As electronic music festivals continue to grow from special, niche events into once-a-weekend normie fests - and as the sheer mass of sweating, writhing attendees sees exponential growth - so too has a more contentious topic come to rear its ugly, LED-infested head: festival totems.
Indeed, if you ask any “old school raver,” or really anyone who has regularly attended music festivals for the past five years or more, the use of totems has absolutely skyrocketed. Whereas early 2010s festivals certainly saw some totems and flashy sticks, today’s fests are absolutely filled with them. In fact, it has become increasingly difficult to get an unimpeded view of the stage without riding the rail.
If you ask most festival attendees about their favorite features of music festivals, their fifth or eighth answer might be “totems!” It seems that for the vocal minority, totems are a beloved part of music festival culture. When asked why, answers range from “because of their aesthetic,” to “because they are art,” or simply “cuz I like 'em.” Subjectivity aside, the more utilitarian answers are always variations of “they help me find my friends.” Are any of these actually convincing enough reasons to allow their uninhibited use around stages, though?
To be quite frank, a vast number of totems these days are absolute garbage. Specifically, the seemingly billboard-sized placards-on-a-stick, and the godforsaken flags that wave about ceaselessly, or worse… don’t wave about at all. They are not creative, funny, aesthetic, or clever in any way. They are big, obnoxious pieces of poster board that give pleasure to… whom, exactly? Probably not the person forced to carry them and certainly not the people forced to stare at them. Best-case scenario, they are good for 15 seconds of ha-ha’s, before leaving forever, like how dad left to pick up cigarettes 15 years ago. And this doesn’t even call into question the environmental impact of these often single-use items.
When considering today’s totems (specifically during music sets) there’s a strong case for heavier restrictions on their use and implementation. Objectively speaking, the worst totems are incredibly disrespectful to those unlucky people behind them. For the most part, festival attendees have all paid hundreds of dollars to both see and experience the music, not to be subjugated to visual excrement.
Further, most all sets have video jockeys or other visual artists who are there expressing their own creativity that likely took years to perfect, and shouldn’t their art be just as respected, if not more so than a 15-minute ugly totem? What about a set's overall production that's the culmination of thousands of dollars and thousands of man hours? Where is the PLUR now?
Those who deride this argument might say “well just move over five feet,” but not everyone can move over five feet in a crowd of hundreds or thousands, especially when there’s a trash totem every eight feet. It shouldn’t take advanced trigonometry to see that the math just doesn’t make sense. Others have argued “You go to music festivals to hear the music, not to watch the stage!” Well… that viewpoint is straight foolish and deserves no consideration.
The best and only objective argument in favor of totems and flags is their utility as landmarks. Anyone who has ever been to a large-scale music festival will agree that it can be incredibly difficult to find your crew if you are ever split up. To that end, yes, totems can be useful. But in practice, how useful are they really? When totems these days are as prevalent as rave girls’ clothing is not, how useful is it to scream into your phone “TURN LEFT AT THE RICK AND MORTY TOTEM, NEXT TO THE COCAINE BUTTERFLY” when there are six “Get Schwifty” placards within first glance? To that end, how many festival attendees can even get phone service in a crowd of thousands?
Sure, totems can be excellent guides and landmarks, but that starts to fall apart the closer one gets to the action. Ask any music festival veteran: the best, most useful landmark is the soundstage; in an undulating sea of ravers and festival kiddies, the soundstage is an absolute. Every venue and stage has one and only one, and in practice, it’s often shockingly easy to get to it. Try it next time, it won’t disappoint.
While its true that at their best, totems can be incredible works of craftsmanship, creativity, and self-expression, any person who claims all totems are this way is a boldfaced liar or optimistic to a fault. While totems maybe shouldn’t be outright banned, they should absolutely be restricted more heavily.
In an ideal festival landscape, totems would only be allowed starting at the sound stage and behind, or perhaps far left and right sections of the floor. This lets diehard totem supporters get their fix, while giving others reprieve from the constant barrage of trashy meme sticks.
On the other hand, though these rules may not be implemented any time soon, there are easy ways that totem-heads can minimize the impact on those around them. Collapsible poles are not only cheap and readily available, they also mean that no one has to carry a totem around for 15 hours in the dirt and dust. Foldable sunscreens can be used as placards instead of permanently square poster board, and they are feather-light to boot. When both of these are used in conjunction, even the most obnoxious “BOOF IT” totem can go from high-in-the-sky to stowed away in under 60 second.
In the end, it’s morally difficult to criticize something espoused as a bastion of creativity and expression, but this difficulty only arises if one has respect for those so firmly in the pro-totem camp. By that same token, should totem-abusers not also have that respect for their peers? How about the artists they claim to support, the people whose job it is to capture the event, if perhaps even the environment at large? Is that really so much to ask? Sadly, the answer seems all too apparent.
"Just to be clear since some people think it’s their right to be an inconsiderate douche. Your right to “self-expression” has not been banned at our shows. We simply just want both our crew and our audience to be able to enjoy the show how they intended. [...] Stand to the side dummys. Or I’m coming to your job with a giant sign that says fuck you and you can explain to your boss why some guy is interfering with your work."
Brian Baker is a writer and photographer based out of St. Louis. You can find his portfolio here.