I never thought I would be thinking about Eric Garner and Michael Brown during a concert. But there I was, listening to Badfish – a well-known Sublime tribute band – and reflecting on these critical and saddening events, even while just enjoying myself as I would at any show.
Perhaps it was naive of me to forget that instead of being able to lose oneself in the music and just have fun while dancing along at a concert, it’s totally possible to not just remain thoughtfully in the present, but to mentally be even deeper in it.
Sublime’s self-titled 1996 album – the first I ever purchased with that scary Parental Advisory sticker on it – was a crucial part of my adolescence. We sang along to these songs at sleepaway camp and in the car in high school. I had a poster of Brad Nowell, Sublime’s lead singer who died of a drug overdose just before this album’s release, on my wall in college. (“Who is that guy? He’s not cute,” said my roommate.)
I imagine most of the crowd at B.B. Kings last night also grew up listening to this album, as the room was full of people singing along to each and every song. This included all the words to “April 29, 1992,” a song that not-at-all-subtly discusses the Los Angeles Rodney King riots.
The beauty of songs with words (stuff I sadly don’t listen to enough of, anymore) is that the cadence of the song tells you what to emphasize when you sing along to it. Take the song, “Date Rape,” for example, which, if you’re unfamiliar, is about a man who rapes a woman and gets thrown in jail, only to get raped himself. One of the most emphatic lines in the song – and which subsequently makes audiences sing the loudest – is, “SHE LIES, THAT LITTLE SLUT!” Except we don’t believe she lies and we don’t believe she’s a slut. These are the words of her attacker, and he yells them, and so do we. One of the lines in “April 29, 1992” that makes audiences raise their voices and punch their fists in the air is, “It’s about comin’ up, and stayin’ on top and screamin’ ONE-EIGHT-SEVEN on a motherfuckin’ cop.” (“187” is slang for murder, so this line essentially calls out the police for the beating of Rodney King.)
The crowd sang along to this line just as they would to any line that came at a particularly crucial moment of any song, yet there was something tangible in the air at this moment. It wasn’t just us singing along to a cool part of a song; it was an expression of a whole host of thoughts and feelings and frustrations. Rodney King was a long time ago, but Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were not. This song from almost 20 years ago still speaks to audiences today. It reminds us of struggles our society is still going through and issues we have not yet resolved, and we can be mindful of those things even while just at a St. Patrick’s Day concert that we went to for a dose of 90’s nostalgia.
I had forgotten about this. Not about the recent incidents of police brutality (though admittedly I hadn’t been thinking about them at the show up until that moment), but the fact that music can instill these kinds of thoughts and feelings in people. I’ve reflected before about the fact that I miss listening to songs with words (and was even inspired to write that post after the last time I saw Badfish), but I thought about it only in terms of the fact that singing along to lyrics is fun. It adds a level of enjoyment to a concert that you miss out on when most of what you listen to has barely any words in it at all. Dance music is wonderful and I truly believe that it can be just as much an artist’s expression of self as the most socially-conscious folk or punk or rap song, but there’s something missing. Music doesn’t have to only make you want to dance. It can make you want to protest, or vent, or inspire others, or change the world (or write).
Perhaps you all knew that already. Perhaps I was the only one who had forgotten. But I’m glad for the reminder.