Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing a live concert in 1976 when lead singer Ronnie Van Zant asked the audience what they wanted to hear. He was answered with a deafening roar of "Freebird!" The rendition of the song that followed became legendary. Years later in the early 1980s, indie rock fans developed the habit of shouting out the song title as an ironic sneer at classic rock. Later that decade, famed Chicago radio personality Kevin Matthews called on all KevHeads (his diehard followers) to yell "Freebird!" at a concert by Florence Henderson (of "Brady Bunch" fame) as a form of sabotage.
The practice has snowballed, and today it's hard to go to a concert without hearing some guy (it's usually a guy) shout the feared two-syllable "song request," whether ironically or otherwise. In fact, it's so ubiquitous that musicians have evolved various strategies for dealing with it. Some flip the bird ("Here's your free bird!"), some try to ignore it and still others actually fulfill the request, playing variously goofy or sincere renditions of the classic [source: Fry].
But should they have to? Should we just put up with "Freebird" guy? No, we shouldn't. Nor should we tolerate a host of other aggravations encountered at your common concert. Perhaps what's missing is a set of rules that people actually follow. To help fill the gap, here are 10 commandments for concertgoers.
You've probably shelled out a lot of shekels for this show. Maybe the performer is one of those quiet musicians whose songs sound almost like lullabies, and said lullabies are lulling you into a state of transcendent relaxation. But then you're suddenly jerked back to reality by some yahoo roaring "Freebird!" or by a group of insufficiently reverent teenagers gabbing right behind you, or a boomer with low blood sugar desperately opening a bag of snacks to your right.
The nearly automatic response of any concertgoer is to issue a stern hush. And typically, other concerned citizens join in. The problem is that in short order, the hushing becomes so loud it drowns out not only the offending noisemaker but also the music you came to hear. Hushing is a weapon to be used with discretion and delicacy because it so quickly morphs out of control into a theaterwide wall of susurration.
Keep this in mind the next time you become deeply annoyed by some cacophony in your vicinity. Try to lighten up and do your best to focus on the music, not the chatter, the crackling wrappers or the calls for a classic rock anthem. After all, you won't add to the problem if you just silently resent them.
Are you the troublemaker with the ringing cellphone or irrepressible need to announce to your neighbors how awesome the band was back in the early days before they hit it big, and how much better their stuff sounds on vinyl or eight tracks or wax cylinders or whatever it is you play on your hand-cranked Victrola? Or, perish the thought, do you feel compelled to bellow "Freebird!" at a bluegrass festival (whether out of a genuine desire to hear a banjo handle Lynyrd Skynyrd riffs, or because you think the incongruity of your request is simply hilarious)?
The concert commandment is this: Pipe down. You're in the audience, not onstage — the performers will provide the music and other noise. All you're responsible for is applause, cheering and screams of approval. Maybe even some awkward dance moves if you're feeling sassy.
Caveat: If the performer bites the head off a bat or harms living creatures in any way onstage, loud protests must be made. Sorry, Ozzy.
Adjust Your Intake
Have a look around. Have a sniff. What's the prevailing mood of the place?
In general, good etiquette requires taking an accurate reading of the local social climate and adapting yourself accordingly. This is not to say that you should simply follow the herd — but rather that there's no need to become a blight on an otherwise pleasant landscape.
If, for instance, you're at an outdoor concert and various members of the audience are hacking butts (or other smokable substances) and nobody else seems to mind, let the smoke float. If cigarette (or joint) exhaust is noxious to you, slip away quietly to another, less polluted region of the audience.
On the other hand, if this is one of those kid-friendly concerts where babies snuggle in their parents' arms and toddlers roll around underfoot, save your "medicinal" intake for before or after the show. There's no need to impose your chosen fumes on the pink little lungs of our future. Who's going to take care of you in the old-age home if you've inflicted second-hand-smoke-related lung cancer on the grown-ups of tomorrow?
Be Free! (Scent-free)
Packed in tight with a couple hundred (or thousand) dancing, sweating humans, there's just no way to avoid smelling one another. Admittedly, powerful body odor can be hard to bear, but that doesn't mean it's necessary to dip yourself in some substance designed to obliterate your body's self-producing scent. You're not a fox evading hunters — there's no need to throw the hounds off your trail.
It goes without saying (or it should) that most of the commercial perfumes and colognes are gruesome olfactory assault weapons that should be banned outright — not only because nearly a third of the population is sensitive to scented products worn by others, but also because many of them just plain smell gross [source: Caress and Steinemann].
And just because a scent is "natural" doesn't mean it's OK to broadcast it to the general public. Patchouli jumps to mind as the iconic hippie aroma of choice. Natural, yes; universally pleasant to inhale, no. The commandment for concerts and, in fact, all public spaces is: Bathe well, bring wet wipes and be free — scent-free.
It's a Concert, Not a Campsite
Well, it might get chilly, you never know — so why not pack a sweater, and maybe a coat while you're at it. And since that means you're bringing a backpack, might as well stuff in some snacks and also some band paraphernalia in case you somehow get backstage for signatures. Add a book for the bus/car/train ride and some water and rain boots, and suddenly your pack is stretched to capacity, extending straight out from your spine. Luckily it's high-tech, so with the belt and chest straps and ergonomic cushioning you barely feel the weight, and it doesn't slow down your interpretive dance moves.
Strange that there's nobody standing near you anymore. Even your friends are keeping their distance. Maybe it's because every time you turn around you unwittingly deck the person next to you with your enormous backpack.
If you're not at a multi-day festival, leave the luggage behind. Even if you are, maybe think about stashing your enormous pack in your tent. When you're in a crowd it's best to be as streamlined as possible — for your own sake and that of others.
Consider the Tall and the Small
From this angle you've managed to secure a perfect view of the stage. You're not at the front, but luckily the geometry of the floor angle and height differentials is working in your favor. Just as you're congratulating yourself on scoring such an ideal spot, along comes what must be an NBA center, judging by his height. He towers over the crowd as he makes his way toward you. You silently, or maybe not so silently, pray that he'll lumber past, but he spots the open vista and parks himself there. The opening band finishes up, and the main act comes out. You know this by the roar of the crowd alone because the entire stage has been removed from your view by the behemoth in front of you. All you see is T-shirt.
Have a heart, Yao Ming! Be aware of your stature and do what you can to limit the damage.
But the empathy must be mutual. It's not tall guy's fault that he's a walking house. So don't berate him or shoot dirty looks — just politely ask him to shift over if possible. Better yet, if your dimensions run petite, consider bringing something to stand on. Something collapsible though — see the previous commandment re: luggage.
Heckle Not, Banter Minimally
Some performers are chatty, some aren't. There are musicians who like to tell little stories to introduce their songs, and some of those stories sound like charmingly off-the-cuff anecdotes. They're not. Listen to the same performer at a different show, and you'll hear those anecdotes told almost exactly the same way. That's because the stories, like the songs, are part of a rehearsed performance. Unfortunately, there are audience members who mistake the chatty interlude for a break in the performance and an open invitation to strike up conversation — or heckle.
Some performers might humor the conversationalist in the audience for a little while, but there's a fine line between funny and annoying banter. After all, the audience came to hear music, not chitchat between the musician and some random guy in the crowd.
Similarly, nobody came to hear you hassle the people onstage about their musical ability or why their private life is a joke or how you want a refund for your ticket because you can't hear anything. As long as you're talking, nobody else can hear anything either.
There was a time, say 1987, when it was thought the height of sophisticated proto-hipster humor to shout "Freebird!" at a Galaxie 500 concert. It was funny, see, because it was the exact opposite of what everybody wanted to hear.
If it was ever amusing, it no longer is. Nor has it been for some decades now. So unless you're attending a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert (minus the three band members who tragically died in a 1977 plane crash), just please don't yell "Freebird" at any concert. Period.
When making real song requests, try pitching one the musicians are actually known to have written and/or recorded. They'll be that much more likely to perform it for you. Ideally it should be a slightly obscure tune from an early album. Your request will simultaneously flatter the performers that they have dedicated fans, while introducing new fans to something they might not have heard.
In any case, try saving your song-suggesting shouting for times the band actually asks for it.
Dodge and Weave
In football, the job of an offensive lineman is to help his team move the ball forward. If you want to be a running back, for instance, you need to be strong and fast with a good eye for any holes in the defensive line where you can punch through, using your body as a battering ram to create a path for your teammate with the ball.
Some people seem to confuse this skill set with those required for moving through a crowd at a concert. There are always those who take it upon themselves to cleave the masses like Moses parting the Red Sea, leaving in their wake a jumble of bruised, disgruntled audience members spouting obscenities.
Try instead to thread the needle like a soccer player, making as little contact as possible. Or like an advance army scout who attempts to slip through enemy lines unnoticed. Or like water trickling around stones and roots, gentle, quiet but unstoppable. Or like a snake gliding through tall grass. Or like Luke Skywalker guiding his X-wing through the Death Star trench. You get the idea.
Don't Mediate the Immediate
Back when we just had TV to worry about, people were already anxious that we were disappearing inside a simulacrum of lived experience. With the advent of handheld digital devices that allow us to record every move we make and upload it to the great cyber cloud, things have only warped further.
It's become a running joke that people are too intent on tweeting, pinning, Instagramming and otherwise mediating their experiences to actually experience them. But is it a joke? Judging by the number of people staring at their devices for most of their waking hours, it's not. For many it seems as though life just isn't really real until it's been filtered through a digital screen and broadcast to the general public.
One of the weirdest examples of this is that guy at the concert holding an enormous iPad above his head to record the show. Surely this removes the essential "live" ingredient from live music. Plus, that tablet is blocking everybody's view. If you're that guy, put down the device and live your life for a little while. That's why you came to the show. If you need further encouragement, I'm sure security will be along momentarily to ask less politely.
From the worlds of politics, professional baseball and old-time boxing came a term still in use today to describe someone who has a left-handed predilection.
Author's Note: 10 Concert Etiquette Rules That 'Freebird' Guy Isn't Following
I have an embarrassing confession to make: I used to be "Freebird Guy." Mortifying, but there it is. And it's not because I was some kind of hip alt-rock kid, or even a KevHead. It's because I was (and am) profoundly unhip. More than a decade ago I heard some story on the radio about a guy who made it a point to yell "Freebird!" at every music event he attended. "Funny," I thought and took up the habit. Luckily, I never went to many concerts, and now, like a zealous anti-smoker, I decry the song-shouting practice. In any case, if I see live music these days it's usually outdoors at a park and I'm too busy making sure my kids don't unplug the speakers to yell requests.
More Great Links
- Caress, S.M. and A.C. Steinemann. "Prevalence of Fragrance Sensitivity in the American Population." Journal of Environmental Health. Vol. 71, Iss. 7. Pages 46-50. March 2009. (June 10, 2015) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19326669
- Fry, Jason. "Rock's Oldest Joke: Yelling 'Freebird!' in a Crowded Theater." The Wall Street Journal. March 17, 2005. (June 1, 2015) http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB111102511477881964