“You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.” ~Morpheus in The Matrix
The Matrix is one of the greatest science fiction movies of all times. Now almost two decades old, the movie made some unnervingly accurate predictions about our current society. The Matrix suggests that everyone on the planet has an individual responsibility to choose between the real world-which was accessed by ingesting the red pill-and a digital, artificial world-a result of swallowing the blue pill. It’s a choice between complacent ignorance and the more demanding enlightenment.
I was thinking about The Matrix at a concert recently. I was seated behind an annoying woman who held her phone aloft for two straight hours to record the show. Instead of seeing the stage, I was forced to stare into her screen. Even more ludicrous? She aimed her phone at the Jumbotron. So instead of watching the musicians perform in real life, she craned her neck upward, watching her phone video a separate video of the actual experience.
I asked her twice to please put her phone down, but she scoffed and rolled her eyes at me, a millennial who assumed I am a Luddite, grouchy and out of touch. Perhaps she has a point. After all, isn’t ubiquitous cell phone use just the inevitable outcome of our over-sharing age? I mean, if we don’t post it, were we actually present?
But still. As a species, we are not doing a good job self-regulating our digital use. This has caused some artists, including Alicia Keys, Jack White, Bob Dylan, Guns N’ Roses, The Lumineers, and The Stone Temple Pilots, to employ a “no cell phone” rule at their shows (and evicting fans who ignore the policy). All of these artists choose at least one song where they encourage the fans to get their phones out and take pictures, but for the rest of the show, cell phones are tucked away and out of sight. Apple is reportedly working on a technology that would use infrared signals from the stage to disable devices from taking video and photo stills (while still allowing users to text and call).
While this has angered many fans, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I whole-heartedly support it. Artists have the right to choose how their performances are presented to ticket holders and to choose the experience of the collective over the experience of an individual.
I’m not alone. Ticketing company Skiddle found that more than a third of concert-goers were in favor of a cell phone ban at shows. And of the two-thirds who thought an outright ban went too far? Almost 90% of them confessed that they rarely (if ever) rewatch the video they shot at the show.
I’ve been to hundreds of concerts in my life. I’ve seen Stevie Nicks sing Landslide to an acoustic guitar, heard The Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crowe, and the Indigo Girls harmonize together on a single stage. I’ve witnessed the original dueling piano battle between Elton John and Billy Joel, heard Willie Nelson cover Bob Dylan while Dylan backed Willie up on the piano. I cried in the Gospel Tent at Jazzfest and saved all my tip money from waiting tables to see the Grateful Dead in 1993. From Mavis Staples to Emmylou Harris to Taylor Swift, The Allman Brothers to Trombone Shorty to Justin Timberlake; if it’s live, I’m in. I made a musical bucket list in my twenties that was over 50 artists long and I’ve seen every one except Cat Stevens, The Eagles, Tracy Chapman, and Stevie Wonder (Sam Cooke would have been on there, but he died well before I was born). I don’t regret that I don’t have photographic proof of the majority of these shows. Real moments happen in real life but live forever in our hearts.
Only real occurrences comprise the true substance of a well-lived life.
Nothing compares to the energy and spontaneity of seeing an artist in his or her element. Music (as well as theatre, dance and visual art) is impactful because of the interaction between the art and the art-consumer. Artists feed off the energy of the crowd; they can only give back what they receive from the crowd. A true connection can only be formed in full immersion, not from behind a digital wall.
Have we lost the ability to just completely surrender to the moment? Are we allowing the need to document our lives outbalance actually living it? Are we in The Matrix, unaware of our torpor? Or, even worse, completely aware of it and yet swallowing the blue pill anyway, choosing a life that plays out on a digital landscape instead of IRL?
Either way, you should hope to sit behind me at your next show. I’ll definitely dance with you, might even buy you a beer. But I won’t make you watch the show through my upraised phone. I’m a red pill girl through and through.