I still remember the first time I went to a concert after 9/11. It was a month and a half after the attacks, and Tool was playing up in The Woodlands. What I remember most about the show was not the performance itself but the process of getting into the show.
There was something approaching a mob of people outside the gates trying to get in as security slowly checked everyone going into the venue. It's likely I would have missed the first part of the show — I know people who did — were it not for my friend James being a mountain of a man who pushed through the crowd and got us to the front of said mob.
As a dumb college kid, that was when the realization hit me that life had changed. I was going to school in Huntsville, and so while I could understand what had happened, up until that night, the shock waves had not really reached me in any noticeable way. I acknowledge that I'm extremely privileged in that regard.
I've been thinking about that time a lot over the past year. As a music writer who covers concerts pretty frequently, I'm exposed to a broad range of genres. That extends beyond the music, of course; I'm also exposed to both a broad range of music fans and how differently those fans are treated by those in authority.
I'm weirded out when I go to a show and there's no security check, but not because I don't feel safe. I'm just conditioned to believe, having gone to so many other shows with at times TSA-level security, that being examined and judged by a stranger is just part of the live experience.
There are two extremes of live-music security checks, and for better or worse, they're about as stereotypical as you'd guess.
On the extreme “we don't trust you at all” end of the spectrum, you've got metal/hard rock, rap and EDM shows. At the other extreme, the “we trust you completely” end, are shows that are kid/family-friendly, with country-music shows being not that far away from that end. Your average rock or pop show falls firmly in the middle. What this means is that you get a wildly different security experience depending on who you're going to see.
Last year, the Beach Blanket Bingo Fest took place in Galveston. This was a mini-EDM festival that happened on a beach. I still had to take my shoes off — and thus get sand in them — so that some poor guy who probably isn't getting paid enough to check something I wear on my feet could make sure I wasn't smuggling in anything in my shoes. EDM shows in non-EDM venues often involve shoe removal; at least we don't have to take off our belts.
At metal shows, you have to empty your pockets and usually do that thing where you spin in place while holding your shirt tight against your body because they want to make sure you're not packing, but they also don't want to actually touch you. Fair enough.
But three times in the past few weeks – Idina Menzel, Garth Brooks and Weird Al – I've gone to shows that had minimal or less security. As long as you weren't trying to bring a purse in with you, you were pretty much good to walk straight in. The ticket scanner at Menzel even seemed confused when I started to go through the standard metal security motions; that whole "pull your shirt against you" thing is really confusing to someone who hasn't asked you to do it.
Now, here's the thing: I get why promoters, venue owners, bookers and bands do things the way that they do. I understand how stereotypes work, and I get that certain shows are perceived to be more dangerous than others. I'm not even arguing that higher security is necessarily a problem; it's annoying, but as I said, at least we get to keep our belts on for now.
But it does strike me as weird that we accept this sort of genre judgment, especially because I've never, not back in 2001 and not today, felt safer because I went through security.
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The real nature in any situation is human nature. If someone wants to hurt you, he'll find a way. And honestly, even “take off your shoes” shows are really just selling you and the people who care about this sort of thing the illusion of safety. Weird how people still manage to get high all the time, no matter what the security level is, right? And if you've got money to spend, you can get drunk if you want, and we all know how levelheaded drunks are.
As I was working on this piece, I saw a story about how a movie-theater chain was going to start checking the bags of people going into the chain's theaters. My first thought wasn't, “Oh, I'm going to be so much safer!” It was, “I wonder what the infrastructure costs for that are going to be. I hope they're paying the bag-checkers well to deal with the pissed-off people they'll encounter.”
But hey, selling the illusion of safety, especially after a tragedy, is the American way. It was the night I saw Tool. It was when I was pulling my shirt against me before Wednesday night's Deftones show.
But hey, no need to check guns, God and Johnny Cash-loving country-music fans, right? When have you ever known a redneck to cause trouble?