There is a small spotlight shining from high in the rafters. It illuminates the man on stage. His song has captured the attention of the hundreds of people in the audience. They all know the song, and in their proximity and admiration, they are sure to sing along. When the man onstage reaches the final chorus, he asks for the audience to join in, which seems redundant because there hasn’t been a moment when they weren’t already singing. Bright lights from the back of the stage flash on, shining into the faces of the crowd as the artist onstage stops singing, yielding the song to the choir of fans.
In a few weeks, I’ll be packed in to Phillips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia with thousands of screaming girls and women to listen to a redhead from the UK play guitar and sing and rap about love and loss. After the year he’s had, we all probably know the name Ed Sheeran. And even if the website, Jezebel, is convinced he’s evil incarnate, I think the dude has massive talent, but this isn’t really about that.
This past weekend, I was watching his NBC special about his sold-out, three-day engagement at Wembley Stadium in England. And since I was going to see Ed play in a few weeks, the NBC special was a cool way to see how he constructs a show in a large venue. Phillips Arena (capacity: 18,238) is no Wembley Stadium (capacity: 90,000), but neither are small and intimate bars either. I think (and this is just a theory I’ve been working on) that anytime you play for more than a couple hundred people, the same kind of work has to go into it even if it may be more or less of that kind of work depending on the actual number.
At some point during the special, I said, “I hope he doesn’t ask the audience to sing. I’m paying to hear him, not them.” And sure enough, almost as if on cue, Ed asked the audience to sing.
This moment has triggered a bit of self-awareness. You see, I’ve been there–singing along and pumping my fist with thousands of other people. When I was an undergrad, I saw Ben Folds play in Atlanta for free. Before he played “Not the Same” he gave the audience instructions for performing harmonies for the songs. He conducted us like a glee club, and I loved it.
When I saw Mumford and Sons this past summer, I sang every damn word of every damn song.
So I’ve been thinking this week about the difference–about why I would say I hoped he didn’t do the thing that I’ve so willingly participated in during past live shows. And I think I came up with something. It’s trite, maybe, but a lot of things are. I think my beef is with recordings. When I have a record or a concert on TV, I like to hear the artist. With a live show, where I’m there jumping and screaming with a thousand other people, I don’t mind being asked to contribute.
And this has taken me to another line of questioning: Is it a little bit masturbatory for a musician to ask an audience to sing his/ her song back to him? I mean, it has to feel good to hear it–to know that many people in that many places know all of the words to something you created. Even though I only write poems and try to write books and blog posts, I have to admit that it feels good when someone acknowledges my work. I can’t imagine what it feels like on the scope of millions–literally millions–worldwide.
And this line of questioning has brought me to another line of questions: Who cares? I guess the honest answer to this question is…me…at least until recently (and only kind of then). If this is what makes the music worth it for the artist, I’m good with it. Play on, playa.
As I’ve been thinking about this, I was reminded of my first night in Boston this past summer. Our hotel was next to Fenway Park, and on our first night in town, the Foo Fighters played in the stadium. We did not know they were playing there that night, so we didn’t have tickets. But there was a little bar next door that kept its windows open, and we could hear every note and every word of the show. The early songs were loud and chaotic, as one would want from the Foo Fighters, but as the night wore on, and storm clouds rolled in, Dave Grohl traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic and played an unplugged version of “My Hero.”
His voice was raw from an already hour-long set, and a soft drizzle was raining down over Boston. What struck me was the myriad of voices that rose from the open top of the stadium and into the city sky (talk about a punch to the emotion sack). As those voices met, I didn’t think about how much it must mean to Dave Grohl to hear that many people sing his song. I thought about what it means to the people singing to be a part of a moment like that.
That is the magic of art–nothing is ever created in a vacuum. Eventually, art will find its way into the world, and the people who experience it will make it their own in a million different ways–through mimicry, through interpretation, or through addition. It was short-sighted of me to consider that cheap because that is one thing I love about art. And I had taken it for granted.
I’ll see you in a few weeks, Ed. I can’t wait to sing with you from the cheap seats.