Written by Pablo Terraza
As the music industry evolves, album sales and song streaming mean less, and concert tickets, licensing and merchandise sales mean more, you can make an argument that an artist’s concert setlist is more meaningful than ever. An artist’s concert setlists reveals so much of the artists we love. Setlists paint a picture of how they once and now see themselves in their careers, and their relationship with the highs and lows of their of the material they have created.
A similar exercise is performed by us mortals in our everyday lives when we reflect and exteriorize the past versions of ourselves. Which events in our lives define the outcome of our present and future? We often put so much emphasis to the high moments of our lives without taking the time to openly address the setbacks in which we allowed ourselves to fail, in order to grow.
Before we came to understand the internet as the source of infinite content that it now is in our modern lives, and before we had given in to our unhealthy obsession with social media, there were a number of us who plunged into the internet to places that may not be as relevant or popular today as they used to be.
My time was better spent exploring sites like www.bored.com, www.askjeeves.com and the lonely spaces of Yahoo Chat sites. It wasn’t until almost a decade later that a still relatively unknown website called setlist.fm came into the picture. While there were probably earlier versions of this website by another name, in my experience, this was the portal that popularized the concept of archiving and analyzing setlists.
Youtube had once allowed me access to a visual representation of some of my favorite artist’s music videos and live performances. This site fed my eternal curiosity for all the concerts I only dreamed of attending. In an overly dramatic manner, I will compare those moments to humans watching television in color for the first time, or the moment moving pictures were combined with sound. Yes, I still remember the first time I watched the music video for Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust after waiting long hours for it to download from Limewire.
Living in another part of the world, like Central America, concerts were and are something that a true music lover fantasizes over. Would an artist that you love ever travel to a place like Guatemala? Probably not. Your safest bet was to pray that they would come to Mexico City.
This exercise is similar for people who live in South Florida. Perhaps I’m already dating this essay by naming a few artists (Frank Ocean, Beck, The Shins, Aphex Twin, Bjork) that to this date have never performed in Miami. In their own privileged state of being part of the U.S.A, South Florida music lovers get fewer concerts than the midwest or east coast, because in order for artists to justify a concert in Miami, they would have to be willing to travel down south without having any chance to then do another show south, east or west of the state. This is the curse of living in a peninsula.
The Setlist.fm site is still up, fully alive today and it is a user-based contribution site. Not only can you help document today’s concert setlists but you can look up certain artist’s old concert playlists. With legacy artists like Aretha Franklin, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell you can go back decades, as far as the 1980’s to the 1950’s and see what songs they played live thousands of times vs. what songs they’ve played hundreds of times; you can see what songs they’ve covered and what years they didn’t tour at all.
The exercise of fantasizing over hearing a song or seeing a tour live allows you to imagine a different interpretation of an artist’s material. It’s an exercise that never comes close to reality - no matter how many setlists you look at, or how many shitty Youtube videos you see - nothing replaces the live show.
Not surprisingly, most concerts seem to have little improvisation, and artists generally play the same set again and again for the duration of a tour. Some artists finish and end with the same songs each concert. Some artists refuse to play their biggest hits (this is more often when some of their biggest hits are written by another artist).
Keith Richards once said that a Rolling Stones concert without “Jumping Jack Flash” was a disservice for people who paid good money to see them live. This is all of course subjective and it is informed by how an artist views themselves. For every fan that agreed with Richards, there are thousands of those who would say the same thing about songs like “Gimme Shelter,” “Satisfaction,” or “Angie.” It’s also no surprise that artists like the Stones rarely go back to their flops from their disco days.
Even pop artists like Britney Spears, Hanson, Barry Manilow or Jennifer Lopez are interesting to consider. Do they always feel compelled to play the same songs over and over again? Does Britney always play “...Baby one more time”? Does JLo always to play “Jennie from block”? Imagine the prospect of having to sing “My heart will go on”, “Copacabana” or “MMMbop” or “Kokomo (Aruba, Bahama, Jamaica) every concert for the rest of your life. These silly but interesting questions have unlimited possibilities for a website like setlist.fm to answer.
These artists must consider these “trivial” decisions every time they perform. Does it make sense to open or close with your biggest hit? Should they avoid a certain bad album or era all together? What if an important member of the band is no longer there to sing a song they wrote or sang? We must answer similar questions about our life’s “setlist.” When thinking about our lives, could it be possible that the times that we were broken up with, rejected by a job prospect or even the time that you lost a fistfight in high school shaped us more than the times that things went in our favor?
While it might be reassuring to mostly ponder the high moments of life, it is mostly an exercise of our own narcissism to give all the credit to ourselves for our own “hits” and not contemplate our own shortcomings in our own “flops.” You can go beyond your own life’s “flops” and think about the amazing histories that your ancestors have gone through in order for you to be alive. It wasn’t enough for your grandparents to come together in an intimate moment of (ideally) love, lust, consent and reproduction for you to be alive. It was also their experiences in life’s victories, mistakes, privileges, traumas and chance/luck that led you to where you are now.
I could celebrate my dad being among the first people in his family to have graduated from college to think about what that means to my life but you can equally, if not more, give credit to my 3rd grade level educated grandmother’s love and curiosity for reading that inadvertently drove her kids to ultimately take a step to enroll in their local university.
Similarly, I can give credit to my other grandparent’s problematic, abusive relationship as a cause and effect that led my parents to work on their relationship so much. I can celebrate my grandmother for having the idea to open up her own convenience store “La Unica” in their little neighborhood which allowed my mom’s family to prosper, while also being aware of the fact that I would not be alive without my great-great grandmother surviving rape by her employer as a teenager, when she worked as a domestic worker who had just moved into the city in the search for opportunity from a poorer part of Guatemala.
Historians like James W. Loewen have made the argument that “history is often mistakenly documented as the things that we did rather those that we did not do,” things that we were not able to accomplish or things that negatively happened to us.
In order to truly face ourselves, fix the broken pieces of our lives and strengthen the already solid aspects, we must be willing to avoid the temptation to run away from our life's lows, and instead celebrate that we are who we are due to the highs and lows of our lives.
Why not create a setlist of the “best of” seminal moments of our lives and include the falls - not only the hits. The class you failed, the ex-friends,the ex-lovers, former horrible bosses, the jobs we didn’t get, the accident we never expected and the winning lottery ticket in your pocket that allowed you to be the imperfectly-perfect flawed person that you are.
While most artists chose to highlight their best songs in order to give concert goers “what they want," there’s plenty of artists who don’t always follow this format. Just look up a Bruce Springsteen, Lauryn Hill or even a Smashing Pumpkins setlist. Not only do these artists often randomly edit their tour setlists but they have the confidence to highlight different parts of their career, regardless of level success.
For us, it’s not necessary to dispose the earlier version of ourselves when thinking about our lives, just because we are far “evolved” or “superior” than our younger selves. Part of the value of growth and integrity is the ability to look back at our lives with peace and empathy, Ideally being able to look back fondly to the outdated operating system of ourselves that just “didn’t know any better”
In relation to the complex lives of our ancestors, we don’t have to wait till their death to give credit to them in a beautiful eulogy that they’ll never hear. If they’re alive, their eternal flame can burn long before their death. The heroes and villains of our life stories are as equally responsible for our present state than the few advances we were able to accomplish. It is a disservice to ourselves and future generations to rewrite history to portray our lives in a vacuum of positive moments that brought us to today. It’s this version of gratitude towards our past that can allow us to be present in the future to become better beings.
The few things that set us apart from other species is that we have the consciousness to be able to think about the past and future in the exercise of our own self reflection. It is worth contemplating the highs and lows of our lives, not to eternally mourn the low points but to realize that our "mistakes" are what make us not only human, but who we are. Here's to the setlists of our lives.
Pablo Terraza is an immigrant from Guatemala living in the Midwest who hopes to hold on to his accent till the day he dies. He will be happy to make you a mixtape and will likely guess two to three songs that you will love. He has a habit of tying every experience to a piece of music. He is well aware that this may all just be a simulation.