I often hear from my less critically thoughtful friends that music is supposed to bring people together, especially live music. They prattle on about something related to the “communal experience” of being in a cramped, sweaty, dark place with nothing to eat and not enough bathrooms for everyone. Going to a concert is kind of like being the least popular passenger on the Amistad. Generally speaking, I don’t see a lot of value in waiting in line 25 minutes to pee, and also having to stand up the entire time I’m there.
Concerts only bring people together physically. Music is actually one of the more divisive art forms. There are more genres of music than ever, and each genre has their devotees. The internet is full of discourse regarding the merits or faults of every genre, band, instrument, singing style, album cover and live venue you could think of. People define themselves and each other based on what kind of music they listen to. Musical taste is a great way to tell the world who you are or what you want to be. Whether or not you like The Beatles could be the start or end of a potential relationship, as though it really carries any actual significance what music someone does or does not listen to.
Music also functions as a tribal siren song, cleaving ethnic groups into camps. With a few notable exceptions, concerts tend to be fairly homogenous. Music can and never will escape its connection to ethnicity, class and culture. It’s an intrinsic part of any artistic expression. People gravitate to what they identify with. The entirety of Bruce Springsteen’s career is built on his ability to communicate very specific notions of working class ennui to a receptive audience. A Mexican teenager from East Los Angeles probably won’t respond to the allusions and references in a Springsteen song the same way a 21 year-old from New Jersey would, but that’s OK, because artists can’t speak for everyone. Just don’t ask me why Mexicans like Morrissey. That’s life’s second greatest mystery, after “why do they put the toy at the bottom of the cereal box, and not the top?”
Unfortunately, that cultural divide makes it weird when you go to a concert and you are the only brown face in the room. I experience this all the time, most recently at The Echo on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles. I went to see Ducktails, the side project of Matthew Mondanile from Real Estate. The music is as milquetoast and stereotypically “white” as a case of Hidden Valley ranch dressing. That said, I like that sort of music and I’m pretty milquetoast myself. I brought my very blonde, very white, very perturbed roommate, Eve:
As you can tell, she was not excited about being called out as “hella Nordic looking.” I felt like I couldn’t have gone to this show with a whiter person. The only whiter person in the room was Matthew Mondanile, who looks like he just fell off the cover of a college recruitment brochure.
I always feel watched when I’m at shows of this nature, as though everyone else is wondering why I’m there, and how I could possibly enjoy the chill vibes of something like Ducktails. The worst moment for that was when I went to see Depeche Mode at the Hollywood Bowl. Not only was I not white, I also wasn’t fucking 40 years old. At Ducktails, I could just imagine everyone asking me why I was at this show with one of the members of ABBA, aka sweet, Nordic Eve.
When I came back home, I asked my girlfriend, who is white and very into hip-hop culture, if she experienced the same thing when she went to rap concerts. Her anecdotal response was in the affirmative. If you don’t fit the common demographic for any sort of public event, it’s bound to make you feel awkward, alone and distant from the supposed “communal experience” you’re culturally mandated to be having.
I always do my best to shut off the voice telling me I’m not “one of them,” whoever “them” happens to be in a given situation. It’s truly a waste of energy to focus on something as trivial as how you look compared to other people. I could be worried about if I’m wearing the right outfit at a show, and it wouldn’t be any different than worrying about the color of my skin, but logic often does not come into play when race is involved. Race is not logical. It’s a socially constructed difference that has nothing to do with any practical human concerns.
We invented race for the same reason we invented musical genres: as a means to classify, organize and stratify our world. I feel as though we crave difference. We want to be divided into packs. It gives people a sense of pride and identity to be from a country, or be of a certain ethnicity or to like a specific type of music. These are the sorts of details that make us who we are. Being different might not actually be about being alone. It’s about making the world take notice.
Besides, it turned out that I wasn’t the only brown guy at the show. Aziz Ansari was totally there and I gave him a cool guy head nod. He just stared at me, which I guess is his way of saying “minorities at indie rock shows must stick together.” Or maybe he was saying “please don’t talk to me, I’m famous.” I’ll never know.