Modern Concerts Are Big On Spectacle, Short On Feel

Once upon a time, I loved going to rock concerts.

It didn’t matter what the act was. Tickets were cheap in the 1980s: $15-$20; maybe $27.50 for fancy seats.

One week in the mid-80s I saw REO Speedwagon on a Monday night, and KISS that Thursday. I was at an Ozzy Osbourne/Metallica show where the crowd ripped open the seats and tossed seat cushions around the arena until a swirling cloud of cushions hovered over the arena floor. I thought there was a fire when Rage Against the Machine played the Lollapalooza Festival in 1993, but it wasn’t smoke; it was the mosh pit kicking up dry dust in front of the stage. A decade earlier Brian Johnson walked down our aisle with Angus Young on his shoulders during an AC/DC concert at the Brendon Byrne area. It really impressed my girlfriend at the time.

Back in the day, the Brendan Byrne Arena and Giants Stadium were the main concert venues for big touring acts. Both venues are still around but they’ve sold their names for corporate sponsorship; they’re the Izod Center and Metlife Stadium now.

Even though I haven’t been to a big rock concert in over a decade, I was happy to take my 10-year-old daughter and her friend to see One Direction at Metlife Stadium recently. Live music is awesome and I was eager to indoctrinate my daughter into the rock concert experience.

1D For Me

One Direction takes the stage.

Making our way into Metlife Stadium I noticed a trend; it seemed most parents were waiting in the parking lot, tailgating, while their kids went into the concert. Not me. I was there for the music, man! Plus, my daughter’s only 10, I wasn’t going to send her and her friend into Metlife Stadium by themselves.

One Direction played a fine set, though the emphasis seemed to be more on explosions, fireworks, streamers and balloons rather than the music. During the power ballad everybody held up the flashlight app on their cell phones and waved them back and forth. I wondered what happened to all the cigarette lighters, but then I realized that nobody smokes anymore, and lighters are dangerous.

The One Direction concert came off a bit impersonal, but I can’t blame the band. They’re just following a trend that began years ago, back when I was still a regular concertgoer.

Giant video screens have been around at rock concerts since the early ‘80s, and while it’s supposed to make big stadium shows feel cozy, instead they reduce live performance to a TV show. Why watch the little man with the guitar from 200 yards away when you can watch the video screen and get a close-up? Why even go to a live concert at all when you can watch the same video footage from the comfort of your home?

Cell phone flashlights have replaced lighters at modern concerts. Safer but boring.

Before the use of big video screens, bands used stage effects that enhanced the music rather than distract from it. From the mid-‘60s and into the ‘70s rock bands had liquid light shows or psychedelic light shows projected behind them while they played. The swirling, colorful amoeba shapes were eventually replaced by elaborate lighting rigs that synched with the dynamics of the music. The Genesis light show was a selling point for their live performances well into the 1980s.

Lost In Techno Translation

But as technology advanced, an intimacy was lost in the concert going experience. Giant video screens simultaneously brought audiences closer to the performers and reduced them to characters on TV. During the One Direction concert I saw several fans recording the concert with their camera phones, but instead of focusing on the members of the band, they were recording the images on the giant video screens. Why?

One thing that hasn’t changed about modern concerts is the energy created when fans gather together to celebrate the music they enjoy. This is the core essence of the concert experience, the same blueprint as religious gatherings. I saw many Grateful Dead concerts over the years, and the atmosphere was very close to a church mass. There was the same sense of reverence, respect, ritual, and release.

And hopefully that will never change. Long live rock-n-roll!

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, October 2014

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