Last spring, I stood near the front of the crowd at Elsewhere, a music venue in Bushwick, as the Norwegian writer and musician Jenny Hval took the stage for her first show in New York City since the beginning of the pandemic. In April 2020, an earlier Hval show in Brooklyn had been canceled due to lockdowns, and since then, she’d released two new albums and published her second novel in English. All of this work invoked language, fantasy, sound, and community to imagine connective possibilities, as well as the freedom and hazards of losing oneself. It was potent to be so close to Hval after two isolated years during which her music and books had kept me company.
Just as the first amplified guitar notes began to bounce around the room, the person directly in front of me fainted. Twisting as she crumpled to the ground, I could see into her eyes as consciousness quietly left them. Hval stopped playing and called for assistance—the young woman came to almost as suddenly as she went down. After seeing that she was okay, Hval resumed her set and bantered about how the closed loop of lockdown precluded surprising things that could go wrong on a tour, such as hitting your teeth on the microphone or being electrocuted by a rogue synthesizer. Or members of the audience passing out.
The next night, in Los Angeles, I watched Big Thief deliver ferocious and tender incarnations of songs from their double LP Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. Someone in the crowd passed out early in the set there, too. A few months later, when the musician Cassandra Jenkins toured the UK supporting Mitski, the fainting started almost immediately. Jenkins had been warned about how loud the screams would be, but was caught off guard when five to ten people fainted each night during her half-hour set. Most of the fainting took place midway through the set during the quieter song “Ambiguous Norway.” “Once one person fainted, it broke the seal,” and more followed, she recalled.
On her fall 2021 solo UK tour, Jenkins was especially attuned to the beauty and terror of playing to rooms filled with emotional fans who had not been to a concert since 2020 or earlier. Coming out of pandemic restrictions, musicians were doing the work of “ushering people back into a cultural society.” Music can be a conduit for listening together and taking care of each other, Jenkins continued. “As the artist, you’re always striking a balance between setting the tone and meeting a room. The character of a room is often unpredictable and out of your control, but you do your best to cultivate a space that feels good and vibrant and safe.” In a social media post earlier this year, the singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers reported seeing “more people than ever either pass out or have panic attacks in the audience” of her tour. The comments on the post reflected fans’ awareness of the uptick: “This has been happening at so many different concerts lately,” wrote one fan. “We saw two people pass out at the show in Boston,” wrote another.
As I increasingly observed this phenomenon, I began to consult friends, musicians, doctors, scientists, and venue staff about fainting amid compressed collective activities. Is it the music itself that causes people to briefly lose consciousness—or the crowded room? Star power and excitement about the performers? A combination? And why was this happening so frequently? Had pandemic isolation made us all more sensitive to being in crowds?
I had seen people faint at concerts before the pandemic, but in 2022 I witnessed so many that I lost count.
In 1817, the French writer Stendhal visited Florence and wrote of being suddenly overcome with celestial sensations, heart palpitations, and a fear of falling down. Confronted with painted frescoes and the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo, and Michelagelo, Stendhal “reached the point of emotion where the heavenly sensations of the fine arts meet passionate What became known as Stendhal syndrome refers to a psychosomatic disorder that occurs when an individual encounters artworks or phenomena of great beauty or importance. In the 1840s, intense audience exultation for the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt became known as Lisztomania. A century later, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles have famously incited acute audience responses. In 1967, the painter Agnes Martin fell into a fugue state in a Manhattan church after hearing the first three notes of Handel’s Messiah, later wandering the streets unaware of who or where she was.
In the 1990s, two German physicians embedded with first-aid workers at a New Kids On The Block concert in Berlin to study audience faintings, concerned that this phenomenon had been “neglected in the medical Of the four hundred or so people who experienced distress at the concert, all were young women aged between 11 and 17. About 150 of these fans lost consciousness, while the rest remained alert and could be classified as hyperventilation or panic attacks. Screaming itself, as well as the squeeze of crowd compaction, can induce pressure which impairs blood flow to the heart and reduces cardiac output.
Syncope is the medical term for fainting or transient loss of consciousness. A physician explained to me that in most instances, the brain shuts down because of insufficient blood flow, which can lead to a person falling or otherwise temporarily losing control of their body. This can be brought on by low blood pressure, standing still for too long, dehydration, alcohol and other drugs, or emotional and psychological factors. Young people tend to have lower blood pressure than older people, and women tend to have lower blood pressure than men, so young women are most susceptible to syncope.
While reporting this piece, I spoke with various musicians and crew members about this ongoing phenomenon. One indie band’s merch seller, who watched fainting happen almost every night during a 2022 tour, told me about a medical perspective the group had sought out. One doctor theorized that the fainting could be a process by which high levels of anticipation (for an artist to come out on stage or play a fan’s most beloved song) switch into a signal for the body to shut down once the anticipated event happens.
This is sometimes referred to as the last stage of the fight, flight, freeze, or faint response—a series of common stress responses that often gets reduced to fight or flight. Though less popularly discussed, freezing and fainting occurs when creatures do not attempt to survive but instead switch off in the face of an extreme situation. Considering all four of these responses provides, according to medical research, “a more complete description of the human acute stress response sequence than current descriptions.”
And yet people don’t often seem so stressed at concerts. Some are blissed out and stoned. Increased access to retail cannabinoid products and ensuing intoxication is one reason why people pass out at concerts. Drinking too much alcohol or not enough water are other behavioral factors. The environmental and industrial conditions are equally important. One reason for increased fainting may be that venues are more crowded. According to a number of Brooklyn venue staffers I spoke with, venues are knowingly overselling and uncomfortably packing rooms.
Many who commented on Maggie Rogers’s social media posts noted that her shows were more cramped than ever, and that venues seemed to be overselling shows to recover lost profits. They noted that fans were willing to wait hours at the doors and then hours at the barricades to see their favorite artist, meaning hours of physical strain, and sometimes without hydration in spaces where a bottle of water may cost triple what it does in a deli.
This might be, in part, a byproduct of industry confusion around the spike in “no-shows” over the past couple of years, where fans buy tickets but then do not attend, hurting artist merch sales and venue bar sales. Staffers say that to account for potential no-shows, venues are now purposely selling beyond their capacities. An Eventbrite article containing “tips for managing no-shows in 2022” explicitly encourages creating “the opportunity to flex your capacity and maximize attendance.” When oversold shows are enthusiastically attended, rooms can be dangerously full.
The fatal November 2021 Astroworld Festival crowd crush rattled audiences, artists, and event organizers, demonstrating the precarity of public health at concerts and increasing focus on performers who rile up their audiences into a frenzy. After this, many artists are now more vigilant than ever in attending to disturbances in the audience. Jenkins remembers feeling something shift and then an eerie quiet when someone in the UK fainted, noting that if an artist is wrapped up in a song they may not be aware of what is happening around them.
When fainting or seizures do occur, musicians suddenly become first responders, yet it is not common in the industry for artists to be trained as such. Jenkins notes that, to her knowledge, she has only signed one festival contract, in Austin, that required artists to speak with on-site public health advisors trained in crowd management, and to contractually agree to emergency protocols. "I think that should happen in every contract,” Jenkins added.
During the most intense parts of quarantine, there was no entering anything together. I watched early lockdown Instagram Live concerts by Kevin Morby and Waxahatchee and tuned into Tristan Kasten-Krause’s record-playing Twitch stream, “Currently Spinning.” In these virtual spaces I simulated gathering with friends or strangers around music, but I was ultimately by myself, making pasta at home.
Listening is so directly personal while also vitally social and communal. Live concerts bring these aspects into close proximity. Each person declines domestic distractions and luxuries, foregoing the ability to pause, skip, or turn down the volume. They gather not as controllers of their media worlds but as subjects of art, witnesses to artists stirring something up and departing from static recordings that can be replayed ad infinitum.
Because of these factors and more, concerts become environments with a unique tendency to incite fainting. Indeed, according to the auditory neuroscientist and music psychologist Edward Large, there’s a greater context needed to understand the recent upticks. Dr. Large confirmed to me that rhythms can make people feel connected to one another in a crowd—but that they can also become overpowering. His research includes the neuroscientific process of entrainment and its role in auditory cognition. Entrainment occurs when any system that has its own rhythm or rhythms becomes synchronized with an external stimulus. Within the context of music, “the natural rhythms of the brain [synchronize] to the rhythms of the music… so the reason that we hear a beat when we listen to music is because a brain rhythm is entraining to the musical rhythm.” The sense of affiliation and synchronization we feel interpersonally in concert settings—foot tapping, swaying, clapping—can be thought of as an externalization of entrainment. Thinking about how and why fainting occurs at concerts, Dr. Large acknowledged that “it’s not only the music, but the whole social experience” where the crowd itself becomes a powerful rhythm.
Sound enters each listener, and the group diffuses and absorbs the sonic environment. Music can move you, warm you, make you happier or bring out sadness, and trigger involuntary responses. Dr. Judith Becker’s ethnomusicology research has found that a subset of a given audience may be “deep listeners,” who are most susceptible to losing control and entering a music-induced trance. Whether leading to trance or dance, Dr. Large told me that the “groove” quality of rhythm has become understood by psychologists as “the pleasurable feeling of wanting to move.” In a crowd, any of these effects of experimental stimuli on an individual may be sensed by others, as if the audience, art, and artists comprise a collective body.
Years of social isolation have transfigured our relationships to being alone or with groups. Our sensitivities are heightened; our social anxieties shifted. Fainting reminds everyone of our porous bodies and their limits.
Earlier this year, on the same day that I interviewed a physician about syncope, someone fainted into the aisle three rows behind me during a screening of experimental videos at Light Industry in Brooklyn. After assisting the young man who collapsed, Ed Halter, who co-runs Light Industry with Thomas Beard, told me that in more than 20 years of hosting screenings, he had never seen any audience members lose consciousness. Since reopening in 2020, six people have fainted or had seizures, including the filmmaker Jeff Preiss, whose head fell almost imperceptibly onto his neighbor’s shoulder during an “intolerable” stretch of gore in a 1970 anti-war film. Two other audience members fainted the same night as Preiss, and at the end of the program, when attendees discussed the three faintings, Preiss counted only two, not realizing himself one of them.
It can be easy to forget about yourself in a crowd. Art pulls your attention to the screen or stage and carries you away, until, abruptly, you are reminded of numbness in your foot or dizziness in your head or the person behind you talking too loudly. Out of excitement or because the environment is too much to bear, our bodies may temporarily glitch, letting our consciousness go completely. What was once common at pilgrimage sites or for tourists in Florence is now frequent in art venues, reiterating artists’ power and responsibility in a chaotic world swinging quickly from one extreme to another. Audiences seek a delicate balance: being filled to the brim with an external experience that immerses the self, if not dissolving it. Sometimes we get too close to the edge, to the limits of control. As Jenny Hval sings in her song “Ordinary,” “We don’t always get to choose / when we’re close / and when we’re not.” ♦
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