Brad Barket/Getty Images
Here, fans hold up signs at a Jonas Brothers concert televised on Good Morning America. See, when it's on TV and it's the Jonas Brothers, it's okay.
Brad Barket/Getty Images
The decade is ending! ("Which decade?" Yes, yes.) Sure, you've waded through the customary barrage of best songs/albums lists by now, and you've probably supplemented them with a heaping pile of stock-taking commentaries enumerating the ways that the ways that we listen to music have changed.
Most of the discussion has generally revolved around changes in the industry itself, from the rise of digital distribution to the implosion of the major labels, with the occasional mention of related issues like the decline of the album's primacy over the single and the shift towards television and commercials for exposure in a time of radio's increasing fragmentation.
Worthy topics for ponderation, all. Each one is a complex issue speaking to profound changes in technology and the cultural value we place on music, with implications and dimensions that haven't yet revealed themselves. But in my best effort to become a world-class curmudgeon (aw, just like Carl in Up!), I kept returning to a question raised by the NPR Music team's decade-in-review roundtable — What was the worst musical development of the closing decade? — and I got my answer at a recent Christmas concert sponsored by a Top 40 radio station: it's the proliferation of fan-made signs at concerts.
Yes, even worse than the increasingly ubiquitous Auto-Tune. As annoying as Auto-Tune may be, it's a tool, pure and simple. Like synthesizers or multi-track recording, it can be used for good or for evil. I refuse to blame the technology for the narrowness of the imagination of the people who use it. Concert signs, on the other hand, are pure evil.
In my day, we made concert signs out of rocks, and that's the way it was, and we liked it, after the jump.
As with a lot of things that people have taken to complaining about in the past ten years, re: music, it seems to have happened as a result of American Idol. To be sure, signage is an annoyance even there, distilling the contestants' appeal down to whose fans can make glitter rhyme the best. [Ed. Note: And by encouraging women to call themselves "cougars" on purpose. But ... please go on.] Still, the show provides a context where signs at least make sense as props being used to pump up the appearance of the competition in a telegenic (if cheap) manner.
In a televised competition, in other words, the signs are there for the benefit of the cameras, not the contestants. There's simply no reason to drag them out into concerts in the real, non-televised world, for the same reasons that concerts aren't interrupted after every song by a judging panel. Signs provide nothing but arm fatigue and a misbegotten way of proving true fandom for the people holding them up and a deep, fuming rage for everyone else who paid upwards of $50 for the privilege of staring at the back of white posterboard for two hours.
The concept's not new, of course. You can find the occasional fan-made placard in concert footage going at least as far back as the Beatles. What's changed is that it's been, for lack of a better word, mainstreamed. Signs aren't simply tolerated anymore, they're almost expected. It's how you prove that you're a real fan.
This wasn't the case a decade ago. But now, it's seeped its way into concerts by serious (or "serious") musicians like Bruce Springsteen and John Mayer, who used to connect to their audience just fine without a wall of visual obstructions separating them. And judging from a generation that's growing up with signs as a unquestioned aspect of the concert-going experience, it seems like it's only going to become more entrenched.
But that's not how we did things in my day, consarnit.