Saturday, August 16, 2008

Weird Concert Dynamics

This is my first post in what I imagine will be a series on the dynamics between performers and their audiences. I’ve never posted on audience-performer dynamics before, and I really don’t know whether the things I’ve observed have been representative of larger trends, whether they’ve gotten better or worse (however one defines the terms), or whether they’re reflections of my own changing feelings about concert attendance.

I went to a free Battles concert tonight in Central Park. Battles, for those as yet unexposed to their music, is a band that deals in repetitions of minimalist patterns and overlays of same. At Stage Right was a guitarist who doubled on keyboards, often playing the two at once. In the center was another guitarist who also doubled on electric bass. At Stage Left was another guitarist who doubled on keyboards and sometimes on electric bass. In the middle was the drummer, who played very simple patterns with slight permutations over time, a sort of Steve Reich interpretation of disco, rock and funk drumming, if you will.

The music I found simultaneously intriguing and infuriating—the former because the gradual accent shifts and compulsive repetition combined cleverness with a sort of clinical obsessiveness, which together piqued my curiosity; the latter because clinical, repetitive obsessiveness has a really short shelf life for me as a listener, and because the impersonality implied by the repetitiveness I find kind of scary and repulsive.

Perhaps my reactions were not unique, because I observed something at the end of the show that I’d never seen before. The band finished its set and walked off the stage. The crowd gave them some applause, but certainly not an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response. Then someone appeared backstage (to far stage right) and began prompting the audience for signs of enthusiasm so as to induce the members of the band to return to the stage for an encore. The audience was malleable enough and responded on cue.

So here’s the first question: Have you ever been to a concert during which the audience had to be prompted to provide a rationale (in the form of demonstrable enthusiasm) for a band’s return to the stage for an encore?

I realize that everyone (me included) is dead tired of those tired “things were so much better back in the sixties” arguments. I don’t intend to add my blog posts to the pile, certainly. But having been to a lot of concerts from 1969 to present, I don’t recall ever before observing efforts to convince audiences to demonstrate that they like the artists as a condition for an encore. We went to concerts because we wanted to see our favorite acts—a shocking concept, I know. No one had to tell us to clap and cheer—we did those things because we admired fervently the artists whose concerts we attended. Was the audience reaction (or lack of same)tonight due to the alienating reductionism and obsessive repetitiveness of the music? Or are audiences just less engaged in general with the music they see performed live? Have we become the pod people depicted in Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Inquiring minds want to know...

Please feel free to add your observations in the Comments section below.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Your description of the show had me thinking Adorno for some reason, but I think the answer to your query is Warhol.

This same dynamic happened in film somewhere between the 60s and 80s, and can be summed up in one word: Oversaturation.

The Academy Awards were always a self-congratulatory circle jerk, but when radios began to appear in people's homes, they turned into a vehicle for promotion (The 1st awards broadcast was in 1932). If you watch early footage of the red-carpet ceremonies, you'll see throngs of several hundred lining the streets just to catch a glimpse of the stars getting out of their limos. In those days, you didn't see as many films, and there were not as many celebrities. You simply did not ever see these people except on the big screen, so in real life it was BIG DEAL.

Nowadays, the organizers have to give free tickets to students at USC to fill the bleachers outside The Shrine Auditorium and create the 'event' and 'buzz', otherwise, those bleachers would be filled with homeless people. Outside of the industry, no one really cares who took the Best Actor award in 1961 (it was Maximilian Schell).

When you consider that the music industry as we know it today was a spinoff of the film industry, the analog is obvious.

In the days of smaller labels and fewer radio stations, there were fewer bands.

Elvis and the Beatles were a BIG DEAL because they existed on vinyl and radio, and a relatively small number of people got to see them in person. It was rare and EXCITING to see someone creative and talented in real life. Today, everyone is either in a band or knows someone who is. There are artists and performers on youTube every second of every day, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Andy and Sly were right: Everyone is famous for 15 minutes, and Everybody Is A Star.

Proliferation of entertainment outlets, celebrities, myspace, satellite, cable, 600 TV channels, millions of songs available on Rhapsody or iTunes, etc, all mean that audiences that were once impressionable and enthusiastic are now more sophisticated and franky, bored, in NYC in particular.

I am not in the least surprised that the audience had to be coaxed.

As early as the mid-70s encores became de rigeur, the bands building them into their set list. I can remember the last time I was at a show where the audience truly begged for an encore after the band had played its full set and its pre-planned encore (and I bet you can too). It was in a bar in Athens 3 years ago, and the band (The Tough and Lovely) were completely taken aback. Authenticity is a rare and beautiful thing these days. Before that it was Gil Scott-Heron in a tiny club in LA, almost a decade ago.

As a society, we are saturated, and increasingly bored, tired and not easily amused. Condoleeza Rice plays piano, John Ashcroft is a composer/singer, John Hall (of Orleans 'Dance With Me' fame) becomes a Congressmen.

So, some guy can stand onstage with a guitar and play a repetitive pattern ad infinitum? Wow. Impressive. Please, give us an encore. Yawn.

These people are not changing the world or curing cancer. They're not even changing the nature of music or performance. The only thing I am surprised about is that you are surprised.

I highly recommend these two books;
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman and Life: The Movie - How Entertainment Conquered Reality by Neal Gabler - all will become clear, young Skywalker.

Beyond that, Jerry Seinfeld says it best: