Memories of the collective

Making sense of the sublime

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The venue was saturated in darkness, with only the stage lit by a soft, purple haze. My friends and I had arrived late, dancing, singing and laughing our way down the stairs and into The Catalyst. Looking around at the audience, brushing against them and catching wisps of the conversations, I felt an intimate connection to every person in the room. So when Willow took the stage and the collective buzzing of our bodies dipped to a mellow hum, I knew that we were all feeling the same things: awe, peace and the awareness of a greater unknown. 

What I love most about concerts is, I never feel alone. Even if I came by myself, I was always swept into a flurry of collective emotion, experience and consciousness. Dancing with strangers, laughing with strangers, singing at the top of my lungs — and knowing, every moment, that I was understood. 

Fast forward to the present summer of 2020. The shutdown of music venues due to the COVID-19 pandemic has left me alone in my room, curled up in bed with earbuds in each ear and my favorite artists on shuffle. My habit of incessant music playing isn’t much different than before the shutdown, but the wistful anticipation I used to feel, knowing I would soon see this music embodied live, is painfully absent.

Like so many other experiences I’ve had during this shelter in place, music feels one-sided. Isolated, in a different, more perplexing way than before. Listening to music before, I knew that an artist would go on tour, and there was a chance I could be a part of their audience, directly influenced by them and everyone around me. But now it feels like a dimension of music is missing, and all I can do is look back.

I’ve listened to Lana Del Rey for years and know every song by heart. Her message of turning pain into something beautiful and of believing in the promise of tomorrow has healed me in so many ways. So it was truly beautiful to see, on a hot October night, the amount of love that people have for her music and the depth of experience that brought us all together. 

I stood in line for five hours before we were let in, by which time the line had stretched blocks away from the entrance to the Hearst Greek Theatre all the way past the International House. My friend and I made friends with the man in front of us, a bartender from Sacramento who had come alone. We spent hours talking about Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Ultraviolence, Lust for Life and Born to Die. Then, about three hours in, we made friends with the couple behind us, who showed us its Lana-inspired tattoos.

Once inside, we made friends with yet another girl, who also happened to attend UC Berkeley and had come alone. All together now and part of the larger audience, we screamed ecstatically when Lana made her entrance, sang until our voices grew hoarse and danced together in this new, collective consciousness.

It was all the beauty, glamour and artistry I knew it would be. I soaked in the faces of the people around me and felt as if we’d met before. I smiled at the two lovers in front of me as they placed glow stick crowns upon each other’s heads and held each other to the bittersweet cords of “Ultraviolence.” I admired the dresses of some girls in the pit far ahead of me, classic, vintage and whimsically beautiful. It’s one thing to know that an artist I love has a huge fan base, and that those fans connect to the music and love it just like I do; it’s an entirely different experience to see those faces all around me.

My separation from live music has made me realize that music needs a collective audience. And lying at home in bed, with The Arctic Monkeys, Lana Del Rey and Kehlani on repeat will always be a frozen, isolated moment. Dancing to Dave, Stormzy and Machine Gun Kelly, wildly and without inhibition, are frozen moments. By no means does that make them any less important or beautiful, but I want to be a part of an audience again. 

Art is not supposed to exist in an isolated dimension. Rather, it is meant to grow and evolve with the collective. Music about life, love, loss, cultural moments, social movements and so on cannot exist without an audience to reciprocate those contemplations. Live music communicates more than a song’s lyrics, chords and rhythm — it communicates an experience of collective joy, merriment and raw emotion. And I can’t wait to feel that again.

Nathalie Grogan writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on art as a method of communication. Contact her at [email protected].