Gone in a flash, the joy preserved [Commentary]

Flash mob concerts are high calling for social media

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The USAF Band Holiday Flash Mob at the National Air and Space Museum 2013

Just when it seems that the high-speed connective power of social media has been harnessed mainly to bully and harass and to coalesce hate, there comes the evolved flash mob.

What began a decade ago as a sudden public gathering to perform a pointless and silly act — and what turned ugly in urban areas when angry young people used it as a way to intimidate and vandalize — has become a random act of beauty.

And with the aid of other social media, like Facebook and YouTube, these gone-in-a-moment events can be enjoyed over and over again by people who will wish they had been there.

Facebook has been soiled by young people who use it to bully the weakest among them. Twitter is where the sharks gather at the first scent of blood and devour their victims. The evidence of harassment can disappear on Snap Chat in seconds while the wounds linger.

But the flash mob might be the new free concert, available to entertain again and again.

Among the loveliest was the U.S. Air Force Band performing at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington earlier this month. A single cellist took a seat and began to play and was slowly surrounded by more and more musicians playing "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." Vocalists, shedding the coats that hid their Air Force uniforms, appeared in the rafters to sing this hymn and "Joy to the World."

All around them, visitors watch, stunned and smiling — and taking cell phone videos. School children are slack-jawed. The band's reward is sustained applause from its accidental audience.

In a mall in Newfoundland, members of a philharmonic chorus dressed as shoppers break into the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah.

In a piazza in Spain, a little girl drops a coin in a hat at the foot of a tuxedoed base player and her gift brings forth of a flood of musicians and vocalists clad in street clothes to perform Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." It was staged in the summer of 2012 to celebrate the 130 birthday of Banco Sabadell, but what the heck? It is extraordinary, and you can see the "joy" on the faces of everyone who gravitates to the music in the square and in those who joined in the singing.

And in New York City this holiday, a small flash mob re-created the dance scene from "A Charlie Brown Christmas," complete with Schroeder on a tiny piano.

There are flash mobs with bag pipes and drums, with the singing wives of Scottish service men, with members of the British Army band. Opera stars serenade a group of networking women in New York City with Verdi. There are flash mobs dancing to Michael Jackson and to Irish music.

According to most sources, the flash mob was created in 2003 by Bill Wasik, a senior editor of Harpers magazine. He got more than 130 people to go to the floor rug department at Macy's and tell the bemused clerks that they were all there together to choose a "love rug" for their commune. Later, he had 200 people clap for 15 seconds in a Hyatt and dozens crowd a SoHo shoe boutique claiming to be on a bus tour from Maryland.

In an interview, he said he thought of it as a playful social experiment meant to encourage large, spontaneous gatherings to take over public spaces — simply because they could. They were pointless, and that was the point.

In some other countries, however, notably Spain and the Philippines, flash mobs of angry voters gathered before elections, and the sensation they created brought down governments.

And in American cities, particularly Philadelphia, flash mobs became an excuse for fighting and looting by teenagers. Flash mobs were organized on websites, on Twitter, via emails or text messages. One writer called it the human manifestation of a "cc list."

There were pillow fights and disco routines and snowball fights. People gathering in Golden Gate Park to play duck-duck-goose and in Brazil to take off their shoes and bang them on the street. There were marriage proposals and hundreds of people opening umbrellas at once.

At best, they were an annoying waste of social energy. At worst, they were an unpredictable mob with a potential for violence. And, of course, the flash mob was hijacked by politics and advertising and monetized.

By definition, a flash mob should not have been rehearsed. That is the opposite of the spontaneity that is its origin. But these musical performances — and there are dozens on YouTube — are such shining gifts to the unsuspecting audience, and the pleasure they inspire, seen in the faces of the young and old, is their gift to those of us who weren't lucky enough to be there.

Susan Reimer's column runs on Mondays and Tuesdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

To see flash mob performances, visit baltimoresun.com.


To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.
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