Soundcheck Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

by Divya Gunasekaran | 11/14/08 4:33am

In the spirit of the recently ended election, Divya Gunasekaran writes about the politics of the pit. The mosh pit.

From the constant power struggles of stereotypical high school cliques (I refuse to make a cliched reference to "Mean Girls" here ... dammit) to the loss of individual free will associated with mob mentality, group dynamics have always been an interesting phenomenon.

In the concert setting, group dynamics take on a unique and complex dimension. While it may be easy to want to attribute that unique dynamic to the high concentration of drunken, substance-addled concert-goers, if you took away the drunk fans and the high attendees (for argument's sake, let's pretend there were still people left after this filter), you'd still have a range of interactions to study.

These interactions are a defining part of one's concert experience. Sometimes listening to music can be a solitary and private event. What makes the concert experience so powerful is not just seeing your favorite performer in action, up close and personal, but also coming together with other fans, feeding off their energy and connecting with complete strangers for one night.

The types of relations between fans greatly depend on the artist and genre as well as the venue. It's obviously harder to feel a more personal connection to other fans in large stadiums or arenas, but feeling like part of such a larger whole can be equally satisfying. Hearing your voice mingled with 15,000 other voices all belting out the same words can be a powerful and even cathartic experience.

Some of the most interesting crowd interactions occur within the standing level section of mosh-inducing artists. I'm talking about the type of concerts with packed crowds constantly surging forward, bodies pressing so tightly against one another throughout the night that accidental pregnancies arise and fans drip head-to-toe with sweat, the majority of which is not their own. In these cases, fan interactions take on a surprising duality, with one side characterized by anger and competitiveness and the other by compassion and camaraderie.

The struggle to get as close to the front of the stage as possible is an element common to most concerts. Combined with a complete lack of personal space, frustration at having to wait 30 minutes after the opener's set to see the headliner and pain from having someone's elbow jab your head and another person's knee jut into your back, even the most marginal perceived offense can spark a riot in this environment. Such strained, divisive relations between fans can turn a concert experience sour. Instead of fans uniting out of love for the music, fans compete with one another for space or a good view of the stage.

Yet, the miserable conditions that incite competition and loathing between fans are often the same ones that foster compassion and camaraderie. When you look over and see the same grimace on your neighbor's face as the one you assume must be on yours, you two can share an empathetic smile that says, "Don't worry -- we're all in the same situation here: I, too, cannot breathe; yes, I was also wondering why that person is wearing a banana suit; no, I don't know who's hand is touching me there either." An instant bond is formed.

Even if a concert's rowdy audience seems to exhibit the trademark characteristics of mob mentality, many audience members do not experience a complete loss of humanity. Fans are more than willing to help others crowd surf, or lend support to those that get knocked down in the crowd. While there are a number of audience members who are oblivious to anything outside of the violent thrashing of their own limbs, there are still people looking out for the safety of others and ready to aid anyone in physical danger.

The concert experience is constructed by much more than the music alone. It may be the art that brings everyone together, but a fair share of the feelings (and possibly the bruises too) you carry away are due to the people who shared the music with you. So get in that mosh pit and remember -- pain is bonding.

Divya is a staff writer of The Mirror. She was not alive for Altamont.