- An increasing number of performers are being pelted by objects from the audience.
- Multiple factors may be creating this new phenomenon, but it's unsafe for everyone.
- Parasocial relationships may encourage sharing by fans, but that doesn't justify throwing items at the stage.
The list of musical performers who have been the targets of flying objects including cellphones and ashes while performing on stage in recent months somehow continues to lengthen, now including stars from the rapper Latto to Drake to Harry Styles, Bebe Rexha, Ava Max, Kelsea Ballerini, and Pink. Several have had to leave the stage at least temporarily after sustaining scratches and bruises to their faces.
Back in the 1960s, women would throw their underwear on the stage as Tom Jones performed, but that display of adoration didn’t carry the risk of physical injury that these recent incidents have. Hotel keys also were being tossed on the stage as performers and their music turned sexier and more suggestive. But the keys were landing on the stage, not scratching the face of the idol themself.
There are several hypotheses about why fans today seem to be increasingly out of control when in the concert venue and so relatively close to performers. These include three intriguing possibilities: a residual effect from the pandemic lockdown-spawned bad behavior; the false intimacy that social media fosters through parasocial engagement and parasocial relationships; and the desire to be the star of a viral social media moment.
The Parasocial Relationship
Parasocial engagement refers to the feeling of false intimacy that we have with performers and celebrities. Research on this phenomenon began in the 1950s and television performers. Through this engagement, fans developed parasocial relationships—we believe we know a performer based on the totally one-sided performance and sharing they offer to fans.
Another reason that some of the odd or more personal things might be thrown at performers is that people feel emotionally close to performers in ways that other generations did not—and they are making offerings they believe the performer will appreciate. The parasocial relationship, or imagined relationship between a fan and a performer, has been greatly influenced by social media. From seeing idols on the television screen only to seeing them in the palm of your hand or your laptop screen on demand, there is an even greater sense of intimacy and connection between the viewer and the viewed.
Through cellphones and social media fan spaces or artists’ videos or fan communications, fans may feel like they are intimate friends with the performers since they have so much exposure to performers through communication technology. They may assume that the performer knows them, too, if they have posted on a performer’s social media sites and gotten a “like” or some other positive feedback from the performer. When fans throw a friendship bracelet at the stage, they may be convinced the performer “is” their friend. They threw it to make sure it landed on the stage, with no intention of harming anyone or hitting the performer. It’s been suggested that a phone might be thrown in the hopes the performer will take a selfie and then throw the phone back into the audience.
After Lockdowns, Brazen Behavior
Also of concern are the continuing effects of the pandemic and lockdown. We were all living in our bubbles, feeling constraints on our lives in magnitude and pervasiveness that were unheard of. We didn’t mix in crowds for so long that we forgot how to handle crowded settings, and we may behave in ways that reflect anxiety about the size of the crowd and the venue. When we’re in high-anxiety situations, we may be prone to be more reactive in our behaviors rather than considered. Crowd behavior is contagious, too, so when one person starts acting in a particular way, the ripple effect is strong.
Fans may also be showing off more “bad behavior” that our prior social learning hadn’t been strong enough to contain. When students went back into the classroom, their behavior was shockingly out of line with what they’d displayed when they left their classrooms as the lockdown began.
After being confined for so long, the crowded arenas and related high energy may lead people to behave in outlandish ways that are residual from the lockdown isolation. During the summer of 2020, as people were coming out of lockdown mode, the activism and protests were unexpectedly widespread and supercharged. After being locked in for so long, people were like tightly wound springs, ready to jump into the fray. The return to in-person music performances potentially is having the same effect where longed-for freedom is like a stimulant that drives over-the-top behavior.
We’ve witnessed so many crazy stunts and dangerous challenges on social media that our social barometers and safety barometers may no longer function as well as they should.
Bad Behavior Goes Viral
Lastly, there are suggestions that fans are going overboard to get noticed by the performers so that they can be the star of a potentially viral video. Social media and TikTok challenges feed the desire to “get noticed,” and telling someone you were the one who threw the phone may get a person the attention and closeness to the performer they desire. They are now a part of the performer’s story. And if the phone is retrieved and it contains a video recording of the “phone’s eye view” of the event, the fan has just minted a memory and likely will mint some money off the video.
All this being said, the bottom line is that the performers may need to consider calling a ban on anything being brought into the concert venue that could be used as a projectile and issue warnings that if anyone throws anything on the stage, they will be escorted out, charges filed, and banned from future concerts (as has happened in one performer’s case).
Social media glorifies bad behavior, and as we’ve seen from TikTok challenges, people do stupid things in the hopes of 5 minutes of fame. If social training has “left the building,” harking back to the old saying about Elvis having left the building, contemporary performers may now need to abandon the stage or the arena for their own protection.
Facebook image: lev radin/Shutterstock
Horton, D., & Wohl, R. (1956). Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance. Psychiatry, 19, 215–229