A collective experience of joy and harmony

Chris Cocking, social psychologist and crowd behaviour expert at the University of Brighton, and Kate Johnstone, associate editor for Culture, consider their first live music experiences in the post-pandemic environment.

Have you been to any gigs recently and if so who?
Chris: I saw Idles at the Eden Project in Cornwall in mid-September and it was great! Their music isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but they are very good live, and yes, I saw my first Wall of Death at it (see my Twitter feed for a discussion about it @DrChrisCocking).

Kate: I saw Elbow at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in September and they were wonderful – warm, engaging and brilliantly sentimental. Perhaps the perfect band to channel a collective experience of joy, shot through with deep sadness at what we have all gone through the past 18 months.

Has the experience changed for you?
Chris: While there some minor changes in my behaviour (wearing a mask in confined indoor places, trying to avoid large groups of young, drunken unmasked people), I was surprised how normal it felt to me as I was concerned that I would struggle to settle back into live gigs after not being to one since February 2020. I was particularly struck by how normal it felt, because we had gone to the gig straight from the Isles of Scilly where we had been on a week’s holiday. We were at the Eden Project with twice as many people as the entire population of the islands – but that felt fine.

Kate: What had changed was the mental contortions I went through beforehand. I had decided not to go to a gig at the O2 four weeks earlier, as it felt too soon, the venue was too big, there would be a crush on the tube. The Elbow venue was a quarter of the size, infection rates in London were dropping… but I knew that this was me rationalising my feelings. I just really wanted to go. Once I was standing in the audience, the lack of masks and social distancing was briefly unnerving. But this evaporated in minutes – social conditioning must be one of the most powerful forces in society!

Have you learnt anything from a psychological perspective, e.g. about how we need to behave in order to be safe?
Chris: People seemed to cope well with the restrictions imposed by the Eden Project (proof of vaccination and/or a negative Covid test were conditions of entry) and it reminded me of the importance of outdoor events where people come together to have a shared experience. I think overall, it shows how easily people can slip back into previous social norms (such as doing the Wall of Death), but that we can also introduce new ones to ensure crowd safety and reduce Covid transmission risk.

Kate: Everyone had to show proof of vaccination or similar to get in, but it would be exceptionally easy to fake this. We also had to step through metal detectors and have our bags searched, additional safety measures introduced over the years and a reminder that Covid isn’t the only problem in crowds. There was an element of ‘security theatre’ about all this, designed to reassure us. But it worked – by the time we got to the inevitable encore of ‘One Day Like This’, with Guy Garvey conducting the audience singing in harmony, Covid was eradicated from our minds.

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