Have Camera Phones Ruined Live Shows?

Okay, so this is you: it’s 2013 and you’re sitting at your computer every morning at 8:59am with your mouse hovering over a ‘buy tickets’ button because all your favourite bands from the 90s are touring again for some reason. You shell out anything up to £60 (sometimes more, depending on the venue) and spend the following months twitching over the thought of being totally in the zone with someone like Walter Schreifels.

Then finally it’s show night. You get to the venue. You’re drunk on nerves, giddy with anticipation and crossing all your fingers and toes for it to be the most magical experience of your life. And it probably was, but you wouldn’t know about it because YOU WEREN’T ACTUALLY THERE.

The second whoever it was you’d been waiting five months to see came on stage, you whipped out your smartphone and spent 89% of the night with one or more of your arms in the air watching the whole set through a 5″ screen, reducing the whole experience to that of sitting on a bus showing your friend a video of Justin Bieber puking up milk.

Everybody is so desperate to capture, share and validate every single thing they do that they don’t end up fully experiencing it for themselves. Most of us would probably forget what we had for lunch if we didn’t keep receiving notifications about it five hours post-digestion, and rightly so – generally, what we eat should be unmemorable. If somebody brought you sushi rolled to look like Pokémon characters then sure, take a picture of it because it’s unlikely you’ll ever see that nonsense again, but attaching ‘#vegan’ to your shitty lunchtime salad just adds to the collection of hashtags you have chosen to represent your personality. And that sucks, but we all do it and we all think our reasons for doing it are better than anybody else’s so whatever. We are not Generation X or Generation Y, we are Generation NOW, defined by our inability to care about anything for more than 30 seconds. Social platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Vine reduce days worth of experiences to 140 characters, a barely recognisable picture of “some band” and a nine second looped video of somebody crowd surfing.

It’d be difficult to remember a time without digicams, but I saw Blink-182 in 2004 and during the show an audience member threw their demo on stage and it was recorded to MINIDISC. Also I don’t have photographic evidence from any shows that I attended before 2005, so I’m gonna go ahead and assume it was around then that things started to take a turn for the depressing. Since then, the intimate environment of live music has declined rapidly to a place where lighters have given way to a blizzard of LCD screens and all memories have a Kelvin filter.

Take a second to think: do you remember the last time you did something of note without debating which Instagram filter would best romanticize the moment? When was the last time you saw anything IRL without a screen between your eyes and the thing you were observing? When was the last time you thought, “I know, I’ll just retain this information using my human brain because that’s what it’s for”?

No, you don’t, because nobody remembers anything anymore. And even if you think you do, you’re wrong. Whether it’s snapping bands, that time your cat forgot to put its tongue away or your battered friend photobombing couples making-out in a club – whatever’s happening in that image, you missed it. You weren’t there because you were busy zooming in or waiting for the right lighting, so when you’re swiping through your camera roll later (because telling actual stories with words is a redundant concept now, this is how we will explain to our grandchildren what Glastonbury was about), you’re retrospectively looking back on where you weren’t and telling everybody you had a great time. You haven’t preserved the moment, you’ve lost it.

By its very nature, memory is imperfect, but that’s the beauty of it. You can recall a moment being incredible and spiritual and perfect or whatever because once it was over all you had left to go on was the feeling. Leaving a My Bloody Valentine show with fifteen minutes of shaky, unwatchable footage of them blasting through a wall of incomprehensible distortion is enough to put you off ever going to see them again because suddenly you’re all “Oh, is that what it sounded like? Dayyyyum…”

And it doesn’t just ruin it for your own experience or the person behind you who has to deal with your stupid arms in their face the entire evening, it also ruins it for the artist you claim to love. Their crowds are now made up of robo-humans with black censor bars across their faces like they’re the headlining act at a gathering for softcore porn bloggers and that can’t feel good.

The argument for the need to “ban” the use of camera phones resurfaced again last week after the Brooklyn art rock powerhouse that is Yeah Yeah Yeahs put up a sign at their show in Webster Hall kindly asking their fans to “PUT THAT SHIT AWAY”. And they’re not alone in their frustrations. Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) and Ian Brown (The Stone Roses) have also pleaded with their audiences to shed their digital extensions:

“If you put your cameras down you might be able to live in the moment” Brown told a Warrington crowd last year during the first public performance The Stone Roses had made in 16 years.

There is of course the argument from the self-entitled fan: “I paid to be here I can do whatever I want,” but that’s just the thing – you paid to be there, in the flesh. If you’re going to experience the majority of the show through a tiny screen you might as well save yourself the money, buy a decent computer and watch the whole set on YouTube at home where the quality is equally rubbish but at least the screen is bigger and you can wave your arms around as much as you please.

But regardless of what anybody says or how much bands put their foot down, people are going to want to take pictures at shows. That’s inevitable and totally understandable. Who doesn’t want a hieroglyphic image of neon, glitter and face paint that is obviously Karen O? People want to remember things and sometimes just a memory isn’t enough to go on, you need something visual. To that end, though, you should probably know that there are people out there who work really hard to help you out in that department by capturing all the slight moments your greedy finger-bashing missed. They’re called professional photographers. They’re really good at their jobs and they make your favourite people look awesome. So try to remember that when you’re pressing that little camera button for the hundredth time trying to get the least blurry in-motion shot, because there’s people there who are paid do it for you and they will do it better (there’s obviously issues implicit here re: the conduct of professional photographers but that’s another debate for another day and Dave Summers has pretty much summed it all up anyway).

Camera phones can be great devices at live events. Their presence means everybody gets to see things like Macaulay Culkin casually strolling on stage (WITH A TOP KNOT!!) to join Adam Green for a cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘Kokomo’ (because sometimes the world we live in is awesome) or R. Kelly mashing up with Phoenix at Coachella. Every time somebody from the material-hungry majority accesses the cool thing s/he could not be at in person because it happened 3000 miles away, they should really pour one on the ground for Steve Jobs. And for the people “capturing those moments”, just have some brains, courtesy and perspective ’bout it. Snap it quick, put it away and then live your life.

Originally published on The 405 here
Photography by Tim Boddy

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