Last weekend I was one of tens of thousands who made the pilgrimage to Wembley Stadium to see The Who in concert. It was a very good gig, and this blog is not about the venue or the artists. It’s about something that struck me as very ‘odd’ about the whole experience, and which has been sitting uncomfortably with me ever since. A feeling of ‘something not quite right’. There may have been several factors that contributed to that sense of unease.
Firstly, the fact that the first few artists on the line up played to a bare handful of people, the audience only really started to pick up numbers by the time we got to the Kaiser Chiefs. Of course, this could be down to the fact that the show opened a good four and a half hours before The Who even set foot on the stage. People have other stuff to do, right? But the sparsity of the crowd meant that it was almost impossible to generate any kind of atmosphere for such iconic songs as “I Predict a Riot”. It’s difficult to whip up a riot among people who are sat back in the sun with beer at hand. Secondly, the sheer size of the space between artist and audience for anyone other than those sat in the front section, meant that there was a huge disconnect. That was partly to be expected, I guess. But it did create a peculiar dynamic. This was most noticeably for those of us who were desperate to celebrate classic Who anthems and show our appreciation for what these songs have meant to us down the years. We leapt to our feet, whooping and cheering and attempted to fist pump our way through “Love Reign O’er Me”. We tried. Bravely. But there’s only so long that a handful of people can go against the norm of the larger, passive group. We slunk down, almost apologetically, for having dared to enjoy ourselves.
But the thing that really shocked me was the almost pandemic obsession with devices. Okay, so people were taking photos or videos on their mobile phones. To be expected. Some were conversing with people via Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Again, to be expected. But to check every response? To shout down the aisle to a friend further down, every time someone replied? Several people were almost constantly on their device, only periodically looking up take a photo, before resuming their ‘conversation’ or browsing. The guy in the seat behind me was sat forward with his mobile phone inches away from my ear…and he was playing music! Eventually I snapped and told him to switch the bloody thing off so that I could listen to the bands. I have encountered it before; people turning up to a gig just to hear one song (their favourite) and talking all the way through everything else; or watching a video while a gig was underway. But nothing to the extent that I witnessed that night at Wembley.
So, what was going on here? Has the way we consume television and media at home made its way into the concert venue? We can watch things on catch-up or pause live TV; we can ‘chat’ to our friends via social media whilst watching a film (even in the cinema!); we multi-task our capacity for ‘attending to’. Does the proliferation of images of ‘what I had for my dinner’ or ‘checking in at…’ this event and that event mean that it is now more important to be seen to be doing rather than the actual doing. Has real life become wallpaper? It’s all around us, but we barely notice it. It’s nothing but the backdrop. We may be present at but we are far from present to. Being present tomeans being engrossed, immersed and engaged. It requires more than simply checking in, taking the selfie, and then sitting back and waiting for the ‘Likes’ to accumulate. Life is meant to be experienced in the here-and-now; not looked back on via a monthly round up of ‘This is what your July looked like’ on Facebook. I remember one of my lecturers once saying that narrative criticism requires us to look for what is going on in what is happening. Events, experiences and life are happening all the time. But unless we’re prepared to be fully present to it, we may miss what’s going on; around us and within us. The highs of life become just another item on the bucket list; something else to do before you die. So, this is My Generation. The things they do look awful cccc…cold. I don’t know how many people were present at that gig, but I do know that a lot were absent. Put the devices away. Be present to, not just present at. Immerse yourself in the here-and-now. For that, there really is no Substitute.