What's Up Tonight? or, Why No One Knows When Anything Is Anymore
On the demands of an on-demand world.
So, what did you do this weekend?
I observed two longstanding holiday traditions: attending my mother’s Christmas party and seeing the first night of Yo La Tengo’s Eight Nights of Hanukkah at the Bowery Ballroom, which I’ve done at least once a year since they started at Maxwell’s in 2001. (Remind me to tell you about it sometime.) I also saw New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along on the day its Broadway transfer in 2023 was announced, and I’m glad more people will get to see this delightful staging of a very strange, deeply sad, and extremely sold-out show when it reappears next year.
In all three cases, these weekend activities were the fruits of plans I’d made months and as much as a year ago, which as the middle-aged father of a teenager is often how it goes these days. But a little while ago a friend was coming into town and asked me a question I haven’t posed myself in a long time: Is there anything fun going on this weekend? It’s not like I don’t do fun things on the weekends (I’m not that old) but the idea of getting up to the point of Wednesday or Thursday with nothing on the books and then making plans to go out rather than defaulting to sitting on the couch bingeing Riverdale—that feels like it hasn’t happened in a while.
The point of the story is that I tried to oblige my friend’s request, and since they had, for reasons of their own, identified me as a Cool Music Person, my first move was to try to look up what concerts were happening in the country’s sixth-largest city over the next few days. And you know what? It was fucking impossible. Songkick, which often emails me about upcoming local shows for artists I like, had a partial list, and Googling “Philadelphia concerts” got me another, but there was no complete or definitive source to answer an incredibly basic question: What’s happening Saturday night?
This was especially jarring for me because I came up as a writer through the Philadelphia City Paper, an alternative weekly that, like most of them, was fundamentally structured around keeping people informed of the cool and interesting things going on in their city. Just compiling the paper’s event listings was a full-time job and then some, with an editor and a rotating cast of unpaid interns (sorry, it was the ’90s) spending all week sorting through emails and faxes and printouts to provide what we provided ourselves on being the most complete possible record of everything, notable or not, taking place over the next seven days. Picking up the City Paper on Thursdays—or our competitor, Philadelphia Weekly, on Wednesdays—and flipping to the back to make weekend plans was a weekly ritual, such an intrinsic part of life that it seemed like it could never go away. One reason you should never take investment advice from me is that back when the impact of online publishing first started to become apparent, I’d confidently lecture anyone who’d on how daily papers were screwed but alt-weeklies would live forever, because people would always want to know what’s going on in their town.
Alt-weeklies have mostly died off now—although the City Paper was straight-up murdered, purchased and immediately shuttered by the Weekly’s parent company in 2015—and some of that is just the nature of change. Once people stopped keeping a newspaper around the house all week to remember what times movies were playing, the theaters stopped running ads, and the money that kept alts afloat just dried up. But the vital function they served hasn’t really been replaced. Sure, I can individually follow every local music venue on various social platforms, I can sign up for their email lists, if they still bother to maintain them, but I can’t personally do the job it used to take several people to do, and I spend a lot more time and energy keeping tabs on this stuff than most people can or are inclined to. A friend of mine who’s a professional rock musician, and has been for several decades, recently posted a list of the best concerts he’d seen this year, but with a disclaimer about all the ones he’d missed or found about just too late. (Facebook and Instagram in particular are great at informing me about the amazing things that happened last night.) “How do I find about about shows now?” he asked. If someone who lives in that world can’t manage it, what hope do the rest of us have?
I was born into a world where you either knew when things happened or you missed them. (For various reasons I didn’t start watching The Simpsons until I was in my 20s, and in order to catch up, I made a list of every episode I hadn’t seen and crossed them off when they aired in syndication, one at a time.) The world we live in now is massively better in many ways, but I think we’ve become so used to having most everything at our fingertips that we’ve allowed the things that aren’t to slip away from us. Emily the Criminal got great buzz at this year’s virtual Sundance—and would have been a genuine sensation if the in-person festival hadn’t been canceled by COVID—but it hit theaters in August with a dull thud, because the infrastructure that used to tell people that the movie they’ve heard such good things about is actually playing near them now has been gutted. It feels far too easy to miss things—and worse, given the sheer, mind-numbing amount of content available, to even know that you missed them.
I don’t think the solution is as simple as Supporting Local Journalism, although you can and should. I don’t even know that there is one. The world changes, and things fall by the wayside. But I’d like us to at least be aware of what we’re losing when we let advertising campaigns and algorithms control what we pay attention to, or even what we’re aware exists. We live in an on-demand world, but sometimes there’s value in art that makes demands rather than meeting them, even if all it’s asking us is to keep our eyes peeled.
Re-opening Pandora: If you’re like a lot of people, the answer to “What did you do this weekend” is “see Avatar 2.” The Way of Water is an out-of-the box global hit, which somehow hasn’t stopped the flood of articles about why no one cares about or remembers the first Avatar or whether the future of the sequels is still in doubt. For my part, I wrote about the technology with which the movie was filmed, the high-frame-rate 3D that makes it look like an extremely expensive video game. I spent about half of the movie’s three hours hating the way it looked, but the good news is that after that, there’s still an hour and a half left, and the space whales look amazing. (Keep an eye on Slate’s Spoiler Specials podcast for the episode Dana Stevens recorded about Avatar: The Way of Water.)
I also wrote about the last episode of The White Lotus Season 2, and in particular how the season ends up as a jeremiad against the restrictions of monogamy.
That’s it for this time. Thanks for reading, and if you like what you’ve seen so far, please tell your friends. You can even jump into the comments if you’re feeling brave. Also, while I’m sticking it out on Twitter for the foreseeable future, you can follow me on Post or Mastodon as well.
As one of those former unpaid interns, and as somebody who might not even be in this racket otherwise, this speaks to me on a deep cellular level. The struggle is real.
I have had good luck with Bands in Town. I turned it off during the pandemic but checking it now it has lots of suggestions. I like it because you don’t have to name bands you like. It supposedly just gives you all shows. But I haven’t researched if that’s really true.