Chula Vista, CA. July 16, 2009
I am sitting with 19,999 other half-interested fans at an obscenely large amphitheater so close to the international border with Mexico that you could chuck your cell phone and hit one of those morose burros painted to look like zebras for the tourists. It’s summer in San Diego, the weather so perfect it seems artificial. Everyone’s placid, tipsy but not drunk, swaying in their seats to Coldplay’s gently affirming brand of pop rock. The whole event could be mistaken for a Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or a Harvest Crusade service.
I’m in a VIP booth with three friends: John, Dave, Brian. VIP at the Cricket Wireless amphitheater means seven or eight plastic chairs of the sort you can find at any Target, plus two patio tables that make getting in and out of the booth a stand-and-let-pass sort of effort on the part of everyone in the booth. Not that I’m complaining; another friend seated way to the left and a dozen rows behind us paid $150 for his seats, which in the time of $500 U2 tickets is itself a bargain. That we’re in this booth at all is the end result of a complex series of favors among an ad agency, Clear Channel Corp., and a certain well-known burger chain. (John and Dave are sons of a successful franchisee.) A guy from the agency’s here too, but he’s keeping to himself. Dave promised his father he’d buy this man a beer, but the guy’s stoned out of his gourd and locked in some profound state of ennui. He probably comes to this box all the time, so the novelty went out for him long ago. And at $12 per cup, plus tip, there’s no sense in buying him a beer he won’t drink anyway.
All night a feeling has been building inside me that I can’t quite decipher. What I know is that I’m strangely detached from everything going on around me. I can’t engage. There’s a persistent aura of unreality to the whole thing. The music is too perfect. The weather. The placidness of the crowd. This is a rock ’n’ roll concert, so where are the unruly fans storming the stage? The fistfights? The (literally) deafening music? And what’s with those videos playing on the JumboTrons? Try as I might to watch the band, I find my gaze drifting to one of two colossal screens flanking the stage. I’m far enough away from the action, VIP status notwithstanding, that it’s hard to make out any detail. And even if I could, the whole experience is being turned into a VH1-worthy music video on the fly and fed to those Orwellian monitors in real time, complete with cross-fades, soft focus, color effects, etc. Here’s Will Champion, crisply hitting his drums to the Coldplay Beat. (Dave, lifelong drummer and musician, tells us on the way into the VIP parking lot, which means only that it’s closer to the entrance than the other lots, that such a thing actually exists. Coldplay has its own beat, just as Steve Tyler has the Tyler Shuffle and Lady Gaga the fresh-from-the-harem look.) Cut to Jonny Buckland on the guitar, just in time for the pivotal chord change. Over to Guy Berryman on bass. He’s sweating! Then Chris Martin. On and on it goes. And if the JumboTrons bore you, you can watch the whole experience on the scrim behind the band or follow the giant balls descending from the shell above them, the sight of which elicits a huge roar from the crowd.
What I’m waiting for, though I don’t yet know it, is a moment that will tidily encapsulate what is a muddled-up sense that something is deeply, inherently wrong with this spectacle. But for now I’m tipsy, enjoying the music, trying not to think too much.
Did I mention the cell phones? As darkness creeps down from the hills into the amphitheater, thousands of bright white screens become visible, held over the owners’ heads for a quick pic or movie or live transmission. I’m just as guilty (if not totally without shame) as anyone else. John, a commercial photographer with an old-school respect for the live event, scolds me every time he sees it come out of my pocket. And what am I doing with it? Texting my wife a picture of the concert I’m not engaging with. I want her to know that (a) I wish she were here and (b)…What is b? Why bother to send her a picture at all? To make her envious? My motives aren’t altogether pure.
Which makes me think — promised I wouldn’t do that — about why all these other people are taking pictures. Isn’t it enough to be here, on a glorious summer night, listening to inoffensive, infectious songs that we all know by heart? No, apparently. We want to document, record. Prove to our friends and ourselves that this night took place and we were either lucky or determined enough to be here. (Check out YouTube and you can pretty much watch the entire concert in three-minute cell-phone-camera bursts.) Chris Martin makes his point — is he sniggering at us? — when he calls for the lights to be turned off and instructs all of us in the particulars of the “Mexican Wave.” Why it should be Mexican I’m not sure, but we dutifully turn on our screens and stand on cue, creating a rolling wave of light. It’s actually quite beautiful, like bioluminescent plankton rolling in the nighttime swells.
A couple of weeks later I’ll be at a BBQ in my old neighborhood, chatting with a Disney exec about the cell phone-mediated concert experience and how I like listening to the live CD better than the concert itself, and he’ll become very animated (no pun intended). He’s just come back from Bonnaroo with his teenage daughter and her friend, and those girls spent the whole time texting! It was unbelievable! The whole purpose of going to a concert is to listen to the music, not send cryptic msgs to ur bff! But as he talks, his outrage morphs into an extended disquisition on how he and the other execs at Disney are keen to monetize “tribal” experiences like concerts but haven’t quite figured out how. He says all of this with a straight face and no apparent irony.