Tuesday, August 18, 2015

I Unironically Go to a One Direction Concert

This is all Matt Wertz's fault.

If he hadn't put "Steal My Girl" on his #WertzWednesdays playlist last year it would have been something I heard but never really listened to. Then I never would have ended up in Baltimore on a Saturday night amidst the deafening screams of 50,000 fangirls.  But he did, and I did, and that's where my story starts.

I originally toyed with the idea of going to see One Direction, sort of because I was curious about what the show would be like, and sort of because I really, really liked some of the songs off their last album (again, all Matt Wertz's fault).  I saw the ticket prices and immediately tossed the idea.  No way I could excuse that kind of spending on a personal experiment.  But back in February I got a call from a teacher friend of mine who, in her voicemail, simply said "Hi! I have a crazy idea... call me back. Bye." Her crazy idea was that she wanted her 2015 Frivolous Tax Refund Check Expenditure to be two tickets to the One Direction show in Baltimore in August, and she wanted me to go with her.  So, through circumstances clearly bearing the mark of destiny, I found myself sitting in the third to last row of M and T bank stadium on a beautiful summer night, eagerly awaiting my time with the four remaining members of One Direction.
In the nosebleed section of the nosebleed section. 
While unrivaled people watching opportunities drew me in initially, I ended up engaged and strangely affirmed by One Direction's performance.  My friend makes a great point about the importance of bubblegum pop music.  Sometimes you just need a silly pop song.  I have to agree.  I keep a playlist that I call the Twinkie playlist.  It's full of songs that have zero musical value and might even be bad for me, but can't help loving.  One Direction are not actively bad for me, I don't think, but taken in incessantly and obsessively, it could (like anything consumed that way) end up doing some pretty serious damage. Often if something isn't making me think, or doesn't have any redemptive value to it, I feel guilty for spending time on it.  Songs in which 50% of the lyrics are monosyllabic singing are what I would classify as pretty low-hanging fruit.  One Direction really delivers in that category, much as the Police did with "De do do do, De da da da". Sometimes you just need to eat a Twinkie. Given the success of both The Police and One Direction, I am sure I am not alone.

First off, the openers: the ultra-high energy Icona Pop.  It's genius for ladykillers like One Direction to have a girl band warm up the crowd screaming things like "All the Ladies in the house make some nooooiiiiiiissseee".   They're hype girls; meant to ramp up the female empowerment level through their sassy pop songs...kind of like the Spice Girls.  In fact, so much like the Spice Girls that they even LOOKED like them (Caroline Hjelt was totally channeling Scary with her hair that night). My big takeaways from their set were that I could take over the world if I were hot and dancing all the time.  Also that fun trumps everything and justifies any means, and it's every young person's right to have it.  Basically their songs are all a modern day spin on "Fight for Your Right to Party" without the clever rhymes and Brooklyn accents. It was humorous to have someone tell us that we can rule the world with a shimmy and a shake, only to then bring on the dreamy manflesh to turn us all into drooling crazy people immediately after. Who's actually in charge here? I don't think the Icona Pop Rule of Life applies to those over 30... but they had microphone stands that looked like light sabres that were pretty sweet.

As an aside, I wish club beats didn't overpower every other part of the songs they are in. I know you are supposed to get lost in the beat and the whole point is escapism and awesome dancing, and maybe drug use, but we swallow a lot of crap down with those beats without tasting it. Not least of which: Icona Pop ripped off the chorus of Tupac Shakur's "Me and my Girlfriend" for their hit "Girlfriend" and no one batted an eye.  I should probably consider that a substantial percentage of the audience was not alive in 1996, or even in 2003 when Jay-Z did the same thing in "'03 Bonnie and Clyde".  So there's that.

Between the sets, we sat up in the stands for an hour talking about things we were seeing in the crowd and looking up facts about One Direction and Icona Pop on our phones.
No room for ageism at a 1D show.  Everyone's a fan. 

We saw grandmas, grandpas, sullen dads, moms who were as excited if not more so than their daughters, myriad midriffs, jeweled high-heeled sneakers, signs begging a band member to spit on them, and more things that kind of made me sad.  My friend was a wealth of information on some of the trends I was seeing.  I corroborated all her information and added some of my own findings.  Here are some of the things we found out about 1D subculture:
  • #CutforZayn was an internationally trending (and horrifying) hashtag on Twitter in March after his announcement of leaving the band to "be a normal 22 year old"
  • There was a Teen Vogue piece entitled "What to Wear to a One Direction Concert"
  • An Emergency announcement went out on the official One Direction Fan Fiction Website after Zayn left, assuring contributors that "All fanfiction regarding Zayn will be remain unaffected. We encourage Zayn fics, because here anything is possible!"
  • There is a staggering amount of 1D Fan Fiction, and there are annual official awards for it, with a slew of categories.
  • From Cosmopolitan: "Larry is the nickname given by people who 'ship' (i.e. fantasize about a relationship between) Harry and Louis. (Larry Stylinson is a mash-up of Harry's and Louis's names.)"
  • Fans know that Harry Styles is partial to bananas; (he's worn them, had them thrown at him and has occasionally even ridden one on stage) and they wear banana costumes to concerts in solidarity with him. 
  • The #bandanaproject gives fans a way to show favoritism for a member of 1D by wearing a specific color of bandana.  A fan movement started in early 2014. Harry = green, Niall = white, Liam = red, Louis = blue, Zayn (faithful departed) = yellow. 
  • I have now successfully learned the names of the men who make up the band and can associate the correct name with the correct person.  Please don't quiz me. 
Bandana Project on display in the crowd at our show. Someone's hanging on to Zayn's memory. 
Also in that interim hour we were bombarded with cross promotional music and commercials from Honda.  I had never heard of 5 Seconds of Summer before Saturday and now I am more familiar with their music than I would have cared to be.  They kept showing clips of 5SoS and I kept turning to Laurel excited that showing a video of the band probably meant that One Direction was coming on stage soon.  Sadly, the bands are just that similar (looking, sounding, you name it...) that I couldn't tell the difference between them.  5SoS have a song called "Kinda Hot" which affirms that if you are a kinda hot girl it makes anything you do awesome, even if it's actually terrible.  Another band we heard from often was Little Mix.  They, too, follow the Spice Girls formula but with less of the girl power and more reliance on power chiefly derived, it would seem, from extensive use of eyeliner, hair extensions and metallic spandex.  I was really, really bored by the end of the interim and did not want to hear any more Honda Civic Tour music.  I am obviously not their target demographic.  I was quite impressed, however, with the overall marketing synergy in terms of the band lineup, Honda Civics, car financing, and education loans.  There were a lot of bored dads there who probably had nothing better to do than crunch numbers about student and car loans for their little girls.
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. 

The best(?) of the 1D dad shirts.

Our wait was almost up and we heard the sound of anticipation:

...and then the lights went down:

and THEN they took the stage:

I was both astounded by and immediately infected with the power radiating from those four men.  After the first song they stopped, casually sauntering around the stage, knowing that their audience was waiting with wrapt attention for any morsel they might want to throw us. After some words of greeting, the only one who wore semi-normal fitting pants said, "I see a lot of sexy Americans out there..." The place erupted.  I was surprised to find myself blushing and not a little bit flattered by the tiny figure way down below.  Later on in the set, one of them said "People in the back, we SEE you!".  They were talking about us, way up in the bad seats.  Again I felt a wave of good feelings wash over me.  I have read before that women really need to feel seen; being seen is a huge part of feeling loved for us. Even though I knew they couldn't actually see me, I was surprised at how good it made me feel; how an impersonal comment felt very personal. One girl with Down Syndrome was sitting about three rows in front of us. She had on her bandana (yellow... maybe she's still in mourning?), carried her sign, and was ecstatic to be there.  One Direction's uncanny ability to make everyone feel special, and specifically to make women feel beautiful really mattered.  I thought that a night like this must be a real gift for that girl, who might not feel that a whole lot.  It certainly felt like a gift to me.

Like I said, these guys ooze charisma. But the cynic in me suspects their message is practiced and honed by their undoubtedly amazing marketing teams and collected audience information. In this electronic age, where we are always leaving a trail of breadcrumbs of our likes and dislikes with every click, do we indirectly tell them what to say to us and they have the good sense to say (or sing) it?

Everybody wanna steal my girl...
Here are all the songs they played in the order that they were played. All those screams you heard in the recordings? Multiply it by 1000.  I was woefully unprepared for the amount of screaming that the night demanded.  I really enjoyed dancing, and when they played "Steal My Girl", the second song, I went just about as crazy as everyone else.  My favorite song of the night was "Where Do Broken Hearts Go".  I had heard what I wanted to hear by song #6 and enjoyed the rest of the evening totally uninvested.

I felt a little bit of distance from the band because while they co-write on a majority of their songs, a large portion of the writing is done for them.  They played their song "Eighteen" and as soon as they played it I heard Ed Sheeran.  I asked Laurel if this song had been written by Ed, and she said it had.  It was the guitar intro that tipped me off.  I understand how important the right packaging is for a successful product.  The four men on stage are the absolute perfect package for the product being conveyed.  Those looking for anything more than odes to youth and young love, and danceable, carefree, quintessential pop music should look elsewhere.  Although Ed Sheeran's music qualifies as pop music, I think his lyrics are pretty substantial.  I kinda wished it was just him singing his own song to me, instead of these other guys. Ed does cool things like quote Dylan Thomas and processes some pretty big ideas in his music.  Not to mention he can write a killer hook.  But he also has talent enough as a songwriter alone to keep the whole world in great love songs for a few decades, so why not share the wealth?

Maybe it's because I came of musical age in the 90s, when angst ruled the airwaves, that I inherently distrust any music that doesn't make me feel a little pain.  (Grouplove's 2011 album entitled "Never Trust a Happy Song" is coming to mind...) Smashing Pumpkins really did a number on me. Pop music is a solipsism, a genre that defines itself. Truthfully, pop music encompasses many of my favorite bands: U2, Springsteen, Mumford and Sons, etc., simply because they are listened to by a large number of people, hence, they are popular. But the way I am defining the One Direction sound points to a carefully engineered popular music. There are bands that arrive at popularity because what they create from their own artistic vision simply finds a place in the hearts of many.  I am unsure that One Direction has an artistic vision outside the one that we, as their consumers, give to them based on telling them what we like and what we want to see through social media and consumer patterns.

My favorite music (and my favorite things and people, come to think of it) draws me outside of myself. My own unexplored, surface desires don't necessarily lead me to the things that are best for me. More often the opposite is true. Underneath my surface desires is one big, all-encompassing desire that, I think, everyone shares in.  It transcends this world.  I think if we're all being honest, our real desire isn't met by the things this life has to offer us. I walked away from this concert with some of those surface desires met.
  1. 1D actually made me feel beautiful.  When they sang those songs like "What Makes You Beautiful" and "Steal My Girl" they were singing words that I needed (need) to hear more than I do. And for a moment, I let myself believe, along with the rest of the stadium full of listeners, that they were singing them just for me. 
  2. I had a lot of fun: unencumbered, silly, carefree fun.  And largely because the music doesn't require thought. Its happy, easy, major-chord progressions, and catchy rhythms make it accessible for everyone. 
  3. I didn't feel alone.  Besides being in a place with 50,000 other people, I also felt united behind a common purpose, which was to enjoy fun music. 
However, there was another common purpose at work: veneration of One Direction.  On that point, I felt more like Ulysses tied to the mast of his ship in The Odyssey when he passes the Sirens.  In fact, that might have been part of the motivation for going to this concert at all.  Could I withstand the charms of this all-powerful boy band and keep my musical virtue intact? Part of me wanted to give over to the worship of these four golden-voiced men. The combination of their insanely catchy songs, the well-placed compliments from the stage falling on ears that desperately need to be affirmed, and the beautiful things delivering them made this desire almost irresistible.

Maybe what kept me tied to the mast is age and experience. I'm old enough to know the space that One Direction occupies and to keep it there - the Twinkie space. They need to be there to keep me from being too serious.  They are a reminder that good things don't always come with a side of pain, or deep introspection. But in the long run, real fulfillment is found in things with lasting truth, and I think the message of One Direction is one that works for a while, but no real answers come from it. So I will continue to listen to, and thoroughly enjoy their flawless pop productions when the time is right for them. But I will not look to them as songs that point towards something bigger than me, and thus to something truer than our own feelings. I am deeply appreciative of the generosity that made this concert possible for me, and for the kind souls on the stage, who while full of charm and pretty words, were also full of seemingly genuine gratitude.  1D, keep doing what you're doing. You're alright in my book.  

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