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Rock Shows, Then & Now

By Rich_Maloof Jul 6, 2012 4:46PM

Photo: Brand New Images/Getty ImagesSummertime is rock concert season, when any act that can afford to be on the road rolls across the country to perform in theatres, clubs, parks and arenas. For music fans, even a bad rock show beats a good night of just about anything else. But every time I pass through a turnstile and have my $120 Ticketmaster ticket scanned by a uniformed guard, I can’t help but wonder: Who scrubbed my rock show clean?

A night at a rock concert used to be a thrilling mixture of sound, depravity, and danger. After the opening act was booed off the stage, the house lights would come back up on a smokey, buzzed crowd. Frisbees would cut through the haze from across the arena, and if you didn’t catch the one coming at your head, you were razzed by your entire seating section. The crowd would surge when the house went black again, and as the headliner took the stage you could start plotting your move down to better seats, a chance that felt like it involved the small but noteworthy risk of being shivved by a guy in a babushka. Down on the floor, you were helpless to move between the muscleheads in cut-off sleeves and their girlfriends in cut-off shorts. You’d catch a whiff of something skunky, then see a glowing ember being passed down the row in your direction. Hours later, you'd arrive home with Jack Daniels on your breath, ringing in your ears, and sweaty clothes reeking like an ashtray.

It was awesome.

Today, the big concerts are mother-daughter affairs — a potentially lively but antiseptic evening of orderly listening. There’s no smoking (as Joe Jackson once bemoaned), the aisles are kept clear by security, and everybody’s cleaned up nice like they’re at a Broadway show. Some dingus with a corporate connection always seems to have bought up the two rows in front of you; he and his colleagues will leave before the encore to beat traffic. It was never easy to get a clear view of the stage from the floor seats, but now arms held high to capture video jut into your line of sight all night long. Audiences are alighted with mobile phones instead of lighters, and while the band pours its heart out onstage, someone next to you is busy texting. You will be safely on your way home no later than 11:00 pm.

It’s more civilized, sure, but a rock and roll show was never supposed to be about civility. At the indoor/outdoor sheds, concertgoers set up picnic blankets on the lawn, where they can sip pink zinfandel and enjoy a nice brie. In the box seats at bigger venues, staff are available to serve sushi and mix drinks. Worst of the lot are the ginormous football-stadium tours. These places have the acoustics of an airplane hangar, and unless your dad’s on the board at Verizon you sit a quarter mile away watching the entire performance on a Diamond Vision screen. It’s like forty thousand people gathered to watch TV together. At the end of the night concertgoers take home overpriced souvenirs as if they just visited an acquarium.

Rock goes wrong when it plays to the same criteria as other types of entertainment. The whole rock and roll aesthetic gets put through the blender. If a single scrap of the original ethic can be still be salvaged, it should be the part that kicks up some dirt at social norms. But being social and being normal are at the core of big rock shows today. Footage from a recent Coldplay concert at a 60,000-seater shows a U.K. audience being lit up in sync like each person is a pixel on a giant screen. The fans were given wristbands called Xylobands — fitting for a band with an album called Mylo Xyloto — with colored LED diodes that are radio-controlled to blink in time with the music. The gimmick makes for a cool lighting trick; everyone becomes part of the spectacle.

It’s a squeaky-clean good time, designed to be enjoyed the same way and to the same extent by everyone involved. That’s characteristic of an age in which each experience has to be social and normal. It is to be shared communally in the concert hall as it is online. Being unilaterally appealing and playing within the margins of acceptability increases the social relevance and “likeability.” Like a Wall post on Facebook, a rock show today is equally about the thing itself and its capability to be shared.

You can still dig up a genuine rock and roll experience if you catch the right band at the right venue. But at the shows by acts big enough to sell out ballparks and arenas, with only a few rare exceptions, rock has rolled over. The whole gig has been socialized and normalized.

Jul 8, 2012 7:45PM
Rock shows are different, but they are still around and thats what counts.  A lot of things I've enjoyed have disappeared, but rock n roll is here to stay, no matter how it "evolves".  Back in the day, I used to go to concerts where we were stuffed together and had to move with the crows, and although its not like that anymore at most venues, that's ok with me, I could not even hack that anymore.  PLUS, I can still enjoy the bands that I used to from front stage center by paying regular prices! (sometimes).  Like the  band Cinderella, I was up right in front of the stage at House of Blues in Houston, back in the 80's that would never have happened, there was a little bit of beer throwing when people would try to cut in closer, but thats the fun of being at a concert with general admission!  Concerts were great back then, and they are good now, not as great, but good enough!
Jul 8, 2012 7:10PM
Coldplay?  That's rock?  The writer doesn't get to the solution until the last paragraph.  skip the elitist ultra big sold-their-soul-out bands and stick with bands that feel the way he does such as Dallas' The Toadies, whose primal, feral rock could cause a mosh pit to form in a retirement center. What do you expect from a "rock lover" who works for an elitist pig establishment like MSNBC, the O'bama Network?
Jul 8, 2012 5:49PM
You are obviously going to the wrong concerts
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