For decades, U2 has been ending many of their shows by playing a song called “40.” It’s a simple, meditative song about the desire for salvation, based on Psalm 40 of the Bible. Midway through the song, Bono gives the microphone over to the audience and leaves the stage. The audience knows how this works so we just keep singing, “how long … to sing this song,” waving our lighters in a blissed-out trance. One by one, the whole band leaves the stage; the lights come up and we wander out of the arena, holding hands with strangers and hugging our 30,000 new best friends.
That blissed out feeling during moments of connection is what scientists call “collective effervescence,” and it can happen at any gathering: concerts, sporting events, in church, or even at unfortunate times like funerals or natural disasters. It can also come from an imagined relationship with fictional characters or sharing experiences with an online community as well — like when Star Wars super fans gather virtually to discuss how much they hate Jar Jar Binks. Or the way people grieved together recently when Kobe Bryant and his daughter died.
Brené Brown, researcher, Ted Talks Queen and my fantasy best friend, describes the joy and the pain in moments of collective assembly in her book, Braving the Wilderness. Her joyful example was getting teary eyed while watching a YouTube video of 95,000 Australian fans at a soccer match.
“For two minutes, a stadium of Liverpool fans swayed in unison as they sang the club’s famous anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” red scarves held high over their heads and tears streaming down many of their faces.” Her painful example was hearing about the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion while she was driving down a busy highway in Houston, home of that space shuttle. She joined dozens of other drivers, complete strangers, who pulled off the road to cry, some even got out of their cars and hugged each other.
I love having a name for that feeling. I love knowing that it’s a biological imperative for humans to gather and bond because it explains my lifelong obsession with the kind of marketing hype that creates fan communities and why I have always craved group experiences. It’s why I absolutely had to sleep on the sidewalk in 1984, waiting for tickets to Springsteen back in the day when you could only get tickets in person. The concerts were great but the sidewalk camping was sometimes even greater as a bunch of unfamiliar Boss devotees shared blankets and ordered pizza and analyzed our favorite song lyrics.
Collective assembly is why I was compelled to attend every new Harry Potter book release party; why, decades after Springsteen, I once again slept on the sidewalk – this time alongside my daughter — for every midnight opening of a Twilight or Hunger Games movie.
When Princess Diana died, I didn’t sleep for two days because I had a palpable need to stick by the TV, grieving hand in hand with millions of other viewers who never knew her but felt like we did.
Nowadays, collective effervescence is why I go to book signings for all my favorite authors — Jenny Lawson, David Sedaris, Christopher Moore, Neil Gaiman – because I know that everyone in the audience is my soulmate in some way.
One of my favorite instances of collective assembly was at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2003. I was there with Hubby and The Kid, she was about six years old then. It was Sunday morning, the last day of a four-day festival and the audience was pretty burnt out; four straight days of sun, booze, port-a-pottys and hula hooping will really suck the life out of you. But we had fourteen more hours of music scheduled, so we all showed up, bleary-eyed, with coffee in hand.
Michelle Shocked took the stage. She is a force of nature any time but on this Sunday morning, she was a religious experience. Performing an exquisite set of traditional gospel songs and camp songs and old school spirituals, she transported that dazed audience to a mystical place. Telluride is one of the most sublimely beautiful places on earth — the green grassy park surrounded by majestic mountains and sparkling waterfalls — and when she had every man, woman and child join hands and sing a simple hymn together, it was nothing short of Divine. We all knew we had been a part of something bigger than us.
Years later in 2013, when Michelle got into some trouble with the LGBTQ community for equating the repeal of Prop 8 with the end times, I knew it was some kind of misunderstanding.
She later said that her statement ” was a description of how some folks – not me – feel about gay marriage. I do not, nor have I ever, said or believed that God hates homosexuals (or anyone else). I said that SOME of his followers believe that. I believe intolerance comes from fear, and these folks are genuinely scared,” she said. After those comments, many venues cancelled her shows, including the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. That was so sad to me. Couldn’t they see that the person who pulled thousands of people together in love that Sunday morning ten years earlier, just wouldn’t be capable of being hate-filled towards anyone?
She was trying to help her audience see the Prop 8 issue from a new perspective, to help each side understand the other. But instead of embracing thoughtful discussion and a heartfelt exchange of views that might open some minds, the Planet Bluegrass organizers turned chickenshit. They opted for a tepid, bland, controversy-free festival.
That’s their right of course, but I can’t help thinking that if they’d trusted their audience and Michelle Shocked, and the power of collective assembly, we might have been able to create a moment of greater acceptance and understanding. We might have even gotten another Divine occurrence in their park.
What do you think? I’m sure you’ve had a collective effervescence experience of your own. What was it? A political protest march? A Game of Thrones watching group text that became a sister/brotherhood? Your first Comic-Con? Hurricane Katrina?