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For pop music fans in 2023, live shows answered a need to connect

The pop concerts that struck a chord in 2023
WATCH: For concertgoers, a full return to live shows answered a need to connect. Correspondent Maura Johnston explains.

A couple of weeks ago, what’s become an annual ritual took hold of social media sites and group chats: The end-of-year data dumps offered by streaming services, who used their tracking of their users’ listening habits to formulate charts and pick out patterns to help them make sense of the year. Thanks to my listening being all over the place — I listen to music not only through multiple streamers, but via downloaded albums and tracks, pre-release packages of offerings I might be reviewing, and physical media — my wrap-ups are generally useless. But the glee with which people shared their top genres and metropolitan-area profiles and other factoids about their 2023 in music touched on a pattern I saw elsewhere this year.

This was a big year for large-scale concerts, with Taylor Swift’s career-spanning “Eras Tour” and Beyoncé's glittery “Renaissance World Tour” leading the charge through stadiums around the world. But other artists from all over the pop-music spectrum had impressive showings at these venues: Colombian fireball Karol G, who put on a dazzling show at Gillette Stadium; country bro Morgan Wallen, who filled Fenway Park for three nights; road stalwart Bruce Springsteen, who turned Foxborough into his hometown for two sets. And that’s just the largest venues in Greater Boston. With newer venues like Brighton’s cavernous yet homey Roadrunner and Somerville’s intimate upstairs club Crystal Ballroom, opportunities to get together and revel in music were plentiful.


The contrast between the sort of listening encouraged by streaming — alone, often through headphones that are cloaked by hair or hats — and these collective experiences, which concertgoers commemorate through the putting together and wearing of inventive outfits and, in the case of Swift’s sold-out retrospectives, swapping friendship bracelets that call back to specific songs and moments, feels stark.

On the one hand, listening patterns having so much potential for unpredictability has made following popular music more exciting than in years past, both as an observer and a listener; in 2023, a música mexicana song — “Ella Baila Sola,” the crisply catchy collaboration between genre titan Peso Pluma and California band Eslabon Armado — hit the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time, while artists like the Americana troubadour Zach Bryan and the Afrobeats crooner Tyla had left-field hits thanks to consumers’ voting with their play buttons, phenomena that might not have been as possible if radio and retail gatekeepers had as much of a hold over what music was “out there” as they once did. And my running playlist of songs I enjoyed from this year is currently at 243 tracks — 14-plus hours of music, beginning with K-pop group NewJeans’ shyly giddy “OMG” and winding up with the Melbourne outfit Gut Health’s spiky “Uh oh” — with more to come as I pore over my colleagues’ and friends’ year-end roundups.


Concertgoers cheer on Steve Lacy at the Stage at Suffolk Downs on the venue's opening night in June.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

But it can also be isolating for those looking to find community through shared musical interests — which is where the live shows can come in. The excitement engendered by a firing-on-all-cylinders concert (like the 10 on my list accompanying this piece) can unite a crowd, whether through jewelry exchanges or sing-alongs, whether in close quarters like Fenway’s Rockwood Music Hall or vast expanses like the just-opened Stage at Suffolk Downs. For those who might not have been familiar with an artist before hitting up a show of theirs, the live set can act as an advertisement — look at all these people getting so excited; that’s amping me up as well. In both cases, the collective spirit takes over.


It’s important to note that these concerts could be jaw-droppingly expensive for consumers even before ticket-agency fees came into play, although Swift and Beyoncé tried to lessen that financial pain by turning their shows into films with much lower ticket prices but a similar audience fervor. And on the flip side, per-unit streaming royalties are infinitesimal compared with the money that even those artists locked in the worst label deals could make from the selling of music, making it tougher for musicians who don’t operate in the business’ highest echelons. The economics of the music industry have always been broken, but this year, the seams holding things together seemed to be a little more obviously bursting.

Which added to the overwhelming sense that 2023 was a hard year; even with my scattered listening habits, the fact that the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ wryly delivered snooze-button call “Why Get Up” topped my Spotify Wrapped charts spoke to a particular malaise caused by internal and external factors. Pop music can’t solve those problems, but finding solace in shared experiences can help ease the strain a little bit.

Maura Johnston can be reached at maura@maura.com.