“Tonight’s the Kind of Night?” by Vaughan S. Roberts
Besides the scope of Jack White’s music—encompassing White Stripes, The Raconteurs, Dead Weather, and his own solo career—one impression that stuck in my mind from seeing him touring his album Blunderbuss (2012) was when a member of his crew announced before the show that there would be an official photographer taking photos of the gig. Since these would be available for download afterward, would people please refrain from holding up their cameras and phones to take photos during the concert?
Jack White, “Keep Her in Your Pocket,” live at O2 Academy, Birmingham, Nov. 7, 2012
For the most part, this appeal worked—although the presence of eleven clips on YouTube from that one evening suggests people still want a tangible reminder of the concert-going experience. I was prompted to reflect further on this after seeing Noah and the Whale touring their fourth album Heart of Nowhere (2013) amid a forest of lights recording images of the night. Why are so many of us compelled to do this? Here are six initial ideas:
1. Connectedness. In Personal Jesus we write about how the sense of connectedness is part of the common ground between religion and popular music. Sharing photos and video clips is an outworking of this human trait. Through social media, we have the ability to tell those we are in contact with: “This is where I am, and this is what I’m experiencing.”
2. Cataloguing memory. One of the recurring words from respondents to the music surveys which fed into Personal Jesus was memory, and it was clear that all kinds of music bring reminiscences to mind. So it is natural to want other triggers for recollection.
3. It’s what we do. In much Western culture it has become a widespread habit to take photos and recordings on phones and cameras wherever we are and whatever we are doing. This practice extends from the personal and mundane to the life-changing and momentous. It has become a contemporary part of life’s liturgy.
4. It’s something to do. This links into the embodied nature of humanity which we highlighted in Personal Jesus and the need to be doing something with our bodies. This is entirely speculative, but I wonder whether in those places where smoking is prohibited, playing with a phone has (for some) replaced toying with a cigarette.
5. Between darkness and light. The contrast between light and darkness is something that many religions explore and use in worship, because it evokes the world of enchantment. A popular music event is also an enchanted arena, and our phone use enhances that experience.
6. Because we can. This may not have anything to do directly with religious studies or theology, but ours is the first generation to have such technology available, and it is always exciting to experiment with something new.
Noah and the Whale, Tonight’s the Kind of Night, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, May 3, 2013
It will be interesting to see whether other artists follow Jack White’s lead regarding phone use at shows, but my guess is that, since our use of such technology has become so deep-seated and multifaceted, the forest of lights at concerts will be with us for some time to come.