I’ve been to many, many shows in the last two years. After divorcing a person who did not enjoy live music or any of the scene that went with it, I threw off those shackles and made it my mission to see as many live shows as I could in 2018. As it works out, most of them have been male artists. Chis Stapleton, Nathaniel Rateliff, Amos Lee, Flogging Molly, Old 97s, JD McPherson, Anderson East, to name a few.
As at any concert, there’s always some yelling from adoring fans, mostly song requests. A few “Yeahs!!” and the occasional “I love you” shouted from the balcony, cutting across the din of white noise and whooping.
Last week, as I watched my favorite female artist of all time, the show I waited months and months to see was nearly ruined. I could describe it as, at the very best, inconsiderate rudeness, but at the worst, by that thing we call “male privilege”.
It started out innocently enough. The opening act, Lucy Wainwright Roche, a talented young female folksinger with a family history of talent (Loudon and Rufus, for two), invited interaction from the crowd in a show that was part lilting, sullen ballads, part stand-up comedy. Trust me, it worked.
So I thought nothing of it when louder, braver audience members shouted out questions and comments for her. One voice seemed to cut above the others, a man sitting in the front row of the mezzanine, just a section removed from us. He kept yelling “I love you, Lucy!” in every lull in the set. Then cat-calling.
At first, we cracked it up to be an adoring fan following a budding musician through her early career. Or maybe an encouraging family member. But he just kept doing it. She indulged him once or twice, never addressing him directly, but making a joke – “At least there’s one person who loves me!”
Then Patty Griffin took the stage. Her tiny, spry little figure with a mop of reddish blonde curls so big it looked like it might topple her. A voice that is even bigger. Sinews in her arms stretched around a guitar so bulky by comparison that it engulfed most of her body behind it. Her bluesy voice, softly opening with a song from her new album accompanied by Spanish guitar riffs. There are just some artists that constitute almost a religious experience for me, and Patty is one.
I’ve been listening to Patty since I was about 15 years old. Her first album, Living with Ghosts, is simply her voice and a tinny, jangly acoustic guitar, likely strummed to within an inch of its life. Her songs – and those of her distant musical cousins Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos – were the soundtrack to my early life.
Amid years and years of turmoil – an upbringing marked by dysfunctional and absent parents, school years marked by teasing and bullies, a marriage marked by a disloyal and unfaithful partner, a body marked by the scars of unhealthy coping mechanisms – music was the way that I sought meaning. To me, music is the language of the soul, something that makes me feel more than hear.
When “feeling” wasn’t allowed or would cause more harm than good, music helped me make sense of myself. When I was ostracized in most social groups at school, band and chorus were the places I belonged. When I felt trapped, music gave me a way out. It is something that amplifies a mood, or squashes it, or consoles it.
So seeing *live* music is where all of that feeling suddenly emerges. I am easily transported until nothing exists but the artist on the stage, and me in my chair.
When rudeness shows up in the form of disrespectful, boisterous fans.
Throughout the entirety of Patty’s show, she was harassed by “I love you!” “Sing it, Girl”, “Oh Yeah!” from the same gentleman, who I’ve dubbed “I Love You” Man. His voice at full volume easily dwarfed hers and the noise of the whole crowd.
In true folksinger fashion, Patty is a storyteller and spends time explaining the origin and the feelings behind her songs before she belts them into the microphone. It is the reason why her small but loyal band of fans love her so much.
But “I Love You” Man felt that his words were more important. He would heckle her *while* she was speaking. Talking over a woman in such a way is where the “male privilege” comes into play. In all of the shows I’ve seen in the past two years, no male artist has received the same treatment. I am fully aware that female fans can be just as rude, whistling and cat calling at a “hot” guy just the same. But never have I experienced a female fan completely diminishing and virtually eradicating the artist’s presence, let alone making the entire audience in an intimate theater very uncomfortable and annoyed.
It continued from start to finish, and the annoyance of the crowd was palpable, though to her credit, Patty ignored him completely.
Meanwhile and closely related, I was seated next to an older gentleman who was attending the show by himself. At the beginning, he had displayed his lack of physical boundaries by taking off his jacket while sitting down, which meant sprawling his arms and upper torso awkwardly across my lap in an effort to free his arms from his sleeves. The show had not begun yet, so I thought it odd that he wouldn’t just make the ordeal infinitely easier by simply standing up.
He continued by “manspreading”* into my seat for the duration of the show, hence his nickname Manspreader. Narrow seat in an old theater notwithstanding, he hunched over his knees, rested his elbows on his thighs, and spread his chest wide, like a child, chin in hands and gawking at the stage. He then proceeded to flail his arms and hands about in a strange amalgamation of directing a choir, praying, and completing some sort of birdish, seated yoga pose. He was enraptured by her music, that much I could relate.
But then I got a glimpse of the sheer mania operating in this sociopath. During a time in which Patty was telling a story to the audience (and “I Love You” man was no doubt shouting), Manspreader pulled out a plastic flossing pick, and…
Commenced to floss his teeth.
At his seat.
With audience members on each side.
To the point where I could hear the strum of the floss against his molars above the story on stage or the murmur of the crowd.
I turned to John, on my other side. “Now he’s flossing his teeth!” I whispered, exasperated.
“What is wrong with these fans?” he echoed.
Needless to say, when the show ended and I made my compulsory trip to the end of the long line at the ladies room, I had mixed feelings about my experience.
Although still in love with the music, I wondered, “Is it just me? Am I old and crotchety now? I thought fans at this type of show would be different.”
Yet two women ahead of me in line were talking about “I Love You” Man. Neither of them could believe his audacity, or that security hadn’t stepped in. I shared that I had never experienced that kind of behavior at any of the shows for male artists, and all of a sudden, a splinter cell of outraged women was born. You could see the glass shattering behind their eyes.
“Yeah, you’re absolutely right,” said Woman 1. “Why is it ok to talk over a female artist?”
“If I think about it, that would be my experience too,” said Woman 2. “I saw Jade Bird last fall and the same thing happened. She’s young and pretty, but that’s no excuse to cat call the whole time.”
Just then a female security guard stepped behind me in line, the same one who had busted me for trying to take photos during the show, apparently banned at this theater. She seemed interested in the conversation.
I turned to her and said, “Why didn’t you bust that guy who was yelling through the whole show?”
Woman 1 added, “Yes, you caught me taking a video, why didn’t you say anything to him?” (A fellow rebel, I noticed.)
“You should have told me he was bothering you,” the guard said. “I guess I’ve just gotten used to loud guys at shows.”
And isn’t that the rub. We’ve all just gotten used to it.
*“Manspreading” is a term coined by my friend Jill, who experiences far too many close encounters on airplanes.
Post-Script: Since this show, I have attended The Misfits at a large arena in Chicago. Even with a rowdy, punk rock audience, the fans were more well-behaved.