Thursday, March 12, 2009

Arena Rock Death Cults of the 1980's Reprised

The age of arena rock irrevocably passed with the closing of the Cold War. It's a strange phenomenon, the culling of massive crowds into packed, over-heated and acoustically poor environments for the benefit of hearing a four or five piece band normally accompanied by some kind of pyrotechnic display and array of inflatable set pieces.  Whether or not this was the Me generation squandering the inheritance of Woodstock is beside the point.  The music was what it was and the people came by the boatload to experience it-- lit, high, twisted, garbage-fucked and skinned;looking for a lay or to fend off another dipshit hour riding the douche donkey to nowhere.  

It wasn't until I watched Live Aid 1985 in all of its un-glorious time-capsule-dom that I really saw what these spectacles were about.  The 80's mega-shows were all about megatons. Nuclear payloads.  The camera pans back and shows George Thorogood of all people playing for a swarming crowd of millions.  The concert itself, pulled together to bring aid to Africa gave people a reason to pay the entrance fee, but the concept itself is a pure symptom of the Cold War germ.  Crowds should gather.  People of like taste should stand side by side and lose their identity in the overwhelming superabundance of human flesh.  A dot entertained by the dots up there on the stage, trusting the face on the Jumbo-tron corresponds to the face on the stage. 

It was the last time that the population felt truly and horribly that entire swaths of civilization could be wiped out at a moment's notice.  Aids was also beginning to show its fangs around that time too.  It's difficult not to see a metaphor in Freddy Mercury's performance at Live Aid. Queens performance was hands down the greatest of the day.  It looked as if Freddy Mercury was the only person not entirely cowed by the unbridled multitude at his feet, that he was actually tapping into all of that strange feeling and ripping through his set.  But the multitude, the faceless crowd.  Freddy Mercury with his white duds, trim moustache, slicked back hair and stage hand in short shorts is the only one even marginally aware of the other side of the evening.  Having read Sontag's essay on AIDS and its metaphors, I do tread here lightly (though she wrote her book in a different climate as a form of political proscription, it is a bar set at an height for good taste).   If not as a metaphor then as a moment of imminent tension, of heightened unawareness: a man with a plague singing before untold legions-- some infected, most not.

The difference being AIDS, unlike death by neutron bomb, is death from incredibly intimate conditions.  It is in fact the polar opposite of death by neutron bomb (y'know as long as we're still on the scale of death and not talking about life-- which is the true polar opposite).  It changes the scenario of the untold millions cheering at Freddy Mercury's feet.  Suddenly they are people. They are capable of knowing one another.  They are bigger than the performance.  The crowd is in fact the true spectacle and the performance is only the slimmest of justifications.  In every other performance on the whole 16-hour Live Aid dvd set it is utterly apparent.  A crowd was found to dilute the entertainer's power.  The claim of over 3 million albums sold suddenly seems just that ludicrous as Phil Collins takes the stage before a crowd 82,000 people. 

The population of the United States labored from the 50's-80's always carrying at least an iota of the notion of mutually assured destruction in the backs of their heads.  The massive concert was a singular way to allow people to be together, to be a little less anonymous and to blow off steam. That system lost its meaning in the 90's.  Take the example of Woodstock II: a corporate re-imagining of that first far-away festival with $3 water, mud, and industrial music. It's little wonder rioting broke out.  After the threat of nuclear annihilation has passed the idea of bringing together thousands of young people suddenly seems like less of a good idea.  The parenting practices of the generation raised under the bomb suddenly seem built on sand.  The idea of living everyday for yourself and yourself alone--once the romantic mantra of the lost generation-- is suddenly shown as corrupt.  The public yearning for YTK, the millenial cults and suicide pacts were all symptoms of the vanished germ.  Some people didn't want to get well. Some wanted to crawl back into the Cold War as the force that brings meaning. So we got the last administration...    

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