ONE NIGHT last April, I jumped in a white stretch limousine with the CEO of Listen.com, the vice president of business development, one of our strategic account managers, and several cases of beer. We drove from San Francisco to Arco Arena in Sacramento to see AC/DC in concert. In the middle of the show, while the band played "The Jack," cameras connected to the giant TV screens panned the crowd of 20,000 rock fans wearing blinking devil horns emblazoned with the AC/DC logo, looking for a female willing to strip. While several ladies appeared ready to undo a button or two on their blouses, the cameras seemed able to tell they were poseurs and finally settled on a young, exuberant blonde. As the band vamped, she began to remove her shirt, timing her moves perfectly so she could flash her breasts in diamond vision as the music climaxed and the crowd went wild.
A couple weeks later, that VP got laid off, the CEO stepped down, and I was battling to save the handful of editorial positions that remained in a department that had once included 50 passionate music geeks. It wasn't the first round of layoffs we'd experienced, and it wasn't going to be the last. We were in the very early stages of a hangover that now seems like the inevitable result of the late-'90s dot-com binge, and as I popped aspirin and filled out spreadsheets designed to calculate how many full-time equivalents my department could afford to jettison, I kept thinking about the lady at the Arco Arena.
Even though I am a guy who writes about music for a living, this was not the first pair of breasts I had ever seen. I will confess, however, that I had never seen a pair projected on such a giant screen, so they were quite literally the biggest. And I had never heard 20,000 screams unite in quite the same way when they finally appeared.
So the experience left me with a lot of questions for their owner. I wondered what she said the next day when friends asked her how the concert was. I wondered whether the crowd had been applauding her breasts or her daring. I wondered if maybe she was a plant and had actually gotten paid for her performance. That last one was just a specific way of asking a more general question, I guess—mostly I was wondering exactly what she got out of it.
There's a slight chance it was one of those transcendent moments rock and roll is supposed to be about—a joyous release of inhibitions when everything in the world and inside your head briefly hums in harmony, and the only way she had to express the ineffable power of that feeling was to yank off her shirt.
But see, Listen.com's rock editor had warned me this was going to happen (that women would strip, I mean—not that I would obsess about its significance forever afterward). His exact words, when I told him I was going to an AC/DC concert, were, "Cool. You're gonna see titties." And some casual post-gig research on AC/DC Web sites revealed that, not only do AC/DC concerts regularly compel attractive, tipsy women to disrobe, but that they almost always do so at that exact moment in that precise song. It's like a ritual. Which makes it harder to argue that it was a genuinely uninhibited moment—even in rock and roll, apparently, there is a proper time and place to remove one's clothes.
So I don't feel at all goofy when I insist that I felt a strange kinship with the stripper. The little band of content providers I managed at Listen.com and was in the process of winnowing down to a more sustainable number had experienced an unaccustomed moment in the spotlight that was every bit as heady, about as brief, and just as jam-packed with contradictions. That's what I really want to talk about, but before I do I need you to understand that, at the height of venture capital mania, we felt every bit as sexy and powerful as the topless lady.
Tim Quirk is the director of editorial for Listen.com. For 10 years, he was the singer and lyricist for Too Much Joy. His panel "Trying it On-line" takes place at 9:30 a.m. on Sat., April 13.