I’ve been to a few rock/pop concerts over the years, and I find the celebrity performer phenomenon intriguing. The word celebrity I’m using rather loosely here to refer to anyone the audience is a big fan of. So, for example, at a Dance Hall Crashers or Hoi Polloi concert, the performers are “celebrities”—even though most people have never heard of either group—just because the audiences attending the concerts are fans of the group. It’s usually the opening act that is the group of non-celebrity performers.
With audiences and celebrity performances, the energy and gratitude and applause are mainly for celebrity, not musicianship. If the opening act is unknown to the audience and walks on stage, there will be courtesy applause and clapping, and the opening act really has to prove itself with musicianship and showmanship. If it makes reference to the headliner, that’s a sure way to get the audience riled up (Thank you. We’re so grateful to be touring with [name of headlining act] tonight). I love, though, seeing the audience get won over by an opening act. I love it when the audience starts off thinking Who are these people? and ends up thinking Oh, my God! I love these people!.
The converse reaction for a headlining act is sad, however. I love Liz Phair’s studio work, but her live performance left much to be desired (she’s also openly admitted to having stage fright, and it shows!). When she came on stage, the audience was really excited and, naturally, cheered her walking on stage, even before she played any music. When she walked off stage, the audience was still cheering (I guess for the honor of being in her presence?).
Recently, I saw Sara Bareilles in concert, and she was good. She was good at playing music and singing, but she knew how to play that crowd, too. Every mention of San Francisco (or even the much-reviled abbreviation ‘frisco in her cover of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ by the) Dock of the Bay”) whipped the audience into a frenzy. She kept thanking all of her fans, and while she needs her fans more than her fans want her, she’s definitely the one, as the celebrity performer, with the power in the relationship. She could suck as a musician and probably still work the crowd. The mere mention of her name at that event got people excited. It’s all about her. When she said, “I want to give you all a hug,” some random guy in the audience screamed, “Hug me, Sara!”
This is in direct opposition to the non-celebrity performer who walks on stage nervous and with absolutely no power. The non-celebrity performer—unproven, unknown—gets no whoops and hollers for merely walking on stage or having her name mentioned. She has to start from scratch and hope her musicianship and showmanship alone can win the crowd over.
I will say as an audience member, my most satisfying concert experiences have always been from watching a non-celebrity performer become a celebrity performer for several hundred people in the course of half an hour. The least satisfying experiences are, of course, when my own personal celebrities fall from grace… apparently tone-deaf and lacking in showmanship. If you can’t sing in tune, at least know how to work that crowd.