Modern America and Its Discontents:
The Ride-Hard, Die-Free Fantasy of Bike Week

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900 - present), Spring 2002, Volume 1, Issue 1
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2002/pratt.htm

Alan Pratt
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

The biggest motorcycle event in the world, Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Florida, is a contemporary social mechanism for venting psychic energy. Examining its antecedents and character reveals a uniquely American ploy for mediating the stresses of modern civilization, one inspired by the outlaw biker counterculture, popularized by the media, and, as a direct reflection of the times, successfully commercialized for popular consumption. The decadent and nihilistic flavor of Bike Week coupled with its enormous popularity suggests that the burden of modern life is becoming ever more oppressive.

New Year’s celebrations, Mardi Gras, and Bike Week are well-known examples of popular festivals that temporarily relax public order and allow participants to indulge in otherwise discouraged or forbidden activities. These rites of reversal share several features: they are performed in special places that remove participants from the banalities of daily life; they temporarily free revelers from the customary restraints and hierarchies of society; and because everyone is doing the same things, the atmosphere, while sometimes volatile, gives participants the confidence to act out aberrant behaviors (Nachbar and Lause 378).

In terms of creating an atmosphere for unrestrained revelry, Daytona Beach’s Bike Week probably surpasses all other reversal rituals in the world today. From its relatively modest beginnings sixty years ago as a weekend affair for motorcycle race fans, it has become ever larger and more elaborate, and ever more difficult to control. Today, it is a massive, ten-day, outlaw fantasy of hedonistic rebellion representing a new chapter in the long history of reversal rituals.

The Origin of Reversal Rituals

One of the first recorded instances of something approximating a reversal ritual, over 3500 years ago, were the festivals of Osiris in ancient Egypt. In the sixth century BC, Athens sponsored the raucous celebrations honoring Dionysus, festivals filled with feasts, processions, wild dancing, wine-drinking competitions, and ritual obscenity (Boardman 264). During the Roman Empire, reversal rituals like the Bacchanalia, Liberalia, and Saturnalia allowed patricians, plebeians, and slaves, alike, to abandon the constraints of civilized society so completely that the affairs reached levels of civil disorder and licentiousness that are probably still unparalleled (Durant, Caesar 66).

Rites of reversal continued to be popular in medieval Europe. The Festival of the Fools included a blasphemous mock Mass, and The Festival of the Ass recollected pagan fertility feasts (Durant, Faith 841). The medieval Catholic church found it impossible to eliminate such events and ultimately was forced to integrate them into church activity (Cohen xxiii). Mardi Gras celebrations now associated with the Christian Lent, for example, have their origins in ancient pagan rites celebrating fertility and the onset of spring ("Carnival" 931). And just like those of antiquity, medieval revels (from the Old French reveler, to rebel) were difficult to manage. In 1263, for instance, decrees were issued aimed at curbing what was perceived to be the relentless moral decline of the Venetian carnival (Feil). In the twenty-first century, the pattern persists as public revels continue to test moral boundaries.

The long and vexatious history of reversal rituals suggests that the psychological needs that such events satisfy are profound. Sigmund Freud understood why: it may have been easy for the barbarian to be healthy; for the civilized man, the task is a hard one (Outline 85). In Civilization and Its Discontents, he argued that civilization exacts a heavy psychic toll on humans by suppressing their narcissistic and aggressive instincts (30). With its emphasis on rationalism and secularism, modern civilization is especially repressive; and to maintain social stability, various mechanisms are required to vent or at least blunt repressed needs. Without cathartic opportunities, societies will spontaneously erupt in widespread antisocial behavior or, if draconian social controls are enacted, slowly burn down to a smoldering malaise (Civilization 99). Some of the mechanisms Freud describes in Civilization and Its Discontents for keeping aggressive instincts in check include voluntary isolation (27), aesthetic pleasure (29), and religion (32). Other strategies he observed are destructive such as nationalism, bigotry, and war (73); and some are problematic such as intoxicants (28). The reversal ritual, a relatively benign substitute satisfaction, uses fantasy as a psychic palliative (23). Anthropologists generally agree with Freud’s analysis: public festivals that condone or celebrate antisocial behaviors are beneficial for maintaining social stability (Gluckman 109).

A Modern Reversal Ritual

While Bike Week is similar to reversal rituals of old, it is different in the details. It is, for instance, strictly of this world; there are no recognized supernatural or pagan antecedents. And whereas other reversal rituals are based on themes drawn from other cultures or the distant past, Bike Week is unusual in that the dominant themes are derived from popular culture, specifically from Hollywood’s fanciful vision of the outlaw biker. It is different from other revels, too, in that participants are predominantly male and, in the last decade, primarily middle-aged and middle-class. 1 And, as a reflection of the times, it is a highly consumption-oriented affair. The most obvious feature of Bike Week, however, is that it emanates from, is inspired by, and revolves around a mechanical gizmo.

Raw, loud, dangerous, and supremely phallic , the motorcycle could easily become the central motif for a modern American reversal ritual. 2 Americans have historically embraced technology, and their relationship with the motorcycle is particularly interesting. As one of the last great inventions of the industrial age, it may well have become the primary mode of transportation had it not lost out to automobiles when it became more expensive than the Model T. From that point forward, the machine became increasingly viewed as impractical, little more than technological fluff, and a dangerous form of entertainment. For these very reasons, however, the potent emotional thrills evoked by the motorcycle have transformed it over the years into a ubiquitous icon of popular culture, a fetish for some, symbolizing values associated with power, freedom, escape, high fashion—and rebellion.

Outlaw Biker Style

Rebellion is one of the defining themes of Bike Week, manifesting itself most obviously in the outlaw biker style. The motorcycle’s association with rebellion and lawlessness is a relatively recent one, dating to the July 4th weekend in 1947 when four thousand-motorcycle riders rioted in the small town of Hollister, California (Polhemus 48). In the 1960s, outlaw motorcycle gangs, generally composed of males alienated from the white working class, gained national notoriety, primarily as a result of the violent antics of the California Hells Angels. By the 1970s, motorcycle gangs were viewed as a significant threat to public order and decency.

The motorcycle was far more than transportation for these gangs. A widely circulated police report from the time confessed that it was impossible to understand the near mystical bond between a biker and his chopper ("Dangerous" 16). Easier to understand, however, was the outlaw bikers’ basic philosophy summarized by “FTW.” (These letters were often seen on club members’ clothing and mean “F—- the World.”) FTW, the report continued, is their motto and is the arrogant attitude by which this subculture attains its goals and objectives. . . . They don’t want to be like the normal citizen or dress like them. This is why they have created their own dress code which is filthy, repulsive, and often offensive (14).

While the filthy costume and outrageous demeanor of the outlaw biker were calculated to shock and disgust citizens, the report noted that it also gave him a powerful sexual appeal:

Strangely enough, an unlimited number of good-looking females, it seems, are attracted to the macho image . . . to a life which seems as exciting as a roller coaster ride, fast motorcycles, macho men, drugs, alcohol, parties, guns, topless bars, and any-way-you-want-it sex. (23)

The menacing sexuality, penchant for violence, and in-your-face rebellion that outlaw motorcycle gangs exhibited was irresistible to the media, and outlaw bikers made for sensational reportage. In his best-selling Hells Angels (1966), for example, Hunter S. Thompson wrote that “they command a fascination, however reluctant, that borders on psychic masturbation” (262), and Tom Wolf’s still popular Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) provided yet another lurid but fascinating image of the outlaw biker counterculture.

Hollywood cashed in on the phenomenon by launching a new genre, the biker film. In one of the first, Hollywood’s version of events in Hollister, was László Benedek’s The Wild One (1954). In it, Marlon Brando (Johnny) helped to create the outlaw-biker image when he played a brooding, nihilistic biker in black leather. While his gang terrorizes a small town, he attracts the attention of a respectable girl who is irresistibly drawn to the outlaw biker persona. The success of the film spawned dozens more like it such as Wild Angels, Born Losers, Cycle Savages, and Easy Rider.

Freud speculated that criminals intrigue us, at least in books and films, because they can freely pursue predatory impulses without guilt (Narcissism 19). That’s why we are fascinated by Hollywood’s gunfighters, mobsters, rogue cops, Hannibal Lectors—and outlaw bikers. The Hollywood image of the outlaw biker—the chopper-riding savage, the threatening figure in black leather and chains, oozing danger and sexual power—was a heady, intoxicating fantasy, one that captured the imagination of the public and undoubtedly influenced the character of the outlaw clubs themselves. Motorcycling would never be the same, nor would the modern American reversal ritual.

Commercializing Outlaw Biker Fashion

In a stroke of marketing genius, Willy Davidson, of Harley-Davidson, is credited for mainstreaming the outlaw biker image when he borrowed styling cues from the stripped-down choppers preferred by motorcycle gangs (Yates 134). In the last fifteen years, the outlaw biker image has been the dominant fashion model for motorcycling, and the trappings of the outlaw biker counterculture have been bowdlerized and co-opted by otherwise respectable motorcyclists. In the last fifteen years, coincidently, interest in motorcycles has grown dramatically with double-digit sales increases for nearly every manufacturer.

Every marketing angle is now being explored to tap into the outlaw biker fantasy. The Hells Angels themselves are marketing Big Red, their own brand of custom motorcycles, and replicas of the choppers ridden in Easy Rider sell for more than twenty-five thousand dollars. Motorcycle advertising frequently encourages readers to abandon social conformity and celebrate the suppressed barbarian. An advertisement for mufflers, for instance, incorporates the image of a leather-clad, tattoo-covered biker emerging from under a three-piece suit and the line, “Inside every good guy there’s a real bad ass.” Other advertisements encourage bikers to “Raise some hell” or pose the question “Who cares where you are going?” or remind the reader that “You’ve got the attitude” or inspire him to “Take the Low Road.” A Harley-Davidson motorcycle advertisement tells readers, “That’s not Silicone, Friend,” and no one has been more aggressive than Harley-Davidson in capitalizing on outlaw biker chic. One can even order a nihilistic factory paint scheme featuring grinning skulls. The company licenses beer, dolls, cloths, bed sheets, dishes, knives, watches, and shoes; even Christmas decorations now sport the black-and-orange Harley logo.

Derived from a genuine outlaw counterculture, popularized by the media, and mainstreamed by market forces, the outlaw biker fantasy is now a billion-dollar idea. And the phenomenal appeal of this anti-establishment, rebellious fantasy to an otherwise law-abiding middle-class clearly reflects an urge to escape the onerous constraints of modern civilization. It’s a fantasy that, for a price, hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists can act out every spring at Bike Week.

Bike Week: A Ride-Hard, Die-Free Fantasy

Pilgrims from around the world come to Bike Week, the largest gathering of believers on the planet. The size of the event is unprecedented, colossal—600,000 in 2000—and every motel, hotel, condo, campground, and fish camp within fifty miles is booked solid. Parking lots everywhere overflow with motorcycles. This revel boasts the most people, the most arrests, the most dead (fifteen in 2000), and the most alcohol consumed. As with other rites of reversal past and present, some form of intoxicant that reduces inhibitions is crucial. 3 Imagine this: Boot Hill Saloon during any ten-day period might sell two hundred cases of beer. During Bike Week 1999, that number was 8,300 cases (Truett 2). Along with a tolerance for public drunkenness, local prohibitions regarding decency, modesty, and safety are relaxed in favor of an FTW-style fantasy.

It is no surprise that festivals that nullify public order have always been just barely tolerated by their hosts, and Bike Week is no exception. Horrified residents, law enforcement, and emergency services brace themselves for the March invasion. (The Halifax County Hospital, for example, prohibits time off during the event.) “Deadly Week,” shouts the 11 March 2000 Daytona News-Journal with a two-inch headline, “The Bloodiest on Record.” 4 Alarmed editorialists write about noise, traffic, drunkenness, nudity, and criminal behavior—all of which, they argue, seems to slip closer and closer to total anarchy with each passing year. “Boobs, bellies, and beards,” one grumbles, “[we can’t] sleep through the night without being awakened by a piercing blast” (Hasterok 4). And, in fact, for ten days the rumble of motorcycles goes on twenty-four hours a day as the biker crowd jams the town to the breaking point. Near the beach, traffic is often gridlocked, while along Main Street, the concentrated core of the event, crowds stand elbow to elbow to gawk at the endless, thundering parade of thousands and thousands of motorcycles of every conceivable color and every conceivable decorative motif, including flames, cartoon characters, animals, nudes, sorcerers, dragons, and death heads.

Anonymity helps to facilitate an atmosphere in which norms can be abandoned, so for reversal rituals there is usually some form of costume that cancels or blurs social distinctions. For Bike Week, the prominent costume accessory, commonly associated with the outlaw biker, is black leather. Black leather boots, pants, chaps, jackets, hats, belts, bras, and vests are ubiquitous. (The color black, incidentally, represents the absence of light and has archetypic associations with evil and wickedness.) While the few participants who are actual motorcycle gang members—the fashion aristocracy here—wear their colors, most of the Bike Week leather merely mimics the outlaw biker costume by sporting advertisements for a particular brand of motorcycle and perhaps decorated further with patches and pins available at bars and shops. 5 T-shirts, usually black, often sport skulls, snakes, saloons, vulgar messages, or manufacturers’ logos. Silver jewelry, large and numerous rings, bracelets, wallet chains, and boot chains are de rigueur for communicating the sexy and menacing outlaw biker style.

The central icon of the event and the requisite accessory, of course, is the motorcycle. The “mystical relationship” that the biker has with his motorcycle, the one that baffled police in the 1970s report, is readily apparent during Bike Week. Most of the motorcycle owners, for example, have replaced quiet exhaust systems with louder, often earsplitting, after-market pipes. Bikers argue that being loud saves lives, but it is also conveniently exhibitionistic, the power of additional decibels enhancing the phallic power the machine embodies. Beyond the satisfaction of thundering from one partying venue to another on a motorcycle, there are biking events everywhere: club reunions, brand get-togethers, contests for best American bikes, British, or Italian, best customs, biggest, smallest, oldest, and rattiest.

As the focal point of the Bike Week hell-bent, lead-and-leather fantasy, the motorcycle is also the centerpiece of daring exploits and destructive celebrations. A common sight is bikers roaring out of parking lots or, less common, doing wheelies on their 600-pound machines. There are also the popular Wall of Death daredevils, like Rhett Rotten, who ride without hands twenty-feet high on the rim of a huge wooden barrel to grab dollar bills from the crowd. Racing at the International Speedway culminates with the Daytona 200 where motorcycles rocket around the banked track at 200 mph. There are the ceremonial “bike drops” where “Jap rice burners” are violently smashed and torched before huge cheering crowds (who imagine they’re participating in a patriotic rally). In the burnout pits, particularly bold or intoxicated bikers rev their motorcycles through the gears, filling the air with acrid, black smoke as they burn off the rear tire, the cheers of the crowd lost in the earsplitting staccato from the red-hot engine.

Fueling all this drunken revelry are the most famous biker honky-tonks in the world: Boot Hill Saloon, Iron Horse Saloon, Dirty Harry’s, Last Resort, and the Cabbage Patch—and there are a dozen other less well known biker hangouts throughout the county. Mostly empty during the year, they are jammed for Bike Week; and every day and late into the bonfire-illuminated nights, there are free rock-and-roll concerts featuring twenty-five-year-old music that can take “outlaw” baby boomers back to their youth.

Reversal rituals have always included a strong sexual focus. Bike Week is no exception. In fact, it is probably the most sexually charged public revel now in existence. As noted, the motorcycle itself is powerfully phallic and certainly one explanation for the machine’s profound allure and the unusually raucous character of Bike Week. Recall, too, that the police report quoted above claimed that the biker image seemed mysteriously to enhance a man’s sexual appeal.

It is the relatively few women of Bike Week who provide a focus for the display of ostentatious machismo; and, not surprisingly, the competitions for women are designed to objectify and celebrate female sexuality. There are Miss Budweiser, Miss Jim Beam, and Miss Bike Week contests. Nearly naked women compete in pudding, creamed corn, and cole slaw wrestling events that are witnessed by thousands. No other reversal ritual features biggest breasts, best breasts, wet t-shirt contests, best ass, hottest buns, best topless dancing contests, best popsicle or pickle licking, best banana eating, longest tongue, and nude beauty contests. In these salacious spectacles, enthusiastic women are cheered and ogled by appreciative crowds of mostly middle-aged men, who no doubt relish the opportunity for fantasies of sexual prowess and license.

Bike Week gluttony manifests itself nearly everywhere, and for this modern carnival one must pay a high price to flaunt propriety. The fact is, as a reflection of our consumer culture, Bike Week is enormously materialistic. No other rite of reversal requires so many accessories. As a result of a wildly successful marketing ploy, the motorcycle of choice is the Harley-Davidson, which new runs anywhere from $15 to $25,000. Not surprisingly, Bike Week is an orgy of spending, a whopping $320 million in 1999 (Miller 4), and hundreds of itinerant vendors sell every conceivable carnival accessory. At what other event could Camel Cigarettes merchandise lighters, cigarettes, and, of course, boot shines by buxom women?

The most popular foods of Bike Week also reflect the intemperate nature of the affair. Where else are four-pound steaks, three-pound pork chops, smoked turkey legs, and huge fried sausages smothered in onions so common? Such fare is washed down with thousands and thousands of gallons of beer, often peddled by bikini-clad women who pull cold cans from ice-filled garbage pails. (These positions, incidentally, are prized because the women typically earn more than $2000 in tips.)

Bike Week and Burgeoning Discontentment

Having fun is serious business, and in the last fifteen years of the current boom in motorcycling, evidence of the popularity of the outlaw biker fantasy is readily apparent. Bike Week is not the only motorcycle rally that is exploding in size. Other established rallies like the seventy-six-year-old Laconia rally in New Hampshire and the Black Hills Classic in Sturgis, North Dakota, are growing ever larger while new venues for the biker-focused rite of reversal are springing up all over the country. Arizona now has its own Bike Week, and there is the new, huge Laughlin, Nevada, carnival and the Myrtle Beach revel in South Carolina. Like Daytona’s Bike Week, all feature drinking and feasting, boisterous crowds, loud motorcycles, and the requisite symbols of outlawry, hedonism, and nihilism.

Demographers looking at the size and constitution of the Bike Week crowd might conclude that interest in such affairs is faddish, that it is but another symptom of a relatively affluent baby-boom generation’s uncomfortable transition to mid-life. And trends analysts predict that the decade-long motorcycle fad has just about run its course (“Indicators”). There’s some truth to both conclusions, and no doubt the size of the event may erode. 6 However, the source of Bike Week’s popularity is more complex and resonates more deeply than a mid-life crisis, and unless the motorcycle, as some predict, is simply outlawed as too dangerous for modern society, the event and others like it will continue to thrive.

Freud said there are three sources of human suffering: the superiority of nature, the inherent weaknesses of the body, and the failure of institutions that regulate human relationships (Civilization 37). Of the latter, he made it clear that civilization will never work well, and its failures are largely responsible for human misery. Males, particularly, chaff at civilization’s demands for social conformity, and they must find or create outlets for satisfying repressed needs.

During Bike Week, the imagery and ritual of subversion and nihilism abound creating a context for acting out a ride-hard, die-free fantasy. For ten days, participants are allowed to show the world what they think of themselves and the world around them, and for many this means assuming, to one degree or another, the exaggerated masculinity of the “peacock “ male in one of its most outrageous contemporary manifestations—the outlaw biker. For all of its sound and fury, however, the flaunting of anti-establishment attitudes during Bike Week is primarily symbolic fantasy, and with each passing year a growing burden of
tradition continues to formalize the affair. Just as other reversal rituals, then, Bike Week is narcissistic theater, a uniquely modern and American version of an experience that is apparently as old as civilization itself. Accordingly, when it is over, most of the 600,000 “outlaws” must again suppress antisocial inclinations and return to lives of middle-class conformity and respectability. 7

Still, if Freud is right, then as our society becomes more crowded and complex, more competitive and controlled, the inevitable result will be even higher levels of frustration and psychic suffering. Such pressure will manifest itself as a fascination with forbidden things that will become more extreme, and acts of hedonistic rebellion will become more frequent. No doubt this is true because not just the size and number of motorcycle-focused revels are increasing. Twenty years ago, before interest in Bike Week skyrocketed, anthropologists observed that popular festivals relaxing public order and established standards of decency were flourishing throughout the world while more and more were being created (Manning x). And if the Bike Week-style revel is any indication, reversal rituals are becoming longer, more decadent, more difficult to control, and more lucrative. Such realities suggest that the oppressive burden of modern life is taking its toll and that an FTW sentiment runs deep.


Notes

1. Of the 5.7 million motorcycle owners nationally, about 60 percent are between the ages of 37 and 64 with nearly half earning more than $50,000 a year and 25 percent above $75,000 a year (Fost).

2. In Interpretation of Dreams, Freud wrote that “it is highly probable all complicated machinery and apparatus occurring in dreams stand for the genitals (and, as a rule, male ones)” (391). Straddling loud, complicated machinery, then, has unmistakable phallic authority.

3. Freud rightly concluded that as a tool for curbing aggression, intoxicants have held an especially important place among civilizations: "The service rendered by intoxicating media in the struggle for happiness and in keeping misery at a distance is so highly prized as a benefit that individuals and peoples alike have given them an established place in the economics of their libido. We owe to such media not merely the immediate yield of pleasure, but also a greatly desired degree of independence from the external world" (Civilization 28).

4. Bike Week 2001, the 60th, was a first in that in June 2000 the State of Florida repealed its mandatory helmet law. In the past, Bike Week helmet requirements were usually met with non-DOT approved novelty versions, and, as such, served as little more than another fashion accessory. Replica Nazi helmets were noticeable, as were helmets sporting spikes and Viking horns; and most, if not all, sported stickers expressing FTW sentiments. For Bike Week 2001, approximately one-third of motorcycle riders wore helmets, and many of those were of the novelty sort. Six motorcyclists were fatally injured during Bike Week 2001, ten in 2002.

5. For the motorcycle club member, the leather vest or denim jacket that displays the club insignia are his “colors.” (The Outlaws, for example, wear the infamous red-eyed skull above crossed pistons.) These vests also display other souvenirs of accomplishments, parallel in significance to a soldier’s medals and ribbons. Real bikers lament the faddish popularity of their counterculture fashion: "And what about what used to be the standard apparel? The plain black t-shirts, the engineer boots, jeans with the little battery acid holes. Remember them? Mostly all gone now. Each item replaced by its designer counterpart to impart a carefree sense of tasteful rebellion. In essence, nothing more than a costume that only gets put on to ride the bike. The vest was a place to hang your experiences. These days that $170 vest is nothing more than free ad space for Harley-Davidson" (Arby 86).

6. Right now Bike Week is primarily a middle-aged male phenomenon. As participants grow older, they will be less inclined to tolerate the discomforts associated with riding a motorcycle. Younger motorcycle riders have shown little interest in Bike Week because the black-leather, outlaw fantasy is not part of their life experience; rather, it is a fantasy of bygone days. Instead, they prefer the streamlined, high technology of “crotch rockets.” In this version of the motorcycle-related fantasy, speed and technical superiority are the measure of masculine power. The demographic is indeed shifting. While baby boomers continue to represent the largest market for motorcycles, manufactures are beginning to target riders in their late twenties and early thirties, which means moving away from products derived from the outlaw biker style (Frederick 53).

7. True outlaw bikers are not the kind of crowd that the bourgeoisie want to associate with. The fact is, that even within the context of Bike Week, fantasy outlaw bikers would be afraid or embarrassed to be seen with true desperados. Hardcore bikers are alternately amused, puzzled, or annoyed by the Bike Week phenomenon: "Harleys have become a toy for every yuppie rub [rich urban biker] jerk off out there. They get to play 'Biker' without havin’ a clue what it’s really all about. A half million people at Bike Week and maybe fifty thousand bikers at best. Like the t-shirt says, 'You used to hate us, now you want to be us.' I just hope there’s some of us around when they’re gone" (Frog 38).

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