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A Cry For Deities: How Popular Music Concerts Have Become Rituals For The Modern World

April 7, 2014

As the media continues its uprising and spectacle is outshining performance, it is coming quite apparent that the music business is being generated upon money and profit, as opposed to musical dexterity and talent. Although the music business has always been this way to some degree, it has become much more explicit within the last decade, causing renowned artists like Jack White and Russell Brand to become lively and publically state their opinions of the industry and its consequential problems. Focus has been shifted upon the artist's personality and personal life, while music is becoming a back seat commodity. Musicians like Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber are being sold through their actions and latest scandals, as opposed to the credibility of their music, or the lack thereof. Concerts are becoming more elaborate with emphasis being thrust upon choreography, videos, stage props, pyrotechnics, flying objects, and mechanical costumes. So much attention is being strained to other mediums, that it has gotten to the point where the artist merely lip-syncs. The simplistic job of singing one's own song has become too much of a responsibility and reeks of possible failure amongst this multimedia freak show.

All of these other factors are merely distractions from the music. People are being moved by the visuals and not by the music. With Cyrus's new "Bangerz" tour, people are not commenting on the perfection that was reached through a particular rendition of her song. Instead, people are commenting on the way in which she grinded against a giant hot dog, while others are trying to link her actions with feminism. It is this attempt at a feminist connection that makes one wonder about values in society's eyes. Is the music business all about smoke and mirrors? Is there any validity to its current content, or is the music industry only there to serve as a marketing ploy to suck more people into becoming consumerist whores?

There are two sides to every coin. For some people the music business is a way to gain social status, avoid social alienation, and gain popularity among peers based on succumbing to trends and following the mass of western society's pop culture. Some get caught up in the repetitious earworms of modern music and learn to like what they're continuously hearing. Humans have always had a need to belong to a group due to our ancestral ways of hunting and gathering. If a person was left alone and without a group, they would surely die if they could not defend for themselves. That comfort of belonging to a group does not leave us, as that feeling is deep within our genetic makeup. This is why the music business has become as successful as it is; it creates a barrier between popular music and other genres - of "us" and "them". It plays upon the popular and current flavours, and encourages people to join the mass of what's now and happening, otherwise a person will be considered lame, old fashioned, and undesirable to popular and powerful people.

But for others, the music business is an outlet for creating a genuine community without consumerism being the central tenet. The concert itself is incredibly noteworthy, as it can be seen as not only a lucrative ritual for the music industry (through the selling of merchandise and tickets), but also as a ritual for the fans, as it creates a sense community and religious-like tendencies. Daniel Cavicchi, author of Tramps Like Us. Music And Meaning Among Springsteen Fans, describes beautifully what a concert experience means to an audience and an individual, from a non-commercial point of view:

For fans [...] a concert represents a powerful meeting of the various forces and people and ideas involved in their participation in musical life. The excitement of participation, the feeling of connection with Springsteen, the interaction of fans and other audience members, the rituals, the energy, the empowerment, the communal feeling, the evaluation and discussion: together they enact the meaning of fandom. They shape and anchor fans’ sense of who they are and where they belong.[1]

Although there are still hints of consumerism with the purchasing of any concert ticket, there is still a way to politely merge the two rituals. Although Katy Perry does include theatrics in her show, she does not partake in lip-syncing, and is still free to improvise with solos and her songs, bringing an emphasis to the music. The difference between a Perry show and a Cyrus show lies in the role of the audience. The audience of a Perry show has a dual role, in that they are able to not only be a part of a community that the music creates, but they are also an audience viewing a spectacle. With a Cyrus concert, the community is mainly viewing a spectacle, while the music becomes a background aspect. With a focus on the spectacle, the musical community can suffer and people can become distant with one another like a movie-watching community.

In today's society, popular music concerts can be seen as rituals, as they contain ritualistic aspects through the ways in which they create communities and can create change in invidudual's behaviour and thought. Anja Lobert's article Fandom As A Religious Form: On The Reception Of Pop Music By Cliff Richard Fans In Liverpool outlines several ritual aspects including the concert itself as well as activities occurring before and after the concert. Lobert makes reference to Emile Durkheim's book The Elementary Forms Of Religious Life, to make comparisons between religious qualities and fandom qualities. Durkheim's book tries to "tackle the problem of grasping the concept of religion independently of actual beliefs, by considering solely the formal similarities observable in a variety or practices."[2] Durkheim believes that the common denominator for all religions is a distinction between a profane and a sacred domain of life. It is through the ways in which the sacred and the profane are reproduced and ordered by rites that differentiate religions.[3] In this light, it is possible to see the pop concert as a rite, as the performer (i.e. a sacred being) is the object of the ritual because they fulfill the required conditions to reinstate the values and beliefs of their fans. Since the fans are in the presence of the performer, a transition between the profane and the sacred can be completed.

Lobert furthers this connection of religion and ritual with four distinct ritual types. The first is Primary Interaction Ritual. This ritual combines the presence of the star with the presence of fellow fans. Secondary Interaction Rituals represent a social cult, where the fans are present but the performer is not (eg. fan club meetings). Special Rites[4] occur when the performer is present but the fan group is not. This can be acquired through stalking, meet and greets, and backstage passes. The fourth type is Cults of the Individual which occur with the absence of both the performer and other fans. Interestingly enough the value of the concert performance is often equated with fuelling this ritual, as this ritual contains listening to the music of the artists, watching videos, buying or making posters and t-shirts, and reflecting upon the concert experience. Although this after-concert homage to the performer can be seen as personal worship to some, it is important to note that Lobert insists that "fan cultures, despite these similarities to Durkheim's elementary forms, are secular and not religious."[5] The comparison between Durkheim's elementary forms is to gain understanding in the behaviour of fans by looking at similar phenomena in the real world. Lobert states that this comparison is not to suggest that fans see the performer as a religious god or deity, nor to provoke fan stereotypes.

The concert ritual can sometimes happen months, or even a year before the concert takes place with regards to advanced ticket purchases and the anticipation of the concert day. Cavicchi describes in further detail the role of the audience, the separation of fans and observers, and the rituals that the audience possesses:

Fans see the role of audience members as very special and serious; they see the process of becoming a member of the audience as an elaborate ritual with many ‘requirements’. Buying concert tickets or CDs involves lengthy road trips, camping on sidewalks, standing in long lines, and much strategy. [...] Appropriately, during concerts, fans are eager to engage in performance-specific, ‘in-frame’ behavior, like swaying to the music, singing, and dancing. As we shall see, they regard those who get up to get food or talk as a nuisance and not deserving of the audience role. And while ordinary audience members easily drop the role of audience once the performance ends, fans tend to remain ‘in-frame’, making their role of audience a part of their daily identity. They relive specific moments of concerts by collecting and listening to concert tapes; they collect Springsteen memorabilia – including buttons, posters, and newspaper clippings – to amplify and sustain the excitement of a CD release or concert tour.[6]

Lobert's article brings another aspect of concert meaning to the discussion, as the fans she was studying are middle-aged women, as opposed to a younger audience. Several of the women interviewed believed that they have mundane lives, and the concert allows them the opportunity to bask in the company of other older ladies who have the same admiration and appreciation of Cliff Richards. The ritual of going to the concert becomes a ladies night out ritual filled with getting ready and sharing enthusiasm while leaving their husbands at home to steer clear of judgement or embarrassment of their actions. Lobert also suggests that the husbands are a reminder of their reality, which is what the women are trying to avoid through this concert and the ladies night out regime. Lobert concludes that there are several points of interest that can be taken from the older ladies confessions:

First of all, the transformation of the women into a self-mode they perceive as pleasant, one that involves unreserved, ‘crazy’ and unrestrained behaviour. Secondly, the event is exclusively for the girls; the husbands are deemed unwelcome. Thirdly and finally, the women describe the event’s three-hour duration as a period when they are released from their everyday cares and leave their worries behind.[7]

This "no husbands allowed" policy can also been seen through moral obligation in religion. The concert-going interaction ritual is not very compatible to the married life, as the sacred object (the performer) becomes revered. Therefore, the expression of love, admiration, or even desire towards the performer (someone who is not the husband) can be considered negatively sanctioned. The husband could not be allowed to attend the concert for he is a "representative of the profane realm and a constant reminder of the forbidden transgression."[8]

Another aspect to consider is when the couple both share a love for a particular musical act, as this situation can create the opposite concert experience between the two participants. One might be more inclined to act differently because their partner is participating in the same concert experience and is sharing the same excitement and admiration of the artist. The couple in itself now becomes involved in the musical community, and share that memory, as opposed to the older ladies having a shared connection that becomes isolated once at home with their family. The couple is able to create their own concert community within their home and prolong the experience of the concert, whereas the older women turn to a cult of the individual ritual after returning home to their uninvolved family.

With this in mind, the social interaction of fans does not necessarily conclude with the concert. There is often a celebration amongst friends and fans after the show and a feeling of an energetic high that, for some, equates to a personal nirvana that can last days, or sometimes weeks after a concert. However these feelings sometimes subside with the return home, as people are confronted by their problems and life demands that they once fought to ignore. For some it is the cult of the individual ritual that keeps the spirit of the concert alive as well as keeping certain problems at bay. Many people claim that music calms the soul, and allows for an altered state of consciousness with something as simplistic as a three-note guitar riff. There have been several connections made by artists and music fans that suggest the existence of audio-memory perception, the idea of a song recalling good memories that can positively alter one's behaviour and state of thought. Neil Peart, the drummer for Rush, touched on this idea through an in-depth interview during the filming of their "Roll The Bones" video, back in 1991. The link between audio and memory has also been thoroughly examined in Oliver Sack's remarkable book, Musicophilia, which contains several psychological studies from patients that have shown direct connections between music and brain activity. For many fans, concerts contain positive memory reinforcements that stay with fans for many years to come. For some, concerts bring back the feeling of youth or the warmth and simplicity of summer festivals. For others, it brings back a time in their lives from which they have learned from, or have grown from. In some regards, concert memories allow fans to connect to themselves and reinstate an idea of who they are and where they belong, as Cavicchi so eloquently put earlier.

The concert event itself contains several rituals. Richard Witts, author of I'm Waiting for the Band: Protraction and Provocation at Rock Concerts, argues that the delays before a concert have become miniature rituals in themselves, along with the artist delaying a show and partaking in their own pre-show rituals backstage during the delay. This pre-show delay has become expected and almost passes as a psychological strategy to add suspense, anxiety, and wonder for the audience. Witts later explains that the delay is usually caused by technological errors[9] and protraction by the artist due to their anxiety and unwillingness to face the audience and potential failure.[10] Other miniature rituals within the concert experience include the swaying of hands, the performer encouraging the audience to jump, lighting lighters (or now cell phones) during ballads, and the performer pointing the microphone to the audience encouraging them to sing. There is a sort of expectation in terms of audience participation and role that is just as important as the performance role of the artist. Cavicchi explains:

In the context of performance, the difference between fandom and ordinary audience behavior is not about how one consumes a product but rather about how one participates in an event. [...] At a rock concert, for instance, no matter what participants may be like in their ‘normal’ daily lives, during the performance they assume new, specific roles: [...] In each of these roles, people behave in ways that they would not outside the performance: (they) jump up and down crazily and scream in the middle of a crowd of people; [...] all these things that would be inappropriate in the context of everyday life.[11]

Even clapping after every song has become ritualized as it is an automatic reaction to silence, regardless of whether or not the performance deserves it. The act of standing ovations in hopes of an encore is also seen as a ritual and partly fake, according to Emma Webster, author of "One More Tune!" The Encore Ritual In Live Music Events. The term encore (French for "again") developed in the 18th century to act as a spontaneous display of audience enthusiasm, however Webster argues that the encore is now an expected and ritualized part of some performances and fulfills a variety of functions including indicating temporality, allowing artists to thank their audiences, and allowing the audience to feel some semblance of empowerment within the event.[12] In many situations, the encore has already been thoroughly planned to include light shows, video (often of the band backstage pondering the idea of returning for an encore), and dancing, as opposed to the traditional spontaneous ways featuring improvisation. Some cities and venues have certain time restraints and curfews to abide by, making it necessary for bands to have a pre-scheduled timeline that often includes an encore. Bands like the Dave Matthews band, will schedule their event to end 45 minutes prior to their actual curfew time in order to allow time for overplaying and an encore.[13] Other artists like the Pixies will mock the concept of an encore by waiting for everyone to leave the auditorium before starting the encore just to have people rush back into the venue.[14] Others will joke about going backstage to wait thirty seconds before re-entering, and just skip to the encore without leaving the stage. Some artists use the encore to become intimate with the audience and downgrade the previous stress of the performance, or to to salute bands that have inspired their career. Bruce Springsteen will often play rock and roll standards as if repositioning himself as a fan.[15] In many situations, only the headlining band plays an encore as opposed to the local support artists, which Webster points out, "act[s] as a means of conferring status and hierarchy on the artist who is allowed to perform one."[16] Regardless of whether or not an encore is planned, people have come to expect it, (like the Who smashing their instruments at the end of their show), as it has become a closing ceremony for concerts. It can even be argued that with the band leaving the stage and coming back, it can be seen as a religious death and resurrection of sorts. In any case, it becomes the final goodbye between the performer and its audience.

In today's modern society it is often hard to escape the clutches of big business in the music industry. Even commercially-successful bands like Fleetwood Mac with an original member lineup should be showcased in a simplistic environment like Massey Hall where the bread and butter of the evening is the music itself. But instead Fleetwood Mac is being showcased through the Air Canada Centre, a building that has little to no acoustical assets or qualities. This harsh and cold reality is simply due to high seating demands and profit. If the promoters of Fleetwood Mac were really concerned about this incredibly special reunion tour that took 15 years to happen, they would have sacrificed the opportunity for quantity to save the quality of the music. However, fans can still escape this consumer-run business through musical miracles like YouTube that offer video and song content for free. Bands have even live streamed concerts from YouTube in order to build a bigger community at no extra cost.

Although this age of the music business has gotten progressively worse in terms of being operated for profit, the internet is still a way to bypass consumerism by having access to free musical content to learn from and connect with. In this situation, social media becomes a double-edged sword. In one way it promotes the focus on the artist's personalities and personal life, but in another way, it allows fans from all around the world to connect through forums and fan-based sites that allow musical discussions, growth, and healthy debate. Applications like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram allows for even more of a connection to the artist and their audience. However, there is a fine line in this regard for good and bad communications, as it overlaps the concept of personal life with public life. As much as it is important for the performer to know their performance roles, it is equally important for the audience to know their performance roles, and to respect the privacy of others. After all, these artists are not Gods or deities...they are simply people.

[1] Cavicchi pg. 37

[2] Lobart pg. 131

[3] Durkheim pg. 37

[4] Durkheim pg. 43

[5] Lobart pg. 131

[6] Cavicchi pg. 91

[7] Lobert pg. 128

[8] Lobert pg. 132

[9] Witts pg. 148

[10] Witts pg. 152

[11] Cavicchi pg. 89

[12] Webster pg. 93

[13] Webster pg. 106

[14] Webster pg. 106

[15] Webster pg. 98

[16] Webster pg. 96

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