Burning Man Has Never Been More Popular — or More Irrelevant

Burning Man Has Never Been More Popular — or More Irrelevant
Flickr user Laughlin Elkind

The first time I heard about Burning Man, I was eighteen years old and my best friend from high school had just returned from a four-month trip trekking across India.

I told her what I'd been up to — discovering the rave scene in the Midwest, basically — and she told me that one of her travel-mates had been talking about a big party in the Nevada desert that she thought sounded a lot like a rave, only bigger and lasting an entire week. "It's called Burning Man," she said.

"Why do they call it that?"

"Because they burn this effigy at the end."

"Like a ritual?"

"I'm not sure. I thought it kind of sounded like one, but my friend said it wasn't really."

Huh. Okay.

I've heard more about Burning Man in the years since — more every year. It's seeped into the cultural consciousness, been the crux of a Malcolm in the Middle episode, spawned photo books and albums and other artistic endeavors. Every year around this time, Facebook — and sometimes the media at large — explode over the fact that Burning Man will happen, is happening, has happened, won't happen again until the next trip around the sun.

It's never been more popular, but I've reached the point, where, as a music consumer, an art lover and a conscious being (I like to think, anyway), I just couldn't care less about Burning Man. Here's why.

It's prohibitively expensive.

Yes, I know there are low-income tickets you can submit an application to claim. But even with a low-income ticket, I could still travel overseas to a country I've never visited and immerse myself in a brand-new culture for the amount of money people spend to attend Burning Man. Because it's not just the ticket; it's the gear you need in the desert, plus clothes, plus food and anything else you're consuming, on top of the money to travel there and the fact that you're taking off work (if you do work) to go.

It sounds really uncomfortable.

Look, I'm not afraid of some physical discomfort. I love hot yoga and camping, and I also love the desert — but running around in an inhospitable environment, getting dust in all my cracks, just doesn't sound like that much fun to me anymore.

In my twenties, I think I would have enjoyed it — or at least not minded it — but I'm 34 years old now. Staying up all night is a lot harder on my body and brain than it used to be, and I have a ridiculously comfortable bed at home, plus a shower and a full kitchen. It takes a lot to get me to leave them, and so far, Burning Man has not enticed me sufficiently.

You can live-stream it in real time or download the highlights after the fact.

I like to dig up who's played a DJ set at Burning Man and listen to all of them I can find every year. I've been listening to Bedoin's 2014 Robot Heart set since last September.

There is some killer music at Burning Man and some astonishing art. And I can enjoy a large amount of it from the aforementioned comfort of my home. I can shower every day and sleep in a real bed, and still get a sense of what's happening at the Playa.

I could even visit Burning Man from my bathtub if I were so inclined, or host a dance party at my house. For free!

It's not private enough for me.

I've done desert camping before — and enjoyed it thoroughly — but the best thing about it, for me, was the lack of people and deep connection with nature. It was just me and my thoughts alone with the sun and sand for long stretches of time.

I realize there are ways to get away from all the people at Burning Man, places where you can go and sit and meditate, but I'd rather spend the aforementioned chunk of change to get there on a mindfulness retreat or meditation workshop — or a trip with a handful of people to a gorgeous, isolated, unpopulated place on the planet.

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It's not the only way to disconnect from reality, or even the best way.

One big moment of reckoning that I think comes for most adults — if not all of us — is the realization that our lives are a choice. We sometimes like to think that we have no option besides going to school, going to work, being active members of society.

This is a lie. Every day, we choose to participate in the world around us, and we decide to what extent we will do that. It might be a subconscious decision, but it is a decision nonetheless.

It's a scary and powerful feeling, and when you really get it, it changes your relationship with the people and society that surround you.

I think Burning Man is one popular place where people tend to reach this moment of reckoning. But it's not the only path to that moment, and some people who have seen the light (much like someone who's found religion) seem to think it's the "one true way" to step outside of Socrates's cave.

If you go to Burning Man and realize you want to start a new hobby or pursue that partner of your dreams or change careers or even form a commune and live in a yurt for the rest of the year, hey, more power to you.

Others can arrive at the same place because of the death of a family member or deep meditation practices or some other path, though, and that doesn't make their method of arrival less valid than yours. Which brings me to ...

Some people get really pretentious about Burning Man.

I had a dude explain to me once, very seriously, that "Burner burlesque" is not like any burlesque I'd ever seen before. Those words were spoken to me in a city where burlesque artists I know make their own costumes, spin poi in their acts, dance to dubstep and throw Halloween shows where zombies strip off their own flesh. (When I told him that, he was at a loss for words as to how "Burner burlesque" was different or more evolved than what local troupes were putting together.)

You like Burning Man. I get it. But someone else's art — or life epiphany (see above) — is not less valid because the art has never been to Burning Man or because the epiphany didn't happen there.

You don't need an excuse to be creative.

There are many Burners I know who are active in their community, putting on theater productions and arranging concerts and parties, throwing potlucks and making connections outside of Black Rock City all year long.

I also know a lot of Burners who invest in one big, creative thing a year — I'll bet you can guess what it is! — and are uninterested in the arts or their community from September through May or June.

If you have an awesome idea for a costume or project, you don't need to save it for Burning Man. And if you love art and music, well, there are lots of other places where you can see beautiful things made by humans or listen to well-crafted tunes.

It's not as off-the-grid as some people seem to think it is.

You have to purchase a ticket to Burning Man. There's an official website. Celebrities go to Burning Man now.

It is not unplugged or disconnected from society. It's too organized for that.

Want to see something really disconnected? Head to a Rainbow Gathering sometime. No ticket necessary, no one's in charge — and the hippies are at the root of the modern "leave no trace" philosophy.

You might even find some people who will let you disappear into the woods with them if you're really second-guessing your return to reality.

It can be a divisive element instead of a unifying one.

People feel like Burning Man is a family. "Welcome home" is their thing. That's great; I love it when people find their tribe.

I don't see the point, though, in dividing the world up into Burners and non-Burners upon your return from the Playa. You can date a non-Burner. It's really okay to do that, I promise. You can take advice from a non-Burner. You can participate in events that weren't organized by fellow Burners.

I understand the desire to immerse yourself in the Burning Man experience all year; I really do. It's life-changing for many people.

But if it doesn't change your life in ways that make you better — more connected with yourself and those around you — then that's a shame.

Because you could have stayed home with me and joined my living-room dance party instead.


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