Live music has mostly returned to its pre-pandemic form and frequency, but indie musicians are still asking fans to please, for the love of guitar solos and sweaty dancing and mosh pits and stage dives and everything that makes concerts holy and precious, please keep wearing masks. On Twitter, artists such as SASAMI, MUNA, Phoebe Bridgers, Superchunk, Mannequin Pussy and Helado Negro continue to beg as they hit the road for months at a time, fearful of the implications a touring party member’s positive COVID-19 test could bring. In person, artists such as the Wonder Years, Lucy Dacus and Bikini Kill hang up posters around the venues they’re performing at, asking fans to mask up.
As a Virgo who feels the need to follow rules at all times, I’ve made a point to wear a mask at concerts, especially when they take place indoors and within compact spaces. I returned to seeing live music about one year ago, and aside from the lingering fear that concerts could once again be taken away at any moment because the world could end at any moment, I’ve made a new observation. When I sing along to a live act while a mask covers my face, none of my fellow concertgoers can tell that I know all the words. It’s a revelation as surprising to experience as it is ridiculous to write down. If the person next to me is (hopefully) wearing a mask, too, I’d never notice whether they’re singing along or simply reciting their grocery list.
For me, it’s always been about the lyrics. In my childhood bedroom, there’s a frayed booklet from my CD of Fall Out Boy’s From Under the Cork Tree, tattered from the number of times I pored over its lyrics. When Taylor Swift put out the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” last fall, I listened until I memorized most of the new version’s words, just in time for her SNL performance the following night. And when a musician I love tells a crowd, “Sing along if you know the words,” I’m prepared to do just that.
Admittedly, the sing-along portion of a concert sometimes feels like a competition. We all want to be our favorite artist’s biggest fan, and blink-182’s biggest fan would never slip up when she sings the bridge of “Feeling This.” When an artist holds out their microphone to the crowd, it’s an invitation not only to sing but to discover where we stand. To reference Bridgers’ last album, many of us are “punishers.” We’re overly eager admirers who want our enthusiasm for music to be recognized, even when our favorite artist, or the people around us, would prefer if we toned it down. If we sing every line accurately — and for some, loudly — maybe our love will arrive at some point of validation, instead of disintegrating into the void when the concert is over.
Scrolling through TikTok recently, I came across a guy in a car, lip-syncing underneath the caption, “If you cannot recite the bridge of ‘champagne problems’ line by line then u don’t deserve to have front row tickets to the next taylor swift concert.” I already didn’t need a dude in a red muscle tank to police what can and cannot happen at a Swift concert — we don’t even have a Swift concert to attend in the first place.
But when the front row is covered in masks, judgments like that are mostly eliminated. When we wear masks to shows, for the first time, no one can tell if we’ve memorized the words. For new fans, it means no one has to know that you’ve only dabbled in the performing band’s top singles. But for those who study their favorite artist’s discography like a textbook, it’s humbling. If a fan sings along to all the words of their favorite song, but no one was around to witness it, did the fan sing the words at all?
Ironically, maybe wearing masks can make attending a concert a more communal experience. It’s more important now than ever to provide spaces where fans can feel safe, healthy and free of judgment. After two-and-a-half years of an unnerving pandemic, it’s the least we all deserve. As someone who attends many shows alone, I hold onto the fact that everyone at a concert has at least one thing in common: the musician who led them there.
Isn’t it amazing that people from different homes and backgrounds will show up at the same place on the same night, simply because they all listen to the same sound, and they all want to hear it again? As much as an artist’s music might feel like it was tailored just for you, their concert is for everyone who showed up. If you want them all to know that you memorized the lyrics, make a TikTok. And if you don’t know the words, it’s OK to just listen.