Editor’s note: Meta Wagner appeared on WNYC’s Soundcheck program on 16 April to discuss sitting vs. not sitting at rock concerts with New York Times music critic Kelefeh Sanneh. The program is here.
There’s a strange phenomenon occurring at a lot of rock concerts these days. The audience actually sits through nearly the entire concert. The only exceptions seem to be when the audience feels compelled to honor rock ritual (one must stand when the singer or group first appears onstage and again for the encore).
I first noticed this unfortunate trend when Paul McCartney was on tour a couple of years ago, and I’ve since witnessed it repeatedly at other concerts. But, let me first offer a disclaimer as to why some of us felt the need to sit at the McCartney show. It was my fourth time seeing Sir Paul, but my first time seeing him from seats in the Vertigo Section, just above the Nosebleed section at the Boston Garden (which I’m supposed to call the TD Banknorth Garden but can’t bring myself to). It was entirely understandable for people in any of the mile-high sections to remain seated; after all, one false move and we could plunge hundreds of feet to our deaths, and bring down an assortment of hippie-yuppie Beatles fans with us.
Fans in the nosebleed seats of a Beatles concert
At first I thought I was the only one entertaining thoughts of death while seated so perilously high—after all, I’m a highly phobic ex-New Yorker prone to full-blown panic attacks—but, no, one look at my teenage son’s ashen face and dilated pupils, his bloodless hands clutching the arms of his chair, indicated to me that he was similarly, absolutely, terrified. Now, given that he was sick with a high fever and his negligent mother let him go anyway because it might be his last chance to see a Beatle and not just any Beatle but the one who would have been his father if my childhood fantasies had come true, I also had to discount his reaction as unusual.
But all around us we heard talk of vertigo and near-nausea, even among beefy, beer-guzzling manly men. And so, staying seated (and wishing we’d had compact binoculars, securely tied with a shoestring around our necks) was a rational choice for those of us who treasured our lives just slightly more than we treasured a Beatle. However, this doesn’t explain why people with sea level seats remained sitting, only stirring to applaud and whistle as loudly as one can while the diaphragm is compressed thus.
Similarly, months later at a more intimate and charmingly run down venue, the Orpheum, local favorite blues-tinged rocker Susan Tedeschi played the kind of music that begs for people to stand and at least sway. But, again, the people there that night, if they swayed at all, did so in their seats, a gentle clinch of the right butt cheek, another of the left…. And when two spirited, middle-aged women had the audacity to stand and wave their arms and sing along, other concert-goers angrily yelled at them to Siddown!, which they eventually did rather than run the risk of being pelted with cigarette lighters (no, that’s right, people don’t seem to bring those to concerts anymore) or cell phones (those are in high abundance, and usually set to ring at high volume, too). Recently, at a Lucinda Williams concert at the same venue, the crowd was certainly enthusiastic — some of them shouted out comments apropos of a beer-soaked Patriots game at times—but, alas, they squelched any inclination to shoot out of their seats and raise their fists in the air.
I don’t get it. Standing and stomping and moving to the beat are so much a part of what a rock concert is about. You go to live shows to feel free! Express yourself! Maybe even make a fool of yourself (okay, paunchy, balding guys doing air guitar in the crowd may not be pretty – or safe—but rock isn’t necessarily meant to be pretty – or safe). How can you let go if your hands are folded neatly in your lap? How can you let out a whoop whilst seated?
At all three of these concerts, many of the audience members were in their 40s and 50s. Are we to surmise that the majority of middle-aged people simply can not stand for any length of time? I’d like to believe (I need to believe, as I’m a boomlet myself) that boomers are not yet so decrepit that standing for, let’s say, 20 minutes at a time is an extreme sport.
No, I don’t think this trend of remaining seated at rock concerts has to do with age itself; rather, it has to do with society’s conflicting messages about how to age gracefully. Nowhere is this conflict more evident than in the attitudes of the aging rockers themselves—attitudes which in turn affect their audience’s feelings about “appropriate” and “inappropriate” behavior at concerts.
Rock’s roots in youthful rebellion has, in a sense, made hypocrites of rockers, like The Who, who once famously sang, “I hope I die before I get old,” but then discovered they still had the desire to rock out and live on well into their 60s. And so, their self-consciousness about this hypocrisy plays itself out in various ways, most notably, “cheating” on rock by hooking up with other forms of “serious” music and thus, slowing the tempo, considerably.
Let’s look at MTV’s Unplugged series, which I’ll credit (or should I say blame) for encouraging aging rockers to gently strum their guitar strings instead of bloodying and blistering their fingers with hard rock moves. Unplugged which had a strong following in the ‘90s and still airs occasionally today, provides intimate settings for rockers to do acoustic versions of their songs….while sitting down.
Remember Rod Stewart doing a heartfelt rendition of Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately”, with his voice cracking and a tear running down his cheek? The live album, aptly titled Unplugged…and Seated sold quite well, and the public’s embrace of the new, sensitive Rod ultimately spawned one of the most successful phases of his career: albums of standards from the Great American Songbook. I imagine him performing those songs decked out in top hat, tails, and cane, like a modern day Fred Astaire but with spiky blond hair poking out from underneath the hat’s brim.
Then there’s Carly Simon’s latest CD, which has been described as an album of lullabies. Elton John’s gone Disney and then Broadway. Paul McCartney and Billy Joel have written classical compositions. All of this is fine in and of itself. It’s good for artists to grow and stretch and challenge themselves.
But, I fear that these travels away from hard core, plugged-in rock are also a capitulation of sorts to the impossible messages about aging that pervade our society. Be serious! Do meaningful work! Don’t make a fool of yourself! On the other hand, look hot, act hip, don’t let ‘em see you sweat. Sit! Stand! Sit!
We’re in this together, aging rock stars and enduring fans. If you’re going to sit, we’re going to sit. If you’re going to go acoustic, we’re going to get quiet. If you’re going to start a concert at precisely 8pm (as Van Morrison did at a concert I attended a few years ago), we’re going to feel like we should be tucked into bed by 11. And if you’re going to perform lullabies, we just might fall asleep.
“Happy, screaming fans in Spain” photo from Burnette-Rock.com