Fear and the Future of Live Music After Terrorist Attacks - Pacific Standard

Fear and the Future of Live Music

The very things that make outdoor concerts so special—freedom, escape, intimacy with strangers—are the first things that the terrorist tries to take away.
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View of a makeshift memorial at the northern end of the Las Vegas Strip on October 4th, 2017, in Las Vegas, Nevada. On October 1st, Stephen Paddock killed at least 58 people and injured more than 450 after he opened fire on a large crowd at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival.

View of a makeshift memorial at the northern end of the Las Vegas Strip on October 4th, 2017, in Las Vegas, Nevada. On October 1st, Stephen Paddock killed at least 58 people and injured more than 450 after he opened fire on a large crowd at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival. 

In 2016, Chance the Rapper made people feel good. He had made people feel good in earlier years too, but in 2016, his album Coloring Book arrived at the start of a summer that saw a seemingly constant stream of violence and disaster. It opened with the June 12th terrorist attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 58 others. In early July, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered at the hands of police in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis, respectively. During a protest against these killings in Dallas on July 7th, a sniper—claiming to be targeting police officers—killed five people and wounded 11. During a protest in Baton Rouge less than two weeks later, an ex-marine shot six more police officers, killing three. Globally, there was more terror: Attacks rocked Bangladesh, Istanbul, Baghdad, Nice, and a stretch of the Batavia region of Germany, all in summer's first two months.

Music didn't fix any of this, of course. But Coloring Book and its accompanying aesthetics were seen as the work of an artist pursuing joy relentlessly, at all costs, even when the world seemed to withhold it. Chance was bright, often smiling, drenching his new music in uplifting gospel overtones. In the grand scheme of music providing an escape, there was perhaps no better album to represent an escape than this one, an album of swelling melodies, danceable instruments, and odes to carefree survival. It helped that Chance seemed sincere, an artist who could be your friend, one who would walk with you through whatever nightmare happened to be yours that day.

I mention Chance because, last week, he played a concert in Hollywood, and three of my pals who had been looking forward to it for months suddenly decided not to go. They weren't the only ones, they told me. Some of their friends also found themselves anxiously sitting it out. It was something that would've seemed unfathomable to me in 2015.

The reason for their change of heart was the news of yet another mass shooting—this time in Las Vegas. The Route 91 Festival is a three-day open-air country music festival and, while still relatively new, it draws a decent-sized crowd; this year topped out at approximately 22,000 attendees, and the headliner was Jason Aldean.

Stephen Paddock began firing into the crowd of the Route 91 festival as Aldean was performing his set. When the firing was done, there were 58 people dead and over 500 people wounded, marking the worst mass shooting so far in American history. At the end, Paddock took his own life. There was no motive discovered, though it was found out that Paddock had booked a hotel room in Chicago overlooking the Lollapalooza festival back in August, as well as a different room on the Vegas strip for the Life Is Beautiful show in September. It seems, then, that his motive was chaos.

At the root of terrorism is a desire for power, exercised through fear. If you can make a people afraid, you can occupy a small space in their minds and in the movements they might choose to make. All of this is terrorism, no matter what else it looks like. It is a fight to insert fear into the minds and hearts of those who find peace in the mundane exercises of their lives: taking flights, going to museums, walking to work, going to concerts.

There is something that I find myself growing to like about an outdoor concert now, after spending so many of my formative music-watching years crammed into small indoor venues. There was a romance in that as well: The punk shows where I found myself most frequently afford attendees a type of forced intimacy that you don't get everywhere. Most of them would cram in more bodies than a room was built for, making movement impossible. And so you shared sweat with whoever next to you had sweat to share with yours. It's a youthful kind of intimate comfort, one that I engage in less these days, even when I find myself in an old basement show or a hardcore venue. What I love about the outdoor show—especially as I've grown significantly less likely to mix it up in anyone's pit—is the way music sounds in open-air spaces. The way it drifts up and hangs in the sky before vanishing. Most of all, I love how people are free to dance in the ways people dance when they have space: swinging arms, swaying necks, clapping off the beat. The outdoor concert has, in recent years, become my new staple for escape, the way the punk show was for me in my late teens and early 20s. It is the coming together of bodies, in light where the bodies can be seen, doing their best to go to a place temporarily better than the one they left to chase the music.

My friends didn't go to see Chance the Rapper because the hospitals in Las Vegas were still filled with wounded bodies, and the graves of the dead hadn't even been dug yet. Because this is what terror does and what it is supposed to do.

Chance the Rapper was set to play an outdoor show in Hollywood last week, but my friends didn't go because at an outdoor show in Vegas, there had so recently been bullets. In June, there was a bombing in Manchester at an Ariana Grande concert. Wherever there are people trying to chart their path to a fleeting and freeing joy, there might well be someone waiting to wrestle it from their arms.

My friends didn't go to see Chance the Rapper because the hospitals in Las Vegas were still filled with wounded bodies, and the graves of the dead hadn't even been dug yet, and because they were afraid, and because I was afraid for them, and because this is what terror does and what it is supposed to do: It exists to march fear to your doorstep, and then to dare you outside.

I don't know what the future of live music looks like. There's no real way to speculate on the numbers, as concerts and festivals have seen declines for several years now, and it's difficult to tie any of that directly to terror. It's a constantly fluctuating industry, susceptible to a variety of factors. I know that fear will continue to loom over the prospect of live concert-going, particularly at outdoor concerts and festivals, and particularly with the revelation about Paddock's potential plans to target other venues. I don't necessarily miss the short-lived, youthful ignorance that allowed me to feel safe anywhere. I imagine I will conquer my anxieties and go to an outdoor concert, and then hopefully another and another and another. I don't know that there is anything courageous in that. After a terror attack, the country construes a return to normalcy as bravery: If the act of terror is meant to intimidate and strike fear, the very act of showing up then becomes triumphant. But I am not one to imagine that my decision to visit some venue where music is being played is an act of courage. I just want to see people dancing the way they dance when the wind catches a good note of music and blows it toward them before blowing it away, and I want to watch the darkness grow around a stage, and a band get driven to brilliance by the moon. But I also refuse to pretend that the fear, once again looming larger than before, won't also be there, hovering over the atmosphere.

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