Sunday, September 05, 2004

Public Enemy

Getting to the front; fronting
Bumbershoot, Seattle, WA

Every so often in this city there is a show or cultural event that creates a temporary but lovely oasis of racial diversity. For one night we believe we live in a regular town where people of all ethnicities mingle happily, attend events together, and love the same things. We'll go back to our segregated lives tomorrow. Tonight, we rock.

There are about a zillion people packed as closely to the stage as possible for this show. Ten year-old skateboard kids, old hippie guys, tough-looking teenagers, and children bouncing on the shoulders of their jock dads. Some of them know that it's a Very Big Deal to see Public Enemy live, and some of them are along for the ride.

Flavor Flav is wearing a Viking hat and a clock around his neck (I saw it up close earlier - it's this little b-boy with the clock in his belly. The time is stuck at 9:40). Chuck D, the patron saint of PE, wears a cap and a basketball jersey. Although I see no other Viking hats in the audience, there is an astonishing array of headwear: cowboy hats, doo-rags, baseball caps, knit caps, you name it.

Since my spot was near one of those natural body gates, I was reminded that the goal for some folks at a packed show is to get closer to the front. People employ one of five distinct methods to get through the crowd, every one of which I have personally tested.

1. "I'm just trying to get up there to my friend/spouse/parent/child"
2. "Wooo! We're so drunk! Oops, sorry! Woo!"
3. Person-by-person using "you're taller than me, can I stand in front of you?"
4. Choose aggressive friend, grab on, shrug & apologize to everyone on your way through
5. Adopt steely-eyed determination, barrel through without making eye contact

The people who receive the most attention, of course, are the ones trying to get OUT of the crowd. They are freaks of nature. They are interesting. They are facing us so we can examine them.

Chuck and the crew get high marks for audience participation when they lead the chants "Fuck Bush" and "Make love, fuck war." But Chuck loses people a bit when he gives a lecture about the importance of getting a passport, or goes into a fairly complex political diatribe rap. The man is freakishly smart, but sometimes those smarts don't translate out to a huge stadium. Stadiums like anthems. He does do some excellent marketing for the PE website, however. And Flav throws in some cross-promotion for his appearance on The Surreal Life.

(Oh - one guy near me is unsure of what to do with his arm during the chants. While other people have raised fists or outstretched but relaxed fingers in the air, this guy first points his index finger straight up a la "check, please!", then he switches to inward-turned hand karate chop, then he reverts to the index-pinkie Iron Maiden head-banger hand position.)

I move to another spot later (freak of nature!!) and spot many musicians from the festival hanging around by the VIP section (again, no idea). There is also a guy selling bootleg CDs to kids, which makes me feel warm and creepy all at the same time.

But one thing makes me really understand the reach of Public Enemy - how they have transcended race, culture, and class; how their fan base has remained consistent through changing life stages and political times. Right there on the floor of the stadium near the back, a nice family - mom, dad, baby, 4 year old adorable girl (no earplugs, hmf) - all concentrate at that moment not on the music, not on their new political awakening, not on correct hand positions, but on handling in the most discreet way possible the baby's diaper change.

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