An Audience of One: A Note on the Concert Collective

Hello and Happy Sunday, dear readers! I hope everyone's been having a fun/peaceful/productive/chilled/whatever-the-hell-you-wanted-it-to-be kind of weekend. So far I've spent mine trying to clear some space on my desk by reading the books piled up on it that I feel 100% certain I'll only want to read once and then I can donate them. While I'm happy to report that the actual reading part of that plan has been a glowing success, it turns out that quite a few of the books were actually really amazing and now I want to keep them... points for effort?

And, surprise twist, that is about as bookish as this particular post is going to get! Yes, I'm branching out, as I've kept telling myself that I probably should at some point, and seeing how my last few mental health-related posts have been pretty well-received, I'm now going to share with you an article that, I confess, I wrote three months ago while I was still in Finland. The reason that I held off on posting it here was that I had decided to send it off to a publisher to see if they would consider it in a collection they were putting together. Now that the rejection email's come through for it after a suspenseful few months, I'm heading back to the drawing (or in my case, writing) board, and you lucky souls, all three or four of you, can enjoy my idealistic millennial rambling free of charge - at least until I can find a publisher who can market my ramblings more efficiently than I ever will. After all, in the immortal words of Amanda Palmer:

"I'm just trying to entertain people, make a living and pay my rent without having to get a job I hate, and hopefully find an audience that will love and accept me, and not think I'm a narcissist for wanting to be a performer and find true inner peace and that's it."

~GaGa, Palmer, Madonna: A Polemic.

So, before I leave you with the main event, here's a little introductory info to let you know what you're letting yourself in for if you read on: a few months ago, I attended a gig on my own for the first time, which sent me off on an introspective wander about how well the concert atmosphere facilitates the forming of new friendships, even for an unsociable hermit like me. That then led me onto broader notions of solidarity and how art and music can be a powerful mechanism for unity and hope in troubled times. In a nutshell, what I'm saying is, "WARNING: This text may contain an idealistically aggressive tone and a couple of swear words here and there." On which cheery note...

An Audience of One

Wednesday, twenty-eighth of June, 2017. Five forty-five p.m. and although there’s still a distinct chill in the air, the sun’s finally starting to break through the clouds for the first time today.

Security around the venue looks tight, with police lining the road all the way down to the main entrance. For a grim moment, I’m reminded of recent events elsewhere, although having grown up in Northern Ireland in the 90’s, I generally don’t give a second thought to the presence of a dozen or more armoured Land Rovers where a large crowd is gathered. They’re here to keep the peace, and I’m grateful for that… I just hope they like Rancid and Green Day or they’re in for a hell of a long night.

Praying that my as yet not-broken-in Doc Martens don’t make me regret my wardrobe choice, I hold out my tiny handbag and ticket for inspection at the gate. My ticket says the gates aren’t due to open until six, but I stroll right through without even having to queue and examine the slowly expanding crowd as it begins to fill Ormeau Park. The main focus is on the centre of the stage, understandably; if you want to get the best angle to photograph the whole band, the lights and the backdrops, the centre’s your best bet provided you don’t get stuck behind someone who’s seven feet tall and lets their other half perch on their shoulders. Not wanting to take that chance, I sacrifice an unobstructed view for proximity and head for the far left (attach political connotations here if you so wish).

In a break from my long-standing concert-going tradition, I’ve turned up alone. I’ve already been to two gigs earlier in the year – Avenged Sevenfold supported by Disturbed and In Flames in January, and Iron Maiden supported by Shinedown in May, both in Glasgow – and for each our group was made up of at least four people. This solo venture, I’m fully prepared to admit, isn’t entirely by choice; numerous attempts to persuade others to come along failed for one reason or another, and by this point I’ve made peace with it. I’m a solitary person in general, so how bad could it be if I overlook the fact that there’s no-one to take turns doing bar runs with while the other keeps our spot? My house is a ten-minute walk from the park, in fact I can just about see my front door from the other side of the river, there will still be a touch of daylight left when the show’s over, and there’s plenty of light and traffic along the main road, so I’m not as worried about walking home by myself as I would normally be. If all else fails, I plan to stay sober (because if I can get a spot at the front I’m sure as hell not moving and haven’t gotten round to buying a hip flask), and I’m wearing flat boots, so I stand a decent chance of out-running any drunks if I have to.

Somehow, despite not having lined up from midday like I would have done in my teens, begging my parents for a sneaky day off school to make sure I can get a good spot to stand, I find myself slipping easily into a space right at the barrier, less than ten feet from the stage. All through the day I’d felt like it was just another Wednesday, with the silver lining that I was on leave from work for the occasion, but now as my hand wraps around the metal rail I’m fifteen years old again and making a mental list of all the songs I want to hear being played tonight; a balanced mix of classics and new material. Is it too early to start throwing my hair around and dancing? As I’m still adapting to the potential awkwardness of being here on my own, I contain myself and make do with nodding along to the recorded tunes blasting through the speakers.

I haven’t been standing there for two minutes when the girl next to me turns and says hi. The greeting is totally unprompted, I’ve never seen her before in my life, but her friends have vanished so she’s here on her own now too. Just like that, we’re sticking together for the night, shaking hands, exchanging names and comparing concert stories. As it turns out, this is my new friend’s first ever gig, and I waste no time in congratulating her on getting a front row spot for it. Shortly afterwards, we get talking to a charming engaged couple next to us. The conversation is in full flow, taking my mind off how bloody cold it is for June, even by Northern Irish standards, and how there’s still a whole damn half hour to wait until Rancid make their appearance.

At last they are out and playing, and I’m straight into Concert Mode, but pacing myself. Experience has taught me not to expend all my energy too early, otherwise I’ll have to crawl home, and not be able to move in the morning. At the end of the set, my new companion heads for the bar, and I stretch out to save her space, because we’re friends now so that’s what we do. We look out for each other, even though we’ve only known each other for just over an hour. My hands are starting to go numb but I’m past caring. For the first time in weeks – since the Iron Maiden concert just over a month ago, actually – I feel alive, revived, like I’m okay again and for at least for the next few hours I can stay okay. Everything that’s been getting me down, making me cry or panic or completely shut down for the last year and a half is gone from my mind for one blissful evening. The big advantage with outdoor shows is that there’s more room to move and breathe, and I breathe deeply: cool summer air, overpriced beer and e-cigarettes, a familiar, comforting aroma after ten years of coming to these kinds of shows. Someone behind me tries to squeeze through to get back to her friend, elbows me in the spine, apologises like she means it and keeps moving.

At eight o’clock, the main event kicks off. The lights go up and Green Day take their places on the stage. I throw my voice in with the thousands of others as an enormous cheer fills the park, no doubt carrying down the river and giving my neighbours a collective headache. I should know, there have been concerts running in this park for the last two weeks for Belsonic, and I’ve had to lie awake through my fair share of dull dance beats in the run-up to this evening. From where I’m standing, I’ve earned the right to be the noisy one for a change. On any other kind of night out, I might already be planning my excuses to go home and take refuge in my room, recharging my mental batteries with a book, a Netflix binge and either a quiet drink or a huge mug of tea, but not on this night. On any other night out, I might be trying to think of ways to fight down an anxiety attack when I get a little too squashed against the barrier, but tonight I don’t need to. The sound of the opening song is my energy charge, surging to my core, pumping up my heart and my lungs so that I scream like I never can outside of a rock-show audience.

Out of curiosity, I steal a glance over my shoulder and the audience has grown so that it stretches all the way back to the gates. This is me. This is us. Here we all are, the congregation gathered at the altar of the stage. All through the evening, we’ll sing our hymns, bask in the glow of the stage-lights and embrace our neighbours, screaming and singing until our hair is in knots and our make-up runs. We raise our arms and voices and declare to whatever Heavens there may be that we stand for music, for diversity, and for democracy, and we stand against racism, against sexism, and against homophobia. In this place and this moment, we’re a community of misfits; individuals with our uniqueness in common. We are the ones who will pick each other up, hold each other close, and for these few sweet hours we will feel immortal. We are the artists, the accountants, the college drop-outs and the PhDs; the newlyweds and the nearly-deads, the punks and the drunks, the salt and the scum of the earth, the teenage girl who’s been crying for days, forgetting her pain and casting off her shame; the lovers and the loners, the shy ones and the scared ones, the dreamers and the depressives. We left our differences at the door and here we are, no longer existing but living, no longer excluded but one of the family.

And when this show is over, we’ll turn to each other in breathless ecstasy, sharing our experience, and we’ll all go our ways – as friends, as lovers or still as strangers. I walk my new friend back towards town, wanting to make sure she gets to the train station safely. My house is along the way, and I’ve got a personal alarm on me, so once I see her off I manage the rest of the journey home with considerable ease. The sound of my fellow revellers still drifting across the other side of the river sends me to sleep with a smile on my face.

The next morning, when we wake up smelling of spilt booze and faded perfume, we’ll smile as we stumble out of bed and back into reality, to our jobs, our schools, our lives, and for a while we’ll feel like life isn’t all that bad, because we’re charged with a new kind of energy, because that is the amazing, unbreakable power of music, and the power of enjoying that music with others. You may find us humming a new tune under our breath in the course of the day, or texting that new friend on our cigarette break, or shamelessly job-hunting at our desks in plain sight of the manager because we’ve remembered what it’s like to want to live and to feel and to belong. Even when a few weeks, then a few months have passed, and the novelty’s worn off just a little, we’ll keep going. We’ll keep going, we’ll keep cheering, keep dancing, keep hoping, keep loving, keep living, keep trying, keep working, keep creating, keep rebelling, keep singing, keep fucking up and trying again, and when the bands roll back around, we’ll keep going all over again.

Some may look at this and think that it sounds naïve and idealistic, that rock shows aren’t always as safe and full of solidarity as I’ve presented them here. Of course, I get that; I've seen the darker side of these events first-hand too, and I thank my lucky stars that I’ve never been molested or deliberately injured at a gig (I say deliberately because there have still been plenty of times that I’ve managed to get hurt at them by one way or another. Accidents happen). On the whole though, what I’ve seen in any audience that I’ve been a part of is a far brighter, better side of humanity than anything you’ll see on the news, in the papers, or even in the streets and in the workplace nowadays. That is why art and culture is so vital for our ability to survive and progress: where politics and corporate corruption and terrorism demean and demoralise us, music, film, and literature gives us the voice to call for change, to scream out in grief or anger or frustration, to talk about new ideas that can make things better, or at least more bearable for everyone. Art speaks out for those who cannot, and there really is such a lot to be said for that.

We are the Concert Community, and we're not going anywhere.

Emma McMullan's Picture

Emma McMullan

Writer, blogger, book hoarder, mug collector and language enthusiast.