Men on the Margins of the Mosh

If you should enter the pit, you need to know what you’re getting into. The pit can turn real intense, real fast, and you need to be prepared. – Christina Clark, ‘The etiquette of the mosh pit, explained’, Detroit Metro Times, May 19, 2014.

I was faced with making a decision as my friends, my brother and I walked into a venue on a cool June night to see one of my favourite bands. Together, we elected to avoid the heart of the mosh pit, preferring to stand further back and sacrifice a better view of the band for a more comfortable show. The mosh pit, that cathartic communion, makes friends of strangers and tearful wrecks of others. The energy and emotion expelled by everyone in that space can be contagious, and for those at the very front, holding onto their prized anchor – the barrier – becomes a matter of survival. But the mosh pit also poses a specific set of problems, not just for the intimacy and inclusivity of those gathered, but also for the potential forms of collective emotion that are available to those present.

For many, but particularly for men, opportunities for unfettered emotional expression can feel few and far between. Society and the various forms of masculine expression it validates reinforce in children and young boys that to talk about feelings is to be weak, and that ‘toughening up’ and silently weathering anything life throws at us is the best way to handle our inner lives. Even with increasing pockets of economic inequality, the further casualisation of work, and a nearly impenetrable housing market – the precarity faced by women and men in our society – revealing vulnerability is still regarded as a sign of weakness. Despite our increasing awareness of these systemic barriers to attaining financial, residential and job-related security, the expectation that men and women will achieve such goals does not seem to have diminished. As far as dominant Australian masculinities are concerned, to be anything but completely self-sufficient and capable of taming this world is a sign of a personal shortcoming, which men often internalise as a failure and source of shame.

For many, but particularly for men, opportunities for unfettered emotional expression can feel few and far between

Live music goes some way to relieving this pain. Men and women can sing, scream and yell at the top of their lungs, because it doesn’t matter if you’re there with friends or going it alone, you’re in the crowd, and the crowd gets it. Emotions don’t need to be explained; that they’re being felt is enough. These displays of emotion are often coupled with physical and, at times, arguably aggressive behaviour. Depending on the genre and the show, this might be a given. Behaviour in the mosh pit and crowd can vary wildly between scenes, genres, bands, and cities – and trying to anticipate it at a gig can often be a pointless endeavour.

General guides to mosh etiquette paint a picture that is usefully nuanced and honest – yes, a wall-of-death (as the name suggests) is going to be more dangerous than your garden variety ‘pogo-ing’. And most of these accounts of the ideal mosh pit emphasise principles of care: some people don’t want to mosh and you should respect that; be prepared to help anyone up if they get knocked down; don’t make any inappropriate or sexual contact with anyone; and if you’re purposefully making physical contact in something like a circle pit, use your open hands and flat surfaces to do so, not your elbows or closed fists. This complements the sense of camaraderie often present in the pit (and outside it). These guides also echo the same advisory rhetoric even the most casual of gig-goers know as gospel: if there is a mosh, either stick to the back of the crowd or be prepared. Those mosh pits that do become more violent than the standards accepted by a particular scene or genre – or antithetical to the established sense of community – are disavowed as not being true mosh pits.

Among the most contentious of these are the ‘hardcore pits’, which involve hardcore dancing, but even these exist on a spectrum on which most mosh pits sit, and common to this spectrum are expressions of emotion that take the form of spatial dominance and physical aggression. From outside the mosh pit, this behaviour can seem chaotic and unordered, but to those participating in it, there are subtle laws and rules. There is “control” of a kind, and participants accept a certain level of harm – small bruises or a split lip, for example. One of the immediate ramifications of this is increased risk to personal and collective safety. Even the tamest of mosh pits is a volatile environment in which an individual has to consciously and regularly reassess their safety, unless they give themselves to the pit and its whims entirely, foregoing that safety as part of their experience. But given the sort of respect generally afforded those who don’t wish to mosh, it would be counterproductive and damaging to argue that those who consensually engage in them shouldn’t be allowed to. More pragmatically, such arguments are useless anyway, much like the signs at venues and festivals that read “no moshing”.

Anyone who challenges the primacy of the mosh is challenging one of the few spaces in which men who feel disempowered – legitimately or otherwise – can engage with their feelings in an empowering and ‘masculine’ way

Rather than safety, the key issue is that of physical and spatial dominance. Masculinity figures into this through the physicality of mosh pits, which demarcates a space and erects barriers to entry. One barrier is that of the legitimately ‘masculine’, and therefore defensible, expression of feeling. Anyone who lacks the height, build, ability, or motivation to engage in a mosh without genuine concern of physical injury is automatically barred access, not only to the mosh, but also to its location, which is generally at the front and centre of the show. Furthermore, anyone who challenges the primacy of the mosh is challenging one of the few spaces in which men who feel disempowered – legitimately or otherwise – can engage with their feelings in an empowering and ‘masculine’ way. Those engaging with the mosh in this way consequently have an internal rationale for feeling that the space should be theirs for a time. The space the mosh occupies, however, means that the people who don’t want to participate in it don’t get the option of being up front, of making eye contact with the guitarist or screaming into the vocalist’s microphone with them – all experiences of live music which go just as much towards making a great gig as a great pit does for those in it. Those unwilling to engage in such safety risks, however minuscule some might consider them to be, lose access to an alternative to intimacy with the crowd: intimacy with the band.

Justifications for this kind of spatial dominance are numerous, but tend to invoke the idea that moshing appeals to some primal or more authentic urge. They portray the behaviour within them as being governed by an instinctive, ritualistic compulsion inherent to humans. At best, this absolves those participating from fully considering the others present at a show. At its worst, it renders others invisible; out of sight, out of mind. This comes down to exclusivity and normativity. Sure, technically most people can jump into a heavy mosh pit, but the reality is that not anyone really can – and they shouldn’t have to. Everyone is likely to benefit from the emotive outlet of live music, not just those in the mosh, and when we justify the mosh pit dominating the primary space at a show, we hold back musical community from its cathartic potential. The riot grrrl movement realised this: we don’t need to look far back to see its bands asking men to move to the back or sides of the venue, so that more women can come to the front. This was as much about everyone having a chance to participate as it was about creating a safe space for women and more marginalised groups.

Currently, the informality of the physical segregation of a crowd can give the arrangement the appearance of innocence, and its defenders the appearance of naivety. It becomes a naturalised order. But if the mosh pit is a space for some to work out emotion, energy, anger or frustration, can this expression be mediated in other ways to similar effect?

The issue here is not removing the physicality of the mosh pit, but re-positioning it in such a way that it enables, not constricts, those outside of it

To stymie the capacity of the mosh to help people convey emotion in a unique and beneficial way is not a solution, but this does not make the mosh beyond questioning. Can this trading of energy in the crowd, and between the crowd and the band, take other forms – specifically, forms which afford non-participants options for a more meaningful experience at shows? The issue here is not removing the physicality of the mosh pit, but re-positioning it in such a way that it enables, not constricts, those outside of it.

Kevin Stewart-Panko at MetalSucks wrote about an idea that Dan Yemin (of hardcore punk band Paint it Black) proposed at a gig in Toronto: “If you want to watch the show, come up to the front. If you want to kick and kill people, do it in the back.” Yemin’s idea may be unlikely to eventuate as a broader cultural change, but it’s hard to argue with it. The spatial dominance of the pit would still exist, but by being relocated, it would no longer inhibit those who lack the physicality or desire to engage with it. Is there anything stopping the mosh moving to the back? And if it did, how much would it take away from the experiences of those in it? Those who want to mosh, run in circle pits and crash together at their own risk can – while everyone else who wants a better view of the band can take that up too.

This is to ask how we critique and legitimise ideas of masculinity that permeate our creative cultures. How is it that we can turn an androcentric domination of the live music venue into something more accommodating and welcoming? After all, the mosh pit may appear chaotic, but beyond that seemingly uncontrollable outer layer exists something people choose to bring about, and it’s here that hope lies.

Every year since 2010, in something starting to resemble a pilgrimage, my friends and I have gone out of our way to see Karnivool perform live. I’ve experienced my fair share of mosh pits, and similarly spent my share of time standing towards the back of these shows. I’ve also been lucky enough to hear them play ‘Change’, the 10-minute closer to Sound Awake, more than a few times, and each time it has moved me to tears. This is not a typically masculine thing to say – so much so that I’ve rewritten that line a few times and wondered whether or not to omit it. Singing along in those moments feels cathartic unlike anything else, like having all but the most essential parts of you stripped away, before being built anew from the ground up. I walk out of those shows feeling different. But for me, this expression is very much relegated to the back of the show, whether I like it or not. Personally, trying not to fall on the ground, being short of breath, or being crushed are not likely to induce this emotional state.

The mosh pit may appear chaotic, but beyond that seemingly uncontrollable outer layer exists something people choose to bring about, and it’s here that hope lies

Not everyone is going to express themselves this way, nor should they. Live music spaces enable diverse forms of emotion and positive expression. The mosh pit is one of them. But many of these forms are pushed to the back of the show. This limits how other expressions can function and be experienced. It also reflects and affects whether or not they are validated and accepted by society. Enabling the mosh and its naturalised dominance inevitably hides those outside of it and segregates the gig-going population into the people who mosh, and the people who don’t. Unsurprisingly, this division closely mirrors the way society validates acceptable ways for people, particularly men, to get in touch with their emotions.

The ways in which spaces for emotional expression function are important. Paramount in this case is the mosh pit taking upon itself elements of masculinity that meet its needs, while discarding others pertaining to an overtly negative and constricting spatial dominance. When emotional expression concerns itself with all present, rather than just the self, it becomes open to the possibility of collective freedom, relief, and catharsis. Practicing this must preclude the restriction of others. Only without such spatial constraints can live music go beyond the confines of typically masculine ordering, and in turn legitimate the diverse ways of connecting of everyone involved – whether they’re crashing into each other, belting their lungs out, or losing themselves in the moment.

[Lead image: by Ted Van Pelt, used under Creative Commons.]

Jeremy Stevens is a student at the University of Canberra and a freelance writer. He is interested in journalism, surveillance, privacy and music. You can find him on Twitter at @jeevens where he sometimes tweets about Survivor.

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