Adam Theisen: To all the people who stand still at concerts
“We’re not a serious band,” Carrie Brownstein reminded the fans at Royal Oak Music Theatre last week. She was looking out at a packed crowd of hundreds, but most of what she could see was blank, unemotional faces. Her band was mid-set, just absolutely tearing through tracks from all across their career, but all these bearded dudes and flannel-wearing mid-30s couples just looked dead inside.
This was at a Sleater-Kinney show, and Sleater-Kinney was being fucking incredible (as usual), so I don’t think unmet expectations were the problem. Brownstein played guitar like a true possessed rock star, convulsing around the stage and wreaking havoc on the music. Corin Tucker’s voice remains one of the great mysteries of the world, howling in this powerful, soulful way that nobody will ever be able to recreate. And Janet Weiss is an underrated stud on the drums, skillfully providing the backbeat to Brownstein and Tucker’s fire-and-ice musical interaction. But through no fault of the band’s own, the crowd just really, really sucked, and it brought down the whole performance just a bit. Brownstein had no external energy to feed off of, everything going on off stage was dull and there were none of the beautiful communal moments that make getting together with tons of people to listen to music worth it.
I hate to say it, but I kind of saw it coming. I went to the Sleater-Kinney show by myself, because while last week was crazy hectic for any student, I’m the kind of person who will do whatever he can to see his favorite band live. I know that going to shows alone can be a risky, potentially awkward endeavor, but I wasn’t worried. I covered Sleater-Kinney in Chicago back in the summer, and for that set I was also entirely among strangers. But while I was camped out for hours at the front of the stage at Pitchfork, I was surrounded by young die-hard fans with weird hairstyles who were just insanely, infectiously hype to see the band. So whether I knew them or not, in Royal Oak I was going to be with my people.
Flash forward to actually getting inside the venue, and the entire vibe is different. I’m one of the youngest people in a room filled with all these suburban hipster couples who could barely be bothered to smile. I didn’t want to judge based on appearances (after all, they looked like I’ll probably look in 15 years), but once the show started, nobody acted any different. The crowd was quiet, standing around like statues and just looking like they were there out of obligation. There was no dancing, no connection among strangers and no sense that people were excited or felt like what they were seeing was special. And this was right in the front of the main floor, where most people stand outside for hours to be. Don’t get me wrong, I still had loads of fun watching S-K play some of my favorite songs back to back to back to back, barely taking a breath in between, but I definitely felt isolated, like there was a serious detachment between me and all the older people around me. There was a guy in a baseball cap right in front of me, literally as close to the band as you could possibly get, and he never moved except to half-heartedly clap after some of the songs — and he was indicative of most of the crowd. All these “fans” with the best spot in the whole venue just looked so bored.
I realize you’re not reading music columns from a college kid to get told what to do, but if you’re going to spend money on a band you like and go to a concert, why act so uncaring and unmoved about it? Just think about how unreal it is to go to a show, any show — how our brains inexplicably recognize the noise coming from the stage as beautiful, invaluable brilliance and make us do weird, stupid shit like losing our voices by singing along on every chorus and shouting “I love you!” at the musicians or completely forgetting ourselves while we dance. And if you were at the Sleater-Kinney show last week, think about the unique power of Brownstein, Tucker and Weiss and why you care about them enough to spend a night in their presence, and please try to figure out why you couldn’t smile or at least act engaged.
I know most concerts aren’t real conducive for going all-out “Saturday Night Fever” and clearing a huge space for yourself to show off on the dance floor, and I admit that I’m at a bit of an advantage compared to most. I can stand in place and just whip my long hair or do some sort of semi-coordinated arm movements and not feel too self-conscious about it, but you don’t even have to move that much, especially if you’re at a lower-key, melancholy or acoustic show. I’m not saying you have to be sweating and out-of-breath after the show, just ready to crash into bed as soon as the last note ends, but you’re probably going to a concert because an artist’s music moves you in some way, and to share that with people, especially when you’re all packed in at a festival or a punk club, can be a really rewarding, memorable thing, especially when everyone does it all together.
And I get, too, that if you’re in your 30s or older, you may not be completely, religiously obsessed with music in the same way you were in college or earlier. I shudder just a bit at this ever happening to me, but I have to be honest with myself and say that a lot of the adults I saw at S-K weren’t all that superficially different from me with their pale faces and dark-rimmed glasses and unkempt hair. But I’m taking this Sleater show as a warning — even if responsibilities and work and the general stress of being a grown-up keep me from indulging myself with music as much as I do now, I can’t ever let myself treat having fun at a concert as a chore, and I can never let myself lose touch with the heart-bursting happiness I feel whenever I’m at a wild show with unhinged music fans doing crazy shit.
So to the one girl who screeched “I fucking love this song!” while Brownstein was just tuning her guitar, to the guys scattered throughout who were furiously nodding their heads and even jumping up and down at times, I thank you for giving a shit. To the Arctic Monkeys fans who turned GA at The Fillmore into a whirlpool of bodies a couple years ago, to the people who threw at least five grams of weed onstage at a Schoolboy Q show, even to the oversexed couple who kept bumping into me at that Chance the Rapper show — to everyone who has helped turn the concerts I’ve gone into the bizarre explorations of humanity they’re meant to be, I wish you had been at Sleater-Kinney last week.