Is The Cray Contagious? Persistent Artist Attacks Raise Questions About Safety, Security And Psychology

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Photo by Eva Praskova/Getty Images

When the story of the live industry in 2023 is written, the epilogue will have to wrestle with a dual legacy.

First – and, we hope, foremost – will be the boffo box-offices, gargantuan grosses and stadium sellouts, plus all the cultural and political conversations driven by discourse generated via the “Eras Tour” Extended Universe.

But then there’s something else, something unseemly, sinister and senseless: the spate of attacks on performers by concertgoers, usually via thrown objects.

Harry Styles was struck by a bouquet of flowers in Cardiff, Wales, in June; he’d previously been hit in the face (by Skittles) in Southern California. Bebe Rexha was hit by a phone in New York in June. Kelsea Ballerini was hit by a bracelet in Idaho a few days later. Drake, like Rexha, was hit by a phone (and, later, by bras). Someone threw a sex toy at Lil Nas X in Sweden. A fan tossed their mother’s ashes onstage during P!NK’s show in London.

The attacks have caused injury and halted performances and, in general, the reaction to the attackers has been overwhelmingly negative as we all wonder what prompts such obviously antisocial behavior.

Every answer to the why of it all seems pap, cheap, obviously wrong or all the above.
Consider Adele, who asked her audience in Las Vegas if they’d noticed how people “in America” had “forgotten” their show-going etiquette. Her profanity-riddled tirade – during which she was armed with a T-shirt cannon, joking she’d “kill” anyone who threw something at her – didn’t explain how Americans’ forgetfulness vis-à-vis manners caused
someone to throw something at Harry Styles in Vienna, Austria, earlier this month.

All the boogeymen, bêtes noires and usual suspects have caught the blame: bad manners, the scourge of social media, attention seeking, violence in video games and TV, lax security, inattentive parenting, entitlement and, of course, capitalism.

Dr. Douglas Gentile, a distinguished professor of psychology at Iowa State University, where he heads the Media Research Lab, is an expert on developmental psychology and media effects. He’s done extensive research on violence in media and its effect on real-life aggression.

Gentile says there’s no magical set of factors that leads inexorably to aggressive behavior, like chucking a phone at Bebe Rexha, but a variety of inputs make such behavior more likely and live performance provides a unique mixture of contributing factors.

“You have high excitement and loud music. That leads to physiological arousal and we know that high physiological arousal makes aggression more likely,” Gentile tells Pollstar.
Drinking “and other substances” also make aggression more likely.

In other words, many of the factors that make live so appealing – the emotional evocativeness, the crowds, the connection, the hedonism, the release – are also ingredients in a cauldron that can boil over to aggression.

“No single one of them is the cause,” he says, but the addition of all these risk factors ratchet up the likelihood someone may transgress the boundary of normal behavior.

And being in a crowd raises the temperature as well.

“Groups act in very different ways (than individuals),” he says. “When we get a crowd together, all it takes is one person doing something and the crowd will follow pretty easily. It gets to a tipping point and no one knows what that tipping point is.”

His research has shown that desensitization is real; exposure to violence in video games and other media, especially violence devoid of context and consequence, can lead to mental miscalculation by potential aggressors. He says people throwing objects don’t necessarily want to hurt the performers.

“That’s part of desensitization: we underestimate how harmful it would be. We underestimate how much pain it will cause.”

Social media, which presents a unique combination of crowd psychology and media effects, is presented in easily digestible chunks and those chunks, almost by design, have even less context than other mass media.

“Social media brings into bear social comparison processes … If other people are getting lots of likes, we want to get lots of likes. … There is a feedback mechanism of how popular this is – it’s easily quantifiable – I want to get lots of likes, I want to make sure lots of people see this. That’s just human social behavior and it’s the same stuff that would happen if all these people were in a room with you. It’s just moved to this very short form that can expand out much larger than normal networks,” he says.

New York City Celebrates 4th Of July Holiday
YOU CAN’T STOP THE GIRL: Bebe Rexha, seen here performing during Macy’s Independence Day fireworks display in New York City, is one of several artists attacked by concertgoers this summer (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

All of that explains aggressive behavior and social media trend-following in a general sense but what, specifically, is driving these sorts of attacks, where objects are being hurled at performers who, presumably, the hurlers admire and respect?

Gentile says go back to the playground to understand it.

“I’m not even sure it’s aggression so much as a really poor, not particularly mature thought. It doesn’t include any consideration of the other person. In the middle of a performance, they don’t want to think about dodging stuff. It’s the third grade boy whipping the ball at the girl he likes; it’s saying, ‘In this situation I don’t have a better way of managing my emotions,’” he says.

Consider, he says, the objects being thrown. They are deeply personal or symbolic; in 2023, even the smartphone could be read as an extension of someone, as something that represents their identity.

There’s something almost primal about this idea. That the Skittles or the ashes or the phone or the sex toy represents the person doing the throwing and that if they throw it to their favorite singer, they form a connection, almost like an offering to a king or a deity.

Is it emotionally mature? Not at all. But there’s some appeal in that understanding of the behavior, that something from our early humanity has been released by something especially modern.

“We’ve focused so much in the past 15 years on the individual,” Gentile says. “The internet has allowed a range of individual opinions to be shared and whatever opinion I hold is equally valid to every other opinion in the world and I should let everybody know about it,” he says. “There’s a lack of emotional maturity brought on by all this focus on the individual. … I could even imagine that they don’t even think of it as aggressive at all, but they think that by throwing something like that, it makes them more connected.”