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“Biting the Hand”: The Rise of the Parasocial Relationship Post-Pandemic

The lights go down in the stadium, arena or small underground jazz club you’ve been queuing outside for hours, maybe even days. Around you the air is full of anticipation. The artist, maybe your favorite or one you’ve only just discovered, walks, struts or ascends onto stage. The first song starts playing and they are putting their all into it, with choreography they have practiced and perfected for months backed by the most expensive special effects or lighting you have ever seen. The crowd is completely still. No dancing, no singing along, and in a few heavy metal scenes, no moshing. Just a crowd of people holding up their phones filming the entirety of the concert to prove that they were there, or waving signs bigger than their heads trying to get the attention of the artist performing.

Alternatively, in the same concert, the artist lowers themselves off the stage and takes the hand of an audience member, beginning their most emotional, heartfelt song. Halfway through the song a fan starts screaming their name, desperate to get their attention. In a few extreme cases, anything from a bag of skittles to an iPhone is thrown directly at the artist, hitting them straight on and forcing them to end the concert or to be hospitalized.

These two scenes are becoming increasingly common in live shows across genres and listener demographics since the COVID-19 pandemic that caused a nationwide quarantine. People were forced to shelter at home around the globe. Streaming services, social media apps and TikTok saw a spike in their downloads and usage time. 

Musical Artists used this downtime to create. Musicians such as Phoebe Bridgers, The Weekend, The Strokes, Bo Burnham, Childish Gambino, Bad Bunny and Taylor Swift released albums as a result of unexpected time devoted solely to their work from the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine. This exposed listeners to a multitude of music genres, exploring styles and themes they previously had not. The careers of many artists skyrocketed, and with the help of Instagram, TikTok and X (formerly known as Twitter), huge cult followings formed around artists in  unprecedented ways. The spike in social media usage can be attributed to the rise of up-and-coming artists through trending TikTok dances, sounds and sketches that reached users that browsed through all types of genres. In cliché glory artists, genres and whole music scenes “blew up” overnight. 

During the pandemic, whether quarantining alone or with others, a profound sense of loneliness seemed to take prevalence in American society during the pandemic. Depression and anxiety diagnoses spiked. With many traditional mental health services closed or operating on different schedules with minimal staffing, many people struggled with the sudden loss of socialization and connection that we depend on. People craved connection and understanding. In the absence of in-person contact, they turned to social media as a replacement. In the absence of connections they would typically form with people they may encounter on a daily basis, listeners felt the artists were forming a familiar and intimate connection to them personally instead of trying to promote their art to an audience of thousands or millions. 

This type of connection is referred to as a parasocial relationship. Through the more intimate glimpse into the personal lives of major artists the line between business professional and close personal friend has been blurred. Although parasocial relationships have existed as long as professional performers have existed, the ease of an artificial connection to fill in a genuine connection proved to be a dangerous combination in 2020.

When pandemic restrictions were gradually eased and live music was able to begin again, the development of parasocial relationships between artist and listener during the lockdown led to many fans feeling an intense need to make the perceived connection a reality. Suddenly everyone needed to prove themselves as the biggest and most devoted fan by getting the attention of the artist through any means necessary. This can be dangerous for both the artist and audience. 

In June 2023, while attending a Bebe Rexa concert, a fan threw his phone at the singer in the final few moments of a Bebe Rexa concert. The phone hit the pop-singer directly in the face, resulting in her hospitalization. : “I thought it would be funny,” the fan said. Not too long after this, a fan threw a bag of their mother’s ashes at PINK during her performance at a British music festival that same month. On January 25th, a longtime stalker of singer-songwriter Taylor Swift was apprehended outside her New York home. These examples are extreme but they represent a growing concern amongst concertgoers regarding the future of live music. 

For many, concerts have become less inclusive. Less attention on the experience and more attention on trying to win the favor of the artist. The popularity of social media and the mobilization of social media to promote artists and their works has broken a boundary that was already blurred between the artist and the audience. Recognizing this boundary and viewing artists as both ordinary human beings and business-people trying to sell a product, is key to a respectful and inclusive live music experience for artists and listeners alike.

While performing their song “Bite the Hand” live, indie band Boygenius turns the camera projecting them onto the big screen onto the audience, which forced  fans to see themselveswhile Bridgers, Baker and Dacus sing lyrics of the song about the very parasocial relationships that have threatened their safety: “I can’t love you how you want me to”. Although the three minute demonstration is a small one, it represents the desperate reality of the future of live music.If we cannot differentiate artists from the intimate impacts their lyrics have on our personal lives, the line between what is ultimately simply buyer and seller may be blurred and make the experience of live music unpleasant for all.

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