When I was 17, I went to see Odd Future at a dingy all-ages nightclub in a part of the city known for its fish markets and the occasional stabbing. The opener was Trash Talk, who at the time I knew nothing about except that they were opening for Odd Future, meaning they were probably in a similar musical vein. I realized how wrong I was about four seconds into their set of hardcore, Sacramento punk as spin kicks and whirlwind fists began buffeting me from all sides. Soon, I was sucked into the pit where it was mosh or die, so mosh I did. I moshed until my neck was stiff as wood and my lungs were screaming for air; I also watched the lead singer do a front flip off of a stack of amps and pancake a girl from my English class who was deeply out of her element. It was one of the best, sweatiest, most visceral live musical experiences of my life.
That’s why I understand the gripes some concertgoers have against the comparatively-underwhelming stage presence of certain laptop-centric acts, a scene roughly equivalent to an Apple Genius Bar. Is that just the nature of the new wave of programming-heavy, electronically-aided musicians that have won massive popularity in recent years? The answer is probably buried inside the question of why we go to see live music in the first place. Some people want to take part in the experience. Others want to feel closer to their favorite artists. And some may go just to be sweat upon and get hair in their mouths. The truth is that people see live music for reasons as diverse as the concertgoers themselves.
A bad show is a bad show, and nothing leaves a gross taste in your mouth like paying and waiting in line to see an admired artist dribble out a mealy-mouthed set and scatter hurriedly off stage. But flaccid showmanship is not at all limited to the realm of the laptop-assisted or electronic; I have been to more than a few DJ sets where the guy behind the wheels is grooving and sweating out just as hard as the audience, and a fair number of rock’n’roll shows performed with as much enthusiasm and conviction as a middle school book report. In both cases the energy is reciprocal.
But shouldn’t the music speak for itself, cry the recumbent patrons of jazz clubs and opera halls the world over. Absolutely, and in certain contexts it does. But in others, the holistic experience of a live event is as much a part of the music as the instrumentation. Culture writer Chuck Klosterman asked James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem as part of the 2011 farewell concert documentary “Shut Up and Play the Hits” whether the Soundsystem live experience was mostly musical, or a 50/50 thing “where the culture is as much as the music?” For Murphy, the mastermind behind one of the most acclaimed music acts in recent history, the two are irreducible. “It’s gotta be a division between those things […] I’ve never gone to a show and loved it without believing something about the people are doing it.” Belief is important, crucial even when experiencing a concert, but more than anything is the belief that whoever you’re seeing wants to be there as badly as you do.
Email Jonah Rosario Inserra at [email protected]