Outsider at the Party

This is part 2 of a 2005 piece I found in my files, written after seeing James Taylor in concert but never published anywhere. In part 1, four numbers into the first set, I noticed that the concert felt a little strange. In this part, I am trying to figure out why.

Let me make clear that I consider myself a Taylor fan. I first heard “Fire and Rain” when I was ten, and over the intervening years, it’s always been something special—that delicate guitar laid against jarring drums, the same way that life’s most precious moments can’t be separated from life’s hardest knocks. I believe that 500 years from now, people will still want to hear “You’ve Got a Friend,” which, apart from the line about keeping your head together, has not dated. Sweet Baby James and Mud Slide Slim are two albums as good as anybody’s ever recorded back-to-back. Through “Handy Man” and “Her Town Too,” the hits kept coming and I kept listening. I’d never seen Taylor in concert (except on TV), and when his tour date nearby was announced, The Mrs. was eager to go. So I thought, “Why not? I’ve dug the man myself for a long time.”

All of that is on my mind as I sit there, mostly unmoved, trying to figure out why I’m not getting into it.

Taylor sings “Handy Man,” which I had hoped he would play, but instead of finally breaking through the barrier, the song bounces off like all the others. From there, the band kicks into “Mexico,” and 22,000 people are on their feet and singing along. I have to stand if I want to see anything, and I find myself following the beat a little, albeit in my customary feet-planted, knee-bending fashion. I look over at The Mrs. and our companions, and they’ve all joined the celebration. I begin to feel self-conscious—perhaps not like a whore in church, but definitely like an outsider at a party.

In his book Mediated, anthropologist and social critic Thomas De Zengotita argues that modern life is so drenched in media that we perceive ourselves as being on stage every moment of our lives, and so the choices we make reflect the way we want the audience—which is, in the end, primarily ourselves—to perceive our performance.

While the band is rockin’ out on “Mexico,” it hits me. Just like Taylor, the crowd is performing. We are white, middle-class baby boomers with enough disposable income to drop $100 or $150 on a pair of concert tickets, and one of the requirements of our role is to sing and dance along with James Taylor. The artificiality of it, revealed to me all at once, is staggering. And the disappointment that comes with it is powerful, too.

Taylor wraps the first set with “Fire and Rain,” and I close my eyes at those first delicate notes, hoping that maybe I’m wrong. I’m not. This isn’t going to turn around. This isn’t going to be one of those transcendent concert experiences—it’s going to be something else again.

It’s the night being a baby boomer jumps the shark.

(Part 3 to come.)

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