Going to Concerts by Myself Taught Me Self-Reliance
It was a weeknight in December, and The Anthem, an oversized anchor of Washington, D.C.’s shining new Wharf development, felt cold, drafty and vast, sterile in the manner of a public space that has no history yet. St. Vincent was set to perform to a sold-out crowd, and in a mass of six thousand people, I was alone.
I’d thought I would feel some anxiety on the train or on the walk from the L’Enfant Plaza metro station. No one knew where I was, and no one was waiting for me. I went through the ticket line, the I.D. and bag check, a full-body security scan. But when I walked from the lobby into the windowless concert space itself, with its high ceilings and concrete floor and general feeling of anonymity, the most immediate thing I felt was relief.
For the first time, I wasn’t going to a show by myself because I was making peace with the fact of busy friends or the lack of a better alternative. I really and truly wanted to be alone. I wanted to go to that loud, crowded place where my mind could be still, where I could feel the bass thump deep in my chest cavity and feel connected to some bigger intangible thing. I wanted to drown out the knowledge of the existential hole in myself with sheer volume. Because this is one of the most freeing truths I’ve ever known, as it relates to being a woman, or even just a person, at a concert by yourself: No one is judging you. And if they are, in the words of Yo Gotti, fuck 'em.
From the exterior, it makes a certain kind of sense. If I happened to catch a glimpse of myself across a crowded, sticky venue floor, clutching a watery drink in one hand with my neck bent over my phone’s hypnotic glow in the other, I would wonder about myself for a moment, too—no friends, no partner in sight, all the signs coalescing into a metaphorical lit-up billboard that screams, She’s here alone. But then I would turn back to my conversation with my own friends or partner, think strategically about a trip to the bathroom or the bar, and forget about me entirely.
The fear of going to a show by oneself is an amalgamation of several different fears: the fear of how you will be perceived; the fear of being seen as pathetic or sad (friendless, partnerless, or both); the simple fear of not knowing what to do to kill time between sets; and maybe even the well-founded fear of making yourself vulnerable to strangers with uncertain motives. But, as with all types of fear, the moment you lean into it is the moment it loses its power over you.
Truthfully, I grew up an only child and take true joy in experiencing things without the added pressure of another human presence. Shopping, sitting in coffee shops, even going to the occasional movie by myself—these were all things I had done alone, and enjoyed. But on a frigid Monday night in January of 2014, I had an assignment to write about Los Campesinos! on the 9:30 Club stop of their No Blues tour, and even my most reliably charitable and up-for-anything friends had no intention of leaving their houses that evening. I walked the few blocks to the music venue in the early winter dark alone, leaving the warmth of my house right before I knew the headliner was about to begin. I ordered a whiskey ginger at the bar and sidled up to stage right, feeling the comfortable anonymity of the darkness as it folded in around me like a blanket. The applause and shouts were comfortingly familiar, the language of live shows everywhere, and although I had come by myself, I suddenly felt that I wasn’t alone any longer.
Live music takes us out of ourselves, allowing us to escape our small human problems and, when we come back to them later, see them from a different angle. I cherish the residual ringing in my ears and, as I’ve inched closer to 30, the aching in my bones—truly. I saw so many of the bands I had dreamed of seeing live as a teenager during the three-year stint that I lived in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood. After a childhood spent in a remote town in northern Michigan, the notion that I could walk to a venue as revered as the 9:30 Club never grew old. I live across town now, in an apartment in a masonry building instead of a ramshackle three-story house whose walls trembled in high winds, but it still hasn’t. And there are the times when I get a thrill up my spine from doing something that a younger version of myself would have been too scared to do. I grip my sweaty drink and drop my shoulders, the body language that tells everyone around you that it’s okay, that you are waiting for no one and yet, you’re at ease.
"I grip my sweaty drink and drop my shoulders, the body language that tells everyone around you that it’s okay, that you are waiting for no one and yet, you’re at ease."
Every once in a while, of course, someone does pay attention to you. It was July, and I was back at The Anthem. At the last minute I had made plans to meet up with a friend and a few others who were planning on going to the same show, but as the lights dimmed for the opener and they still hadn’t texted, I elbowed my way through a few rows of people and centered myself in front of the stage, clutching a sweating vodka soda in one hand. I had luxuriated in my solitude upon arriving, climbing the stairs to the venue’s top level and eating an $8 waffle (a “Wharfle”) while staring out at the sun setting over the Anacostia.
As Moses Sumney crooned his way through the last few songs of his set, I glanced over to my left and noticed another woman, probably a little younger than myself, who looked like she was alone, too. She was wearing a dark, velvety matte red shade of lipstick similar to one that I own myself, and I admiringly took in her layered necklaces and white crop top. Sylvan Esso were taking their sweet time taking the stage, and as the minutes dragged on she caught my eye and smiled.
“Do you think anyone would notice if I hit this joint in my pocket?” she asked, and we both glanced in the general direction of security, on the other side of a tight crush of people. “You’re welcome to have one, too.” The couple standing directly in front of us looked like they had just stumbled indoors from Bonnaroo, trailing backpacks, bandannas and a faint patchouli smell, and the girl with the dark lipstick, who had told me a few minutes earlier that her name was Chelsea, tapped the female member of the couple on the shoulder. “Do you have a lighter, by any chance?”
They did not, in fact, have a lighter, and as Chelsea settled back into her spot next to me with her arms crossed, we both noticed the faint wisps of smoke from vape pens a few rows in front of us which, in the moment, seemed unfair. Chelsea was supposed to meet up with friends as well; she had gone to shows alone before, she told me, but tonight she was hoping to find her people somewhere in the crowd. The minutes dragged on and she told me where she worked, a restaurant not far from my apartment; where she was from (New Jersey) and the next show she was excited about seeing (Kali Uchis). The lights dimmed, and the anticipation under the high ceiling reached a steady thrum as we all turned our gaze toward the empty stage.
In that same venue the previous December, I had checked my phone one or two times too many, waiting for a text that I knew most likely wasn’t going to come through. I had spent much of that year, 2017, clutching what felt like loose strands to my chest, trying to will a nascent relationship with a man in another city into everything that I hoped it could and would be. At the end of October I had lowered my arms and opened my palms, letting everything, all of it, my built-up hope and effort and joy, train tickets and mailed notes and text messages, the fear that I would never feel those exact same emotions in the exact same way again, fall to the ground. The headiness of coming back to Brooklyn, home of so many of my childhood memories, as an adult; the things I couldn’t unknow, how to take the B train from 34th Street / Penn Station, how luminous the green in Prospect Park turns on a sunny day in the summer.
Live music, then, as always, felt like it was the only thing that could fix me, if only for a few hours at a time. After the lights came up I left the St. Vincent show and breathed the cold December air into my lungs, walking through congested street corners and throngs of cabs and Ubers near the Wharf, eventually making my way along an overpass above the freeway that feeds the city like an artery, streams of headlights racing off to unknown destinations. For the first time since October, I felt insular and self-sufficient. I needed no one but myself.
“Live music, then, as always, felt like it was the only thing that could fix me, if only for a few hours at a time.”
In July, at Sylvan Esso, Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath had moved onstage like shadows, and the music began to punctuate the vast, dark room, beams of light and pulses of synths washing over the crowd of upturned faces. Chelsea’s face was turned down toward the light from her phone and her thumbs were moving quickly over the screen, and she kept glancing over to our right, in the direction of the bar. “I’m going to go find my friends,” she told me about five songs in, touching my arm. “It was lovely to meet you.” Mine had texted me too, but my vantage point was so perfect that I was reluctant to give it up. I knew most of the words to every song; I leaned back on my heels, reveling in my anonymity and the blankness in my mind, so singularly focused, as it was, on what was unfolding in front of it.
After the show ended I followed the crush of people out, tracing my familiar path back in the direction of L’Enfant Plaza, away from the Wharf and its dazzling light pollution. In a few minutes, on the highway overpass, I would look to my right and see a woman I knew, and hitch a ride back to my home on the Hill with her and the friends she had come with. In a city as small as D.C., you’re never truly that far from the people you know, the people who will be willing to help you should you need it. But for a moment, before I called out her name, I wanted to hold in my mind the person I had been a few hours before, when I walked in fearlessly, alone and with the full knowledge that I had done it of my own volition.
Editor’s note: This essay represents only my experiences and I’m very lucky that I’ve never been harassed or assaulted while at a show by myself. If you, like me, love doing this, please stay vigilant: identify the closest exits and note the location of security guards or venue staff. If you’re planning to attend a festival or other large-scale event, please bring a buddy.