It’s not often that I go to concerts, and even less often that it's pop music. I was raised on bluegrass, old-time, and gospel. I played the washboard for ones, if not tens, of adoring fans in a local nursing home. But don't let that deceive you: when I wasn’t wailing away on 19th-century cleaning contraptions, I was actually quite a subversive little homeschooler.
For example: just as I would frequently sneak into my brother’s room and steal his Christmas candy, or sneak into the church kitchen and steal the wedding mints straight out of the freezer - (also, why were they in the freezer?) - so I would steal away into my bedroom and play Radio Disney with the door tightly clamped shut. Even at 8 years old, I knew that Hilary Duff and Aaron Carter were the guiltiest of pop pleasures. I kept a blank cassette at the ready in case a song or two really needed capturing. What if they suddenly stopped playing it? I had an acute sense of scarcity, even though I'd never experienced it.
Oh, did it seem for a second like we weren’t talking about alcoholism? We are. Just because there wasn't booze didn't mean there wasn't a overblown sense of shame and a needless compulsion to hide stuff.
It was with a lot of pleasure - and admittedly, still a little guilt - when, on Monday, I swayed, clapped, and - when prompted - even jumped to the beat of the music. Julia Michaels, the artist in question, sounded exactly - okay, suspiciously - like her record. Even more suspicious was the fact that her voice continued to flood the room even when her lips weren't moving. As much as I appreciated the choreographed spontaneity and the radiant, lost-in-the-moment grins of her bandmates, it became increasingly hard to silence my super-ego, my inner parent. Well, this is quite an expensive production. Does she even write her own songs? This is really more like TV than music, isn’t it?
About two songs in, I quietly prompted my super-ego to leave. “Say...Don’t you have calories to count? Emails to send? Surely a deadline needs to be set, fitted sheets need folding…” My inner parent gave me a guilty look and then glanced at the door. “Well, if it’s all the same to you…” I nodded encouragingly. “I’ll call if I need anything!” (I would not call. I would not need anything.)
With the super-ego safely shuttled away, I was left to enjoy the concert. Finally free to survey the room, I noticed that this was one of the weirdest crowds I’d ever seen. (And that’s saying something; my brother is in a jam band.) It was largely female, and the average age was 18. Of course, there were outliers; there was a smattering of parents, and one girl in the balcony who looked to be about 8. She knew all the words, and I could even see her joyfully mouthing along the one that starts with “F.” I glanced at her parents; I found myself imagining the cost-benefit analysis that had taken place over dinner. Perhaps they don’t love the lyrics, but the female singer represented strength and independence. Sure. Little Isabella can go to the concert.
I'm telling you, folks: the world is way more interesting when you pretend you can read minds.
No sooner had I surveyed the room than the show took on a weird, self-helpy tenor, as Julia began some very odd MC work. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in a family of musicians, it’s that the MC must be brief, ironic, and occasionally informative. Lightly personalized anecdotes. Measured appreciation. Every line a bit of a throwaway.
Apparently, Julia hadn’t gotten the memo. Here’s what she said instead:
“When you guys sing along, it really helps me, because I have really bad anxiety.”
(The crowd whooped.)
“It’s so hard not to let our insecurities get in the way sometimes.”
"Social media is destroying us!"
(We bellowed our agreement. Julia radiated love. I pushed the image of Charles Manson out of my head.)
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever had anxiety!”
Nearly everyone’s hands shot up.
I glanced around the room. I couldn’t help but think: Wait… isn’t it supposed to be more like 1 in 5? This looks like 4 in 5.
Maybe I’m confusing prevalence and incidence.
Maybe anxiety symptoms are different than clinically significant anxiety.
Maybe this is a skewed sample.
As the music started up again, Julia demanded that we all jump in time with it.
Seems like this song is a bit slow for jumping.
There is no way all our feet will land right on the beat.
I wonder how we’ll all collectively know that it’s time to stop?
After all, we probably won’t jump all the way home.
I glanced apologetically at Julia. I wasn’t really nailing that reckless abandon thing. I would suck at cults.
It wasn't my my linear and legalistic super-ego getting in the way. After all, she had happily agreed to leave. It was just me. Generally enjoying myself, but confused.
After the concert, my inner parent met me curbside. I spent a silent drive home reflecting on the experience. The crowd was one whopping Gen Z microcosm. Crippling depression or anxiety, very little drinking or drugging, and every moment compulsively captured on phone or video. Snapchat and Instagram flickered across a sea of screens, despite our clearly articulated hatred of social media. There was a collective need for shared experience, a longing to hear that others suffer in precisely the same way.
Was that longing stronger than the longing to be well?
We could be healthy - or, we could suffer. Just like our idols. It wasn't actually an obvious choice.
My internal parent, my super-ego, had declared that pop music was tasteless, fake. But when she elected to leave, the rest of me understood that this music was popular for a reason. It described, for one generation at least, a common - and painful - internal experience. And given that my neuroses hadn't exactly vacated the premises, it described my experience, as well. It’s not real or fake, right or wrong, good or bad; it simply is. And sometimes, radiantly so.