April 20, 2010

The Momentous Occasions We’ll Soon Forget

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As I exited the Flaming Lips concert on Sunday night, I experienced an odd sense of melancholy. The bright lights and thundering guitars had faded into the recesses of Barton Hall; the band was gone; five thousand students’ highs were evaporating into the evening. Suddenly the minutiae of daily life — texting friends, grabbing food, doing work — seemed low and ignominious.

The next day at dinner, a friend told me that the concert had been one of the more profound experiences of his life. The intensity of the communal bond had allowed him to step out of himself for a short period of time, and actions he would have normally viewed with a cynical eye — holding up the peace sign during a funeral march, for example — seemed oddly significant and sincere. Although I hadn’t been quite so effected (maybe my weed wasn’t as good), I knew exactly where he was coming from. Wayne Coyne, the band’s frontman, had rocked us.

It wasn’t just the music that made an impression. In fact, a lot of the wonder of Sunday night had nothing to do with The Flaming Lips’s set at all. The concert was one of those moments where a mass of people will themselves into moving, speaking and thinking in sync; we seem to validate our own joys and desires if a few thousand folks are sharing them every second, right next to us. And just like any politician or priest, Coyne oriented us to the same wavelength, had us shouting back at him about love and brotherhood. The theatrics only made the process go faster: We were already waiting to be enchanted.

But there’s always the hangover. As much fun as the beach balls and the videos of naked chicks were on Sunday, Monday brought a fat serving of reality. And that’s the problem with these types of events: Inspired as we are to become a drop in a pool, to surrender our individuality for some type of communal exuberance, we always wake up the next day forgetting precisely what it was we were shouting about.

Coyne labored throughout the night to make us believe that his was the best show at Barton since the Grateful Dead dropped by in 1977, repeatedly urging us to scream louder in an effort to challenge history. And that says something about rock concerts and other events of its kind (political rallies, sporting events, religious services, etc.). Not only do we want to share a transcendent experience; we want to be made aware that we are sharing a transcendent experience. Everyone at the show on Sunday was thinking, “I might be at the second-best concert in Barton ever.” As questionable as the significance of such a claim might be, it shows how important a sense of precedent (or lack thereof) is to our assessment of what entails a memorable event. Which is paradoxical, in a way: Just as we’re getting off to connecting with so many people, we revel in the fact that so few have shared such a connection in the past.

Consider perhaps the most typical “paradigm-breaking” moment of the past few years. The election of Barack Obama caused communal rejoicing across the country; everywhere, the elation was enhanced by the consciousness that this was something special, this was something that had never happened before. Already, even as the event was happening, people were translating it into a story for their kids.

Of course, that party died, too. Despite all our self-congratulatory talk about having changed the course of history, we went on with our lives. The moment faded, the exuberance passed. And, just as with the concert on Sunday, we found ourselves trying to reclaim that elusive inspiration, to relive that dying hope — and to little avail.

The problem seems to be an inability to extract anything permanent from such momentous, seemingly life-changing rituals. Maybe if we just came together more, shouted more, we’d be able to adjust our consciousness; maybe if we worked harder at internalizing our feelings, we’d be better people. In the end, that’s what the historicizing project of Wayne Coyne is all about: Maybe if we can convince ourselves that this night is unprecedented, we’ll be slower to forget it. And he could be right. Certainly there are people out there whose lives have been pushed in a better direction because of one transcendent event.

But for most of us, these moments operate in isolation, and, in the daily grind, we lose sight of what it was like to be so happy popping balloons or clapping hands with a mass of people. That’s not to say those moments aren’t worth it; in fact, quite the opposite. One could do worse than devoting one’s life to pursuing them. In the end, perhaps, we will find some type of resolution. In the meantime, we’ll skip from high to high.

Original Author: Ted Hamilton