Brow Beat

The Biggest Challenge Facing Musicians at Shows: Audiences Clapping With Bad Rhythm

“At least clap on the right notes.”

Justin Bieber recently took it upon himself to address a bad clapping situation. As the Biebs sang “What Do You Mean?” on the Spanish TV show El Hormiguero in MTV Unplugged style, sitting on a stool and accompanied by an acoustic guitarist, he realized the studio audience was having trouble clapping along with the sparse, syncopated arrangement. The crowd’s percussive contributions were landing, messily, on the “one and three”—the first and third beats of every bar. So Bieber interrupted the song. “At least clap on the right notes,” he said, “c’mon, guys, stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop, it’s like this”—then demonstrated how to clap on the two and four. 

You could accuse the star of throwing a temper tantrum, as the Daily Mail did, but the performance had a lot more snap after Bieber’s intervention.

Musicians have long had trouble with audiences that display more enthusiasm than rhythm. Robbie Robertson of The Band once averred that “the South is the only place we play where everybody can clap on the off-beat.” More depressingly, I once saw Bruce Springsteen tell the crowd at the Bay Area’s Sleep Train Pavilion, “OK, now can the terrible clapping.” 

But when Harry Connick Jr. found himself facing a rhythmically challenged audience, he didn’t need to correct them. At the beginning of this performance of “Come By Me,” the crowd is clapping on the one and three. The claps are tighter than Bieber’s Spanish fans’, but the heavy accents on the downbeats give the music a leaden feel. So, as his solo begins (at 0:41 in the video), Connick throws in an extra beat, realigning the music so that the claps land on the two and four instead. From that point on, the clapping sounds funky instead of square—and the audience has no idea that Connick has wrong-footed them. 

(Thanks to Will Grove-White for pointing out the Connick video.)