On Wednesday, the opening night of Drake’s new tour, the superstar rapper was in the midst of a tender rendition of Ginuwine’s “So Anxious” when a cellphone flew out of the crowd at the Chicago Arena and smacked his wrist. Drake continued to sing, unhurt if a little confused as to why someone would throw a valuable – and airborne dangerous – object at him mid-show.
Who knows if the fan meant to hurt him, or if he was hoping Drake would use it to take a selfie on stage (and throw it back?). But Drake’s shooting is just the latest in a string of incidents that have seen fans throw objects ranging from phones to jewelry to cremated ashes at artists.
Notably, many of these artists — including Bebe Rexha, Kelsea Ballerini, and Ava Max — are singers whose fanbase leans toward passionate sing-alongs rather than aggravated assault. Still, no one seems immune: Pink, Kid Cudi, and Steve Lacy have all been victims of hurled objects at recent shows.
“Fans throwing projectiles at artists is as old as rock ‘n’ roll, but there’s still no excuse for it,” said Paul Wertheimer, concert safety expert and founder of consulting firm Crowd Management Strategies. “The line between stage and audience and the decency around them has really faded.”
Incidents range in severity from Drake’s misguided punch to Lacy’s smashing up of an airline phone in New Orleans last year to much more violent and criminal assaults. Perhaps the strangest incident occurred when Pink found a small bag of powder on stage at a London show last month. “That’s your mom?” Pink asked the fan as she picked up the bag that was said to contain cremation ashes. “I don’t know what to make of that.”
Last month, 27-year-old Nicolas Malvagna was charged with assault and harassment in New York after he allegedly threw a phone at 33-year-old Rexha, hitting her near her eye. Rexha collapsed on stage with the crew running around her. According to the criminal complaint, Malvagna reportedly said, “I tried to hit her with the phone at the end of the show because it would be funny.”
A day later, during a show at the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles, a man stormed the stage and slapped pop singer Ava Max in the face. “He hit me so hard he scratched the inside of my eye. He’s never coming to a show again,” Max tweeted the next day.
While it’s not entirely clear what prompted Max’s apparent attack, Wertheimer says he should be seen as part of a pattern that includes such grim episodes as the 2004 murder of Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell onstage and the murder of singer Christina Grimmie after the show in 2016. “The industry hasn’t learned anything since then,” said Wertheimer. “It could have started something terrible that could have cost Ava Max her life.”
Meanwhile, 29-year-old country singer Kelsea Ballerini stopped performing in Idaho after a fan hit her in the eye with a bracelet.
“Can we just talk about what happened?” she asked the crowd. “My only concern is to ensure everyone’s safety. If you ever feel unsafe, please tell someone close to you. If someone is pushing too much or you just have a gut feeling, just always report it. … don’t throw things, you know?”
This month, rapper Sexxy Red quit two shows after fans threw objects at her, prompting her collaborator NLE Choppa to chide her on Twitter: “You need to stop pretending and treating people like this… You have to everyone.” Stop doing that girl like that.”
Even superstars like Adele have had to deal with such behavior. “Have you noticed how people are forgetting about show etiquette these days?” she told a crowd during her visit to Las Vegas this week. “Have you seen people just throwing shit on stage? I f- dare. Dare throw anything at me and I will kill you.”
Wertheimer said that while he’s not convinced it’s an entirely new trend – “It’s been happening at rock shows since the 1950s” – he’s comfortable with the generally wild atmosphere at shows and festivals today matches.
“We knew at the beginning of this concert season that the audience was more exuberant,” he said. “Young people want to go crazy. They lost a large part of their lives during the pandemic.”
dr Carla Penna is a psychoanalyst and crowd researcher based in Rio de Janeiro and the author of From Crowd Psychology to Dynamics of Large Groups. She said that social media and fan culture have shifted the boundaries between fan and artist, and that’s affecting the sense of physical space at trade shows.
While throwing a cell phone at an artist seems irrational, the object could have psychological meaning for fans.
“With the support of borderless social media, the real or imagined distance between the fan and the artist has narrowed,” Penna said. “Thus, in a show, the audience might feel entitled to personally accompany the performer on stage or to join the performer in a symbolic way by throwing objects that represent or symbolize themselves.”
Agreeing that “misogyny is a possibility” when it comes to the recent spate of attacks, Penna said, “Female artists have always been the target of criticism or violence.” But she also cited changing consumer expectations and the post-pandemic anger as reasons for the blurring of the line between fan and artist.
“After two and a half years of lockdown and social distancing, people have changed their behavior and many are still uncomfortable in crowded or tight spaces. Domestic violence, self-harm, noise intolerance, feelings of disrespect and invasive behavior increased,” Penna said.
At the same time, “audiences have become more sophisticated and more confident in their rights as consumers,” she said, citing a recent incident at Rock in Rio festival where fans threw urine bottles at metal bands they didn’t care about. “Crowds are demanding. We should never ignore their power, for better or for worse.”
There might not be much a venue or artistic team can do about a fan who genuinely wants to throw a phone — or a relative’s remains — from the distance of a pit stop. (Since then, Rexha has worn goggles on stage.)
Still, according to Wertheimer, performers should stand up for venue security and crowd control, Wertheimer said. After the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, the deadly crowd at the Astroworld concert in Houston, and the deadly shooting at Beyond Wonderland in Washington state last month, any chaos in the crowd is a cause for concern.
“Things have gotten a lot worse,” Wertheimer said. “You can be at a venue run by the biggest promoter in the world, or at a festival that’s headlining the biggest artists in the world, and you just don’t know which shows are safe and which aren’t anymore.”