July 30, 2008

Looking for Change in All the Wrong Places

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As my friend and I pulled up to the Bonnaroo security checkpoint, I heard a whistle and was confronted by a guy in a neon concert shirt apologetically telling me that my “number had come up.” Evidently, I had won a chance to have my car searched, not by concert security, but by Tennessee’s finest. By entering the festival grounds, I had consented to the agenda of sunburned cops with nothing better to do than to harass music enthusiasts. I didn’t receive one of the 124 citations the police handed out throughout the weekend; I just got manhandled a little bit before I went to see Stephen Marley.
Reminding myself just how subversive humor can be, I laughed it off and continued forward toward the festival (a Bakhtinian carnival), conscious of entering a collectivity that simultaneously offers an interruption of everyday life and a release valve for repressed desire. Bonnaroo, like all festivals, is a controlled release of pressure, providing just enough relief to convince its attendees to return to wage labor on Monday rather than to end wage labor forever. Nevertheless, I was hopeful for a change of pace even though I knew that change, the buzzword of the weekend, now makes most people think of Obama instead of each other.
The perversion of the word change so that it is now synonymous with stasis was most aptly demonstrated at Bonnaroo by the naïve statements of Pearl Jam’s star social democrat, Eddie Vedder. With the concert line-up including revolutionary groups like The Coup, M.I.A., Israel Vibration and Talib Kweli, I got excited when Vedder said, “It is proven that this many people can change the world.” Instantly, I thought permanent, international revolution; I thought real structural change. Vedder continued: “It is welded into the Constitution that people not only have the right but the responsibility to make change.” With that single phrase, Vedder demonstrated the sly way in which bourgeois liberals sound as though they are advocating change (so long as you play by the rules — their rules).
Here the social democrat retorts: “But the Constitution enables us to vote for our new leader, the man of change — Obama!” Instead of accepting this knee-jerk reaction, we might ask why, if we admit that change is needed, we are so quick to sublimate this desire into a fantasy projection onto a figurehead instead of actualizing our desire collectively.
As for Vedder’s remarks about the Constitution, Heraclitus was on to something when he said “all things are constituted from fire and resolve into fire.” Fire, therefore, is both negativity and transcendence — a move from the Constitution and toward a new constitution. In other words, to accomplish real change, some documents must be burned.
Talk of fire and festivals can only arouse memories of Woodstock ’99, a complex event that would require a book-length analysis rather than a paragraph. Although Woodstock ’99 veteran Metallica did win over a highly skeptical crowd at this year’s Bonnaroo, what’s more important is that another veteran of Woodstock ’99, Rage Against the Machine (RATM), will be headlining this year’s Lollapalooza. As the populist rhetoric of the Obama campaign surfaces everywhere, including in the speeches of a particularly bourgeois Bonnaroo headliner, RATM’s message becomes crucial. Real change comes from below, and frontman Zack de la Rocha won’t be afraid to convince those who need convincing. After all, “it has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime, what better place than here, what better time than now?”