Blondie and Florence, a dude named Jack White, and music festivals as a metaphor for how social media has sent our egos spiraling out of control
First, a disclaimer.
I am fully aware that any article with the type of headline you just read, and likely chortled over, is a blatant manifestation of my own spotted, bloated ego, and thus a rather stirring instance of irony…but still. I’ve spent a few months quietly observing events passing around me, most of it related to music. I’ve come out the other side of too many concerts to count with something to say—so I’m going to say it, potential conflicts of interest/instances of cognitive dissonance be damned.
I first had this thought on a sweltering Saturday afternoon in early August at the Osheaga music festival. That’s in Montreal, Canada, for those unfamiliar with the summer music circuit—and you are a wise, wise bunch to steer clear of it. Based upon my personal perception, which has of course informed my personal preference, individual concerts are the preferable option.
Anyway, there on Osheaga’s main stage, in front of a throng of thousands, stood Debbie Harry, Blondie’s lead singer. She’d turned her back to the audience toward the end of the second song of the band’s set, revealing a message scrawled in white font on her thin black coat: Stop Fucking The Planet.
She held that pose for a good thirty seconds or so, to tumultuous applause. Within moments, a sea of smartphones had sprung loose from the pockets momentarily holding them captive. Their owners were ready to take a picture, or record a video, cataloguing this…moment. Harry knew what she was doing. Of course she did. So many years spent in showbiz, she is fully aware of the power of the IMAGE.
And here I thought I’d stumbled onto something truly newsworthy. A special something Debbie Harry had reserved for the denizens of this particular festival. FOR ME!!! Alas, as the link I posted a couple paragraphs before shows, this is one of Harry’s favorite slogans. In fact, it’s emblazoned on t-shirts (men’s and women’s sizing) on Blondie’s website.
Anyway, as I watched this all unfold, a bemused expression crept onto my face. I continued to mull it over as I walked to the next musical act. What was this going to change? Would it push policy in any particular direction? Was it just a cathartic dig aimed at climate-change deniers, or perhaps a more universal exhortation for the common citizen to take a more proactive approach in reducing his or her carbon footprint?
Or is it something more simple: planting the idea in people’s minds, whereupon it might spur them into eventual action? It was still on my mind two days later as I took a bus to the airport (Ecological Footprint Responsibility: Good), where I was going to hop on a plane for a six-hour flight home. (EFR: erm, Not So Good)
Because, let’s face it: the average citizen neither has neither the time nor intellectual wherewithal (but maybe that’s just me, projecting) to understand the nuances and complexity of the climate change debate. So, it’s easier to just claim a position and tether yourself to it, while going about your daily life and driving those 400 feet to the grocery store. In the end, it is just one car. You are just one person. Negligible doesn’t begin to describe the amount of harm you personally wreak on the world.
Where it does perhaps make more of a difference is the trend you constitute. The billions of humans just like you who drive to the supermarket, who buy food that is shipped from different countries, and then express order items of clothing that are air-freighted from across the country. There’s so many other ways we fuck up the planet, but I’m far too lazy to check them out. We could probably live more simply, but then, that wouldn’t be much fun, would it. It’d be like the 1850s or some such antiquated era, where we’d just have to make do with one outfit per season. BOORRRRING.
Which is how it all begins to circle back. We take these pictures, we conduct all this slacktivism, and we act as if the world is becoming a better place because of it. There are, actually, many people currently helping make the world a better place. They’re just not taking to social media to tell you about it. Unless they’re doing outreach or something so noble.
I’ve thought a lot about this. Putting your head down and doing the right thing. It’s hard, man. Say a car cuts me off at some point during the day. A flash of red clouds my vision; my immediate desire is to get-even with this mother-fucker by revving past this car and taking my position back. My rightful position. Then I think a bit more about it.
What would this accomplish? Would this driver go home with tail between legs, vowing never to do this ever again? Of course not. Life isn’t a Woody Allen film where you’re able to browbeat those that annoy you. And even if you could, what a douche you would be. People don’t get cowed. They come back stronger, satisfied they’ve found an outlet for some primal urge they hadn’t indulged in more than a moment. The brinksmanship will continue. All your little vendetta did was provide a feel-good factor for yourself. That’s just selfishness, nothing more. You accomplished nothing.
And this is all how I came to view social media. It’s just momentary dopamine flush; drugs. Doesn’t solve anything so fucked up in your life. It’s just a quick dovetail away from it. So the only answer seemed to be to get off it. I feel like a punk just saying it on here; thankfully, I resisted the urge to announce my departure from social media with a resounding tweet informing all my followers of my heightened sense of moral ability, at least as regards you peasants. Then again, why am I telling you now.
The phone-at-shows phenomenon is fascinating to follow. It comes back to something Jack White said on Conan’s Late Night show ahead of his Lazaretto tour four years ago: as an attendee, are you in the moment, or documenting the moment? Julian Casablancas’s line in Johan Von Bronx rings true, as well. Soon, you won’t have memories…only pictures. Why not have an official photographer/videographer ready document the moment for you, which you can then peruse at a later time. At the concert, you can worry simply about enjoying the experience.
I’ve been guilty as sin of whipping the phone out at shows. I’ve gone to a number of concerts, particularly this past year, and I made sure to get a photo, or a few of them, which I could then post on Instagram with a really cool caption cataloguing my EXPERIENCE on the way home. It was a way of channeling the euphoria of the experience, or at least that’s how I rationalized it.
If I were being totally honest, it was just another way to indulge the drug-like drip of likes from followers. Some came through the same night I’d post, others were waiting for me the next morning, as I raced from my bed to my phone to check.
It’s something I came to the cusp of agonizing over. I’d pause, when, during a concert, the person in front of me would hold a phone aloft, for several minutes, while capturing a video of the performance. That was the first proclamation I made for myself: no videos. Why are you able to indulge your INDIVIDUALITY and DIVINE RIGHT TO HAVE THE. BEST! TIME! EVER! at my expense, craning my neck around your device held aloft.
A minute or so of this capture of the performance, with inferior sound quality and shaky handheld positioning, is no substitute, anyhow. It’s not like you take these videos to watch them later. You just do it for the (Insta) gram! Which, can you call up one social media post that changed your life the way you can recount a concert’s effect upon you?
I’ve attended a few no-phone shows now. Dave Chappelle and John Mayer’s Controlled Danger show at the Fillmore in San Francisco was the first, where I watched people place their smartphones in those Yondr pouches. (I’d left mine at home.) From what I’ve noticed, scrolling through responses on social media response is overwhelmingly in favor of the ban. Of course, there’s always someone who takes to Twitter to vehemently claim his/her RIGHT as a ticket-purchasing individual to do whatever he damn well pleases at the concert, phone-wise, but for the most part people seem happy to set aside their phones for a few hours and simply enjoy where they find themselves. Weird, right?
That Controlled Danger with Chappelle and Mayer was the first time I came out of a concert/event flooded with that singular vein of post-show euphoria and realized, as I reached into my pocket, that it didn’t bother me that I couldn’t post something about it on social media. Corny as it is to say/write, it was enough to have been there, man. This happened again in mid-summer, when I watched The War on Drugs perform at Forecastle Festival in Louisville. I’d forgotten my phone at the hotel before leaving for the concert, and as there is no re-entry afforded to us peasants who can only afford General Admission packages, I had to make do with simply trying to be, erm, present, in the moment, while waiting for their show to begin. I could check my watch every now and again. I couldn’t sift through a steady stream of content on my phone, but that was OK. I survived.
It all comes back to a meditation upon that idea of Fucking the Planet. There’s the environmental bent, but there’s also a preoccupation with gadgets and phones made dirt cheap in China. There’s the way they’ve destroyed traditional lines of communication. When I was dining out this past weekend, there was a Scandinavian couple seated next to me. At some point I noticed that they’d spent about two good minutes simply seated in silence. It was a comfortable silence. Contrast that to the couple next to me that took phone-check breaks at least once every ten minutes.
That you could take to social media to tell the world about your opinion, and feel entitled to the fact that it would matter. At least ten thousand retweets, and many more so likes. What would this mean, in the end? Nothing much. It’s just a quick dopamine flush, one you know you’d like to recreate the following morning. Which is what all this comes down to, in the end. These are companies, with every right to try and entice as much usage as possible from us customers.
At phone-free shows, there’s an added edge. And yet…during a break between songs, which are never long, as JWIII is not the sort of dawdler who sparks idle conversation with the audience—I noticed a white light flashing in my peripheral vision. The dude next to me was wearing an Apple watch, and after I saw it the first time, its halogen lighting did become quite annoying. One of those things where, once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. It was a good reminder: this occasion was nothing more than a brief oasis from the incessant noise and sound and bleep of the SCREENS. An invasive force that stifles creativity and thought. So, the concert over, it was a mad rush to the lobby, where Yondr representatives helped the attendees unlock their phones. So they could hail a ride through an app and find their way home.
Compare the level of vitriol, then, that was leveled at White for his performance at the Tesla factory in Fremont two days later. This was quintessential Twitter snark—risking nothing, no confrontation in person with the target in question. It’s one of the main reasons I wish that social media companies would arrange in-person meetings between users who display an appropriate measure of vitriol in their exchange. They seem to have staff members monitoring the site constantly; so why not do some good, and remind people that you are in fact interacting with a person, rather than just some digital anomaly you can rage against ad nauseam. Seems it would make for a more pleasant online experience.
But why this outrage at White? Like he’d sold out or something? There was no outrage leveled at the Black Keys for licensing their hit single to the Wells Fargo commercials it’s used for its “Just trust us, guys” public relations rebrand. Tesla makes a good product. White owns one of those cars. I don’t understand why it’s considered selling out to provide a concert to a company he believes in—and considering one of the songs on his new album is an evisceration of irresponsible corporate behavior, it’s not as if he hasn’t given it some thought.
You won’t find many musicians who lambast their contemporaries for licensing songs. Selling out isn’t much in usage as a pejorative these days, largely because selling songs is pretty much the only guaranteed way to survive in an industry that doesn’t pay squat outside of live performances. Like, the one White did at Tesla.
On the way home from that White concert in San Francisco, I once again found myself deep in thought. This was no better or worse than what anyone else chooses to do in life. Be good here, sell a bit of your soul there. Life is what you manage in between.
I wanted to do some small good in not ruining the view of the people assembled behind me. I’ve watched so many official photographers, paid to document the concert, miss the shot they wanted, the instantaneous flash of inspiration gone so fleetingly, disappointment etched on their face for a moment before they move on to finding the next possible shot. They’ve got their camera at the ready, just a click away from getting what they’re looking for.
Contrast that to having to swipe to the photo application on your phone, find the right angle, tap to sharpen the focus…you get my point. You’re rarely going to capture anything good. So the only point you’re pulling your phone out, then, is to get some generic shot during the performance that you can post to social media later.
And in your attempt to do so, you’ll miss what you otherwise could’ve seen. It was Julian Casablancas in the hallway behind the stage at Elsewhere in Brooklyn last June, pacing like a tiger, coming into view in the door frame to the stage before stalking past with purpose. It was Jack White at Shaky Knees Festival, prefacing one of those epic guitar solos in Ball & Biscuit with I got something to say. Then, having said it through sound, beating his chest with emphasis.
But the ultimate came (of course) came by way of Nick Cave. For the past year I have flung myself into the concert experience, making up for years of abstaining from them, for fear of…gasp…going alone. Finally, I saw Cave and the Bad Seeds in Los Angeles, at the Forum. Watching a film earlier this year of a Bad Seeds concert in Copenhagen, I’d been transfixed and transported by the power and pathos of this band’s songs. Cave does not ban phones at his concerts, but when he invited about thirty or so audience members onto the stage, toward the end of the concert in LA, he noticed a woman who simply would not put her phone down.
Cave in no way fixated upon her, but as he made his way among the audience members, he’d notice this woman still on her phone and, once again, ask her to put it away. She would, for a moment, and then pull it back out when she thought he’d moved on (Cave sees everything). This went on several times, until Cave made a motion to knock the phone away.
If there wasn’t a more perfect encapsulation of whatever I’ve tried to say here, I don’t know what it would be. What would this woman get from this recording? A sort of bragging to her friends about how much fun she was having, here. When really, what mattered in this moment was going on around her.
She was in a bubble, missing the point.