A Sea of Glowing Faces, Turned Downward

At last week’s South By Southwest Festival, singer/songwriter Freedy Johnston took a break halfway through his performance in a lounge on the 18th floor of the Hilton Garden Inn to tell a joke, which went something like this:

A married couple had reached a point in their relationship where they no longer talked to each other. In fact, they hadn’t said a word to each other in years. So they went to a marriage counselor, who listened to their problem, stroked his beard and said, “Hmm, there’s only one cure for this sort of communication breakdown.” He walked out of his office and came back with a young man holding an acoustic guitar. The man stood in front of the couple and began playing a song, at which point the husband immediately turned to his wife and said, “So how’s your day been going?”

For those of you scratching your head, the point of the joke is that people can’t seem to shut up during solo acoustic performances, including Johnston’s.

Freedy’s complaint probably dates back to the 9th century and the invention of the first plucked instrument. Today there’s a new, more modern distraction that’s making life a drag for performers, and it was never more apparent than at this year’s festival.

No matter the size of the crowd or the importance of the artist, within a minute after the band started playing, the entire audience looked down from the stage and began fiddling with their cell phones. Half of them were busy cropping a photo they just took and attaching it to a Facebook status update. The rest were either tweeting something inane like “The Shins are killing it!” or were looking at their SXSW schedule to figure out who they should see next.

Imagine the musicians up there on stage, pouring out their hearts to the festival crowd, and seeing a roomful of heads looking downward, each face glowing by the light of a smartphone screen. The only thing worse than people talking during your performance is people texting during it, or not paying attention at all. It must be like playing to an audience deeply engrossed in solving a crossword puzzle.

I’m as guilty as the rest of the crowd. While attending SXSW showcases last week, I took photos of the performers on stage and then tweeted them with my iPhone, justifying the behavior as helping promote the artists, even though halfway through their sets I found myself aimlessly flipping through my email or checking my March Madness bracket.

The sad truth is that smart phones are here to stay, and for those who go to shows alone, they provide an important function: They help us look and feel less like losers. People who go to shows with friends can chit-chat between sets. But before the smart phone, the rest of us were forced to stand around and awkwardly stare at each other or intently watch roadies switch out drum sets and amplifiers, hoping people thought we were wizened sound engineers studying stage setup techniques.

Now that we all carry smart phones, us loners can act like we’re doing something important between sets, like writing notes for our online blog review, performing an aftermarket foreign currency trade, or texting our army of friends who were too busy to go to the show but now won’t leave us alone, goddammit. No one has to know that we’re actually playing Words with Friends or pointlessly checking into the venue with Foursquare.

Come to think of it, artists should thank the inventor of the smart phone. If not for this valuable social crutch, many of us would stay home rather than face the humiliation of going to shows by ourselves.

That said, the smart phone era clearly is wearing on artists.

During a SXSW performance by Neon Trees, the band’s flamboyant frontman, Tyler Glenn, told the crowd to put their phones away and quit tweeting. “We’ve read it all before,” he said. “I dance like a fairy, we have a female drummer, the guitarist has a bleached bowl cut. You’re not going to tweet anything that hasn’t been tweeted before.”

And then there was Glen Hansard, the singer/songwriter you might remember from the movie Once, or from his bands The Frames and The Swell Season. During his solo acoustic performance Hansard went on a rant about how much he hates smart phones, how they’re turning us all into “fucking idiots,” how they’re a huge, worthless distraction that are destroying our ability to communicate with each other.

“It’s like, when you take your wife out to dinner and she gets up to go to the rest room, the first thing you do is pull out your phone instead of just sitting there and thinking how lovely she looks tonight,” Hansard said. The iPhone fills a gap that doesn’t need filling, he added, and is always eager to tell us what we want to hear.

“Siri, make me a rockstar.”

OK, you’re a rockstar.

Everyone laughed, remembering the iPhone commercial, hiding their smart phones in their pockets. Until Hansard began to sing again, and then they all tweeted what he just said.


Beyond Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on arts, culture, society and the media. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com

posted at 05:00 am
on Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

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