Recently, a writer for Pitchfork attended a Purity Ring concert in Melbourne, Australia. Nice. While such a scenario might normally come coupled with some degree of purple musings about synth textures and beguiling atmospherics, there's little in the way of language about the actual music performed that night, because, as author Nick Fulton writes, he was too distracted by everyone with their dang phones out to properly immerse himself in the experience. Or, translated into Pitchforkian: "It's hard not to wonder if these technophile fans know they are diluting not only their own but other people's cultural intimacy."
Fulton certainly isn't alone in his concerns vis-à-vis our [extreme music-writer voice] diluted cultural intimacy, and his is just one of many such pieces that have sounded a similar alarm whenever a band's collective ass turns up chapped over the ubiquitous practice, like She & Him and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs from a few years ago. Back around that time, when a viral video was being shared around that encouraged us to put down our phones lest we miss out on the world going on all around us, I was pretty adamant in my refusal. Phones are simply more interesting than people, I wrote. I've softened on that stance somewhat since then. Even as recently as 2013, no one really foresaw just how much time we'd all be spending out in public with our little baby content mouths suckling on the electronic-data teat, but the framing of this discussion as one of diametrically opposed poles with only two possible outcomes is counterproductive. Bans on phone use at concerts, as some artists and venues have toyed with, are an overreach. On the other hand, spending an entire show taking shitty photos no one wants to see and will never appreciate is inarguably a waste of time.
Naturally, reactions to the piece have been split between those who agree — the self-assured proponents of a sort of authentic whole-music approach to fandom and personhood — and others who chafe at the idea of ever being told by anyone that their wants might potentially be diminished in any capacity in order to accommodate others. In other words, contemporary Internet discourse. Both groups, as is so often the case, are made up of assholes.
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The truth, boringly, is somewhere in the middle. We should probably spend a little less time looking at our phones everywhere out in public, but not for the reasons the people who rail against it suggest.
Protests to the contrary from the straw fan I'm arguing with in my brain right now, each commerce-driven congregation of musician and fans is not some idealized cultural ceremony whose authenticity must be defended by arbiters of taste and proper content processing. If you want art, go to an art gallery. Concerts, by and large, are dumb as hell, a pageant in which disinterested semi-professionals yell their feelings at you out of obligation to barely pay their rent. Some, of course, are indeed entertaining, perhaps occasionally emotionally moving, but it's probably safe to say the vast majority of them are terrible slogs through the motions, and that a significant percentage of the attendees at said concert aren't even there for the music anyway. This has always been the case, and it has nothing to do with the existence of cell phones. People go to see bands play because they:
1) want to bone someone
2) want to drink alcohol
3) actually appreciate the music
4) want to tell people they were there so that they might want to bone them at some later date.
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"When people tell you they saw Nirvana in the Nineties you take their word for it," Fulton writes. "Let's go back to those days, because I don't care what it looked like from 20 meters back in the crowd. I want to know what it felt like."
Setting aside the concept here — that the purpose of going to a show is so you can tell someone about it years from now — here's what it felt like back in the day at Super Cool Concert: Uhh. I've been going to concerts for about twenty years now, at a clip of a couple a week. That not only means I'm old as shit, but it represents thousands and thousands of bands I've seen, some of which have moved me to tears, but most of which have moved me to the sides of the venue to dick around. You want to know what it was like to see [quick list of all the cool shit I saw in my life]? Who the hell knows? Like most normal people, I was always half-interested in the show on stage and half-interested in other things going on in my life. When I started going to shows in the Nineties, pre-phones, each show wasn't a sea of transfixed faces paying rapt attention to every shimmering note bestowed upon us by the demigods in our midst. In fact, back then, when a band was boring, I remember typically wandering over to the back of the venue, or over by the doors, and flipping through the alt-weeklies and 'zines they used to have everywhere. How is that any different from looking at your phone? For those who didn't do that sort of thing, there was something called conversation with the people you came with. And, as you can surely imagine, that was always 100 percent life-affirming and important and necessary. "Hey, man, uh, what's going on after?"
Phones aren't the disease themselves; they're simply a symptom of a larger problem that has been with us in music, in everything, always and forever: Life is really pretty boring, and the fleeting hope that something, somewhere might be going on that's more interesting than this is the only thing that keeps most of us going every day.
If that doesn't seem like a satisfying solution, or if it seems too glib a dismissal of the issue of phone use at shows, then I offer this simple proposal to bands everywhere: If you want people to stop looking at their phones, put on a better show.