On the Outside of the Circle
Last September, I found myself on the LIRR, approaching a pub I wasn’t old enough to enter without two thick, black Xs marking my hands. A friend and I were seeing one of those bands that varies between folk/indie/emo/alternative-rock with each song. Packed like a sardine, ocean-tinted lights bore down on my grimacing face. “Did we really used to stand this close?” I wanted to ask my friend— but the music was loud and they’d been confused when I suggested we stand toward the back. So, despite the covid-conditioned voice mentally shaming me for it, we ended up in that sweet spot of crowd following the immediate front. This patch of bobbing heads and swaying palms was a liquid state— back and forth, up and down— until all of the sudden, it was as if someone had pulled the plug from a drain at its very center. The bodies before me began to swirl and derail, and I found myself standing in hesitation on the outer ring of a mosh pit.
The mosh pit is one of the more-negligible losses of the pandemic, but as crowds reform and precautions are thrown to the wind— they’re returning. Moshing began in the 70’s as hardcore punk popularized in rejection of hippie culture. Shows were often organized by the band themselves. This made progressive cities full of back corners and basements (like NYC), perfect. The crowded space and rage-filled music incited concert-goers to crash into one another— for reasons outsiders didn’t understand.
When done safely, the crushing of one set of bones into another parallels a head nod from across the room— it is a cathartic act of recognition and unity amongst strangers. But audiences outside of punk, metal, and now hip-hop crowds have never accredited moshing with having a reputation of “safety”. Saturday Night Live’s 1981 Halloween episode brought moshing from basements to mainstream television when punk band “Fear” performed. This exposure was cut short, however, as the crowd began moshing, screaming obscenities, and breaking equipment— the program cutting away to an Eddie Murphy sketch.
In the 90’s, many bands, such as “Fugazi” and “The Smashing Pumpkins”, were openly anti-mosh due to an increase of injuries and even deaths occurring at concerts. However, these dangers still didn’t stop pits from forming at their shows. Even today, with the added risk of contracting Covid in such a compact setting, people won’t be denied this thrill.
So why does the mosh pit persist? What do moshers feel in that moment of extended euphoria, bones crushing in pure bliss, and is that feeling worth the risks? As I watched a pit form before me that September night, I debated whether to scoot back from the anxiety-inducing madness— or closer. And then it hit me. No, really, somebody slammed into me. All thoughts flew from my head and, in that moment, I was both dizzy and acutely aware of my body. I looked up, pursuing the perpetrator, only to see a fleeting smile from whom it might have been, not a trace of violence or ill intent on their face. If anything, in the moments before happily disappearing back into the crowd, their smile seemed to signal “you’re welcome.”
Art by Ryan Nelsen