In Attempted Defense of the Mosh Pit
Late last week a violent episode erupted at a Cattle Decapitation concert at the 13th Lounge in La Habra, California, in which one concertgoer cut another in the neck with a knife. Violent episodes like this are rare, and so when they are documented they make the news: if it bleeds it leads, so the adage goes.
I reached out to Joe Axler, drummer in Washington deathgrind outfit Theories, who played under Cattle Decapitation on the bill, to clarify the events behind the story. Axler could not verify any details, but he was able to confirm what should come as no surprise to a veteran live concertgoer: “I didn't see much 'til it spilled outside . . . it definitely all started, regardless, because of a pit and people being annoyed by it,” he said.
This seems like one more piece of evidence in a long-standing trial, one which is not going well for the proponents of mosh pitting. Last year punk band Joyce Manor took a stand against stage diving. In addition Chris Fehn of Slipknot opined that mosh pits have become a form of bullying.
Invisible Oranges has covered the topic in the past: Doug Moore posted an editorial questioning moshing, but also said that he felt acceptance of moshing was the norm. Two years later, if the aforelinked articles are any indication, the tide may have turned.
Speaking personally as a semi-frequent mosher, and in the interest of playing the devil's advocate, I want to defend moshing. The task has proved more difficult than anticipated.
I've paid the price for my mosh enjoyment in the form of bodily injuries (only one serious), but they haven't stopped me from participating completely. The relative (compared to, say, a jazz concert) danger of some metal shows adds to the appeal for me. I enjoy the sensation of danger and the adrenaline-boosted state of awareness that comes with it. This is a relatively common phenomenon— people don't ride roller coasters, race motorcycles, or skydive simply for the great views and G-forces.
I want an intense experience, and not necessarily an identical experience to the one I had listening to a band's recordings, but my desire for that kind of experience doesn't take precedence over other people's desire for a less hazardous (and less obnoxious) one. However, I believe that if moshers are aware and considerate of others, there's room for both. If moshing became an extinct practice, then a live performance element that appeals to me would be lost.
At the same time, I'm aware and freely admit that my opinion is rooted not in logic or consideration but in sentiment. The only substantive argument I could think of in favor of mosh pits is to relate moshing in metal and hardcore to breakdancing's place among the four pillars of hip-hop as outlined by Afrika Bambaataa, alongside rapping, Dj'ing, graffiti and breakdancing. It's an interesting but flawed comparison: those practices outline a greater movement encompassing the music itself, whereas the culture of metal and hardcore seems to have congealed around the music. No matter how much more prominent rap music gets in pop culture, it will always be part of the same culture as breakdancing, and its increasing popularity elevates the prominence of the other pillars as well (examples: Tag the Jewels, America's Best Dance Crew). By contrast, extreme music culture is about the music first and foremost, and while there are some indicators that extreme music is making further inroads into mainstream culture, articles like those above suggest that it's leaving moshing behind.
The breakdancing comparison falls apart on even further examination: while both share some inherent competitive aspects and require physical strength and coordination, breakdancing is expressive, has schools and distinct styles, and has achieved a degree of artistic merit in its own right, while moshing has not. It's not even really dancing, I admit, and on those grounds I'm not sure it's entirely creative or expressive at its core (on that level—and I'm loathe to admit this-—the spin kicks and penny-picks of hardcore dancing are more defensible).
I do think metal and hardcore share a culture and lifestyle, and that it is expressed in phenomena outside of the music. Some of the other pillars of metal might include unclean singing, as well as body modification such as tattoos and piercings. However, I'm not sure that moshpitting can be put in that category—-I've seen too many excellent shows with no pits whatsoever to give it such central importance.
The only real defense I have for my mosh pit affection is that, for me, and I assume for many people, it achieves a certain cathartic intensity that rings true when coupled with the music. When asked to defend myself on this view in the past, I've referenced a line of dialog that Don Cheadle speaks in the 2004 film Crash, where he opines that specifically in Los Angeles, human beings lack a sense of touch, and after a long enough time, we just seek out interaction that may be violent and intense. To be clear, I don't like the movie. In fact, this bit by Cheadle is the only piece of the film that really stuck with me, maybe that's why they stuck it at the beginning of the trailer, but it does reflect something that I liked about moshing. The appeal lies in more than the sense of inertia, and the satisfaction of moving another human body. To me, there's something appealing in the prolonged visceral contact with not just one but several human bodies, both in the collision, and in people helping me up when I am knocked over. And that's what most shock-news mosh articles gloss over: that the pit is normally a friendly place, where even if a person is injured the other participants will help.
Mosh pit related violence, in all of my firsthand experience, comes from a few bad apples ruining the bunch. What doesn't come up enough is the role that alcohol plays in these episodes. I have no proof that the incident at last week's Cattle Decapitation show was alcohol related, but I know firsthand that the most violent mosh behavior I've witnessed stemmed from intoxication. We mosh for similar reasons that we race cars, which leads me to a question: Why do we let people mosh while blackout drunk, but not allow them to drive race cars or skydive? It seems to me that if mosh pits want to continue playing a part in live music, then moshers' tolerance for extreme drunkenness might be the thing that needs to change.