“Alone at the Show” is probably one of my favorite Girlpool songs. It’s sweet and loud and playful and jangly, twirling through the daydream of finally connecting with the person at the show you’re crushing on. A lot of people can probably relate to the feeling of seeing someone a couple of feet away, being instantly drawn to them, occasionally peeking as you both bob your heads to the encompassing sound.
However, the fact for myself and maybe others is that going alone to shows isn’t an opportunity for an ephemeral bond to be made, or even to just make friends. It’s nerve wracking and stressful and makes you feel like you missed some sort of memo to attend with your entire friend group.
I’m not the type of person incapable of being alone. I actually revel in it, gladly eating alone, taking walks alone, or engaging in public events alone. I don’t need to be in a group or with a person to feel like I can be comfortable, though some people may (and that’s valid). The difference lies specifically in the power dynamic, or lack thereof, that exists at gigs.
If you go to a concert in an enormous stadium, it’s likely that none of the people around you are close with the performer, have even spoken to them, or have been within 5 feet of them. The thing about stadium concerts is that your disconnect with the performer serves as an equalizer; there’s no concept of clout or connections because everybody is in a sense a nobody to the performer. The performer is producing art, and the audience is consuming it. Terms such as “fan” are used, and idolization occurs. Although there exists a close relationship between performer and audience as a whole, each individual fan cannot claim to know the performer. There is a definite power disparity between the two parties.
The amazing aspect of DIY is that none of this power disparity has to exist. The stage is usually either floor level or barely above floor level. The artists usually walk around the space beforehand or else relax in very low-key green room type areas. If you’re in the scene and get invited to a show, it’s usually phrased along the lines of “Come hang!” You aren’t going to simply consume entertainment, but to engage with the performers and other audience members and to be a part of the community. You can genuinely be good friends with the people who you go to see.
Unfortunately, in its attempt to destroy the power disparity between performer and artist, the DIY community has created a hierarchy which – to folks such as myself – causes incredible anxiety when it comes to attending shows, especially when it comes to attending shows alone. Many of the conversations center around: “Oh, you know ___? They played with ___ once. They’re pretty cool, I hung out with them a couple of times except there was that weird thing with ____ who I’m closer with.” God forbid you have bad memory. Engaging in the DIY community involves manipulating hearsay and networking into a conversation topic, and it is exhausting. If you can’t remember names of the person who booked and also wrote the zine with them, then you’re completely lost.
The obvious counterargument to this being a bad or nerve-wracking thing is that this is the normal process of getting to know people in a community and amassing knowledge about the community. But the problem is that as someone who isn’t in a band and doesn’t book shows or make zines, as someone who simply attends shows for the music and the vague but palpable feeling of safety, it can feel as though you have nothing to contribute. Why would anyone want to be friends with someone who they can’t play a show with or who they can’t really artistically engage with? So many people in the scene (so many members of the audience) produce as well as absorb art, and many times I feel like I’m almost a leech on the community and like I won’t ever fully be accepted unless I join a band or otherwise establish myself as having clout.
The concept of “punk cred” has been reiterated to the point of becoming a joke amongst punks. The idea that one has to know a certain amount of bands or an amount of songs from that band is ridiculous, as is the idea that one has to dress in a specific manner and act an exact way. However ridiculous, is it really that much of a joke? Ironic uses of the word “punk cred” fascinate me in the way that they don’t acknowledge clout and cred as being very real things. There is a definitive aesthetic punks conform to, and there is a distinct prioritization of knowing as many people as possible and having had the opportunity to play with the coolest bands.
In claiming to be safe, inclusive, spaces, DIY communities become more exclusive than ever. You’d be hard pressed to hear someone call a Drake concert a safe space. But in an arena of screaming fans, there is no pressure to know the other people there, or to have played with one of Drake’s friends at another gig (can you imagine), or to have any knowledge of music production at all. It’s a much more superficial experience, and it can never reach the levels of emotional investment people put into the DIY scene. However, it can also never reach the levels of pretension and exclusivity either.
With punk and DIY, there is so much anxiety for me about knowing the right people, liking the right bands, having the proper sense of humor, and worst of all having some form of human capital to bring to the scene. Dressing correctly has almost become irrelevant to me, but it wasn’t always. Liking the right bands has also lost importance in my mind, because personal taste is clearly subjective and there is no such thing as a “right” taste. Knowing the right people and having capital remain enormous sources of anxiety for me. I am an introvert and tend to space out during gigs, except for when I bring myself back to pay attention to the artist. When the rest of my friends are saying hi to folks they recognize from frequenting enough shows, I tend to stand silent, fearing that I won’t be liked and in the end becoming invisible. As for human capital, like I said I have none. There is no way for me to relate to the artists in the scene, and this makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable and inferior.
The great thing about DIY is that it’s about so much more than the music. The scary thing about DIY is that it’s about so much more than the music. My main participation in the scene is based on loving the music, loving it so much that I want to be there with it in a room of people who I know also love the music. But for me that’s about it, and it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. I feel pressured to network, meet people, talk about certain things, go over the people we know in common. When it comes down to it, I don’t really care, but then that mentality makes me feel as though I’m not truly in the scene.
Being alone at the show could be amazing. If you don’t have these same social anxieties of being “worthy” of the scene or “doing it right,” it can be affirming and great. But there exists so many hierarchies and prerequisites within punk that unless you’re willing to disavow them all or otherwise thrive within these hierarchies and prerequisites, being alone at the show and furthermore being unable to find someone you know or make friends will probably make you feel like you’re the only one who shouldn’t be there.
Article by Ivanna Berrios.