« Oh I love this song » : A Semiology Of The Concert

Have you ever read a scholarly paper in the form of a wordpress that started with a quote from the most celebrated thinker in Eastern philosophy? No? Well, this is your lucky day.

Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.

Behind this somewhat plain sentence, Chinese philosopher Confucius touched an odd feature of music: this form of art, by its unique benefits, would be inherent and indispensable to human kind. Music is found in each and every culture since the dawn of times, including prehistoric tribes that used bowls and sticks to produce enjoyable sounds.

Which made me think. We listen to music to feel pleasure, to enjoy its particular quality, we “consume” music in order to feel. So why aren’t people satisfied with listening to their favorite artist from the bottom of their bed? If the essence of music is sound, why meet packs of strangers in a moist, smelly and dark environment, wait outside of a venue for hours, just to hear the same sounds one could be enjoying at home? The answer, simple as it is, was hidden under layers of literature dealing with music in all of its complexity, sociologically, theoretically, harmonically…
Confucius said it: music produces pleasure. Pleasure has to be lived. Digging into my memory, I unearthed an archaic tool, a tool dating back to ancient Greece and its tradition of rhetorical art : behold, the syllogism! A equals B, B equals C, therefore A equals C…
Music has to be lived; therefore, it is about experience.

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7:20PM on a Friday. November 13th.

After a solid hour spent in the subway, I find myself in the Pigalle neighborhood, one of the many places in Paris that made its reputation. The Moulin Rouge, the cabarets, the French cancan, the prostitutes / “petites femmes de Pigalle” celebrated by Serge Lama… Pigalle is one of the only remnants of a forgotten Paris slowly replaced by gentrification. I don’t know the premises at all, this is my first time in this area. What am I doing here? Why, I am coming for the experience of course.


I am headed for La Cigale, one of the many famous venues of the city, for the inRocks-Philips Festival, which brings together a touring group of bands and artists playing some of the major cities in France for a week or so. For the record, I had never heard of the festival before, and was only there to see one band out of the four playing that night. Had I known what was expecting me, I might have gone to see the wrong concert instead that night.

La Cigale is no ordinary place: it is a historical landmark of Paris, built in 1887 to host “revue” shows. Ever since 1987, the venue hosts a variety of shows, from stand-up comedy to concerts, in a theater-like environment beautifully ornamented.

I am late. Judging by the sound coming out of the door, the first band has already started. Penetrating into the main room, I am brutally sucked in by the dark and the noise, and I cannot stress the word noise enough, because this is not music according to my definition, in spite of my high tolerance for noisy music. The chaos produced by the band makes me lose my senses for a second, and I wonder if this is just a rehearsal, roadies setting up the sound system. The room is not even half full, it is still early; I get closer on the side to see the stage, and this is what I saw.

Don’t watch this more than 15 seconds, as it might damage your eardrums. Around 9:30 into the video, you can really appreciate what I experienced when I came in, visually and acoustically. This is Bo Ningen, a“noise/acid/punk” Japanese rock band, as I later learned. Now I am no old-fashioned traditionalist when it comes to music, so I tried. I did. Yet after one song, I was dying for the band to leave. Which made me think. Again.

My generation is used to instaneousity. We dislike? We zap, we switch, we swipe, we close, we fast-forward, we delete. Sensorial experiences have to be fast, quick and easily dismissible if need be. Unfortunately for me, this was not a video on YouTube, or a song on my iPod. I felt trapped in my own experience. I was living a moment that made me feel uncomfortable, and the only way to escape it, was to see it through the end, no matter how unpleasant it was. Unsurprisingly, the major part of the crowd was not reacting well to the display of excessive behavior and slightly fake “punk” attitude. People stood still, watching with perplexity, perhaps waiting for the end just as I was. There was no connection between the band and its audience, no immersion, no enjoyment, no signs or behaviors betraying a pleasant experience on the part of the crowd. The inexistant relationship was sterile and unproductive. The final song ended, we applauded politely, and intermission was upon us.

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Lights are turned back on. I realize the place I’m in is not just any venue in Paris, it looks like a proper theatre house, with beautiful ornamentations on the ceiling, great red curtains, a balcony tastefully decorated… La Cigale is all about paradox: while its architecture screams high culture and 19th-century aristocratic entertainment, the venue has been created to host low culture: vaudeville, revue first, and today any type of music or show, from stand-up comedy to Japanese punk noise rock (apparently).

tumblr_inline_nyy0xpVn8R1qbwc6t_500 There is a blurring of boundaries in this place, a hybridity of some sort. Visually, the concertgoer is taken in between two eras: on stage, he is faced with a profusion of technology, stacks of amps, microphones, speakers, keyboards… But around him is the style and atmosphere of another time, the visual eloquence of an era in which going to a concert was the prerogative of the upper class. Interestingly enough, one does not realize this during the show since the room is only lit by the projectors on stage. Likewise, the genres of music programmed that night cohabit without sharing the same core values, yet they coalesce to provide the unique experience the crowd came to consume.
For these reasons, la Cigale is a place where postmodernity is a structural element, where appearance and function don’t go hand in hand, function almost going against the grain of the expectations one might have when seeing its surroundings. This mix of influences gives to la Cigale a unique aura, much like the notion of “presence” attributed to certain people: the venue almost has an organic feeling, as if it was an entity gifted with agency.

I’ve set the frame of my experience. Now let me tell you about the people. Once again, at first I could only see bodies swaying (or not, incidentally) because of the darkness and the stroboscopic lighting effects. During the break, the room lit up, and while everybody starting chatting cheerfully, my watch began…

I noticed two common factors to most people in the room, factors that seemed to stem from hypothetical “universal commandments” of concert-going.

tumblr_inline_nyy4oaiSwm1qbwc6t_4001. Thou Shalt Not Come Unaccompanied.
More than 90% of the audience came in pairs or in groups, whether they were couples, friends or family. Social conventions demand that one find a partner in order to go see a concert, at the risk of otherwise being perceived as a marginal. I, myself, came alone, (mainly because I could not find anyone interested in coming with me) mostly because I was there to observe and watch; as a consequence, I spent most of my time writing down observations on my phone.
However, while I had a valid reason for doing so, my gaze — ever looking for signs and particular behaviors — stopped on a handful of individuals among the crowd, also buried in their phones…
These people were not just checking their messages, they would not look away from their screens, because technology was their way of coping withcircumstantial solitude. There is a good chance the inRocks Festival was not their first concert, thus they had previously internalized the commandments, they knew being all alone when everybody belongs to a “tribe” was not right. The smartphone encloses them in a bubble that isolates them from the moment at hand, while simultaneously operating as an open window on the outside. The “loners” were trying to fake a social activity deemed acceptable by their fellow music aficionados, even though there is intrinsically nothing wrong with being on your own at a public event. This ephemeral microcosm relies heavily on peer pressure to regulate “abnormal” behavior.

2. Thou Shalt Not Remain Sober.
It does not take a sociologist to understand that part of the concert experience is, culturally, tied to alcohol consumption. An overwhelming percentage of the audience takes advantage of the intermission to go buy a drink or two that will guarantee their “having a good time”. Which meaning can we give to this tradition?
Alcohol is associated with letting loose, especially when it comes to large-scale gatherings such as concerts. Much like a party, a concert is a festiveevent, where one is guaranteed to enjoy himself/herself thanks to a state ofimmersion in the present, an independence from reality and the outside world. Consequently, during 2 to 3 hours, the crowd does anything it can to enhance the quality of the moment, intensify it. Part of this endeavor implies consuming alcohol for its relaxing properties, in addition to it being a social lubricant that unties tongues, creates free-flowing conversations and facilitates contact with strangers. This habit is so anchored in mentalities that concertgoers do not seem to mind the higher range of prices most venues ask for.

tumblr_inline_nz3gm07RUy1qbwc6t_500This “crowd” I keep referring to as if it were a homogenous entity was, in fact, made of multiple unique individuals, in terms of age, clothing, socio-professional category, or just gender.
There was a proportion of about 60% of men, between 20 and 35 years old for the most part; among them, many had the clothes and the style of “hipsters”: thick beard, well-groomed, and retro clothes such as the colorful 80s jacket visible on the picture above. I later learned that the inRocks Festival is known for being a little avant-garde/hipster-oriented, hence the Japanese band that opened. Curiously, only men sported this style, while women (also around the same age) wore nothing extravagant or particularly noticeable: this is striking, as women are traditionally the ones dressing in a fashionable way. While this trend did not disappear, men now seem to adopt the same awareness about their looks, indicating a shift in gender boundaries among this young upper middle class.
On the contrary, the traditional dichotomy between lower class/choir and upper class/balcony, seems to endure. Judging by their appearance, balcony dwellers seemed to be fairly well-off, and were not as expressive and enthusiastic as choir dwellers. Not to mention that the balcony provides seats, while people in the choir are deliberately standing to be free to dance and to be closer to the stage. La Cigale might be a place of postmodernism where high culture and low culture collide, but historical and cultural separations remain anchored in the spatial structure of the landmark.

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The second band to play was the one I came for, Wolf Alice, a London-based indie-rock/post-grunge band. Notice how precise and fundamental the typology of music is: these categories are supposed to help one imagine the sound of a band without having ever heard them. Using imagination to hear: a rather odd process, isn’t it?
During this performance, my subjectivity was heavily engaged and I must admit I gave into the experience at the risk of forgetting my semiological approach. Although some scholars have argued that, in order to fully comprehend an item of study, one should immerse himself/herself completely in it and embrace subjectivity, I am not sure this is the case. I did however identify an element that caused rupture in the concert experience. 

The videos of the festival attached to these posts are, obviously, professional work. France Télévisions was recording the whole night for their CultureBox website, which means that on top of the still cameras disseminated throughout the room, there was a massive crane-like mechanical arm with a camera at its end dangling above the crowd in front of the stage. This disruptive element often came between me and the stage, temporarily blinding me to the focus of the experience. Each time, being visually deprived of the source of the music would take me out of the immersive experience provided by the band, although this relies heavily on sound. Is this what technology is? An intrusive, pernicious obstacle to any genuine experience one might live?

Looking forproof, I spotted a man deeply buried in his phone, right in the middle of a yet punchy song. Standing in the middle of the room, people dancing to the music around him, this person was perfectly still, scrolling on his screen, somehow oblivious to the waves of sound blasting from the speakers. He wassecluded from the moment in his impermeable digital bubble, which was a deliberate choice on his part; yet one can’t help but wonder if this was the best moment to do so.

As Wolf Alice’s set came to an end and another band replaced them, I realized each time the lights were turned back on for an intermission, the crowd was growing in volume and in age. Was it a question of time? Perhaps people came straight from work to the festival. However this does not explain the age parameter. On my left, two thirty-somethings were engaged in profound discussion about music, jousting with jargon such as “pinkfloydian”… Another pair of twenty-year-olds were talking about playing music and instruments, and I realized judging by the rock t-shirts some displayed, that most of the crowd was used to this environment. They either listened to a lot of music, or played in a band, or worked in the music industry… This was a niche concert. None of the acts performing that night were particularly famous in any shape or form (although Wolf Alice just received a Grammy nomination a few days ago). Had I been to the formerly-called Bercy Arena, the crowd and the place would have been much more “mainstream” and less elitist, but the inRocks Festival prides itself on handpicking artists on the verge of recognition and fame, which brings in a crowd of connoisseur.

The third act, an alternative rock band called The Districts, seems to have the most fans, and the front row is bouncing and cheering loudly through the songs. In a concert setting, energy display is tied to appreciation of sound, which is an unexpected translation of matter.

The room is now full, and as the third intermission finishes, a sense of awkwardness and discomfort fills the room: Fat White Family just came on stage, seven or eight musicians with shaved heads, brown shirts or camouflage t-shirts, and little mustaches. Their logo: a hammer and anvil hovering above a hog’s head. It suddenly feels a lot like 1933 in there.

Paradoxically, a bigger part of the crowd seems to enjoy the band’s sound which is yet very distinctive, off-key screaming being its main feature. The first three rows are jumping and colliding into each other on purpose (according to the ritualistic “pogo” where people run into each other at punk concerts), and their behavior appears to be directly linked to the band and its peculiar visual and sonic style… The name “Fat White Family” echoes the Manson Family, a hippie community led by Charles Manson that committed many murders and crimes in the 1970s. Because of this parallel, it occurred to me the scene I was witnessing had vague elements of a cult gathering: the fervor and ardor of the crowd borderline fanatic, the looks and visual identity of the band, the way the frontman stirred up the front rows with his screams and erratic behavior… Fans were oddly receptive despite their chaotic and violent behavior.
Naturally, this can be said of most rock concerts, where decorum has no place: the expectations of the audience towards the artist performing are so high a simple “hello Paris” from the singer is enough to send the crowd into a frenzy. Moreover, the physical posture of people is quite self-explanatory, as people actually look up to the stage and the band, as if they were waiting for commands or guiding from the artists. This particular feature of the rock show was emphasized with the Fat White Family, which for me made it all the more uncomfortable to witness as I was not part of the micro-experience taking place in the front rows.
Because this was the last band to perform and in no way did I enjoy their first three songs, I left. On my way out, I (figuratively) bumped into Wolf Alice’s bass player; I briefly considered saying something to him, but could not: this eerie aura surrounding art in general and performing musicians prevented me from doing so. Unintentionally, I reduced him to a piece of art on display at the museum: there is something hieratic about performing artists, an aura that makes them unique, rare and precious. They are on stage; you are not. Therefore you are not on the same plane of existence as them, they don’t belong to your reality, they are from the artistic dimension.

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I may write a lot, my apologies about that. Here are my final, semiologically-filtered words.

  • Feel: the fuel that brings one to pay 30 to 60€ to come to a crowded space with utter strangers. The un-quantifiable gain one earns when witnessing a performance. The catalyst of the experience.
  • Music: the medium, the means of expression creating the unique bond between audience and performer, the language used when artists and audience engage in dialog.
  • Sound: the raw material. It is neither positive or negative, it is the oil before it is refined. To the layman’s ear, it is noise. To the educated ear, it is music.
  • Experience: the purpose that makes the difference between listening to an audio file alone at home and going to a venue to live the music and feel the drums resonate inside one’s bones. The ultimate retribution, the Holy Grail.
  • Immersion: the sine qua non condition under which one can fully access the experience. The state of mind implying an active behavior from an individual willing to let go of the outside.
  • Instantaneousity: the frame, the boundaries delimiting the edges of the experience outside of which one cannot live the moment to the fullest.
  • High/low culture: the paradox and dichotomy between the aesthetics of the venue and the activities taking place there. Going against the essence of the physical identity of La Cigale to hijack it in favor of a “lower” form of culture (rock music).  
  • Postmodernity: the paradigm in which the event takes place. Postmodernity fashions and shapes the people, the habits, the behaviors and the relationships.
  • Aura: the enhancer to the performer, as perceived by the audience member. The aura sets aside the band, turning it into a one-time rarity worth contemplating and listening to, much like a piece of art. However, the aura establishes a distance between the audience and the performers resulting in difficult off-stage interactions.
  • Tribe: the basic unit at a show, formed by two people or more. The tribe usually shares the same socio-cultural values, the same taste for the performing act, and lives the experience together as a group.
  • Intensity: the depth of the experience. Much like volume on a speaker, variations in intensity provide relief to what one experiences. The more emotions one feels, the better.
  • Technology: the disruption, causing immersion to plummet, intensity to drop and feelings to lower. While technology is also what makes the performance possible, it is a hazard for the average concertgoer trying to forget the outside and appreciate the moment.

22:20. I leave the venue. Walking through the Pigalle neighborhood, I find it much less crowded than one would expect on a Friday night, near empty. I check my phone for directions, but my battery is dead. I manage to find the metro stop without getting lost.

3.4km from here, a concert went horribly wrong, and people will never be as carefree as they were tonight.


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