John Waters’ inspiring commencment speech: “Use technology for transgression, not lazy social living.”

By on June 16, 2015

On May 30, 2015, at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, Rhode Island, filmmaker/author and longtime Night Flight fave John Waters received an honorary doctorate and gave the Rhode Island School of Design’s (or RISD) commencement speech.

A commencement speech is not something you’d typically see here on Night Flight, and it’s already been making the rounds in the blogosphere, so you may have seen it already, but we thought this moment was too good to let it pass without noting. It is John Waters, after all.

Our favorite moment was when Waters told RISD’s grads: “Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully. Design clothes so hideous that they can’t be worn ironically. Horrify us with new ideas. Out-outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression, not lazy social living. Make me nervous! And finally, count your blessings.”

Have a look at the excerpt below, and listen to the entire speech, and bravo, Mr. Waters! We tip our caps to you!


John Waters:

Welcome and good afternoon, President Somerson, Chairman Spalter, honored guests, parents, faculty, staff, and – mostly! – the 183 graduates and 486 undergraduates here today.

I should say right off that I am really qualified to be your commencement speaker. I was suspended from high school, then kicked out of college in the first marijuana scandal ever on a university campus. I’ve been arrested several times. I’ve been known to dress in ludicrous fashions. I’ve also built a career out of negative reviews, and have been called “the prince of puke” by the press. And most recently a title I’m really proud of: “the people’s pervert.” I am honored to be here today with my people.

OK, I’m supposed to inspire you. How’s this? Somehow I’ve been able to make a living doing what I love best for 50 years without ever having to get a real job. “But how can you be so disciplined?” friends always ask when I tell them my job is to get up every day at 6 A.M. Monday to Friday and think up insane stuff. Easy! If I didn’t work this hard for myself, I’d have to go work for somebody else. Plus I can go to my office one room away from my bedroom in my own house dressed in my underpants if I want to.

You’re lucky. When I went to school, my teachers discouraged every dream I ever had. I wanted to be the filthiest person alive, but no school would let me. I bet RISD would’ve. You could possibly even make a snuff movie here and get an A+. Hopefully you have been taught never to fear rejection in the workplace. Remember, a no is free. Ask for the world and pay no mind if you are initially turned down. A career in the arts is like a hitchhiking trip: All you need is one person to say “Get in” and off you go. And then the confidence begins.

Of course, play is equally as important to your education as work. And in the fine arts, play is work, isn’t it? What other field allows you to deduct as business expenses from your taxes gangsta rap, Gaspar Noé’s movies, even vintage porn as long as you use it for research? Remember: You must participate in the creative world you want to become part of. So what if you have talent? Then what? You have to figure out how to work your way inside. Keep up with what’s causing chaos in your own field.

If you’re a visual artist, go see the shows in the galleries that are frantically competing to find the one bad neighborhood left in Manhattan to open up in.

Watch every movie that gets a negative review in the New York Times and figure out what the director did wrong.

Read, read, read!

Watch people on the streets. Spy, be nosy, eavesdrop.

And, as you get older, you’ll need youth spies that will keep you abreast of new music that nobody has heard of yet or body-piercing mutilations that are becoming all the rage – even budding sexually transmitted disease you should go to any length to avoid.

Never be like some of my generation who say “We had more fun in the ’60s.” No, we didn’t! The kids today who still live with their parents who haven’t seen them in months but leave food outside their bedroom doors are having just as much fun shutting down the government of foreign countries on their computer as we did banning the bomb.

Today may be the end of your juvenile delinquency, but it should also be the first day of your new adult disobedience. These days, everybody wants to be an outsider, politically correct to a fault. That’s good. I hope you are working to end racism, sexism, ageism, fatism. But is that enough? Isn’t being an outsider sooo 2014? I mean, maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up, and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy – the insider. Like I am.

Read the rest of the transcript to Water’s commencement speech here:.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.