I spent a recent Saturday in Asbury Park with my 16 year old daughter, for the middle day of All Tomorrow’s Parties “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” It was a bizarre experience in tightly controlled transgression. This doesn’t really fit neatly under the rubric of these-kids-today-their-music-is-just-noise; there were just as many graybeards on stage as well as in the audience; the contest for who wore the funniest costume was fierce and thoroughly intergenerational.

Easy to get stuck between “how did your parents let you leave the house dressed like that?” and “do your kids know you’re stealing their clothes?”

It often felt like there were just as many security people—from police in various flavors of street and combat gear to venue guardians to private operators—as there were festival goers. East Berlin didn’t have this many checkpoints—and the authorities there fretted rather less about beer.

Forgive me if I can’t find the right tag for most of the music. Fill in obligatory cliché about the rattling of internal organs here ____________. And I’ll no more than gesture in the direction of mocking dumpy or wrinkled musicians in their fifties and sixties doing a simulation of the spazzing out that made them famous on stage when Jimmy Carter was president. People in my age bracket shouldn’t throw stones; we’re too brittle ourselves.

I’ll just say that a lot of the music was meant to be played on bad sound systems in abandoned warehouses, in which you could dance for six or eight hours at a time to the rhythm of your recreational substance of choice, until the sounds of helicopters (either in the sky above or in your head) became too loud and you had to run for it.

It’s not the perfect fit for an auditorium in which pimply twenty-somethings wearing yellow security t-shirts jostle through the crowd to yell politely in your ear, “Sir! I’m afraid I have to ask you to step back from the stage!”

The crowds were obedient to the point of standing up and attempting energetic movement when instructed to do so by the musicians: rebellion on command! But you could as easily dance in a two-seat commuter plane. So people pogoed, twitched, and head banged, periodically puttin’ their hands in the air! in a way that had to make anyone who has seen video of Nazi rallies just a little queasy.

There was a bonfire on the beach that night—speaking of rallies—but it was tended by professionals, surrounded by a fifteen foot buffer zone, and encircled by benches, chaise lounges, and tiki torches. No alcohol permitted on the beach, of course. Burn baby. . . oh never mind.

Things started on time and ended on time and people paid strict attention to rule #3 in the festival program: Please refrain from being an asshole.

Well, as long as they asked nicely. . .

Chaos is over-rated, violence flat out sucks, you get nostalgic about mayhem chiefly when it’s pretty far back in your rearview mirror—and the surgeons have confirmed that the loss of vision in your right eye will be fairly minimal.

But it’s an odd sight to see a middle aged man rage on stage, violently knocking the mike stand over, only to have it returned to place a minute later by a stagehand. After the third time, it’s kind of like watching some weird inversion in which the baby keeps giving Grampa back his rattle just to see it thrown to the ground yet again. You feel for the kid, but a job’s a job; you’re really embarrassed for Grampa.

A lot of this music has gone from Raging Against the Machine to Oiling and Tending the Machine so we can use it again next year. Some of this is commerce, some of it is who we seem to be post-9/11.

Welcome to Kettle America. Please refrain from being an asshole.

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DONALD N. S. UNGER teaches in the Program in Writing & Humanistic Studies at MIT. His book, Men Can: The Changing Image & Reality of Fatherhood in America, was published by Temple University Press in 2010. www.men-can.com

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