Bring Your iPhone to the Concert!

The Pitchfork Music Festival was held this past weekend in Chicago, and it featured more stellar performances than you could shake a stick at. (Trust me. I tried.) R. Kelly got the biggest headlines, but M.I.A. was killer (her technical problems notwithstanding); Phosphorescent demonstrated why Muchacho is one of the most enjoyable albums of the year so far; Yo La Tengo renewed my faith that rock bands can still be a bit out there; Swans made one of the most hypnotizing and ungodly loud noises I’ve ever heard; and El-P and Killer Mike were amazing, in between moments of plugging their Goose Island collaboration beer, Run the Jewels. (For the record, the beer is described as a Belgian wheat ale, but struck me as closer to a Belgian pale ale. Regardless, a nice refresher in the Sunday heat!)

In addition to the music, though, I was left pondering the message displayed above the stage before Björk’s headlining performance on Friday night:

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(The picture, taken with my phone, is a bit unclear, but the sign reads: At the Artist’s request please refrain from taking photographs or recording images. This is distracting to Björk and she would encourage you to please enjoy being part of the performance and not being preoccupied with recording it. Images from this show will be available on: www.bjork.com.)

Such a request by a performer is not unheard of. Recently the abrasively cutesy duo She & Him posted a similar request to their audience, and there have been many other instances before that. Opinion about such requests seems to be divided: some fans and critics appreciate the artists’ attempts to create a collective focus on their performance, while others have pilloried these performers for being petty.

Beyond the notion that in principle all present constitute the performance, there was no reasonable way that anyone in the audience could have been considered “part of the performance” at the Björk concert. Her performance was one of the most disappointing of the weekend—musically sharp, but visually distant. The video screens, usually used at this festival to allow distant fans a better look at the artists, were in this instance deployed to display some abstract shapes and colors that may or may not have had anything to do with the music. Anyone positioned more than a hundred feet or so from the stage might as well have been watching on a 13″ low-def TV. (Her rendition of “Army of Me” was pretty wicked, though.)

And despite the fact that Björk’s cloyingly polite request to her audience is guaranteed to irritate, I don’t really want to linger on the minutiae of the wording of the request, as some critics have done.

But Björk’s request, and others like it, demonstrates a profound arrogance and a misunderstanding of what it means to “participate” in a performance. Yes, we now possess many technologies that make it easy to capture an image at a concert and in seconds post it to Facebook and Instagram, tweet it to your “followers,” and text it to a hundred friends. It is even the case that many people seem to use these technologies to experience concerts in somewhat different ways than they might have in earlier generations.

Nevertheless, it’s far from clear that smart phones have done anything to alter the art of concert giving. Beyond the vague (and frankly, ridiculous) claim that people taking pictures with smart phones is distracting to the performer, no one has yet advanced a good reason why the musicians should care whether fans take low-quality pictures with their iPhones. We’re not talking about professional photography here, and were certainly not looking at individuals who take pictures at a concert and then publish those images in magazines, books, or any other forum where the artist could reasonably expect to exercise some control of her likeness.

But, some fans argue, why even take pictures in the first place? They’re going to be distant, grainy, and indistinct. Well, yes, they are. But who is Björk or anyone else to say that these fans don’t have a right to experience the concert in the way that they prefer? Björk’s job is to design and deliver a performance that she feels represents herself properly as an artist; fans do not have a corresponding responsibility to experience the performance in exactly the way the artist would like.

It might make some artists uncomfortable to be confronted with the limits of what they can control in a performance. But there it is. Use of camera phones is not equally appropriate in every performance context, of course, but unspoken bans on their use are more a matter of social convention than of the authority of the performer. Why doesn’t Björk et al. get off their high horse and treat their audience like responsible individuals who are capable of seeing, hearing, and interpreting the performance being presented to them?

After all, I would have had just as crappy an experience of Björk’s concert even if there weren’t several camera phones in the air around me.

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