Flaming Lips' Space Bubble Show: a Live Music Fix For COVID, or a One-Shot Gimmick?
Is the safety of personal bubbles worth the logistical hurdles?
Live music was one of the first cultural casualties of COVID back in early 2020.
Before the United States was a hotbed for anti-mask, anti-lockdown disinformation — and the surge of cases and deaths that have come along with that — before we had registered any notable outbreak at all, concerts and music festivals were already being canceled. And with the slow pace of vaccine rollout, a date for their return is still a long way off.
Unfortunately, the nature of live music seems to be fundamentally at odds with the safety measures that COVID demands. The thrill of being in the crowd, vibing as one, is like partying in a pandemic petri dish. Social distancing is particularly difficult in an environment where everyone wants to get as close to the music as they can, and if you're indoors, you need to be able to hear the music over full-blast ventilation.
Some valiant efforts have been made to keep live music alive despite these obstacles. But from the sensible, but often underwhelming virtual concert experience to the weirdly dispersed outdoor shows that push patrons miles from the stage, nothing has felt quite right.
Of course there was always the option — in some states anyway — to just pretend it was 2019 and crowd together for a live show, ignoring the spread of a deadly contagion. The only downside being the eventual death of a lot of people you probably don't know, and the indefinite extension of pandemic conditions ravaging the country so...no downside at all, depending who you ask.
But callous, ignorant assh**es aside, there hasn't really been a great option for translating the experience of live concerts in the time of COVID. Until now? In The Flaming Lips' hometown of Oklahoma City over the weekend, the band put on their first official "Space Bubble" show, aiming to be "safer than going to the ****ing grocery store." And it might be the first time COVID has actually improved a concert experience.
The Flaming Lips - The Worlds First Space Bubble Concert - 012221www.youtube.com
For years, frontman Wayne Coyne has been using an inflated plastic bubble to put a new spin on crowd surfing. Rather than flopping into a dead-man's float, supported by the groping hands of adoring fans, Coyne would hamster ball safely over the crowd.
It's a move he likes so much, Coyne even got married inside one of those bubbles back in 2019. Now, with their Space Bubble concerts, the group has brought that special bubble of protection to every concert attendant, and the result looks amazing.
Rather than big empty gaps or some sort of weird space filler, like the sex dolls in Korea, or the field of flags at Joe Biden's inauguration, the crowd looks like something out of a cyberpunk Jetson's remake (or possibly like the front yard of a neighbor who's way too into those inflatable snow globes). The visual alone -- of a crowd of bubbles catching the concert lights and mingling with balloons — must have made for a memorable experience.
Add to that the relief of having a hermetically sealed chamber — with no concern for your own or strangers masks, and not even the option of drifting too close — and the appeal is obvious. They took the metaphor of the COVID bubble and made it literal, and it kind of seems like the perfect solution to live music in a pandemic — the kind of show that should be happening everywhere...until you start digging into the logistics.
The Flaming Lips held a couple trial runs of this style of show in 2020. In a June appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, debuting the concept with a single song. And in October they did a trial concert in Oklahoma city, where some of the flaws in the system became clear.
Just the footage of Coyne attempting his usual crowd work highlights some of the issues. He struggles to find stable footing inside a bubble supported by other bubbles. Attempting to move is another matter. With mobility limited for both Coyne and the crowd, the natural tendency is for his bubble to squeeze down in the gaps, jostling against his fans' bubbles.
Eventually, with some coordinated effort, the crowd was able to help Coyne get moving in an awkward crawl from one gap to the next, but that's really just the tip of the iceberg. Once you see those mobility issues, one thought should pop immediately into your head — how do I pee?
The Flaming Lips - Assassins of Youth [Live Video]www.youtube.com
In the middle of a crowd of a hundred giant plastic bubbles squeezing against each other, what do you do when your bladder suddenly needs tending to? It's perhaps the most pressing concern with this model of concert, but it's hardly the only one that The Flaming Lips had to address with three essential workarounds.
An even more fundamental issue — assuming you actually enjoy music, not just a sweaty light show — is the acoustics. While lower frequencies of soundwaves can penetrate a thin plastic membrane with little distortion, high frequencies are liable to get muffled or blocked entirely. So each bubble is kitted with a wireless supplemental speaker to pipe in the sounds that you would otherwise be missing — though the potential for tech issues seems high.
Speaking of sweaty, it turns out that one or two people dancing, singing, and breathing inside a sealed bubble can build up a lot of body heat. Which is why bubbles are also outfitted with a sign to flash at concert staff when you're starting to overheat — so they can blast in some fresh air with a leaf blower — presumably between tracks...
A similar workaround is used for the bathroom issue, with a separate sign to summon an escort through the field of bubbles — once you've masked up and unzipped your pod. It all sounds a bit involved, but generally feasible, right up until your bladder twinges and you start to sweat as the band kicks off the full version of "7 Skies H3".
Maybe it just makes sense to hold off on live music until the whole world is vaccinated, because the more seriously you start to consider the Space Bubble concept, the more uncomfortable it sounds. You can't really move, your view of the stage is obscured, there are lots of probable tech issues, it's sweaty, noisy, and the bathrooms are all but inaccessible...
Actually, we take it back. That sounds exactly like every live show we've ever been to, and we can't wait to try it!