But back to the concert. Part of the VIP package to which we’ve been treated is access to the VIP lounge. My imagination runs riot. I envision the champagne room at Cheetahs Las Vegas. A Korean cognac bar. A ’50s jazz club. We’re skipping the opening acts to check it out, so keen is our interest. A security guard stops us at the entrance, has us slap on our special holographic VIP stickers. Good sign. But as we descend the staircase, what we find isn’t a hash bar or opium den or even a cozy lobby. In fact, it’s not a “lounge” at all. It’s a concrete courtyard familiar to anyone who’s attended public school in California, only here they serve alcoholic drinks (the same as can be purchased outside the lounge) and Hooters-level appetizers.
People are milling about or sitting at high tables, noshing on buffalo wings or little plates of shrimp swimming in a putrid butter sauce. John brings a plate of these to our table. Various corporate sponsors have booths, but the big player seems to be the Sycuan or Pala or Valley View Indian casino (I don’t remember which), which is operating under the illusion that the VIP lounge is awash in high rollers. It’s not. The entire thing’s a gimmick, a put-on, and I feel sorry for the poor souls who paid real money for it. They’ve been monetized. Commodified.
Midway through the concert now. The lights go down. That gnawing feeling is building, the sense that I’m not really here or that the band isn’t really playing. I should take a moment to say that I’m an unabashed fan of Coldplay. That’s probably not surprising for a white male asymptotically near his dreaded 40th birthday, but I’ve read enough vitriol from music critics to make me question my taste. The last time I remember a band being so uniformly detested on the one hand and adored on the other was in the sunset years of the Beach Boys. But I don’t pretend to be an expert on music, of any kind. My tastes are promiscuous to the point of tastelessness. As I teenager, I was mortified by my secret love of Michael Jackson’s Bad. All that dancing and falsetto. I should have been listening to more serious music like Ratt and Winger.
The lights are down, and the band is running up the steps to a platform nestled in the cheap seats. For once the audience is focused on the experience rather than the television show. You can feel the anticipation. Where are they? What are they doing? Suddenly they appear and break into a cover of “Billy Jean.” Michael Jackson has just died and the crowd eats it up. Cell phones pop up like salutes at a Nazi rally. Then an odd thing happens. People not 50 feet from the band start turning in my direction. I look over my shoulder to see what they’re looking at. It’s the JumboTrons and their tight close-ups. I start feeling self-conscious, and soon enough, I’m staring at the giant screens too, in a twisted form of self-defense.
The entire night has been a study in cognitive dissonance. I feel like a kid with Asperger’s, desperately trying to integrate all my senses into a unified experience. I can’t. It’s overwhelming. Too many lights, screens, sounds, plus the incessant static of my own brain as it tries to cope with the overload, to reason its way out. I know that this failure to be in the moment despite all these distractions and messages coming from every direction is what marks me as a member of yesterday’s generation, those who grew up without cell phones or computers or Kindles in houses with a single TV. We’re obsolete, and we’re only in our 30s. As evolutionary theorists hasten to point out, it’s not survival of the fittest; it’s survival of the most adaptable. If I were a mammoth I’d be sinking into a bog right now along with the saber-toothed tigers.
“Billy Jean” is finished, and the band is back on the main stage. I lean over to Dave and hint that now might be a good time to leave. The concert’s nearly over, we’ve heard most of the good songs. Let’s get out before the crush. But he won’t bite. In fact, he threatens never to invite me to another concert again just for asking.
I slump into my chair, slug some water. The young drunk girl the next box over strikes up a conversation. It’s hard to make out what she’s saying, but she’s beautiful and lissome and a welcome distraction from the noise of the concert. Something about being newly married, about kids. It takes me back to my 20s, to concerts before video screens. Rush (although they had lasers). The Cult. (Guns N’ Roses opened.) MexFest. The Pointer Sisters (my mom’s idea). And I think of that crazed fan cutting the power to Bob Dylan’s concert because of Dylan’s newfound affection for electric guitar. What that must have been like.
Then a girl in front of me holds up her cell phone to take a video. Onstage, a roadie has placed a video monitor next to Chris Martin’s piano. It’s playing a live feed of Chris Martin as he plays. I look to a JumboTron. It’s a close-up of the singer and the monitor. Then I look at the girl’s phone. She’s taking a video not of the stage but of the JumboTron. And it occurs to me that at that moment, I’m watching a feed of a feed of a feed.
There’s a two-foot-long German word for what I’m feeling right now, I’m sure, but I don’t know what it is. All I know is that the steady drone of unease that’s been with me all night is lifting. I’ll have time to think it over later, when the concert’s over and we’re waiting out the traffic, tailgating, with a married couple parked next to us. I won’t reach any grand conclusions, but I’ll recognize that moment as the point at which I gave in. I was finally in the moment.
— Richard Oesterheld