The Fraud of Intimacy

Kate Bush.  Source:
Kate Bush.

Kate Bush has long been something of a cult hero among some independent-minded pop music fans. Though not reclusive, exactly, Bush has consistently shunned the attention of public performances and appearances, and instead, has spent her almost-40-year career releasing complete, polished albums to inevitable critical acclaim.

So it was big news last year when Bush announced a series of concerts at London’s Hammersmith Apollo theater. And it’s also been big news that Bush requested that concert-goers turn off their mobile phones and refrain from photographing or filming her concerts. Bush’s rationale for the ban on mobiles is much like that given by other artists in recent years, writing on her website:

We have purposefully chosen an intimate theatre setting rather than a large venue or stadium. It would mean a great deal to me if you would please refrain from taking photos or filming during the shows. I very much want to have contact with you as an audience, not with iphones, ipads or cameras. I know it’s a lot to ask but it would allow us to all share in the experience together.

If you’ve ever spoken with me about this, you know that this is one of my pet peeves about musicians and concerts, and why I’m often more inclined to stay at home and listen to records. It’s a beautifully expressed hope for a sense of community at her concerts, but unfortunately, it’s idealistic bull crap. For one thing, it’s not clear how Bush thinks that having “contact with you as an audience” squares with the security guards who have apparently been roaming the aisles of the Hammersmith seeking to enforce the technology ban. But more to the point, Bush’s stated desire to have contact with the audience is hopelessly naive and disconnected from the realities of performance.

“Intimate”? Only if you consider a crowd of 5,000 intimate. Yes, it’s not the O2 or anything, but intimate it is not. Anyhow, even if the theater were more modestly sized, exactly what does Bush think a performance is? Is she going to personally talk to every one of the 5,000 people in the audience at any given show?

Of course not. This idea of intimacy in the performance is a myth—and a very useful myth for performers who feel that their status as lone, elite geniuses is being threatened by the proliferation of technology that actively challenges and diffuses the idea that the performance is a unique and unmediated moment of intimacy between a musician and an audience.

We’ve seen this from a great number of performers already—the article linked above has only a few examples. And almost invariably, artists who oppose the use of mobile phones at concerts come off as prickly, arrogant luddites who are out of touch with the realities of today’s music business and culture. The attempt to remove mobile devices from concerts is almost always presented as an effort to preserve something that is special and unique about live performance—that undefinable thing that just can’t come across on your small screen or microphone. But what’s really at play here is a very conservative and authoritarian attempt to control musical sound—to keep music the property of those few select individuals who are apparently more qualified than the rest of us to decide what is a “proper” musical experience.

What’s at stake, then, is the very form of music, as we increasingly see technology and performance converge into an indistinguishable unit. Bush and others want us to believe that we can’t have a meaningful experience of a concert while photographing it on our phone. They find all manner of ways to enforce their personal agendas, many of which ultimately lead to a much worse concert experience for the vast majority of the audience. (I heard a delightful set by Neutral Milk Hotel this summer, without seeing the band at all: unlike every other group at this music festival, they refused to allow their performance even to be projected live on the big screens, making them visible only to the 1% of the audience positioned near the stage.)

But who is Kate Bush or any other musician to tell us how we should appreciate music? The intimacy of the performance comes not from reverential appreciation in the manner dictated by the performer. Such would create of pop music the same sort of ossified, irrelevant dinosaur that is so much “classical” music today. Rather, a true appreciation would take the form of active engagement with the music, once the performer puts it into the world. And the performer simply cannot control that.

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