Last night, I joined the NY Giz team (and a throng of several hundred strangers) for a Microsoft-themed evening with Katy Perry. It was fun. But it was also clear that smartphones have changed concerts forever. Is that good?
On a technical level, the concert was no different from any other pop spectacle - flashing lights that pulsated to the point of distraction, an overwhelming array of speakers, confetti blasting everywhere - in short, pretty great. Katy Perry popping out of a cake at the show's start was a nice little innovation, as was the very space age material her dress seemed to be made out of (I was studying it very closely - for science). But again, this was normal concert theatrics, unless you count Katy Perry's bra as a new technology, which would not surprise me in the slightest.
But then I looked away from the stage. Away from Katy (I'll be honest, I dig your voice, but don't really know many of your songs!). The walls of the massive auditorium were adorned with enormous digital screens that glittered brighter than the pop star they were promoting. And really, promoting might not be the way to put it - Katy Perry appeared, on a humongous simulated Windows Phone 7 screen, as an interface tile. Her face, a button. The world famous, sexual norm-infringing megastar was relegated to a small spot on an advertisement, at the very same time she was whipping the crowd into a tween frenzy. Katy had been digitised. And they had help from all of us.
Even those screaming the loudest, arms flailing, eyes glossed to a degree that indicated either starstruck ecstasy or a brain haemorrhage, were doing so while lining up Katy in the crosshairs of a phone. Looking down at the crowd, you could see that the fans caught up most in hysterics - guy and girl alike - were exuberant about the opportunity to tweet Katy, or record 720p footage of Katy, or save Katy as their backgrounds, or text a jealous friend a nice Hey, check out where I am MMS - or just say it outright on Foursquare. I know this because I was doing the exact same thing. Above the pond of bobbing LCD screens, I found myself, a 23-year-old male - who definitely has no shame about loving shallow pop anthems, but isn't the biggest Katy Perry fan - snapping pic after pic on my iPhone, frustrated when they came out blurry. I stretched my arms as high as they would go for a better shot. I elbowed numerous 14-year-old girls in the head to get a better angle. I sent these pictures to my friends, for no other reason than to share content I had little reason to be making in the first place.
But that was the night. The show isn't just the music, or the glitter-wigged backup dancers, or the dress - my god, the dress - it was a pulsating glob of smartphone use. Whether the gradual conversion of the concert from an experience to a file format is good for you, and good for musicians, and good for music - we'll see. But we'll all have to keep in mind that we've only got two eyes, and if you're looking at the screen, you're not looking at something else.
Was the satisfaction of swiping through my photos from last night and reading my friends' OMG texts worth whatever I was too busy multitouching to notice? I don't have an answer for that yet. But the fact that I'm contemplating it is good news for the people offering - or pushing - this change. Microsoft threw the show to sell phones - but their marketing team has an easy job. The hardest part is done with. People were at least equally excited about Katy the App as much as Katy the Singer. They wanted her on their phones as much as they wanted her in their ears.