Blame it on all the anti-smoking laws.
At virtually any concert nowadays, cell phones have taken the place of cigarette lighters as the chief objet d'hommage. At choice moments during the show, rather than hold their Bics aloft, swaying to and fro with their arms slopped over a buddy's shoulder, concertgoers increasingly choose to call their friends or family members instead, to share the experience or, in some cases, to goad them.
"I don't understand why people do that," admitted Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, who often sees fans holding up their Nokias and Samsungs toward the stage when his band performs. "Are they calling a friend so they can save money on a concert ticket, or are they recording it onto some elaborate voice-mail system?" The answer to both questions is yes, but either way, the impulse to call friends and family in the middle of a deafening performance often springs from primal motivations.
An informal survey conducted over two months in and around various New York concert venues suggests that a desire to share the experience is the common denominator of concert cell-phone communication.
In early June, three students from I.S. 61 in Staten Island, New York — Victoria Largo, Amanda Montenez and Danielle Reilly, all 14 — explained the vicissitudes of concert cell-phone usage as they waited for the start of Z100's Zootopia concert at Madison Square Garden, which featured Jessica Simpson, William Hung, a reunited Backstreet Boys, Black Eyed Peas and the three girls' favorites, Maroon 5 and J-Kwon.
"My friend was supposed to go to the Z100 Jingle Ball [also at Madison Square Garden, featuring Outkast, Simpson, Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez] in December, but she was sick," Reilly said. "So I got her ticket, and she made me promise that I would call her. I played her half the concert."
"I couldn't go to the Jingle Ball," added Montenez, "so my friend played most of Beyoncé's set over my house phone, until her mother made her hang up. Mostly, I can't call anyone, because I use all my cell-phone minutes before I get to the concert."
"I'm going to call my friend Catherine when J-Kwon is on," said Largo, who later admitted that "you can't really hear anything except screaming."
Indeed, there was screaming during J-Kwon's energetic hip-pop set, but the deafening screeching of thousands of the three girls' peers was very often complemented by the spectacle of a veritable forest of cell phone-wielding arms raised toward the stage. The process repeated during each set's zenith, like the Black Eyed Peas' "Where Is the Love," Simpson's "With You" and Hung's "She Bangs."
Tom Ryan, a mobile-music consultant to major-label and independent record companies, digital music services and wireless carriers, saw the phenomenon of cell phones at concerts writ large while watching Radiohead and the Pixies at this year's Coachella Festival in Indio, California. He chalks it up to "proliferation of camera phones in the past 18 months," and "the ability to share what previously couldn't be shared."
"A sound recording can be enjoyed at any time," Ryan explained, "but the actual experience of a single concert is a unique, never-to-be-repeated experience. The cell phone enables someone to insert themselves into that experience — like, 'This is me at the Radiohead show.' It's a desire to express yourself at an amazing show, and you're bringing your friends into the concert, even if they could never enjoy it as much as you."
Although teenagers are easily the most flagrant concert cell-phone sharers, no species of music fan is immune. Peter, a 47-year-old dad, held up his phone for the purpose of capturing a performance at a Fountains of Wayne show in mid-July at New York's World Financial Center.
As the band played "Bright Future in Sales," he said that this was the first time he had used his phone for this purpose. "My sons are big fans of the s-word in this song," he said, "so I recorded it to my voice mail. I'm sure it's going to sound terrible, but they'll think it's funny." ("Some parents," added Schlesinger, "tell their kids we're saying 'ship,' so the song will go, 'I'm gonna get my ship together.' After all, if you don't get your ship together, it'll sink.")
But sometimes, cell-phone concert communication is not used for such warm and fuzzy purposes. On July 22, two brothers from Long Island congregated in the parking lot of the Jones Beach Amphitheater in suburban New York with four friends before a concert from Arkansas goth rock giants Evanescence. In their case, the phone symbolizes sibling rivalry.
Jason Jacobs, 27, said, "Sometimes, I'll go to a show without my brother, and I'll call him up during a song to gloat — like 'ha, ha, you're not here,' instead of sharing the experience."
"Half the time," said the younger Jacobs, 23-year-old Justin, "I'd just pretend to listen when he does that, and put the phone down," adding that he calls his friends at concerts in order to say "wish you were here. If a certain song reminds me of someone, I'll call them."
Further toward the theater in the parking lot was Veronica, a 22-year-old from Little Neck, Queens. She declined to give her surname but described a similar motivation: "I called my ex-boyfriend when I was at a Something Corporate show at Roseland [in Manhattan]. Our song was 'Constantine,' which is an emotional song about a girl, so I called him when they played it because it made me think of him. But tonight, I'm not going to call anyone, because I want to pay attention to the music. Nobody can hear anything anyway."
Also declining to give her full name was Corrine, a 27-year-old from Long Island who spent most of Evanescence's hour-long, turbulent, exhortative concert singing along to the band's songs with steely determination. But when Evanescence's leader, Amy Lee, sat at a Baldwin piano and coaxed out the delicate opening chords of "My Immortal," the band's hit ballad, Corrine dialed a number and then held her phone above her head.
Asked who she had called after the song ended, she answered, "My ex-husband. That song is the epitome of our relationship."
Occasionally, cell phones are not used to generously share the experience of live music, but to dull the pain of experiencing live music one does not like.
Take David Blotner, a 20-year-old New York University student. At a show from neo-cabaret wunderkind Nellie McKay at New York's South Street Seaport in mid-July, he stared at his phone with tremendous concentration. After she began her first tune, Blotner, a fan of Eminem and Billy Joel who was accompanying his cousin, said he knew this was not his thing — "She sounds like a 60-year-old woman," he lamented.
So Blotner began to play a game, GemDat Bowling, on his phone as his cousin and roughly 150 others paid rapt attention to McKay. "It's the best five dollars I've ever spent," he declared. "I've logged at least 50 hours playing it whenever I'm bored. I got a perfect game one time, and it was the proudest moment of my life."
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