19 May 2008
Last week Allison and I went to see Wilco play outside in downtown Lawrence. We met her brother and sister in law there with a couple of their friends and spent the evening with them. It was a nice night and we had a good time, but I wasn't very engaged in the music. Instead I was looking around through my anthropological goggles, making some very interesting observations.
It seems obvious to us, I suppose, that the band should be raised up, bathed in light and projecting outward while the audience is lowered, immersed in darkness and focused inward toward the band. Ostensibly it's a matter of practicality - after all, the people came to see the band not the rest of the audience. But what is merely practical on the outside obscures a deeper relationship that is far more dynamic. The way I see it the physical structure of the concert belies the inequality that exists between the two groups - "the band" and "the audience."
The band is at the top of an hierarchical social system with proximity to the band determining an individual's status. That means that friends of the band members are given a high status while those who just heard of the group are given almost none. Also, the band, because of it's position is able to demand more from the audience than it is expected to give in return. But the question in my mind is, why do we want to see the band anyway? Why do we pay so much money? Why are they put above the rest of us? Why are they in the light while we remain anonymous in the dark?
Lewis Mumford, a brilliant historian, speculates, with a great deal of accuracy I believe, that in small scale cultures that have existed and continue to exist outside of civilization, everyone is called upon to participate in the various rituals and celebrations (like rock concerts). Somewhere along the way this changed so that the spectator and the spectacle became separated and the performers of the spectacle became more powerful than the spectators. Originally, Mumford speculates, this gave rise to organized religious rituals and the priestly class, but I'd suggest that it also gave rise to professional entertainers who have been granted varying levels of status in different periods. This relationship has been handed down to us in several forms, one of which is the rock concert as I described it above another is the spectator sport and yet another is politics.
However, the urge to take part in the rituals continues to persist. In the rock concert any audience demands some degree of participation or they won't find it entertaining. Also we see various other forms of participation springing up around any band including groupies, tapers, fans, etc. each doing different activities to feel as if they are part of the event.
It should be remembered that this rock concert culture is embedded within a larger cultural system. Importantly, this system involves a high degree of labor specialization. As a result, for its members the band is just another job, while the audience is made up of people who have their own jobs (though with significantly less power in many cases) during the day. This kind of specialization feeds the hierarchy and justifies the power of those on top.
I should say that I'm not saying anything against Wilco in particular or rock concerts in general. I like them both, and will continue to attend because they're fun and I don't really begrudge the musicians their influence. All I'm trying to do is offer a different perspective on the relationship. It also points to one tool that we have for bringing down the dominant power structure (not bands playing music at concerts, but the system of exploitation and destruction that currently controls the world) - that is, conviviality. More on this later perhaps, but for now... it's time for bed. Good Night!
Posted by Jeremy Trombley at 11:30 PM