In 2023, it’s tough to know what, exactly, a concert is for anymore. Does someone attend to watch a live musical performance? Or to become part of the show in some way? Or to find a setting that might be optimal to create viral content?
Is the star of the concert onstage, or in the crowd?
Online, at least, it could go either way. In part, that’s because the barrier between the stage and the crowd is more porous than ever, going both ways. Recent weeks have seen a spate of objects flying toward artists, a sign that fans are seeking out ways to insert themselves into the performances they’re attending. But pop stars are wise to this, too, understanding that in an era of social media-inspired invasiveness, allowing themselves to be touched by the crowd is a powerful marketing and publicity tool.
Performers might appear superhuman, but they are vulnerable, exposed. It’s one of them vs. hundreds or thousands in the crowd. The barrier between stage and audience is philosophical, a shared understanding of social practice but not anything more than that. It is not impregnable.
PINK at BST Hyde Park
June 24, 2023
In June, the pop singer Bebe Rexha was struck in the forehead by an airborne cellphone, resulting in a black eye and stitches. The alleged assailant told police that he thought hitting her with the phone “would be funny.” The incident seemed to underscore the increasingly fragile dynamic at concert venues — it’s common for fans to hand performers their phones and ask them to take a photograph or video, but the flying phone was a demand and an insult. It was an insistent reminder that even in concert settings, fans feel like they’re in control of their stars, not the other way around.
The Rexha incident seemed to kick off a summer of inappropriate breaches. At a London show, someone handed Pink a wheel of cheese, the day before someone else (one hopes) threw a bag (allegedly) containing their mother’s ashes onstage. Both Harry Styles and Kelsea Ballerini have been hit in the face by objects thrown during recent performances. (Ordinarily, Styles’s fans toss him teddy bears.) Ava Max was slapped.
Audience members have been throwing things on stages as long as there have been stages, and stage crashing is not a new phenomenon, but this recent cluster of incidents feels like a game of stuntlike one-upmanship, designed to go viral. Disrupting a celebrity — inserting yourself into their narrative — may now be the ultimate concert souvenir.
For fans whose primary engagement with culture is virtual — this feels particularly true post-pandemic, when polite concertgoing wasn’t an option — the sense of a performer as a human is less firm. And demonstrating this kind of proximity to a famous person is a logical next step of the evolution from autographs to selfies. The stars are no longer out of reach; they are backdrops. There was a flash of this in the recent kerfuffle at a Miranda Lambert concert, where the singer chided some women in the crowd for taking photos of themselves while she was singing. (At least those phones weren’t airborne.)
CARDI B AT Drai’s Beach club
JULY 29, 2023
In some cases, not only do the throwers become part of the show’s narrative, they extend that narrative for themselves after the show concludes. Recently, Drake stopped to gawk at one of the bras that have been landing on his stage with regularity during his current tour. “36G? Locate this woman immediately!” he gasped. Quickly, the bra’s owner/tosser identified herself on TikTok. Around a week later, she’d already been contacted by Playboy.
There is a knowing permeability at play here, though. By acknowledging what lands onstage, even enthusing about it, Drake takes control of the narrative. It reflects an understanding of where a concert actually takes place: in a venue, but also in people’s phones, and perhaps in videos that will live online forever. Stars familiar with this dynamic are reorienting their performances to better feed the online maw.
While it’s in a star’s interest to remain safe, cut off and high up on the pedestal, it’s increasingly also wise to be on the observers’ level, providing intimacy to the audience as the crowd provides the star with affirmation. It’s a tactic Drake has embraced on his current tour, where he performs in the round, on an arena scale. He enters not from backstage (or under it), but via one of the aisles leading down to the bowl, walking through the crowd and allowing himself to be touched, not unlike a wrestler’s entrance before a match. It suggests that the show has already started, even though he’s not yet onstage. It also destabilizes the traditional hierarchy between performer and crowd.
Harry styles at MURRAYFIELD stadium
MAY 26, 2023
The collapse of this border has been in motion for almost a decade. In 2016, Kanye West performed from a stage hovering just above the arena floor, low enough that when he reached out just over the edge, fans on the floor could almost jump up and touch him, reimagining the intimacy of a mosh pit as a mass-crowd experience. That presaged the rise of stage-diving and crowd-surfing, long staples of rock shows, in hip-hop. Perhaps there is no blurrier line between stage and crowd than at contemporary rap concerts, where some of the most famous performers in the world routinely fling themselves into their audiences.
Or, in the case of Usher during his Las Vegas residency, tightly embracing his crowd. Videos of the singer serenading some of his celebrity female guests are almost comically intimate. His presence in the crowd verges on magical realism, taking the fantasy world of the stage and offering it as an up-close reality.
Others have used audience members as props; Britney Spears, Chris Brown and Janet Jackson have all given lap dances onstage to crowd members. Romeo Santos used to pull women from the crowd and plant generous kisses on their mouths. But in these cases, the audience members have no real agency — they are serving the narrative needs of the star.
Drake, VARIOUS SHOWS
Nowadays, that portal is open, and it goes two ways. A few days ago, while Cardi B was performing at a daytime pool party in Las Vegas, someone in the crowd doused her with a large cup of water.
Cardi B — perhaps irritated, perhaps mindful of the recent incidents — hurled her microphone back in the direction from which the water came. It seemed to be yet another example of a fan with poor home training eager to claim some attention, and a star who’d had enough.
But in footage taken by someone in the crowd standing nearby, the woman who threw the water was seen immediately apologizing. She didn’t want to be the star after all.
Photos via Getty Images