As far as the-end-of-something symbolism went, this year’s Burning Man festival was about as sharp as it gets: A social-media optimized version of Woodstock ’99.
Consider: The 2023 edition of the Black Rock Desert-based cultural festival in Nevada was disrupted by torrential rainfall that turned the sand of the “Playa” into quicksand-like mud — all of which cast into disarray not merely the planned revelry of dedicated “Burners” (who are only now making their exodus through traffic-clogged Nevada streets) but the downtime of various prominent celebrities. There, on Instagram, were comedian Chris Rock and the DJ Diplo, hitching an early ride out after hiking through the muck for miles. They were accompanied, Diplo later reported, by model Cindy Crawford and entrepreneur Rande Gerber, as well as the couple’s daughter, model Kaia Gerber, and her boyfriend, “Elvis” star Austin Butler. No less a personage than Neal Katyal, once the acting solicitor general of the United States, posted about his own early retreat from bedlam, accompanied by a photo of himself in happier Burning Man times, wearing a propeller beanie and a grotesque grimacing figurine around his neck on a gold chain.
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All of which, to those of a certain cast of mind, both confirms a symbolic view of American life, and then flips it on its head. First, there was both a confirmation that, yes, in a sphere not only separate from but invisible to all but the very elite, there is an endless party going on; then, the power struggle got pleasingly inverted. The citizens of the Capitol, as it were, were suddenly in the midst of the Hunger Games.
This is a takeaway that diverges from how Burning Man might like to see itself — the festival (yes, much like Woodstock ‘99, before it devolved into much-documented chaos) is intended as a coming-together to foster creativity and interconnectedness. That lends the fact of the celebrities booking it out of there as soon as things got bad an especially jangling symbolic resonance — working together to create a self-sustaining community for a week is a lot easier when the sun is shining.
None of this is to minimize the suffering or discontent of those civilian souls who wait all year for Burning Man, or to say that there’s solely a cynical spin on this. (The sole fatality at this year’s event, authorities have said, was entirely unrelated to the rain and mud. And one Burner noted in a CNN interview that those with RVs took in those whose tents had been waterlogged, which reflects well on the ethos of the community.)
If mass tragedy had broken out, the feeling would be very different — but what ensued, instead, was a snarled and muddy headache, now finally being resolved. One can practically see the Fyre Festival-style documentaries recapping the incident being greenlit within a month, and on streamers by this time next year, all telling a story that is less horrific than benignly absurd.
And what will keep us watching it isn’t solely the desire to make sure that things work out OK enough. (Though the fact that we know mass chaos didn’t break out will make those docs more palatable.) It’s a familiar schadenfreude: In the end, no matter how far deep into the desert they may go to commune with nature and the spirits, even celebrities wind up stuck in the mud sometimes, too.
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