A lot of people would pick the birth of a child or the occasion of their wedding as the best time of their life, but the most fun I've ever had was spending four days on a boat. There's a reason people that attend the floating music festival Holy Ship end up talking about their experiences with a sort of cultish devotion. Nothing I'd experienced to that point in my life had prepared me for the endorphin-aided endurance test of partying my ass off for basically 96 hours straight in international waters—and sometimes on private islands—with a seemingly endless supply of champagne.
There were seemingly no noise ordinances, and essentially no laws when we were out on the open ocean. (Though technically the captain of a ship can incarcerate someone suspected of committing a crime, shout out maritime law!) So electronic music blared 24 hours a day from any one of seven stages. Words do no justice to the absurdity of my time aboard the Ship.
When I disembarked, and began the journey home, my head was spinning, but that was nothing, compared to what I would feel in the coming week. I may have overindulged a bit, I admit, but this was no ordinary hangover. A wave of depression overtook me that had an actual impact on my daily life. I wasn't getting out of bed. I was making up bullshit excuses to bail on plans for no reason. I only ate at the brink of starvation. It felt like Holy Ship took my soul.
The highs achieved at music festivals are often no match against the lows you feel afterwards. Is that so surprising though? One moment you're in a fairytale world where everybody accepts you for what you are, and the next you're forced back into the monotonous routines of daily life. Even aside from the chemical comedowns, there's just this sense of loss and loneliness that comes back with reintegrating into the rhythms of the day-to-day.
Dr. Rob Gardner, associate professor of sociology at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, is acutely familiar with this phenomenon. Over the last twenty years, Dr. Gardner has conducted extensive research on music communities and subcultures, and he's also become a seasoned festival-goer himself. He most frequently finds himself in bluegrass festival settings, but he's also participated extensively in the traveling subculture of the Grateful Dead and the various bands that have followed in their path: Phish, String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band, and others.
Last week, I got on the phone with Dr. Gardner to talk about post-festival depression from a sociological perspective—to figure out what magic happens when people congregate around loud sounds and bright lights, and why leaving it behind sucks so much.
Noisey: All kinds of festivals are essential in bringing people together as a community, but why is that important to us as a people? What is the real reason humans are drawn together in the first place?
Dr. Rob Gardner: At our root, I think we're deeply social creatures. It's part of our humanity. It's part of our DNA as human beings and we depend on human relationships for our survival. We're tied in to other people for our sense of self and sense of identity. I thought a lot about why people are seeking out a sense of community. Why now at this point in our history? I think in our current social context people seek out community because it's often in short supply in our daily lives. We have our small group of friends, our co-workers, but most of our life is spent in pretty isolating situations and conditions. Being able to go and meet all different types of people and connect with them on a very intimate level is out of the ordinary. It puts our daily lives in stark contrast.
We may be incredibly connected to people via social media, but there's something missing there. That intimate, visceral experience of sharing the same physical space with another human being, or thousands of human beings is something that's missing from our daily lives. Anthropologically, we've lived most of our human existence in small bands, tribes, communities, villages, and it's really only been within the past 300 years where we've lived in big cities as individuals. I think that there's something that people are trying to get back in touch to, whether consciously or unconsciously, through that festival experience.
How does that longing for community compare to the longing for individualism?
There is a strain of deep individualism that competes with this sense of community because festivals become stages for self-expression and all sorts of identity performances. The festival setting creates a free space that is separate from and different from everyday life where people can experiment with new forms of identity or to publicly display those parts of their self that they suppress during their everyday lives. Anybody can do anything and everything. And you're accepted for that.
And then when you come back you're hit with the post-festival blues.
Yeah. When you leave that space and all of a sudden you're faced with all these constraints like family, work, school, and what people expect of you and how people expect you to relate to others, it's much less free. It really smacks you in the face sometimes.
Have you ever experienced it before?
I have definitely experienced the post-festival blues and it has come up consistently in my research. I think it has a lot to do with the structure of these events. Because festivals create this temporary community that is physically, socially, and experientially separate from our daily lives, when we enter them they allow us to do things and meet people we wouldn't otherwise encounter. When we leave and re-enter our normal lives, it throws certain features of our lives into relief.
It's a well-known fact that drugs play a major role in music festival subculture. How much of these connections that we make at festivals, whether it's with others or ourselves, can be attributed to the effects of drugs?
I've been to festivals on both sides of the scale. I've been to festivals where the majority of the audience is under the influence. I've been to festivals where nobody is under the influence. Some bluegrass festivals, for instance, very traditional ones, where the average age of the person in the audience is 65 years old, are very much like that. Most of the people are sitting in their camp chairs, not dancing at all, just enjoying it.
Do you feel the same sense of community at those kinds of festivals?
I did actually. It was different. It wasn't exactly my scene. But I think drugs and alcohol provide a greater intensity of experience, especially with people who are taking drugs like ecstasy and other types of hallucinogens. Built into that is a sense of being that recalibrates your relationships and interactions with other people. If you have an audience where everybody is in that space, that's obviously going to have an impact.
I went to a bluegrass festival, Walnut Valley, that was like a Burning Man for rural folks. I was completely sober. Some people are drinking whiskey or moonshine, some are smoking pot, but I wouldn't say it went beyond that in terms of drug use. I remember pulling into the parking lot and I was setting up my tent when I heard this song that I love to play called "Salt Creek." I went over and found these two guys with enormous belt buckles and cowboy hats, shirts tucked into their jeans. These are people wouldn't normally hang out with in my everyday life. Yet here I am singing with these guys, hitting these improvised harmonies with them. I definitely felt something really special there that I won't forget.
So perhaps that connection made by a deep appreciation of music could be just as strong as a bond that is intensified by some drug.
Definitely. What also comes into play is what Émile Durkheim calls "collective effervescence." If you're at a football game and your team scores a touchdown, everybody cheers and it's almost like there's an invisible force that lifts you up out of your seat. There's something about that, how everybody is tuned into the same frequency as the band and everyone else around them. The band is feeding off the energy of crowd, and vice versa, creating a feedback loop of energy. When you experience that as a crowd and you look around and everybody else is identifying with it in the same way, there's just something about that shared experience.
When exiting this setting, you're essentially stripped of this collective effervescence and reduced back to your individual self. Can that be detrimental to you?
Human connections are not just important for survival but also for human well-being. We derive our sense of self from other people. It sounds counterintuitive, but we are anchored in relationship to other people. I know who I am based on my relationship to you, and the cues I'm getting from you and it's the give and take of interaction. When we're in a setting where we're getting all this positive feedback from people around us and people are accepting you, nobody is critiquing you—you can do whatever you want and nobody will think differently of you. The structure of festivals facilitates it. You don't really have anything else to do. People interact freely with each other. But when you leave the festival you leave that behind. That's a part of yourself in that setting that you can't necessarily take back with you to the real world.