Of all the activities that we as music fans partake in, the one to have been most noticeably stripped of us over the last five months - yes, it really has been only that long - has been the attendance of live music events.
Whether it be at one of the UK’s myriad behemoth summer festivals, an arena packed with screaming fans or an intimate performance with a couple of hundred people carefully hanging on every strum, beat, and utterance that exudes from those on stage, it feels like a lifetime and then some since we all met in those most magical of settings and tapped, clapped, jumped, sang, screamed, swayed, laughed, cried, and danced along to live renditions of some of our favourite songs.
It’s something that is so singularly wonderful, so uniquely magical that any alternative, COVID-secure rendition of these events seems, initially, to be utterly pointless.
As a music fan, I can’t confess to having been overjoyed at the prospect of virtual performances when the idea was first floated. The prospect of sitting around a laptop screen in the hope of seeing something even vaguely reminiscent of a worthwhile performance seemed a bit of a stretch. Sure, it’s evidence of adaptation and innovation, but there are some things that the almighty internet just can’t resolve, and the recreation of this most human and most social of experiences appeared to be one of them.
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Charli XCX, however, has, admittedly, been thriving in lockdown. The release of her new album, coming only eight months after her self-titled record, was devised and executed entirely in isolation, as a sort of document to this most wondrous and perplexing of times. It’s an album that sees Charli ratchet up her penchant for making beautifully glitchy, experimental, dance-pop.
Her embracing of the queer community, particularly in the last two album cycles has been met with mutual love and affection. As I sat there, waiting for the performance to start, messages from fans scrolled furiously through the sidebar, many of which asked “where my gays/lesbians at?” These kinds of messages only exist in online spaces where otherwise marginalised people feel truly safe and accepted. The free-flowing nature of these comments points to a very real sense of acceptance felt by fans who have, potentially for most of their adolescent and adult lives, feared rejection in a way that few non-queer people could ever understand.
There’s a real community spirit felt between Charli and this particular section of her fanbase, that seems to increase in size as rapidly as their declarations of love for her flickered up the screen in anticipation of last night’s performance. Wherever possible, Charli’s studio exploits of the last 12 months have sought to give a platform to queer artists in a way that isn’t readily repeated by many others of, or above, her stature. The list of features on 2019’s Charli read like a who's who of modern queer electro-pop. Everyone, from Christine and the Queens, to Troye Sivan, to Pablo Vittar can be found there, and this sense of allyship continued into last night’s performance.
After spending the first twenty-five or so minutes giving “live” debuts to some of her ‘how i’m feeling now’ tracks, she stopped, sat down, and started a Zoom call, introducing her audience to three drag performers - Miss Toto, FKA Twink, and Juicy Love Dion - who would be performing through Charli’s DJ Set.
An important pillar of the queer community, drag performers were the perfect choice to entertain her audience as Charli rattled through a DJ set. The set-up of the performance, the manner in which it was produced, the thought and care that went into not only Charli’s live set, but her DJ set as well, all made for a beautifully varied, colourful, and vibrant experience. It spoke to the versatility of performance art that this type of virtual concert is tailor-made to produce, and you feel wouldn’t quite replicate in the same way in a traditional live setting.
Unfortunately, live streams often encounter repeated technical hiccups, and this Boiler Room set was sadly no different. Frequent loss of sound, combined with often lagging or frozen visuals made for a continuously disjointed and disconnected feel to the whole show, something that obviously wouldn’t happen in a live venue. It also isn’t really anyone's fault that this was the case, as these gremlins can arise out of nowhere, regardless of how prepared you are.
There was a sizeable chunk of the concert in which I found myself asking why they didn’t pre-record the show, and then just stream the pre-filmed set through the website, a question abruptly answered when Charli finished her performance set and she intended to do a Q&A segment that, owing to other technical difficulties on her end, she wasn’t able to do.
The whole experience was one of both brilliant performances and repeatedly frustrating glitches that took you right out of the moments that you were beginning to enjoy. This mixture is not something that live concerts with real audiences are immune from - if you’ve ever found yourself in a standing area of a gig with someone three inches taller and lacking all sense of self-awareness in front of you, you’ll know exactly what I mean - and, overall, I think it’s difficult to reach a conclusion that suggests that these aren’t worthwhile endeavours for artists to undertake.
Will virtual gigs exist, and even be the new norm in a post-COVID world, though? That, I highly doubt.
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Words: Mike Watkins
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