This post was originally meant to be a review of Leslie Jamison’s gorgeous essay collection, The Empathy Exams (slightly delayed but forthcoming this week), but I had to interrupt my own plans and digress from my normal blog topics to make a vitally important public service announcement using the best platform I have to do it. Be prepared, I’m about to get up on my sassy horse.
There is little in this world that fills me with more excitement and inexplicable energy than seeing a musician I really like live. There’s something that happens during these experiences, an energetic transfer that is honestly hard to put into words. But you know what I mean. We’ve all experienced it with any good piece of art. To say it’s moving doesn’t quite feel strong enough; yet it is something that physically and emotionally touches you.
Last night, my boyfriend and I drove to D.C. to see one of our favorite artists, The Weeknd, perform. The show was excellent; a sold-out stadium, high energy performance, pyrotechnics, adorable dance moves, passionate singing, the whole nine. I normally don’t love stadium concerts because I like the feeling of being in a close space with an artist, but alas, we all have to admit with a heavy sigh when our favorite once-underground artists have enough fans in one city to fill a football arena. That said, even being far away from the stage, the experience of being there was transformative. The presence he showed was enough to make me believe we were the only people there. Which is why I couldn’t get over the handful or so of people around me, and several others scattered throughout the stadium, who willfully ignored the artist in front of them in favor of staring at their cell phones. And some others, (I’m speaking directly to the gaggle of teenage girls in front of me) who alternated between singing along to the lyrics, texting their friends, and (I believe) Snap Chatting.
Patti Smith, goddess of all things cool, has been rocking since the ’70s, still packing large stadiums, and can certainly attest to the changes she’s seen in her many years of performing. Last Friday, she spoke at the Free Library and explained the absolute frustration of giving everything she had during a performance, only to be met with the backs of cell phones in the audience. She’s claimed to tell her concert-goers to put their phones away, to be present with her during the experience. It’s an energy transfer, she explained, and the phones are messing up the damn energy.
Jack White has said something similar: “People can’t clap anymore, because they’ve got a fucking texting thing in their fucking hand!” He goes on to explain how without using a setlist, he relies on the energy from the audience, “If they can’t give me that energy back? Maybe I’m wasting my time.”
It wasn’t just last night. I saw Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, two of the top hip-hop artists of our time, perform last year, to the same thing. I remember distinctly being only a few rows back from the stage, marveling at Kanye and his theatrics, yet feeling myself becoming distracted by the girl in front of me who was slouched in her seat and scrolling through Instagram.
Of the things not allowed in the stadium last night, including video recording devices and guns, were selfie sticks. Selfie sticks?! Have we lost all shame?! Small venues, large venues, it never seems to matter. We can’t break away from our damn phones, even to be present for something as incredible as the energy transfer from artist to audience that happens during live music.
It’s natural to want to savor the moment by capturing it on your phone — I’ve been guilty of it in the past out of a misdirected desire to hold onto the magic I’m experiencing — but here’s the truth: the picture never looks as good as you think it will, and the video will sound like a whole bunch of fuzz buried under only a slightly comprehensible familiar melody that you will never again look at. You’ll have much better memories of the way you felt if you just remain present during the show. And if you’re not using your phone to record the experience, but instead to scroll through Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, or the news, then I really can’t understand you. It’s embarrassing, but mostly just sad, to see an artist on stage giving everything that they have while you, a paying audience member, can’t wait the few hours to scroll through the bullshit on your phone that is really not that interesting or worthwhile in the first place.
I’m speaking here mostly, but not exclusively, to my generation. This is an intervention. The amount of “likes” you’ll get are in no way comparable to the experience you’re missing while you distractedly publish a photo to your page. C’mon! This is music we’re talking about. This is the thing that we all love! The one thing with which we can all connect! We’ve already mastered every other conceivable way to get it without giving anything in exchange. Isn’t it worth it to give the smallest thing back we can: that of our attention? Please? We can’t possibly be this distracted. We can’t possibly be this embarrassing.
So for those who found more mindless entertainment scrolling through their phones, or to the girls who only half paid attention, I feel sorry for you. You missed something really incredible that you’ll never get to experience the same way again.