I went to Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night to see Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, with Buddy Guy opening up; if you want to read my more formal review of the show, which was excellent, it's over here.
I've seen a bunch of concerts at Madison Square Garden over the years—Dio, Radiohead (twice), Coldplay, Iron Maiden (also twice), Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Nine Inch Nails, AC/DC, Bob Seger, Metallica, Mötley Crüe...a surprising number of shows in all, considering how ambivalent I am about the whole arena experience.
Some of the music I listen to is really popular; I have a shit-ton of classic rock in my iPod, along with a bunch of classic hip-hop, loads of big-name metal bands, et cetera, et cetera. Some of it's not popular at all. This has never really concerned me—I don't spend much time thinking about whether other people like the stuff I like. (This is very different from thinking about why I don't like stuff lots of other people do like, which I do all the time.) When I write a review, for example, there's an element of the utilitarian "consumer guide" to it, but I'm not really trying to convince other people that they should buy the album in question, even if I write that way sometimes. I'm just saying that I think it's good, and trying to explain why in some kind of coherent way while avoiding masturbatory theoretical bullshit.
Because of my lack of interest in music's relative popularity, the atmosphere of a massive arena show, with thousands of people screaming and singing along, doesn't really have much effect on me one way or the other. I don't care that all these people standing around me like Iron Maiden as much as I do; I just care that Iron Maiden is one of the best live acts in music, that they put on a fantastic, well-paced, consistently entertaining show. Sometimes, though, it can provide an element of surprise that's fun.
At the Tom Petty show, for example, I was surprised to see people singing along with such fervor to slow songs like "Free Fallin'" and "Learning to Fly." I like "Free Fallin'" a lot, that first verse is an absolute killer, but I'm a much bigger fan of some of Petty's earlier, meaner songs. He's got a real talent for creating evocative, minimalist images. Think of the first two lines of the song he opened the set with, "Listen to Her Heart": "You think you're gonna take her away/With your money and your cocaine." You know exactly who that guy is. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker would have devoted a whole song to painting that asshole's portrait; Petty conjures him and dismisses him in two lines.
I like that side of Tom Petty more than the jangly balladry that inspires girls to sing along and hug their boyfriends at his concerts. And/but watching that audience reaction made me think mine was a minority opinion. It reminded me that Tom Petty hasn't been that snarling guy for quite a few years now (though he still transforms into him from time to time, like on "It's Good to Be King" or "I Should Have Known It"). And that you can probably sell more albums and concert tickets by making girls hug their guys than by making guys pump their fists and snarl.
But here's my point: I think I could have enjoyed that concert just as much had none of those people been there. They weren't an important part of my aesthetic experience. And I'm wondering whether I'm alone on this one, whether the feeling of being surrounded by fellow Tom Petty fans enhances the experience for other people in some major way. And I'm trying to figure out when I started feeling this way, because it wasn't always the case. I used to like mingling with crowds, especially when that meant getting into a sweaty moshpit. Now I'm old(er), and my legs hurt if I stand up for two hours at a show, so I'm much more likely to go to something big enough (in an arena, say) that there's a seat there for me to flop back down into when things get boring (and every show gets boring at some point). A thing like the Summer Slaughter Tour, which features eleven or twelve death metal bands in a row, many of which I like a lot, but is held in a tiny sweatbox of a club with no seats and starts at three in the afternoon? You can forget about that bullshit.
Still, pure physical discomfort isn't what makes me so unconcerned with being part of a crowd. It's something larger, something I can't put my finger on yet, and/but it's something that's making me re-evaluate rock music as a whole. Because for a lot of people, the idea of rock (and pop) as communal experience carries a lot of weight. Someone whose preference is for solitary listening seems to be in some way "doing it wrong," or having an "incomplete" understanding/experience of the music. I'm not convinced. In fact, I think rock music may be best experienced in focused solitude. Because it's not part of a total package—it's not just the sonic component of an evening that depends on beer, lust and air thick with sweat to be complete. The music is enough all on its own, for me anyway.