comfortable seating arrangements and closer access to the stage, and access to a special bar. Burning Man tickets are $380. It gets you more art than you can consume, more DJ sets than you could possibly see, more yoga classes than you could possible attend, more events than you could possibly participate in, and more alcohol than you could possibly drink, plus, oh yes, comfortable seating arrangements, lots of shaded areas, recreational activities like ping pong and Hippie Hunger Games, hundreds of bars and "access" to stages. (See #3, above.) It's true that you have to spend more money to prepare for Burning Man. You are not required but encouraged to come with fantastic outfits. You need some basic survival gear and some place to stay, transportation to and from the Playa, and you have to bring your own food, plus something to give away. But that is all a choice. My boyfriend and I are overenthusiastic and not good at budgeting, so I estimate we each spent $3,000 on everything: BM tickets, RV rental and gas, outfits, plane tickets, food, alcohol, camping and survival supplies, and camp contributions. We could have spent, far, far less if we had:
- Not unleashed ourselves and our friends on the Reno Whole Foods and the LA Walmart without a more cohesive plan and a budget
- Not felt like we needed a separate fantastic outfit for every day of the week. Some people show up with only very basic clothing, and that is OK. You could get by just fine with the most bizarre items from your closet, a sturdy pair of boots and an old fur coat from the vintage store. (Though you would probably get complimented less.)
- Gotten a yurt instead of an RV
- Not been nubes at Burning Man.