Music as public and private spectacle

Here’s an article from back in May that I really enjoyed: Kevin J.H. Dettmar’s Earbuds and Mosh Pits. Most articles written by middle-age people about music today stinks of fogeyism: they’re confused and angered by it, forgetting how foreign and threatening the music they loved was when their own parents heard it. Dettmar is different in that he enters the realm of modern pop/rock music with a truly open mind and comes out of it the better for his experience. What’s really interesting to me is his idea of music as a public spectacle.

For Dettmar, rock concerts are liberating experiences as groups of hundreds or thousands of people collectively share in and participate in a public spectacle and thus have a connection with each other. To a certain extent, I think he’s right. If I’m at a concert at Madison Square Garden with 20,000 other people, we’re all basically there for the same reason- to toast, appreciate, watch and cheer on a performer or group that we like (so much that we’ll pay over-inflated prices to do so). But beyond that, how connected are all of us at that show?

There’s participation and then there’s real participation at a concert. When I went to see the White Stripes a few years ago, two knuckle-draggers were ready to pulverize me because they thought I cut in a line for ticket-holders when I actually only stepped out of line for a second to throw something away. Something similar happened when I was at a Madonna concert a few years ago when an obnoxious teeny-bopper yelled at me after she walked into me without looking where she was going. I didn’t feel too connected with those people, needless to say.

Thankfully, I’ve had much better experiences at other shows. When Daniel Johnston did a rare show in NYC recently, I was hanging with a trio who were probably half my age and never seen him before. I told them about the two times I’d seen him and we all bonded pretty well over this. At other shows (i.e. Sham 69 at a CBGB’s benefit about a year before they closed), I was up close enough to be part of the mosh pit whether I wanted to or not. Usually I stay out of that but I have to admit it was pretty fun and definitely in the spirit of the evening where I was being pushed back and forth by a frantic crowd of strangers caught up in the music. It was a much more enjoyable shove than I got from the Madonna fan. Though I’ve never done it myself (I’m too big), I’ve been glad to help crowd surfers along their way at Sonic Youth and Ministry shows. And then there was the May 2001 Joey Ramone birthday tribute where they handed out birthday cake (aka chocolate snack foods) and where we all promptly started a massive food fight. Ah, what fun…

But other than that, I don’t really bond with audiences at shows unless I happen to run into someone I already know and chat them up. Dettmar believes that we’re all part of one spectacle at a show and in a way, we are but at the same time, we’re still very distant from each other, enjoying the show in our own way and then nonchalantly parting company with everyone else there once the show’s over. As such, many times at concerts, we’re all together there but we’re also very much apart.