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Why Are Music Fans Throwing Things at Pop Stars?
The latest trend in music is injuring your favorite artist
During Cardi B’s Las Vegas appearance last month, a fan threw a drink at the performer.
But this tough lady didn’t hesitate. Cardi B immediately raised her mic above her head. And, in the style of a skilled pitcher on the mound, hurled it at the fan.
Her windup and release are impressive.
Then Ms. B proceeded to tell off the offender. I’m no lip-reader, so I can’t tell you what salty words she chose. But I don’t think they were the lyrics to “WAP.”
(I note, in passing, that even after throwing her mic, Cardi’s vocal continued, Milli Vanilli-style, over the speakers. But nobody seemed surprised by this—live concerts are expected to be simulations nowadays.)
I’m not a fan of her lip-synced music, but I give high marks to Cardi B’s reaction time. She dished out retribution even before her security team responded.
But I later learned that Cardi B has experience in mic throwing.
Soon after, another video went viral, showing her hurl her mic at a DJ that same week. In other situations, she has thrown bottles, shoes, chairs, even a hookah pipe.
All this may seem a bit much to old school music fans. But throwing things at concerts is now very common.
The only odd thing about Cardi B is that she throws back.
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Consider these recent events:
During a Pink concert in London, a fan tossed a bag of human ashes on stage. Pink was totally chill, and on the video of the incident can be heard asking: “Is this your mom?”
A fan threw a cellphone at Drake during a Chicago performance—and the singer almost caught it, but it hit his hand instead.
Pop singer Bebe Rexha wasn’t so fortunate, and a hurled phone sent her to the hospital in June.
Harry Styles has been repeatedly struck with objects while performing—taking on everything from a flying Chicken McNugget to a water bottle in the groin.
Country star Kelsea Ballerini was struck by a flying bracelet thrown by a fan in Boise, Idaho. Jewelry is a lovely gift, but in this instance the impact caused the singer to flinch, and stop playing her guitar. A few minutes later she had to leave the stage.
An assailant actually jumped on stage during an Ava Max performance in Los Angeles, and slapped the singer, scratching her eye in the process—before a security guard restrained him. The singer somehow managed to finish the song.
Rapper Latto got hit with a flying object during a concert in Germany. She responded by telling the perpetrator “I’ma beat your ass.”
It’s a curious coincidence that, during this same period, activists have started throwing things at famous works of art. You wouldn’t normally think of museums and concert halls as epicenters of paintball-esque outbursts. But in the year 2023, they are hot spots for all the worst tendencies.
Of course, there’s a long history of fans throwing things on stage. But until recently, they were usually nice things. Only in the rarest instance—for example, a vaudeville show of embarrassingly low quality—were tomatoes tossed at a performer.
The more usual case is to throw roses.
Almost 200 years ago, Franz Liszt got showered with flowers. Hans Christian Anderson, who saw this happen in person, describes the scene:
“Most of the ladies rose; it was as if a ray of sunshine passed over every face….When Liszt had ceased playing, flowers showered down around him. Pretty young girls, and old ladies who had once been pretty girls, each cast her bouquet.”
Sometimes these situations got violent—but that wasn’t the original intention. For example, two countesses once got into a bloody fight when each tried to grab hold of Liszt’s handkerchief.
Until recently, fans made sure that their beloved pop star was kept safe—even taking security into their own hands if necessary. This was demonstrated during an infamous moment in 1944, when an angry man who hated Frank Sinatra threw eggs at the singer during a concert at the Paramount Theater.
This backfired on the perpetrator. According to a news report, the culprit was
utterly unable to cope with the beating he received at the hands of a houseful of enraged teenagers. In fact, it took a flying wedge of police and theater ushers to rescue him, just as he was going down for the count somewhere in the sixth aisle.
In the aftermath, the egg-thrower received hundreds of angry letters. A week after the incident, he sent a letter of apology to Sinatra.
That was a wise move. Sinatra had access to a much swifter process of justice than anything offered by the US court system.
Sinatra’s fans—known as bobby soxers—may have been wild and out-of-control, but they had no desire to injure their beloved star singer. The items they tossed on stage were objects of devotion. And this set the pattern for future pop star manias.
The Beatles, too, frequently found themselves pelted with fan ‘offerings’—most famously the jelly beans that George Harrison had named, in a TV interview, as his favorite candy. In the aftermath, they were flung onstage night after night. It didn’t help that American jelly beans were a lot harder than their British counterparts, and could sting when tossed with sufficient energy.
Singer Tom Jones saw so much female underwear tossed at him, he could have opened his own Victoria’s Secret store….How did we get from jelly beans and lingerie to physical assaults and blows to the groin?
The worst moment happened in Washington, D.C. in February 1964, when the Fab Four performed on a circular stage—and were hit with jelly beans from all directions. Some even struck Harrison’s guitar, causing wrong notes. Later that year, the Beatles decided to take firm measures in response. They actually halted their San Francisco concert twice—refusing to play until the candy deluge stopped.
By the time we reach the late 1960s, the items tossed on stage became more provocative.
Singer Tom Jones saw so much female underwear tossed at him, he could have opened his own Victoria’s Secret store. He remembers the moment it started, at the Copacabana in New York in 1968:
I was perspiring a lot, so these ladies were handing me table napkins. And then this one woman stood up and took her underwear off and, you know, handed them to me. And it was written up in the newspaper the following day. And that's what started it….
I went to Vegas the same year. And then the room keys, you know, started because people that are in Vegas are staying in the hotels. And they have, you know, room keys in their handbags or their purses….The stage would be showered with underwear and room keys.
How did we get from jelly beans and lingerie to physical assaults and blows to the groin?
I have to give punk rockers some credit for this. But the punk ethos deliberately fostered this behavior. Sid Vicious wanted to be pelted—that’s how he rolled. But what’s happening now is different. The ambiance of a pop star like Harry Styles tends to blandness (sorry Harry, but that’s the truth)—we’re a world away from the Sex Pistols.
So the anger isn’t coming from the music. It’s coming from the broader culture.
Of course, all of us already know that there’s a collapse in civility and decent behavior in every sphere of public life nowadays. The stuff happening on airplanes blows my mind. And it’s also happening at restaurants, movie theaters, and any other place where people congregate for work or play.
But there are specific triggering issues related to music.
René Girard, for example, has shown how the most powerful public rituals involve a scapegoat who is both revered as a hero and attacked as a victim. In other words, we enjoy the spectacle all the more if the punishing blow is delivered to someone previously elevated to a king-like position. There are literally hundreds of examples—from Greek tragedy or Shakespeare or the Bible or the ‘me too’ movement.
But this only partly explains what’s happening now. I suspect that the current angry polarization in society also plays a role in these ugly incidents.
People will tell you that the divide is between Left and Right, but (as I’ve argued elsewhere) the hostility between up and down is just as significant now, maybe even more so. The people on the bottom are filled with resentment of those on top, and it’s more than just wealth disparity. Anybody with elite status, from a professor to a newscaster to a movie star, can be a suitable target.
And, of course, pop singers.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the worst acts of pre-meditated violence during the last decade have occurred at music venues. In addition to schools and shopping centers, musical performances are frequent targets.
The 2015 mass shooting at the Bataclan nightclub.
The 2016 mass shooting at Pulse, a gay dance club in Orlando.
The 2016 mass shooting at a concert in Nenzing, Austria.
The 2017 mass shooting at the Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas—the deadliest event of this sort in US history.
The 2017 bombing at Manchester Arena following an Ariana Grande concert.
The 2021 mass shooting outside a hip-hop concert at the El Mula Banquet Hall in Miami.
The 2022 mass shooting at Club Q, a gay nighclub in Colorado Springs.
The 2022 mass shooting outside the WOW concert hall in Eugene.
Our culture has changed, and not for the better. I have come to believe—as I’ve explained elsewhere—that US society shifts between cycles of hot and cool. We are currently approaching the peak of the hot cycle, and this is always accompanied by anger, conflict, and violence.
When I first started to say this, more than 15 years ago, people were skeptical. But who will deny it after everything we’ve seen in the intervening years?
You may think that violence plays out on the battlefield, not at a pop concert. But music has always been a cultural indicator. In some ways, it is our most revealing source of information on society. Sometimes the future shows up in our music even before it gets covered in the newspapers.
So even if I am saddened by the craziness at music concerts, I can’t say I’m surprised There’s something ugly simmering in our society, and it has finally arrived at the pricey front row seats of concerts. All of sudden, fans have decided that an expensive ticket gives them the right to do something abusive to their favorite pop star.
It makes no sense, but it’s definitely part of the zeitgeist. And it will almost certainly get worse before it gets better.
But these cycles eventually turn. There’s a law of reflexivity at work. People do burn out on anger, sooner or later. I’m hoping it will be sooner in this instance.
A good indicator will be when fans start tossing undergarments and jelly beans again. Or even flowers. What an amazing idea that is—bringing flowers to your favorite performer!
Maybe I’ll try to start it myself. So don’t be surprised if you see me at the jazz club with lilies or carnations or a dozen roses. Somebody has gotta take the first step.