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One of my favorite get-to-know-you questions is, “What’s the first concert you went to?” Whether a cool act or a cringy one, talking about that experience always stirs people’s emotions—and I get a better understanding of the person telling the story. At that moment, I see a glimpse of their younger self.
My first concert was Depeche Mode, the masters of 1980s industrial-tinged synth pop. I remember buzzing with anticipation alongside my sister Rachel, then howling with thousands of our fellow teenagers when the lights dropped. As the band walked on stage, a distinctive series of notes echoed through the suburban arena, and the song “Black Celebration” began. We were all dressed in black, ready to celebrate. It was perfect.
A few decades later, Rachel and I took our daughters to their first concert: the boy-band phenomenon One Direction. The girls liked their music but were hardly superfans; my sister and I were the ones who really wanted to go. (An attempt to recapture our lost youth, perhaps.) The band seemed aware of this intergenerational dynamic; at one point, Harry Styles took the mic and thanked all “the mums and grandmums who drove tonight.” It was both mortifying and hilarious. I hope my daughter enjoys telling that story one day.
Thanks to pent-up, post-COVID demand, it’s been a great year for concerts. Ed Sheeran set attendance records during his recent United States tour, and Taylor Swift and Beyoncé did their share of filling stadiums, with Swift’s The Eras Tour already the highest-grossing concert film of all time. There’s something about losing yourself in a communal experience that’s immensely appealing in this age of virtual meetings and not-so-social media. We want to see the artists we love in person. We want to believe they’re singing directly to us.
With streaming services paying minuscule amounts per song played, most musicians can no longer support themselves through recordings alone, so touring has become a financial necessity. While icons such as Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan can still draw a crowd by simply singing on a stage, other musical acts lure audiences with special effects, multiple costume changes, and eye-popping sets. The singer Pink even does high-flying aerial stunts during her shows.
This reading list takes you on a mini-tour of different concert experiences, from moments of emotional connection to high-tech extravaganzas that are creating an entirely new kind of show.
I Paid to See Beyonce in Three Different Cities on the Renaissance Tour. Here’s Why (Malaika Jabali, Essence, September 2023)
For Essence editor Malaika Jabali, Beyoncé’s album Renaissance was a lifeline, “a jolt of infectious energy pumped into our veins after two years of angst and despair.” She considered herself lucky to get tickets to see her musical idol in Toronto, but seeing the show only made her want to go again—and again. She even caught a last-minute flight from Atlanta to Tampa when she was able to get resale tickets hours before the Florida show.
Jabali’s essay starts with a confession: “My name is Malaika, and I have a problem.” By framing Beyoncé’s concerts as a form of addiction, she explains how fandom can turn into near-obsession. Why else would anyone pay so much for last-minute tickets, let alone a madcap rush to the airport?
Before reading this piece, I’d forgotten how much it means to see one of your musical idols in person. The Renaissance tour, Jabali writes, was a tribute to Beyoncé’s most die-hard followers, celebrating influences and references that resonated on a personal level.
Beyoncé’s appeal—especially for many Black people and queer people—extends beyond her stage performances. Outside of two conventional R&B/pop albums earlier in her career . . . Billboard hits haven’t been Beyoncé’s priority.
It’s easy to follow a formula to pop stardom. Instead, she started to take the harder, riskier routes. She made songs that elevated every corner of Black music geographically and sonically, keying in on genres that we revered from house parties and HBCU homecomings, to cookouts and queer ballrooms, from D.C. to Detroit. And she put them on world stages, regardless of their potential for commercial success.
U2 Takes to Playing in the Round (the Very, Very Round) at Las Vegas’ Sphere With Spectacular Results: Concert Review (Chris Willman, Variety, September 2023)
How does one of the world’s longest-running rock bands keep themselves relevant? By performing a one-of-a-kind show in a one-of-a-kind venue. U2 was the debut act of the recently opened Sphere in Las Vegas, and music critic Chris Willman says it was an apt pairing, “the apotheosis of a bigger-is-better ethos that has regularly occurred throughout the band’s career, and which they are not about to give up now that they’re in their 60s for any back-to-basics false modesty.”
As a U2 listener from way back, I was curious about their latest reinvention; if money were no object, I’d have been dancing in the Sphere alongside Willman on opening night. Reading this account was the next best thing. Willman’s descriptions of the visuals that accompany each song are particularly vivid, but the show’s real brilliance, he writes, comes from the band’s ability to connect to its audience, despite the cavernous space.
The group that has spent so much of its recording output urging you to think about God, and other only slightly less weighty matters, is in Sin City mostly to make you say: “Oh my God.” And we can vouch that we were hearing that utterance, from people above, below and around us, in a kind of reactive, quadraphonic effect that nearly matched Sphere’s vaunted 22nd-century sound system.
This being U2, they would like to be seen as an overgrown club band at their core, at the same time they are producing the rock blockbuster to end all blockbusters. Wanting to have it both ways has worked for the group before, and it works again, in this setting. . . . It’s a cliche to say that U2 can achieve intimacy in the midst of the most ridiculous extravaganza, but nobody in rock history has done a better job of taking visual and aesthetic dynamics to extremes.
How Park Jimin of BTS Helped Me Feel Seen in My Brown, Queer Body (Padya Paramita, them, February 2021)
Like plenty of others in the COVID lockdown era, Padya Paramita dived into the music of K Pop superstars BTS as a form of escape. Even before the world shut down, she hadn’t been sure how to reconcile her conservative Bangladeshi upbringing with the gender non-conformity she’d experienced at her American college: “I struggled to share my pronouns and was confused about what they even were.” Being isolated at home only made that confusion catastrophically worse.
Then she watched BTS play an online concert that was live-streamed to almost a million fans around the world—and a performance of the song “Filter” by singer/dancer Park Jimin brought her to tears. For me, this piece was a moving example of the power live music can have, even when you’re watching a concert performed halfway around the world.
The K-pop industry is heavily gendered. There have only been a handful of mixed gender bands among hundreds of boy and girl groups, and being openly queer is often completely out of the question for most K-pop stars — even heterosexual artists aren’t allowed to date publicly. Despite everything, Jimin started coming out of his shell, openly wearing outfits originally designed for women, shirts with the words “gender equality” and “radical feminist,” laughing at his bandmates for claiming selfies aren’t for men, and letting his dance moves flow freely.
Jimin reminded me of myself — I was born 75 days before him, 2500 miles away. Yet both of us had tried hard to please society and performed gender in a way we weren’t meant to put on. It both took us time to realize that society’s gender norms weren’t the law, there was no “male” or “female” when it came to fashion and behavior. We would still be loved, even if we took the risk of expressing ourselves in a real way.
The Story of the First Ever Glastonbury Festival (El Hunt, NME, June 2023)
Woodstock in 1969 was an era-defining event, paving the way for a new kind of concert: multiple bands playing outside over multiple days, to an audience of young people who were willing to put up with rain, mud, sunburn, and questionable portable toilets. Today, festivals such as Coachella and Lollapalooza are big businesses, with VIP tents sponsored by corporate brands.
The Glastonbury Festival in England is one such success story, but as El Hunt writes in this appreciation, it started with “1500 hippies, five dogs, and one goat.” The festival’s co-creator, Michael Eavis, was a dairy farmer with “grand ambitions and a hefty overdraft,” who thought hosting an event on his land would be a good way to make money. (It didn’t quite work out that way.)
Interviewing some of the original attendees, Hunt paints a picture of a more carefree time, when festivalgoers not only didn’t worry about pulling together Instagram-worthy outfits but often arrived with no luggage at all. Their memories take us back to a long-gone spirit of open-minded adventure when no one was quite sure what they’d find when they reached the festival grounds.
Entry for punters cost £1, the equivalent of £5 in today’s money, and for that you got a carton of milk from the dairy farm.
There was no super fence to keep out gatecrashers. In fact, when a group of hippies walked all the way to the farm from London thinking it was a free festival, the crowd chipped in for their entry fees. Advertising for the event was minimal, and info was spread by word-of-mouth. Attendance was far lower than the 3000 people expected, and Eavis didn’t break even, let alone earn enough to clear his overdraft. “It hasn’t been a disaster,” he told the BBC afterwards. “But it hasn’t been as good as I hoped.”
ABBA Voyage Concert Review (Paul Sinclair, Super Deluxe Edition, May 2022)
Even at the height of their late-’70s/early-’80s fame, the Swedish pop phenomenon ABBA played relatively few live shows. As other nostalgia acts reunited in recent years, ABBA resisted the lure of a hefty comeback-tour paycheck; as music writer Paul Sinclair puts it, “45 years from their heyday, all four members are in their seventies and have concluded that no one wants, or needs, to see ‘old ABBA’ on stage, least of all them!”
But was there a way to get “young ABBA” back? Sinclair describes the journey that led to ABBA Voyage, a London show starring the “ABBAtars,” 3D virtual images that perform alongside a live band. Why would anyone want to sit through an entire concert’s worth of holograms, I wondered? Then I read Sinclair’s review of the opening-night performance. Like me, Sinclair went in full of doubts, which were quickly swept away by a wave of ABBA-licious magic.
ABBA Voyage is like some kind of wonderland. For 90 minutes you believe the unbelievable. I was concerned that I might have to work hard to enjoy the evening, but actually the suspension of disbelief is easy. Why? Because ABBA in their primes are standing right in front of you. Your brain might be trying to tell you it’s not real, but your heart, your databank of emotions – love, joy, regret, sadness – are tripping on overload. . . .
It seems inconceivable – and ultimately become irrelevant – that we are witnessing images on a 65-million-pixel flat screen. I’m still not sure I believe it. When the show starts, the lighting in the 3000-seat arena drops very low –but not so low that you can’t see the other people you are sitting amongst. This sense of a communal experience – laughing, singing, and crying and dancing to ABBA with other people – was very important to producer Svana Gisla, and I can understand why. Total darkness is too isolating. It’s these kinds of details that make all the difference.
Survivors of Concert Violence Speak Out (Quinn Moreland, Pitchfork, March 2018)
Any time large numbers of people come together in a confined space, there’s a chance of things going wrong. When the Rolling Stones decided to play a show at the Altamont Speedway in California and hired the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang as security, it led to one of the first, most notorious concert disasters: a fan was stabbed to death while trying to rush the stage.
Sadly, the death toll has risen significantly since then. For this piece, Moreland interviewed the survivors of four different tragedies: the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan theater in Paris; the suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England; the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida; and the shooting at the Route 91 country-music festival in Las Vegas. In their own words, these witnesses describe how the experience affected the way they process large, public events. Some always look for an exit route when they go to a new venue; others check how much security is evident.
What’s striking is how many of those people still go to concerts. Before reading these accounts, I assumed that anyone who’d experienced such traumatic violence would stay away from crowded events entirely. A few have, of course, but I was touched and inspired by the stories of those who’ve refused to give up on live music. For Steve Munoz, a survivor of the Las Vegas shooting, going to concerts has even become a form of healing.
Before that weekend, I’d never been to a music festival before, but I’m definitely more obsessed with going to concerts now. Listening to country music was a big part of it. I have all kinds of tastes when it comes to music, but ever since Route 91, I’ve only really listened to country. I felt like if I did not listen to music, I was giving that guy control because I would be associating all the evil that had happened with the music of that night. We all heal and deal with things differently, but for me, the music was what helped me get past the darkness of that night.
Elizabeth Blackwell is the author of While Beauty Slept, On a Cold Dark Sea, and Red Mistress. She lives outside Chicago with her family and stacks of books she is absolutely, positively going to read one day.