But even with these inquisitive players mere inches from my face, even with their busy sounds rushing through my headphones, the room felt 2-D and far away. The music was here, but I wasn’t there. I made the screen go black and pressed my face into the couch cushions as hard as I could.
For citizens of the nightlife who’ve chosen to shelter in place as the coronavirus spreads, the abrupt loss of live music has been completely disorienting. A Saturday night spent around big crowds and big sounds might not qualify as a basic human need, but that doesn’t make it unnecessary. Nightlifers center their existence around that ritual communion, and for the past 10 days, musicians have been hustling to re-create it in digital space. As flat and distant as they might feel at first, we owe it to ourselves to try to experience a live stream on its own terms.
So after a week of grief and pouting, I peeled my face up off the sofa and went for a Saturday night out on the bandwidth.
First stop was a nondescript couch in an undisclosed location where the rising country singer Emily Scott Robinson was singing into a webcam — performer and audience each gazing into the glow of their computers, creating a symmetry that felt poetic, then sad, then both. Thankfully, Robinson’s voice was all honey and uplift, and when she sang, “You gotta get lost if you wanna get found,” I decided to take her good advice into the night ahead.
Next, I clicked over to a dim kitchen in Massachusetts where the guitarist Chris Brokaw was giving a bunch of David Bowie songs the Andres Segovia treatment next to his toaster oven. I felt like a voyeur. As he plucked the vocal melody of “Ashes to Ashes” on his acoustic guitar, Bowie’s lyrics scrolled across my consciousness — “I’m happy, hope you’re happy, too” — and I felt like a participant. Before long, I was asked to be a patron. Holding up a piece of paper with his PayPal address written out, Brokaw seemed to slouch with embarrassment. “This is like the Jerry Lewis Telethon,” he said, which was funny, but nobody laughed because nobody was there.
Over at the Grand Ole Opry, three men were laughing at each other’s between-song repartee — and that cutting ha-ha sound became its own heartsick music as it echoed across the cavernous emptiness of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House. It was Marty Stuart, Vince Gill and Brad Paisley up on that iconic stage, burnishing their soothsaying reputations with grace and good humor, and when the trio picked their way through Jimmie Rodgers’s “No Hard Times,” Stuart tweaked the lyrics to reflect the latent terror of the moment in a congenial twang that would have knocked me over if I had been standing up for it: “That ol’ pandemic never even made a sound.”
As an audience, we’re silent in a live stream, too. No cheering, no jeering. We’re excluded from contributing to the sound of the performance. But we aren’t always anonymous. DJing on his kitchen countertop Saturday night, hip-hop journeyman D-Nice drew an audience of 100,000, each of their Instagram handles floating up the screen as they tapped into the live stream. Things got very starry, very quickly: Jada Pinkett Smith, then Michelle Obama, then Oprah Winfrey, then whichever campaign staffer has Joe Biden’s IG password. The records kept spinning, but they quickly became background music to a celebrity spotting game.
And there were cooler things to imagine yourself dancing to on Saturday, anyway: an ongoing DJ set from Autechre that felt more like a DNA coding session for mutant life than a dance mix, and a performance from Rare Essence, the legendary go-go band whose rhythms carry the power of a slow-motion stampede, even through your cruddy laptop speakers.
For me, the Saturday night stream that hit hardest came from Jubilee, a Florida-raised DJ who mixes Miami bass, Baltimore club and classic electro cuts as if blending molten metals.
Jubilee was spinning from a remote location, but her set was presented by Nowadays, a nightclub in Queens that flashed images of its empty dance floor on the screen to help give the stream a sense of setting. This was a simple gesture, but it helped conjure the vague euphorias of clubland, where the music can feel like a nonstop mystery transmission in an anonymous darkness.
And in that ambiguity, the stark differences between here and there, presence and absence, the screen and the dance floor began to blur. Through the rhythm’s unrelenting pulse, everything seemed to intertwine: the beauty of club culture, the future of live-streaming, maybe even the secret of pandemic survival. This music was asking you to believe in what you can’t see, inviting you to find your happiness in the uncertainty.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Grand Ole Opry played to empty seats at the Ryman Auditorium. The show was at the Grand Ole Opry House.