Photo by JudgeCal
Robert Lund - Man About Town
New York Waste, Mar. 2002
I was thinkin of what to "cover" in this month's column, for some event or theme which stood out, but February's been a whirlwind of goin out seein bands and chix and dancing up a storm. Y'know, the routine "man about town" shit. So rather than cover any event or band, I'm gonna just lay some of my impressions of the scene on ya. More of an editorial than a fun report this time.
Let's picture a typical scenario at a rock club gig. The band sets up on stage, and the crowd gathers, nearly all standing at least 10 feet back from the stage. The musicians get ready to play, often making some comment like "Hey, don't be shy, we don't bite, c'mon up front", but it rarely provokes any movement on the crowd's part. The music starts. The band might be thrashing out totally crazed rock music, with a pounding, infectious beat, but the most you see in the crowd is an occasional bobbing head. Oh yeah, there's a foot tapping here and there. I resist the urge to say "C'mon, get up offa that thing", I just do my thing up front. Can't help it.
I know, there are exceptions to this, depending on the band and the kind of followers they have. But the scene I've described above must be familiar to many of you. I'm sure it isn't just my perception - people often ask me "Whassup with people these days? No one seems to dance much anymore!" (as though I should have an answer). I've tried to look at this phenomenon as a socio-biologist would, studying organisms and their behavior in a strange environment.
We're living in an age where most people spend a lot more time looking at a video screen than ever before, computer monitors as well as good old TV. Since the advent of MTV a couple of decades ago, most of the music performance which people have seen has been on their TV screen. We're all familiar with the difference in the experiences of reading a book and seeing a movie. Reading invokes the imagination, and everyone "sees" the story in their mind in a unique way. Viewing a film puts the same depiction in everyone's mind, a less interactive process, more of a passive intake of someone else's vision. Video killed more than the radio star - it killed the part of the listener's mind that used the music as a starting point for one's own reactions, such as inner visions and dancing. Viewing a music performance video is a totally non-interactive experience. The viewer passively takes it in, nothing is required. Thus, a whole generation of rock music lovers have been programmed to associate the sight of a rockin band with sitting back and watching a screen. The term "couch potato" generally refers to someone who lives in front of their TV. But remember, you become a temporary couch potato every time you assume the position and watch. This unavoidably affects the way you react at live gigs. Rock bands put on wild shows, goin crazy on stage, screamin their guts out, and many people stand a "safe" distance from the stage, eyes glazed as though they were staring at a screen. For the most part, it appears that these audience organisms are totally cerebralized, as though they were dead from the neck down. In short, walking couch potatoes!
Performers thrive on feedback from the crowd. It leaves a band less satisfied to play for a dead-pan audience that won't brave the 10-foot gap in front of the stage. A participating crowd feeds energy back to the performer, and the whole show gets elevated to higher heights. (That IS a good thing, right?). If audiences continue to evolve into more stationary beings, it becomes less satisfying for bands, more difficult to sustain a high level of energy. Inanimate audiences might lead to a gradual decrease in bands' motions, leading us to a day where rock bands will stand still, like classical musicians, playing to similarly static crowds. Rock-n-roll music has always been strongly connected to physical motion. When Elvis first hit the scene, his impact was due to his writhing pelvis as well as his vocal style. If they are separated, we are left with an extract of rock.
I came across one band's reaction to this syndrome on the web site of a Chicago band I saw at Continental on Feb. 28. In an online journal by one of the members, their experience in L.A. was described:
So it's not only in NYC. Note that L.A. is another very video-intensive town.
OK, I'm the crazy dude who's always right up front dancing up a storm. It happens that I don't have a TV. And, having worked in the broadcast industry since many of you were tiny, I'm acutely aware of its power, and I've developed a protection mechanism against the effects of ubiquitous video. I wanna rock till I drop, and I don't give a fuck if I'm the only one left rockin. I'm not trying to change anyone's behavior, as long as they're doin what they're doin by their own choice. If people really think there's been too much dancing and writhing associated with rock-n-roll, that this trend is a good thing, they can go right on standing there holding their beer while bands rave. It'll just go down as a part of rock history. But I suspect that many are affected by the video syndrome, and slip into "passive viewer mode" when a band is playing, without realizing it.
For those of you who see what I mean, let me offer a few thoughts: (1) When you're at a gig, remind yourself "This is not a video - this is real live rock-n-roll. These are fellow humans on stage pouring their souls out upon us, trying to infuse us with some of their spirit." Snap out of your mind and wake up your body. (2) Let yourself react as you would at home, alone, to the stereo (NOT to the TV!). Play your body like an instrument. Don't give a FUCK what you look like, or what anyone thinks. (3) Surrender, surrender, but don't give yourself away. (Aw fuck, go ahead and give yourself away - you'll get yourself back.) And (4) remember the old Kinks song, "Don't forget to dance."
That's it, it's off my chest now. My theory on one possible factor responsible for an undeniable trend in the rock scene today, and what folks who care might do to help keep rock (and themselves!) alive. Again, I'm not saying "C'mon, move your asses!" - just asking y'all to think about what's happening.