Totems or Nah?

Nikstagraham
8 min readApr 24, 2018
Totems and rage sticks. Photo Credit: Marco Torres.

Lost in the Crowd: A Festie’s Memoir

Tip-toeing gingerly through the mass of kandi-clad ravers, you look up and see a wooden cut-out of Stewie Griffin atop a pool noodle, wrapped in flashing el-wire, bouncing to the pounding bass of the artist on stage. To your right, a posterboard of Pikachu with psychedelic swirls of color in his eyes, wobbles on a broomstick handle. Someone has draped party beads over the board’s corners which appear to be secured down with duct tape.

Desperate to find your friends before the end of the set, you find a small plot of open ground and scan the crowd behind you: a Griz-pride flag waves nearly 20 feet in the air towards the sound booth, an umbrella lit with LEDs and hanging el-wire resembles a jellyfish, a sign that reads “Dad?” is bouncing heavily just a few rows behind you. To your right, a large flower whose stem reaches at least 3 feet above the tallest person waves proudly, a Chicago-flag and pirate flag on an extendable flag pole sweeps back and forth with the music, reaching the lasers high above the crowd. A “One does not simply” meme shakes nearby, and a PVC pipe with a pineapple perched on top shines brightly, reflecting the stage lights. Two trees seem out of place as they seem to be snaking through the crowd to the front of the stage rather quickly, the foliage also bouncing to the beat and sparkling as the strobe lights hit each leaf.

There! Just next to the “Happy Birthday” balloon is the green, sparkling pickle-shaped cardboard your buddy cut out out earlier at your campsite. Outlined with green el-wire and fashioned with two large googly-eyes, you distinguish your fam from someone else’s without even seeing them yet. You rush over to the Pickle-Rick cut out nearly 50 feet away and find your buddies grooving just below. After hugs and sips from the shared Camelbak, you’re getting down and wobbling too. Operation: Reunite was a success.

As the show ends, your friends hand you the wooden stake with Pickle Rick. It’s at least twice your height and somewhat unbalanced, but resting it against your shoulder as you walk seems effortless. Holding Pickle Rick above the crowd gives you a feeling of comfort: even as you head off to the next stage with a dead phone in your pocket and no flashlight, your friends will be able to find you quickly and you’ll be able to light the way for others as you journey into the darkness of night.

Up Above the World So High…

If you’ve ever been anywhere near a crowded stage at an outdoor concert or music festival, you know exactly what this described experience is like. Even if you haven’t personally created or sported your crew’s totem, it’s hard to miss the crafty designs others bring, boasting pop culture logos, characters, and decor among large crowds. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Urban Dictionary describes totems under the entry “rage stick”: “A self-crafted stick or pole that is held high by music festival-goers so that if their group is split up, they can scan the crowd for their groups “rage stick”. Rage Sticks often sport the faces of popular celebrities such as George Clooney or Trey Anastasio.” For an informative history lesson about totems, please read “The Secret History of Totems”, an entertaining article with everything you need to know about about rage sticks over time.

… Like a Diamond In the Sky…

Rage sticks have become extremely popular at recent festivals and shows, so much so that some artists and fans are now asking festival-goers to leave their iconic signs, flags, and objects at home for good reasons. While some are gorgeous and total works of art, others are distracting, too tall, and no longer welcome near the stage. Derek Vincent Smith, more commonly known as Pretty Lights, was one of the first to restrict totems from his sets just this year, and even kicked a fan out for waving a large jellyfish totem near the front of the stage. His lighting designer, LazerShark, put blatant images reading “No Totems” on their light panels during their recent tour.

Pretty Lights prefers no totems at his shows and used these visuals to remind his guests during a performance in Hew Hampshire. Photo Credit: Twitter.
My flag totem was easily spotted by friends at North Coast making it easy to locate me. It was 20-feet tall and blocked the lasers at Tipper’s show though, so I was asked to take it down and did without hesitation. Photo Credit: Jeremy Mauldin.

Take It Down

While attending Tipper’s show at North Coast Music Festival, I was personally asked by security to take down my flag as it interfered with the laser show: they also approached the other flag-bearing fans and guests with large totems and requested the same, even so the festival allowed them. Security even asked a triple-stack of three fans atop each others’ shoulders to disband as they, too, blocked the lights from reaching the back of the crowd. These cases were not the first to express concern for light shows and visibility: Umphrey’s McGee fans will be some of the first to tell you to ditch your dumb totem so the entire crowd can experience Jeff Waful’s exceptional light show as well as the band’s live performance from anywhere in the crowd.

Let the Games Begin!

When I first read about Pretty Lights’ request to ditch the creative, homemade sticks and staffs, I wondered what everyone else thought, so I posed the question in Fall of 2017 to the “EDM Chicago” Facebook group, a notoriously ruthless and opinionated group of over 45,000 people who share stories, media, memes, and requests about anything EDM-related. I received lots of feedback from people on both sides of the argument very quickly.

“Leave your trash at home and enjoy the f**king show!” one user exclaimed almost instantly. Another retorted, “You don’t need to ‘represent your crew’ at a show. You should be there for the artist,”. “That’s one of my favorite parts about going to festivals,” a supporter cut in, elaborating that they enjoyed the creative, original works of art that appear at the different fests around the world. “If that’s your favorite part, you’re doing it wrong,” replied someone not 30 seconds later. About half of the posts insisted fans don’t bring them to the show, especially anywhere near the laser-lights or front of the stage.

The other half of the posts were fans who supported the idea of rage sticks and totems at outdoor events. I read countless success stories in which lost attendees found and reconnected with their group because of the recognizable totems they could navigate during loud sets, sometimes without cell service or means to communicate. Some users posted moments when artists called out to specific fans and totems during the set. Bassnectar called out to Pikachu and the Pokemon Squad last year at Summer Set, as did Post-Malone to a fan with a Pickle-Rick totem this year. Waka Flocka acknowledged and praised all of the Rick and Morty totems at Summercamp in between songs. Run the Jewels liked a “Dad?” totem in Wisconsin, and even invited a fan on stage to rap “Legend Has It” per a totem’s request in Chicago.

My flag flies proudly at Summercamp Music festival (left) and Shaky Beat Music Festival (right). It was easy for friends to find us with the tall Chicago-flag attached to 11 feet of 1-in PVC. Photo Credits: Niki Graham.

Show Love, Spread Love

Some just love to show and spread their love for their favorite artists and interests with their totems. There’s even an Intsagram page dedicated to the best and most brilliant RageTotems around. Many have traveled great distances with groups of friends and family, and have been recognized across the country after years of raging with their iconic totems. It brings them a sense of pride to be recognized and connect with other fans over a totem. I saw posts with intricate mau5heads and Marshmello-helmets in support of deadmau5 and marshmello, as well as flags with artists’ logos printed across them. One tall Bacon totem had made it across the country over its years, attending Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee, Summercamp in Chillicothe, Illinois, Camp Bisco in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and EDC Vegas in Nevada. Another famous totem isn’t even connected to a stick: a mall, airport-security bin nicknamed “Binny”, taken from Chicago’s airport, smuggled into EDC, and returning to make an appearance at Lollapalooza back in Chicago. I personally brought my flags, signed by each of my festival fam, with me to over 10 festivals between Georgia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. I’ve also used extra-large neon glow sticks and a Prosecco-bottle filled with glow sticks to rage with. The prosecco bottle was great because it doubled as glow stick clean up as I collected more and more off the ground.

A rage fruit raise high above the crowd as a totem. Photo Credit: Riot Fest.

Dead or Alive

Another controversial issue in the Totem world were the trees. The tree totems I described earlier appeared at many events this year, raging just as hard as other totems. Usually, they would start at a set bare, and accumulate beads, ornaments, and other decorations as the night went on. While I’m not sure if they were pulled from the ground or brought into venues by attending guests, the trees were in fact real plants. While haters accused these ragers of destroying land and killing trees, others praised them for being green by avoiding plastics and littering festival grounds while partying. They certainly were entertaining, seen at both Disco Biscuits and Ganja White Night’s sets at Summercamp, appearing at multiple sets at Summer Set, and supposedly also spotted at Lost Lands just this past month. Pineapple, another naturally-occurring rage plant, has recently been banned from multiple festivals. However, the fruit is still slipping through security as photos of pineapple held above crowds appear on festival pages, galleries, and publications.

Standing with my extendable flag pole and two flags. While in this park my totem is not blocking views, flag poles this tall can often block light shows and viewers. Photo Credit: Niki Graham.

While most of our intentions were never to block anyones view or ruin a show, we felt connected with our crafty creations and will rave about our successes, tribulations, and triumphs while adventuring with them afar. Now, with the more publicized controversy regarding rage sticks, we’ll each have to reconsider our choices. Most festivals allow totems with specifications and guidelines, however one should also be considerate of lighting, viewers, and artist’s preferences. Our suggestion? If you have a large totem that could be distracting or block light, please stay towards the back of the event to avoid problems. Take down flag poles before moving forward in a crowd and do your best not block others’ views. While most laser shows will be at least 10 feet above the ground, consider those enjoying the show around you when raging with personal items such as blow-ups, rage fruit, bottles, flowers, and more. As always, keep your hands and totems to yourself, and respect security’s requests in order to maximize your festival experience. Happy Raging!

For more totems, photos, videos, and other festival fun, follow me Facebook and Instagram. Thanks for reading!

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Nikstagraham

Professional Educator, Music Lover, Content Creator & Community Builder