Concert sign of the times: Expert on the increasingly disturbing trend of hurling things at artists

Whether it's a phone, ashes or cheese – here's why fans have become emboldened to toss out concert etiquette

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published July 3, 2023 5:02PM (EDT)

P!NK performs at BST Hyde Park Festival 2023 at Hyde Park on June 24, 2023 in London, England. (Burak Cingi/Redferns/Getty Images)
P!NK performs at BST Hyde Park Festival 2023 at Hyde Park on June 24, 2023 in London, England. (Burak Cingi/Redferns/Getty Images)

A giant wheel of Brie. An iPhone. Cremated remains of someone's mother. No, this isn't an episode of "What's In My Bag?" with "White Lotus" hotel guest Tanya McQuoid. 

Over the last several weeks, each of these items has been lobbed onstage while various musicians performed live. Bebe Rexha needed stitches after an audience member threw their cell phone at her head during a recent performance in New York City. Singer-songwriter Pink was aghast while performing at London's Hyde Park on June 25 when one fan chucked a bag reportedly containing their dead mother's ashes onstage. The day before, the "So What" rocker was gifted a girthy cheese wheel. Country-pop singer Kelsea Ballerini was struck in the face during a performance in Boise, Idaho, last week. Last year, Harry Styles was pelted in the eye with a stray Skittle, Red Ryder BB gun style, and Kid Cudi walked off stage at Rolling Loud Miami after festivalgoers repeatedly launched items at him. 

"Fandom is always this intense emotion related to the object of the fandom."

This recent burst of unbridled fan behavior doesn't come as a complete surprise. Statistically speaking, the larger the social gathering — especially ones that mash together groups of unfamiliar people — the more likely it is that some rapscallion will ruin the fun for everyone. 

On a recent outing with a friend at the IFC Film Center in Manhattan, rather than enjoying a showing of David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," myself and an entire theater of moviegoers were subjected to the bubbling crescendos of a man who slept and snored through the entire two hours and 26 minutes of screentime. Every glottal stop in Rebekah del Rio's "Llorando," the Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying" performed in Club Silencio, was punctuated by the sounds of some dude drifting in and out of consciousness. While not a live music performance, it only took one conked-out patron to trash the experience for the rest of us. 

Unethical fan behavior has remained consistent — and somewhat stratified — across different decades. A far cry from a bout of annoying snoring, instances of stalking and deadly obsessions have long occupied the far end of the fan-behavior spectrum, from John Lennon's infamous 1980 murder beneath The Dakota's double-height archway to an infatuated fan gunning down "The Voice" star Christina Grimmie at a meet-and-greet in 2016. 

But these tragic instances have remained largely anomalous, serving as unfortunate outliers that account for individuals who were clearly mentally unwell. But why has the strange, copycat trend of catapulting objects (and dead mothers) at performers become so heavily normalized, and why have fans begun to exhibit a level of gross comfort at live shows?

"Fandom is always this intense emotion related to the object of the fandom," Dr. Paul Booth, Professor of Media and Popular Culture at DePaul University, told Salon. "And when it's a celebrity, there is an actual person there who could possibly reciprocate." 

Though not (yet) fatal, these incidents are utterly unacceptable, seemingly indicative of a perverse cultural touchstone that has taken on a new — and specifically emboldened — meaning in recent years. Aside from hurled objects, felt-tipped posters are inscribed with increasingly incendiary messages, and overzealous fans have been chided for belting lyrics too obnoxiously loud or dancing too aggressively. In March, a TikTok from a 2022 Billie Eilish concert of a fan drowning out the singer's signature breathy, airy style re-circulated, tacking on to the ongoing debate about concert etiquette. The video shows clips filmed from the crowd during a number of Eilish's songs with an onscreen caption that reads: "To the person who thinks they can out sing Billie and ruined all my videos." An unidentified woman can be heard singing loudly in the background, allowing her voice to drag out longer than Eilish's. At one point in the TikTok, several other concert goers can be seen turning around toward the singing fan. Since the video was reshared on Twitter in March, it has garnered 11 million views and nearly 87,000 likes. 

Some have attributed this feral behavior to a sort of post-pandemic hysteria, the product of being cooped up indoors and deprived of natural socialization for an extended period of time. But I'm not entirely sold on this logic. In its current state of extreme belligerence, the issue of poor concert etiquette cannot be simply justified with a pandemic-sized excuse. Just because the world took a two-year hiatus from social gatherings doesn't mean it's acceptable to throw lived and learned social norms out the window, trampling them under a sea of moshing feet until they've transmogrified into disrespectful rowdiness that is artlessly and dangerously pitched back onstage.

Another explanation lies in the steadily eroding line between fans and performers, a boundary that many fans have now literally and figuratively crossed far too many times. Parasocial relationships exist across fandoms everywhere, developing steadily through repeated interactions with celebrities and other cultural figures on social media and television. 

"Fans often want to do things to get noticed. And the more that they do, the more that other fans up the ante."

The digitally saturated age we are living in has made it incredibly easy to feel "close" to people who exist far outside the quiet reality of our own lives. What do we do with this fluttery feeling? There are a number of options, but most fall into two categories: horny fanfiction or rationale for objectively problematic fan behavior. Additionally, a competitive and oftentimes rabid desire to go viral or gain likes and views has led people to act out purposefully. For still others, like the assailant who left Bebe Rexha with a gashed eye, they might just think it was "funny."

"Fans are not a monolithic group. Everyone is going to be acting in their own way," Booth stated. "There's a two-way relationship between performers and an audience, especially at a live show. Fans often want to do things to get noticed. And the more that they do, the more that other fans up the ante. To me, it seems like less of an entitlement thing and more of a 'I want you to recognize me, I want to be seen.'"

And it's true — top results for a Google search of "concert signs" displays "concert signs to get you noticed," bolstering the idea that many of these antics are merely desperate attempts to be noticed by the performer, the internet, an ex, the Kool-Aid Man, etc. 

"When you're a Pink fan on social media, you're one of millions . . . you have no way of knowing if Pink is reading your posts or DM's. So this is your way to get noticed, to be seen by the celebrity," Booth says. 

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So how can we ameliorate this issue? Should we turn venues into makeshift bastions and plant 10 feet of plexiglass in front of musicians, a solution that feels darkly reminiscent of how an Alabama school installed bulletproof shelters following the Uvalde school shooting? Or do we scoot the front row an extra 50 feet back, cross our fingers and assume none of the attendees played baseball growing up?

Oh, and adding more security might not be the best idea.

"On the one hand, you don't want to police people and police their engagement," he said. "But on the other hand, there is a certain level of etiquette that has to happen at a concert for people's safety and for other people's enjoyment. If this type of behavior is the type of behavior that Pink wants to stop or Taylor Swift wants to stop, it has to come from Pink or Taylor Swift. It has to come from the performers, saying, 'I love all my fans, I love how engaged you are, but please stop throwing things on stage."

So the next time your friend feels a soul-rattling urge to fling baked ziti at their favorite music artist, ask them to take a deep breath and grab some glitter glue instead. They'll probably have a better chance of getting noticed by their favorite artist if they make a concert sign asking them to tell people to stop acting so out-of-bounds.

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

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