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Meta-Messages and the Anthropology of a Music Festival

Published on October 6, 2023

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Part A

Everyday we’re constantly communicating with one another. Sometimes what we’re communicating is obvious, but other times the meanings behind communication lurk beneath the surface, requiring knowledge of cultural and social connotations to decipher.

A message is that obvious, literal, on-the-surface meaning of something. All it takes to understand a message is knowledge of the language and vocabulary. If someone tells you your house is on fire, the message is your house is on fire. No frills there. However, there are other implied meanings to this statement, like you may want to do something to try to stop the fire that is consuming your house, like call the fire department.

These implied meanings are called meta-messages. A meta-message is a message about a message. It operates on underlying social and cultural rules. With all communication there are meta-messages, with every message there is “what is said” and “what is meant”.

Let’s say a boy walks up to a girl and says, “Are you a parking ticket? ‘Cuz you’ve got FINE written all over you!”. The literal message appears that he is confused as to whether or not the girl is a parking ticket, and is apparently is hallucinating that the word ‘FINE’ is written all over her. If the girl is from a different culture that doesn’t have pickup lines, she might be very confused as to what the boy is trying to express, possibly scared or creeped out. Assuming she understands the meta-message, she’d be able to decipher the social messages of wanting to get her attention because he finds her sexually attractive, and the cultural messages that combining a compliment with a joke is a good idea. In this case, the meta-message is more important than the literal message, without it, the message doesn’t make sense.

In accordance with social and cultural rules, meta-messages change. For example, if a boy used that same pickup line on another boy, the meaning could be drastically different. Let’s say the two boys are heterosexual frat boys having a discussion about ideal pickuplines, in which case the meta-message could be, or “this pickup line is a good pickup line”, or if it’s delivered in a silly voice, the message could be, “this pickup line is stupid and will not work on anyone” or simply “I’m secure enough about my own sexuality to compliment another man, although I need a joke to do it.”. Through the power of meta-messages, the meaning of the message can change dramatically without changing the content of the message.

Let’s look at another example of meta versus meta message.

A plus-sized woman went out clubbing wearing high-heels and a tight-fitting outfit made of leather and lace. On the floor, her dancing was sultry and fierce. A slender woman approaches her and says, “Wow, that’s so amazing that you’re comfortable in your body.” The message is a compliment, but the meta-message may be a bit more treacherous. The statement implies the plump woman is doing something extraordinary for being comfortable in her body, that normally someone with her body would not or should not be comfortable according to social and cultural expectations. So instead of being flattered by the compliment, the plump woman angrily tells the slender woman “it’s amazing YOU’RE comfortable in YOUR body” manner and they proceed to glare at each other from opposite sides of the dance floor.

Part B

Congratulations! You’ve won a ticket to a music festival, as explored through anthropological terms! This modern-day ritual, like all rituals, is tripartite, or a three-part structure.. Like any good story, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The beginning of a ritual is called the separation phase. In this phase, we become separated from our normal routine. We pack up all our stuff, load it into a car, and head off to the festival grounds. After we arrive and wait in the long line to get in, it begins to sink in that we are entering a new realm of being. We get our wristbands on and realize we’ve started on the next part of our ritual.

This is when the fun starts. We’re in a transitional period, the middle part where most of the story happens. We are no longer the people filled with anticipation for the festival, nor are we the sleep-deprived fried festival-goers we’ll be afterwards. There is a sense of liminality, being in a space between social roles, a quality of ambiguity as to what is to happen next. We become pliable to the situation.

From this liminality, an anti-structure forms. This means we’re removed from our social roles. Thus, when we’re dancing around or looking at all the trippy artwork, we’re able to set aside our differences and relate to people simply as human beings. No matter if you’re young, old, stupid or Einstein, a firefighter or a transexual bartender, we’re all the same because we’re all here to have a good time. Without the constraints of the usual social hierarchy, we have a feeling of communitas, an intense feeling of connection and being equal to our fellow human beings simply for being alive. We find ourselves able to respect and appreciate people who we would normally be irritated by, like the trashed guy in a giraffe costume who is freestyle rapping at full volume at five o'clock in the morning. “He’s just doing his thing” we say. “Get it, gurrl!”

Sure, the music might be the message of the festival, but the liminality, anti-structure and communitas is the bulk of the experience we’re searching for here. These are the unspoken meta-messages that makes the sleep deprivation worthwhile. The anti-structure reminds us what is is to simply be human. Liminality allows us to become malleable to new social customs and embrace our experiences without expectation. Communitas allows us to see people on a more intimate level then we were previously capable of and gives us the warm fuzzies. All of this encourages prosocial behavior, helping to keep culture and society healthy and vibrant.

These meta-messages might explain why so many people complimented your shirt as we headed towards mainstage. I don’t think it’s because these people are particularly crazy about Hawaiian shirts. They just aren’t really sure what they’re doing, they’re feeling like happy humans who want more humans to be happy so they’re complimenting everyone on anything they can think of to express the connection they feel towards you for being a human.

We get to mainstage and one of your favorite bands is playing and you acutely experience the quality of apprehensibility. You feel a complete sense of dissolution of yourself as an individual. You no longer take the role of trying to write your own script, instead you’re using all of your energy to act out your part. Your dance moves seem to flow through you without your volition, as though you were channeling some higher power, perhaps a god of dance, like shiva nataraja. You feel connected vertically through time to all the festival-goers that have come before you and all the festival-goers that will come after you.

Although from the outside, it appears you’re doing the same funky chicken dance move that you always do back home, something about it to you seems other-worldly. This transformation is called magnification; it makes even the funky chicken seem sacred. When the festival is over and you’ve returned home, a little bit of that magical feeling lingers when you’re busting out your moves in front of the bathroom mirror.

Now the festival has ended and we begin the final phase of our journey- the reintegration phase. We pack up our camp, follow the line of cars going way under the speed limit, stop at a family diner to eat the only substantial meal we’ve had since we headed out, finally get home to praise sleeping in our beds. Our sense of liminality fades as we ‘return to reality’, re-integrating our experiences to give us an updated conception of time, identity, community and social customs. Even as we return to our normal lives, we carry with us that sense of communitas and magnification as a result of this ritual.