23 Feb

Taking Space In The Crowd

I would be lying if I told you I remember the exact moment I decided to go to a show by myself.

It wasn’t a conscious, courageous or bold choice that I made. I never thought of it as a grand statement about my independence, or as a rite of passage into adulthood. There wasn’t a particular band that spurred the “a-ha” moment – it just happened, and I slowly realized that, at the right moment, it could be a cathartic experience.

Several circumstances have made seeing shows alone a lifestyle for me – moves to different countries, erratic work schedules – but the biggest of those circumstances was growing pains. I was realizing that a lot of my interests differed from those of my group of friends, and that waiting for them to come around to x band or y genre or z event was a straight path toward resentment.

The older I got, the more I realized I would be unfair to myself if I missed out on things I liked just because there was no one around to share those experiences with me.

Be your own friend is what they say.

I’ve been attending concerts and festivals by myself for about a decade now, and I’ve never regretted it. Not once. I’m a fierce advocate of throwing yourself into that void to see what you can discover. Now, I can tell you the exact moment when I was confronted with the fact that, as a woman, being alone in a dark venue was akin to putting a target on your back. Maybe it’s the overwhelming number of male fans in some shows and concerts, maybe it’s the lack of security once you go through the doors of some venues, or maybe it’s the permissiveness and opportunism that darkness seems to bring out in some people. There is something about concert culture that consistently fails to recognize that women’s safety is an important issue that needs to be addressed.

This particular moment happened when I was a teenager, and it would teach me at least two valuable lessons: that carefully reading the crowd would be key to my well-being, and that my safety was my responsibility alone.

I was 16, and had managed to drag my high-school best friend to a hardcore matinee show in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on a hot Saturday. It was the early 2000s, when all-ages matinee shows were becoming extinct in the city. We didn’t know what the crowd would be like, and when we got there I was naively surprised to see that an overwhelming majority of concertgoers were men. It was a small venue, so we managed to navigate it together fairly easily. We saw the first band from the sidelines, huddled together on the edge of a couch, without incident. Before the headliner took the stage, my friend walked out for some air. I stayed in by myself, not wanting to miss the first song. As soon as the band started to play, I quickly saw a really hostile mosh pit form in the middle of the room. I got scared and stood up, intent on either heading for the exit or flattening myself into the nearest wall. I didn’t get far. Out of nowhere, a big, sweaty guy pushed me as hard as he could to go swinging into the mosh pit, and another one, who was carelessly doing kicks and karate chops, landed a roundhouse kick to my face. I wasn’t badly hurt, but I was stunned, emotionally shaken and really sad. Even though there were at least five people beside me, nobody saw what happened and nobody came to my aid.

Thankfully, I haven’t had an experience like that since, but that day will forever replay in my head every time I get looks of concern, pity, unsolicited advice or veiled pleas from my family and from strangers that I should reconsider heading out to shows alone, even as a woman in my 30s. As I have increasingly ventured out to events alone – not only in my hometown (where solo concert-goers of all ages and sexes are an awkward rarity), but in other countries as well – I’ve understood and validated those concerns over and over again. Trust me, I get it. But I have also become resentful of them and the general culture that spurs them.

Why must women always carry the burden of their own safety? Why must we always protect ourselves from others with paranoid intensity?

Why must we be responsible for others’ asshole-ish behavior? What is it about a woman alone that invites others (mostly men) to “cure them of their loneliness”? And if this is just the experience as a fan, imagine being a woman in a band, onstage.

I wish I had answers and definite solutions to all of those questions. I don’t.

But the fact is that there needs to be more serious, nuanced conversations about women’s safety in music venues, and they need to be had by both men and women.

In the macro sense, these conversations need to include a careful evaluation of general cultural attitudes toward women’s agency and independence and, more specifically, there needs to be a re-evaluation of men’s attitudes toward women claiming space in the crowd. Even when it comes to something as normal as experiencing a show, big or small, we should be able to do so without inevitably having to deal with unwanted advances, strange conversations, awkward looks or, even worse, unsafe situations or assault. It all amounts to the right to exist in these places undisturbed, to be able to enjoy the music without thoughts of “What could go wrong?” looming in the back of your head the whole time. With that said, the answer is to not render us invisible, and to not alienate or ignore us either, the latter of which seems a default response.

After that show when I was 16, it took me years to again head out alone. But once I did, I couldn’t stop. I found many beautiful experiences of camaraderie from men, women, and gender non-conforming folks; I found communities that made me feel welcome despite my stranger status; and I even found space in which to lose myself in the music and the performance. I’m not alone either. There’s no shortage of passionate accounts making the rounds on the Internet extolling the virtues and setbacks of attending concerts alone as a female, and all of them have their misconceptions, trivialities, moments of discovery and nuggets of wisdom. But it is a layered experience that’s not one size fits all.

Obviously, not every show is created equal, and how you’re treated can depend on factors as external and arbitrary as the type of band you’re seeing, the genre of music, or even your geographical location.

Seeing a show in a cosmopolitan and diverse city where you won’t stick out like a sore thumb is not the same as going to a show in a semi-rural province of Spain, for example, where attitudes toward women flying solo may veer from suspicious to hostile.

The conversation needs to be holistic. It needs to consider all aspects of what can make or break an experience, to avoid empty encouragements under the guise of girl power. This should be talked about less as a rite of passage and more as a fact of life. We go to concerts because we want to, and we should be able to do it safely. No questions asked. After all, a recent study by UK Music profiled by NME in October reported that half of 18- to 24-year-olds (out of 500 surveyed) said they went to shows alone in 2017, and that a whopping 98 percent said they wouldn’t mind doing it again. With changing attitudes toward solo experiences, the culture should change as well.

As for me, I’ll continue to belong to the 98 percent who is not going to stop seeing a show by herself. In fact, last November, I went alone to the Day for Night festival in Houston, super excited to catch bands like Pussy Riot and Nine Inch Nails. I saw the NIN set under freezing rain at night, apprehensive of a crowd I had been warned could be notoriously difficult and violent. Maybe it was because the people in the crowd where I stood all seemed to be older, maybe it was the freezing rain, or maybe it was because music never stops being fucking sorcery, but the night went off without a hitch. For a while there, I got lost in the sounds of my youth, my dreams, heartaches, moments of triumph and anger.

By Amaya García, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

Image by Jamie Decesare, distributed under the CC-BY-NC-ND creative commons license.

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