Its Saturday night and the lights are off, save for the dim red reflecting from color gels onto sweaty faces and beer bottles. The warm-up band has just finished their set and the density of the crowd has dispersed from center stage to huddle around the bar.
The audience, once a small, but coherent unit, has become fragmented until it is no audience at all. Some small groups huddle together and laugh and gossip- they are an audience to each other, but who cares? Others still go outside, alone, and they are an audience to no one, to the sounds of the street maybe, an audience of the night. The vast majority of us mill around and try to look busy, go to the bathroom maybe, discuss the merits and pitfalls of the warm-up band with our immediate neighbors in the concert hall. We’re all still here, most of us still in the same room, but audience we are no longer.
In short time, the headliner band files on stage. They begin tuning their instruments; we, the inattentive audience, all take this as a cue to rush the bar to make sure we’ll have a drink during the set. At this point, some people’s eyes become glued to the stage. Although the gaze is perhaps premature, their focused attention signals us to follow. More people are collected by the presence on the stage. Soon, the fragments will come back together and we’ll be whole, we’ll collectively be an audience.
The drummer begins the sound check. With one percussive signal, most of the crowd reforms at the foot of the stage. The guitarist follows, quickly playing a few riffs while blasting “CHECK, CHECK, CHEEE-YECK!” into the microphone in front of him.
In this protean, nascent stage of audience formation, the strata of participants are clearly defined. Towards the back of the hall, people clutch their drinks and coats. They face the stage, but shift their weight uncomfortably. They’re ready to leave before the band has begun. The next layer consists of withdrawn and reticent music lovers, idly shuffling, bored of waiting. In the front row are die-hard fans of the band. However, in the center, a powder keg ticks feverishly. It is this center that most interests me. This center audience acts less like an audience and more like performers. Their every move has been rehearsed through a lifetime of rock concert attendance, all of it leading up to this one, and then to the next one.
Out of nowhere, the music begins. The percussion and guitar slice through the air like a machete, and all that anticipation is now drenched in sonic ooze. This, arguably, is Elias Canetti’s moment of discharge, and is certainly Michael Warner’s “active uptake” . At this moment, everyone in the room, the bartenders, the doormen, the groups engaged in gossip, the folks facing the stage and the folks not facing the stage, we are all audience to the same sound. Our individuality has momentarily dissipated, and together we have become a part of the music. As the rhythm becomes clear, the center of the audience starts to circle.
The circle is our immediate answer to the music. The audience seamlessly begins to move in this way. If you’re not in the circle, you will either be encompassed by it, or you will supply its borders. This clear and active uptake is a product of discharge, steeped in destructiveness through the chaos of bodies, existing in the space of the eruption. Once you have succumbed to the circle, your individual identity is sacrificed to the active, performative audience collective. The music initially united us, but now, in the circle, we are no longer paying attention to the band, only to the moving of our bodies, of our feet, together. The rhythm is our war cry as we stamp and shake to the beat. We are sweating, tired and hot, but nothing could bring one person out of the trance induced by this combination of audience and performer.
… And then the song is over. Everyone stops and breathes deeply, comes back to earth. What just happened!? By which equation did the band, the music, the crowd, the center space, and, presumably, the alcohol, combine perfectly to create this unique moment of lived experience?
In Canetti’s words, “man has always listened to the footsteps of other men; he has certainly paid more attention to them than to his own” . One might use Canetti’s crowd taxonomy to link the engaged concert crowd with the rhythm crowd of his text, Crowds and Power. The rhythm crowd is hungry for attendance, but also for acceptance. Once its members are gathered, the rhythm crowd is intent to celebrate in “communal excitement” . In the rhythm crowd, the presupposition is that it exists to be seen. In this way, we can clearly mark the members of the circle as performers. The outer strata of concertgoers are watching both the band and the crowd simultaneously. The central circle of dancers in the audience, whether they are aware of it or not, are performing Warner’s parameters of an engaged public.
Self-organized by a series of strangers, the circle pit has a distinct context in recent history, which links all of its members within a specific discourse and circulation of objects and ideas. Each member is simultaneously aware of this context within history and the musical field, and of their personal affiliation with music, generally. The band is thus able to address the audience in both an impersonal way, as a group belonging to this broader cultural context, and in a personal way, as when a song pulls an individual out of the crowd. The band acts as a text around which individuals may gather and create their own rituals, actions, thoughts. In short, the band becomes a magnet for the creation of a public.
At this point, the band is wrapping up the final song. The crowd screams the lyrics aloud with pained looks. The circle has devolved into a sweating mass, we’re almost glad its over. We’re all tired, but we’ve been with it for so long. With the last chord struck, the band files off the stage and the audience tries to remember where it left its ego. Our ears are ringing and we feel a little lost. We file out of the hall, back into the cold shock of the real night. All the once familiar faces within the circle file out, without eye contact, and disappear into the night. We might see each other at the next show, and we may never see each other again. But that’s okay, because for this moment in this live event, we were together, we were an audience, a rhythm crowd. We had lost our egos and shed our shame and hungered for more. Tomorrow we’ll get back to work.
Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 1960
Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 2002