Collage: Anh Noel
If you’ve been to a concert recently, you would be forgiven for mistaking it for some kind of Olympic sport, or rather, a battle-royale-free-for-all, to the point where it’s almost cliché to complain about it. You’ve heard the stories: haven’t we all? Maybe someone you know flew out to Perth and Melbourne and back to Sydney just to optimise the distance between them and their favourite artist. Maybe you’ve seen it somewhere on Twitter: people are camping out, someone’s brought a Sharpie and declared themselves Supreme Ruler of the Queue, Arbiter of the Barricade, numbering revellers’ hands as the “official” delegation deciding front row. You’ve maybe stood in lines for hours on end and forgotten snacks or a portable charger. When the doors open, maybe you’ve tried to sprint for a good spot, in a scene reminiscent of the Lion King’s stampede. Good luck, little Simba. And that’s all before the gig starts — where, at the risk of sounding like a cankerous old hag — the dreaded phones come up. If you’re anywhere other than the front, expect to be watching half a show through the screen of whoever in front of you has the best view.
Complaining about practices and attempting to pick apart the ever-nebulous idea of ‘youth culture’ is hardly new — although the world in which this youth exists does constantly throw newness at the wall. In 1956, Allen Ginsberg wrote a rallying cry and celebration of the artistic youth: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked.” That said, ending the line with “in metallic cowboy boots, dragging themselves through Harry Styles’ general admission, looking for a glass of water,” is perhaps a better requiem for 2023.
The particular flavour of Gen Z concert-going has been discussed ad-nauseam — from perspectives praising the bonds of “stan” culture to general sentiment of “these damn kids need to get off my lawn.” It’s easy to toss it into one box or another, when in reality, what our live music habits reflect is a particularly unique intersection of the internet, our consumption and how our generation defines their own identities in the current age. In years past, fervent fan devotion manifesting in reality seemed limited to megastars: your boy bands, your pop princesses. Of course, that still exists. Yet in a post-COVID world, the cults of traditionally “indie” musicians have exploded — largely young female artists, and if not, artists with a majority female fanbase. Their music is often downtempo, subdued, or packed with complex emotions; at odds with the traditional image of the squealing fangirl. So, as aptly put by a friend of mine at Laneway Festival this year, “Why am I fighting for my life in the Phoebe Bridgers pit?”
Parasociality, of course, might be the first thing to come to mind. Yet another concept discussed to death in the online zeitgeist, it refers to the one-sided relationships we have with our favourite celebrities — our emotional energy, our interests and time invested into someone completely unaware we exist. Though the idea predates any of our lifetimes, the arrival of the Internet has twisted the dimensions of our interactions with our idols. Closer than ever, artists appear on our TikTok For You pages or Instagram feeds in the same way our peers do — often in a never ending stream of content. Simultaneously elevated and brought down to Earth by an algorithm, it starts feeling as though their performance of identity, a prerequisite of the business of being a public figure, is also attainable. The nature of the Internet and how it intersects with the forces of capitalism means that your digital identity, and by extension, your reality, is heavily based on your consumption — gathering key repeating themes and ideas into a blueprint. Then, add a generation of young women who experienced their teenage years during COVID, and suddenly, the formation of identity through an odd sort of parasocial consumption becomes much clearer. Artists, and their music, have, more than ever, become a subculture, a digital accessory and navigation device for the information overload of Internet life. As a result, musicians, who professed their own complexities through their music and personas, became in vogue.
It’s pushed by playlisting, by users, by algorithms. If you consider yourself a “sad girl,” of course you listen to Phoebe Bridgers and Mitski, with the Spotify-made “sad girl starter pack” playlist to guide you. Of course, this Extremely Online aesthetic is only possible through Extremely Online curation. How will people know you’re a Sad Girl — perhaps the ultimate Sad Girl — if they don’t know Mitski “made eye contact” with you or Phoebe Bridgers held your hand, with video evidence to prove it? When an artist is only known through abstracted personas constructed by videos framed in close-up, the only missing piece becomes the live event — the most personal possible experience. The barricade becomes a cultish symbol of the closest thing beyond intimacy formed via a phone screen. It becomes another thing to point to as substitute to self-actualisation — standing on the shoulders of Sad Girls past, through a warped sense of parasocial validation.
This raises further questions of whether we know how to exist outside a network of constant consumption, particularly in regard to the female experience. I’m not depressed, I’m in my Fleabag era! My life is not falling apart, I’m just so clean girl yoga mat claw clip dewy skin pilates-core blah blah blah — an increasingly nonsensical, specifically curated list of things consumed that, more than often, try to serve as a map to our neuroses, that ask an ever-watching audience, “Do you understand me now?”. Everything can be claimed under the guise of self-identity: Gilmore Girls to Ottessa Moshfegh to Vanilla Coke to the rat you saw at Central Station at 3am to a spare hair tie on your wrist to yes, Phoebe Bridgers. If I can consume it, I can understand myself, and I can control others’ consumption of me. It’s all just content, content, content — the ever-unrelenting push for a personal brand in a world in which we constantly feel observed. It is no coincidence the acolytes of the barricade are almost entirely young women: the main dwellers of this internet ecosystem.
When women, online, curate a stream of content hyper-conscious of their aesthetic affiliations, it’s easy — almost freeing — to mistake for actualisation. And hey, if there’s a sad girl starter pack, sponsored by Warner Music Group™ and RCA™ at your fingertips, that’s as good a place to start as any, right?
I would love to exonerate myself from this — to act as though I am so far detached I couldn’t care less about the barricade, really — and if I do, I just want to see, nothing weird about that. But I have to admit the allure of closeness is compelling; to see close-up the people who have made the music that runs deep within me, and have them see me. To act as though I have not, in some way, internalised my love of Arctic Monkeys or whatever is playing in the Hottest 100 as a facet of my image would be to lie; I cannot claim to exist outside the female experience of constantly feeling looked at. I post a video of a gig at a pub on my Instagram story, and with it: this is so Triple J-core indie grunge Australiana Spacey Jane crushed-can-of-VB Marrickville smudged eyeliner platform boot vibes, or whatever other nonsensical string of nouns my existence could ever be categorised into. Always the snippet of the good riff, the steady camera, the right flash of lights — making sure people know just how close I am, how on-the-pulse I am: even if none of these thoughts are conscious. To be a young woman online is to know a script you don’t even quite know how you memorised.
The contemporary concert experience is only a natural consequence of this script bleeding into the real world — the only prompt to those young adults often sneeringly dubbed “quaranteens.” In 2021, Billboard released analysis that found the post-pandemic concert boom was primarily driven by first-time attendees — with that, a host of new people who had no reference to the tried-and-true concert etiquette from the Before Times. The phones, the filming, the crowd surges and the jostle for barricade — all behaviours that broke unsaid cardinal rules, and all behaviours undoubtedly linked to the drive for content fueled by parasociality, as if that parasociality would contribute to self-actualisation. In a way, it’s a new vanguard coming through — a new way of interaction that’s a product of a world post-COVID, starving for connection.
In 2022, Japanese-American singer-songwriter Mitski tweeted a simple request to fans: “Hello! I wanted to speak with you about phones at shows. … Sometimes when I see people filming entire songs or whole sets, it makes me feel as though we are not here together.” Though active as an acclaimed indie musician for over a decade, TikTok virality catapulted her from playing small clubs to selling out multiple shows at New York’s famed Radio City Music Hall. Uncoincidentally, Mitski is a staple of the “sad girl” genre. The tweet received immense backlash: everything from claiming that the tweet was insensitive to those with ADHD and depression, to ableist. “Bestie, that’s great and all, but some of us have mental health issues that cause dissociation and I film to remember the moment,” read one reply. In turn, counter-backlash along the lines of “you wouldn’t want to disappoint Mitski, would you?”
Mitski’s team deleted the tweets. The internalisation of these artists’ works and personas becomes an insidious form of entitlement when it becomes integral to one’s identity. In this vein, it seems there is not so much between us; the musician, consumed, another crushed lion in the stampede.
Beyond just fan politics, the consequences can also bleed into the real world in actively more dangerous ways. At several of Phoebe Bridgers’ concerts in 2022 — who, like Mitski, is an indie darling riding a new wave of TikTok fame — reports of audience members passing out, and crowd crushes, were rife. In Toronto, Bridgers reportedly stopped her show five times so paramedics and staff could treat the injuries of members of the crowd. Speaking to NME, a fan, Erin Laidley said: “I’ve never been to a show where so many people passed out or needed medical attention. A lot of people…had camped out, in the rain, for 12+ hours to get barricade.” Searching “Phoebe stopped show” on Twitter brings up similar events from Montreal, Washington DC, Birmingham, over and over and over. There’s something to be said that becoming an acolyte of the barricade is simply harmless fun — and in many cases, that’s true. But when wellbeing and safety — for both audience members and performers — is compromised, perhaps priorities need to be re-evaluated.
Yet it’s difficult to deny the lucrative nature of appealing to fans’ inclination to parasociality, to encourage their consumption of you as a road map to a solidified identity — or at least the performance of one. Not long ago, I saw Maisie Peters live: who, unlike her predecessors, built her very career on TikTok. Her fanbase inspires similar levels of devotion, with one key change: she actively cultivated the formation of parasocial relationships. In the queue, she came out to meet us, took photos with the line. I met fans who had her in group chats she occasionally responded to, fans who had followed her to different continents. Her merchandise for sale read “Maisie Peters is my best friend,” (T-shirt, $55) and “Maisie Peters is my rockstar gf” (tote bag, $45) — a conscious alignment of aesthetics and curation of fan energy that you could literally buy into. There are artists for whom leaning into fans’ identity-based consumption works for them, and it is likely not a coincidence Maisie herself is also Gen-Z, a musician native to the digital world who seems to thrive off connection with her fans. Perhaps the way we interact with our favourite artists now is simply paving the way for a new type of performer.
It often feels as though formation of identity through our consumption is now an inescapable fact of our lives, the closest thing we have to agency over our own perception. Have we simply just consumed so much that we don’t know how to be publicly uncurated or unsellable?
Ultimately, live music is a shared experience, and music-based subcultures are not new. Perhaps this is an evolution of that — and it’s really not the fault of concertgoers or young women. To constantly bemoan “zoomers and phones” at concerts is arguably a striking lack of empathy, if anything. This perception of live music is a product of its environment, growing out of the ruins of the crucial years of self-discovery lost to the pandemic. How we choose to navigate the landscape from here is an ongoing process requiring our own reflection. Weeks after Harry Styles’ Sydney shows, I found traces of feather boas spread throughout the city — remnants of a uniform, an aesthetic marker of the in-group of fans. To some, a nuisance, but to attendees? Undeniable proof of a connection, a memory shared; what can be more genuine than that?
And of course, we cannot discount the new prominence of young womens’ own voices and drive. Perhaps there’s something to be said: the expression of feminine anger and sadness in these indie superstars resonates for a reason. Beneath the layers of identity via consumption, it’s worth examining exactly why we, as women, choose to curate and identify our existences in the way we do. Among the acolytes, there’s undeniably meaning beyond the publicised, a shared bond over the resonance of music. There’s a way to write a new script.
If people are always watching — well, we may as well scream.