We’re missing the point

Una Mullally in The Irish Times.

I missed the Swedish House Mafia gig on Saturday night, but I would have gone if I was in the country. Of course, in these situations you might have some concerns about the crowd. Not because it was a dance gig with some hip-hop thrown in, but because the crowd would be younger than average. And in 2012, young Irish concert goers aren’t the most fun people to hang out with when you’re a 29 year old oldie like me. Like most people going to a gig, I selfishly want to hang out with people who are on the same wavelength as me, which is why I’d enjoy something like Body & Soul where I can hang out with a load of easy going eejits like myself, and why I don’t go to Club Twenty One, because I would have nothing in common with those in attendance.

People constantly single out genres of music when referring to demographics attending shows, but that attitude is totally outdated. The Watch The Throne gig was the biggest hip-hop gig in Ireland in ages. Hip-hop gigs are lazily associated with violent behaviour, yet there was zero trouble at it (none that I saw anyway.) Same seems to go for the hip hop festival Make A Move in Limerick over the weekend. One thing that I did notice at the Watch The Throne show was that the crowd was primarily made up of people in their 20s and 30s. Maybe the kids were saving their money for the Phoenix Park. In terms of dance music attracting a “certain crowd”, there was no flood of negative reports from the Life Festival back in May, so if you want to break gigs down by genre in terms of how troublesome a crowd may or not may be, then you’re out of date.

There is maybe one way of predicting trouble though, and that’s the age range. Swedish House Mafia was not a “knacker gig” (horrible expression) as I’ve heard a few people describe it. People from Dalkey to Darndale are into SHM, the only common demoninator is that as far as I know the vast majority who came from all over the country to the show in the Phoenix Park was young. When I say “young” I mean 17 – 25 year olds. I’m making make a sweeping presumption and saying that age demographic formed the majority of the crowd.

So what do you do? You get more security and gardai then you think you’ll need. You have metal detectors. You have medical tents, St John’s Ambulance, and all the things you need and then some. Beyond that, you hope that the young people in attendance will behave themselves. And after that, it’s down to personal responsibility and collective responsibility. You hope that people are going to have a good time and won’t cause hassle.

But there was hassle. For a minority within the crowd, the excitement of going to one of the biggest shows of the summer was pushed over the edge. We’ve all read about the number of stabbings stabbings and two reported deaths (one concert goer taken to hospital from the concert, another it’s being reported was taken ill at a post-gig house party), and in those cases one of the potential causes of death being investigated is a drug overdose. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching to think of someone going to a concert and through their own actions or the actions of others end up injured or tragically, dead.

Jim Carroll has already started the conversation saying, “the big picture will, as always, be completely overlooked. Because, let’s be honest here, it’s more than just about what happened at a big gig in the Phoenix Park and blaming the promoters for this, as will inevitably happen, misses the point. After all, it’s easier to blame the promoter for not employing x-ray machines or strip-searching everyone who turned up than admit this is a bigger issue. And it is a bigger issue. Almost every single Saturday or Sunday morning without fail, the radio news broadcasts will carry a story about a stabbing or a serious assault which occurred overnight somewhere in the country, usually linked to a row exacerbated by alcohol or drugs. It might be at a house party or a random incident on a city street, but it happens all the time and you never get the same amount of coverage as you’ll see on the newspapers in your local shop this morning.”

A few years ago, when people were giving out about the behaviour of some at Oxegen, I commented that the only difference between the behaviour of kids in Punchestown and kids on Harcourt Street or O’Connell Street was wellies and mud. The behaviour exhibited at the Phoenix Park; excessive drunkenness, drug taking, fights, even stabbings, these are all things that happen every weekend in every village, town, city and street across Ireland. I’m hardly an angel, but over the past couple of years even I’ve been taken aback by how wasted kids are inside and outside of clubs. The people who are surprised by it are those who don’t see it all the time. What happened in Phoenix Park happens all the time at house parties, clubs, parks, wherever. The only difference is, because the Phoenix Park show was so big (sold out at 45,000), the behaviour was (a) amplified because you’re bringing so many people together so anything that they would have done on a night out elsewhere is now going to be done there and (b) brought into the public sphere because isolated incidents of anti-social behaviour are rarely reported, but here they all are under the umbrella of one event.

There’s also the idea of a special occasion that heightens everything. Kids who normally take one pill on a night out will buy three in preparation for a big night. The Tesco run of a six-can pre-club booze up is increased to eight and a naggin. They might get drugs in that they normally couldn’t afford – new pills or some crap coke. [As an aside, I was struck by how many young people (I spoke to one 18 year old and one 19 year old in particular) at Body & Soul who had taken acid. Acid was something people were scared of when I was a teenager, but it’s obviously back on the menu for some.] Everyone knows the collective experience of being in a large crowd heightens emotions, be it a protest march, a match in Croke Park or the closing set at Electric Picnic. That sense of occasion, collective giddiness, all your mates being there, a larger amount of drugs and alcohol being consumed around you, and being in a massive crowd for a concert you’ve really been looking forward to can very quickly switch from fun to something that might kick off.

So why didn’t this happen at the Stone Roses or why was the biggest complaint from that dude who went on Liveline about Snow Patrol that he had to stand on mud and straw? It’s because the younger generation weren’t in attendance in such high numbers there. What is that generation? They’re hedonistic for sure. They’re also largely jobless and probably pretty pissed off and bored as a result. Their groups of friends are being split up by emmigration. Their parents are broke and stressed out about finances. They have extremely easy access to very cheap alcohol. They have grown up in a completely different drug culture to me – I’m 10 years older than 19. They’ve been teenagers when mephadrone was ’legal’ in head shops and probably had a good whack of it. Weed is way stronger and more freely available than the soapbar hash people in their late twenties smoked in college. Cocaine, although used far less than it was five years ago, is still freely available and probably mostly synthetic amphetamines. Pills are dodgy and full of anything from mephedrone to 2CB to whatever else some Chinese factory is cooking up. Ketamine, practically non-existant ten years ago, is readily available. They’ve spent their teenage years having access to all of this stuff. Their youth culture has been completely homogenised, which means all geographical and class demographics go to everything, so there’s no ’one gig for the scumbags, one gig for the posh kids.’ They’re more sexualised, as every generation is, and probably more immune to violence, considering footage that shows juiced up dudes kicking the crap out of someone outside a club is no longer confined to a shocking clip on Prime Time and instead billed as entertainment on MTV reality TV programmes. Their nightlife is built around cheap alcohol promotions, with the race to the bottom event invites flooding their Facebook pages. If this all sounds a bit Guardian, I’m not excusing bad behaviour, I’m just outlining their social context.

Today I’ve been tweeting about how the cost of alcohol has contributed to excessive consumption. Many people tweeted me back talking about how booze is cheaper in Europe, yet kids don’t go as crazy there. But the impetus in the rest of Europe (aside from the UK who have to deal with a load of young people ready to riot) – as far as I’ve seen from going to bars, clubs and festivals on the continent – is rarely to get totally obliterated on a night out. In Ireland, it is. So when you actually facilitate that with below cost alcohol prices, what do you expect? Kids drink whatever they can get for a certain amount of money. Let’s take the 20 quid kid, who has 20 quid to spend on booze. When I was 19 the cheapest drink you could get was a  £2 pint in the Palace. In pubs, pints were a fiver at least. If you were in an offie, you might have been able to get ten cans for €20 on a very special offer, maybe. You can buy 20 bottles for 20 quid in a supermarket now. Clubs offer free shots or one euro shots, €2 and €3 pints, free spirits, free beer, and so on. The entire vibe around going out for most young people has been geared towards cheap booze by promoters and venue owners. So they hardly stop that behaviour when they’re going out but it just so happens not to a club.

Talk to promoters, or just stand outside a club, and watch kids going nuts on a night out. Most are totally wasted before they go inside. Now, if I had a few quid for everytime someone was holding my hair back over a toilet bowl in the Palace when I was 17 I could have gone to somewhere better than the Palace, but even my reckless teenage behaviour pales in comparison to what you see on nights out now. This isn’t about one generation talking down to another, it’s just plain observation. When I started helping a couple of mates out with a club night last year, they had to make it over 21s because anyone under that age would just get  uncontrollably locked. People I know as bouncers, who work on the door of clubs taking the entry fee from kids, who work behind bars, or who promote nights tell the same stories week in week out; kids wasted, kids fighting. 18 and 19-year-olds getting obliterated for teh lolz.

The stats speak for themselves. Irish people drink twice the amount now than in the 1960s. Over half of Irish drinkers have what is described as a harmful drinking pattern. Consumption between 1987 and 2001 jumped 46%. Between 1990 and 2006 the number of off-licenses increased five-fold. The average starting age for drinking for kids born in 1990 is 14, in 1980 it was 16. 54% of Irish kids report being drunk at least once by the time they are 16. Every night in Ireland, 2,000 hospital beds are occupied for alcohol-related reasons. Around 30% of all emergency department costs are alcohol-related. 16 and 17-year-olds in Ireland spend on average at least €20 on alcohol every week. 100,000 children in Ireland suffer negative effects on their lives due to parental alcohol use. 97% of public order offences have alcohol as a contributory factor. Alcohol-related crimes increased by 30% between 2003 and 2007. In 2009, when Garda Youth Diversion Programmes were studied to see which offences committed in their areas were first on their list, 85% cited alcohol-related ones. Alcohol liver disease rates trebled between 1995 and 2007. And by the way, alcohol is 50% more affordable now than it was in 1996. Go figure.

Right now, politicians, as always, will jump straight for a top-down response. Ban dance gigs! They’ll say. Add crazy security conditions to gig licenses! They’ll say. It’s easy to call for Liveline-legislation because actually talking about the issues is far more complex, takes far more time, and insists that we examine ourselves, our peers, our kids, our culture and our society. That’s way too much work, right?

Most of the coverage of what happened in the Phoenix Park at the weekend is missing the point. It has to be said that the vast majority of people attending didn’t cause any hassle, had a good time and got home safely. What happened with the rest of the crowd there is not unusual, aside from the one specific multiple stabbing, which seems like a really bizarre situation. We need to have a proper reasoned debate on the fact that this is normal behaviour for a lot of kids – albeit heightened in a large-crowd context – that ending up in an ambulance or getting into a bad fight or getting thrown out of a club or not remembering how you got home or being completely wasted is all part and parcel of a normal night out. Why are Irish teenagers and young people acting to such extremes when they socialise? And what are the facilitators that are enabling that behaviour? For the few who had what older people would think is a chaotic experience on Saturday night it was merely just their social lives happening. But this time it wasn’t happening behind closed doors.