Graham: My my, hey hey, Neil Young fans an unruly bunch

Is concert etiquette out the window? At some concerts, it seems the answer is yes

Adam Graham

In the last two weeks, I attended concerts by boy band heartthrob Harry Styles and classic rocker Neil Young.

At one of them, fans were so loud and disorderly that they interrupted the performance and made the artist lose his place and skip over several planned moments.

The other was a Harry Styles concert.

Neil Young performed before an unruly crowd Tuesday night at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

Tuesday's Neil Young show at the Fox was billed as "Neil Young Solo," and found the 72-year-old performing by himself, mostly acoustic, in a deeply personal and intimate setting.

Fans, however, treated it like a rollicking Crazy Horse show in an arena or an amphitheatre, yelling out song titles ("HARVEST MOOOOOOOON!") or bellowing Young's name ("NEEEEEEEEEIIIIIIIIIIILLLLLLLLLLL!") so boorishly and so frequently that it ruined the vibe of the evening.

The show brings up questions of concert etiquette and what kind of behavior is expected of concert audiences. 

When it comes to concert couth, it's usually younger audiences that are accused of being bad fans. They won't put their phones away, they're more concerned with being seen by their peers than living in the moment, etc. But those moments, though they may affect an individual's participation, rarely disrupt from the overall experience of a concert. 

The Neil Young situation was different. Very early in the evening, amid a flurry of song titles being shouted in his direction, Young shot back, "I hope you know I'm not keeping track of those." That didn't stop the fans from peppering him with requests. "CINNAMON GIRL!" "ROCKIN' IN THE FREE WORLD!" "You can keep shouting them, but I'm never going to play any of them," Young replied, sounding peeved. 

Very simply, it wasn't that kind of show. The concert was a journey through Young's career, and he told stories about his early days in Detroit and his memories of performing and recording in the city. But several times he wasn't able to get through stories because fans were shouting and acting like jackasses. "Just pretend like I just told a story," he said at one point midway through the concert, because by then he'd been shouted over so often that it was no longer worth trying. 

I can't recall attending another concert where the rowdy, unruly behavior of the crowd affected a show quite like the Neil Young crowd did, and I've been to the Gathering of the Juggalos. Twice.

Young himself even felt compelled to weigh in on the evening, writing on his Neil Young Archives blog, "Detroit was a rough night for me," saying the show wasn't "half as rewarding personally" as his recent concerts in St. Louis or Chicago, due to the holiday crowd being "already high when they arrived at the show." He said he came away from the concert "a bit mentally bruised and battered" and chastised "the yellers" for distracting from the mood of the show and his ability to get lost in his performance. 

It's not just Neil Young. A friend told me it was the same situation when Jackson Browne played Freedom Hill earlier this summer, and when I posted about the Neil Young show on Twitter I heard from others who have complained about audiences at shows by other Boomer-aged musicians. 

Is there a generation gap when it comes to concert norms that leads to a feeling of entitlement by concertgoers of a certain age? That they paid their money and they can yell out whatever they want, whenever they want? Or is the bad behavior symptomatic of a larger breakdown of respect for others in today's America? 

Maybe it's the fact that younger concertgoers, such as the Harry Styles crowd, are still in awe of seeing a performer they idolize live and in the flesh. For Neil Young fans, that magic is gone, or at least has subsided due to decades of concert attendance, and there's an assumed familiarity that makes them feel they have the right to call out to the performer. Or maybe it's an alcohol thing. Beer lines at Harry Styles were shorter than lines for the men's bathroom.  

To be fair, at Neil Young it was a case of a few ruining it for everyone, which is often the case in many disturbances, be it at a concert or a public gathering of any sort. And those few are either too ignorant, too belligerent or too male to empathize with others or realize the effect they're having on everyone else. And too often it's the few who dictate things for the many. 

Neil Young knows his name, yelling "NEIL!" or "UNCLE NEIL!" isn't going to cause any grand epiphany for him. He knows you love him, that's why you paid to come see the show. And he knows his songs, shouting "MY MY, HEY HEYYY!" isn't going to remind him that he sings a song called "My My, Hey Hey" and get him to play it for you.

So once that is established, what is the point of continuing to yell out? Is it the thirst for a reply? And is getting some acknowledgment worth ruining the experience for so many concertgoers around you? 

By attending a concert, like any public gathering, you enter into a social contract. The same way you wouldn't sit down at a restaurant and scream the chef's name after biting into the pasta primavera, you shouldn't shout out things at a concert if it's not that kind of show. Read the room and act accordingly. At an arena rock concert, all bets are off, the louder you are the better. But if a concert is a quiet acoustic gathering, keep the loudmouth comments to yourself for the sake of those around you.

Harry Styles fans seem to understand this. Maybe they could teach Neil Young fans a thing or two.

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