You went to the free McCarren Pool concerts to stand beneath the pitiless sun and watch music. Les Savy Fav jam hard, so I appreciate that you’re standing so close to the stage, eyes glazed, in some sort of sonic trance. But if you can, shake yourself awake, turn around and look at all of us wandering around behind you, talking, drinking, sneaking glances right back at you. There’s a whole party of us, and we outnumber you. We hear the music, but we’re looking elsewhere: to ogle short-shorts on hairy legs, ruthless dodgeball matches, and sunglasses that would weigh down a weeping Elton John.
Maybe I’m shallow. Maybe all of us less interested in the music than the crowd are shallow. The pool is certainly shallow. But if we are, we haven’t changed much since the lights blazed in 18th-century opera houses and the audience raged supreme. Back when men were castrati and the lower classes went to the theater, opera audiences sat, stood and roamed through the house, crystal chandeliers ablaze, distracted equally by the spectacle of the show and of its audience. Servants fired up full meals while young dandies eyed meticulously pruned ladies, faces powdered beneath hedge-sized wigs. Vendors pushed through a crowd that chatted, played cards, talked loudly and clapped boisterously at sections of the music of which it approved.
Today, opera is hooked up to respirators at Lincoln Center, and seems more like an elaborate, over-priced museum piece than a viable concert. But in the McCarren Pool shows, we’ve rediscovered the concert-going chaos of the powdered wig set, in which the spectacle of society supersedes the music on stage. These days, the vendors at the McCarren Park Pool offer vegan options, and, instead of rib-popping bodices, women enjoy an array of two-piece bathing suits and micro-shorts as they mill about beneath pseudo-Italian arches that beckon us through to stroll the expansive promenade overlooking both performances: the band’s, and ours. There’s nowhere to hide from this spectacle, no hidden corners, and barely any obstructions to lean on in evasion of the concert’s all-pervasive sightlines.
As is usually the case with the free and the fun, corporate appropriation has come swiftly and aggressively, with Live Nation hovering to snatch up its latent revenue. For every article about the weekly free concerts, there’s at least one reference to former Clear Channel subsidiary Live Nation’s victorious Park Service bidding battle to throw six $30-40 concerts (plus service fee) this summer, or an aside about the local community board that, prior to 9/11, collected millions to develop the site (and is still fighting to do so); in short, any number of groups who, for better or worse, intend to take what the pool looks like today and make it something completely different tomorrow. In all likelihood, the Park Service, which started bidding for the site’s use at $200,000 and will also take a chunk of the money made from Live Nation ticket sales, will renovate the old pools and give Brooklyn a sparkly clean place for locals to swim and panhandle, in a pattern that has befallen many of our more storied and dilapidated virgin territories. But that’s what makes these Sunday weekends bulletproof: The inherently threatened nature of this weekly ritual intensifies the experience and renders it more celebratory than your average visit to Bowery Ballroom. We can almost taste the waiver forms, where now there’s only an open gate: Upon entrance to dodgeball court, I sign life and limb to the whim of said dodgeball ball. Live Nation will not be responsible for any or all injuries incurred. ENTRANCE FEE: $10.
Even before moneyed powers crash this party, our conditioned reverence for Art and its performance promises to kill the buzz before it starts. That’s what infamously gloomy Richard Wagner did when he turned off the bright lights, and we’ve been paying attention to the music ever since. In the mid-19th century Wagner ruined the fun by turning down the house lights and telling everyone to not only shut up and listen to the music, but watch it too, thereby ending a centuries-old operatic tradition of good-natured ogling and middle-brow hedonism. Generally, we’re expected to do the same when our friend’s band plays a loft show. But what happens when this model of concert decorum is upset? When people revert to the carefree mores of the brightly lit opera house, wandering beneath the bright sun and munching on soy dogs? A powerful Wagnerian arm — corporate, municipal, private — enters the scene, ready to buy up and seal the rupture of space in which, fleeting moments before, a different kind of celebration had sprung up.
Until Live Nation installs bleachers or the air shimmers with the municipal scent of chlorine, the current concert organizers, JELLYNYC, have assured the amorphous nature of this party — and the secondary importance of its music — by installing evocatively childish and distracting accoutrements: dodgeball courts at stage left and an inflatable slip-and-slide stage right. This sort of playfulness goes further than the drink-and-forget-my-job conditions of an average rock concert. Gothamist opinionist Jeff Baum likened this hipster playpen to a three-ring circus — but there’s too much going on to stay focused on any one ring. Point being, we’re definitely not lost in the music (sorry Wagner). With dodgeball balls screaming faceward, it’s hard to even remember which band is playing.
Our modern day aristocrats and Wagners, those corporate and cultural entities salivating at the gates, are waiting to force up the ticket prices — and the responsibilities of the audience to its performers. But until the party’s crashed and the lights turned low, here’s to summer Sundays where ogling under the bright sun is the afternoon’s only priority.