Written by Julia Cote
Art by Alisa Kokorovic
My first experience of moshing was unintentional; that is, nonconsensual. This was likely the introductory experience for most, or at least most girls who went to DIY shows without realizing that a sweaty guy of six foot would be slamming his body into theirs if they were too close to the band. My initial experience with moshing as violent, as being thrust upon you, informed my impression of all moshers–untrustworthy and frightening at worst; irritating though unaware at best. I held this prejudice until recently, when I attended a hardcore show as requested by my friend who was, on that night, freshly twenty one.
When we got to the bar shortly after the show started, people were still being let in but we didn’t have cash and by the time we had run to and from an ATM, they were already at capacity. My friends and I waited at the front of the line continuously stretching around the block, gradually losing confidence but not admitting it. After thirty minutes of soaking up whatever excitement reached us from beyond the doors, we were let in to get some of the real thing. It was around then that I saw for the first time the genuine essence of moshing and those who participate in it: matching the band’s anarchic energy using your body and the wild movements it is capable of.
I like shows. I like the uniquely deafening loudness created by too-large amps in a too-small space packed by a too-big crowd. I like that everyone at a DIY show is some kind of unformed, or has made themselves into their own shape in rejection of whatever mold they were expected to fill out. Maybe they have a grown-up job or they’ve graduated college, but they haven’t outgrown the dingy basements or the exposed pipes dripping down on them from overhead; they know everyone at the punk bar; the band they thank for the performance with a cigarette or cigarette-tasting kiss. Everyone falls into this equal space in which we have not grown out of wanting to shake our heads to amateur sounds. No one complains if the guitarist or the whole band is shitty because that’s why they like them! They too are unformed; they have decided their own shape.
Following that same logic, I didn’t care that the lineup included bands playing music I would never normally consent to listen to or that the lyrics of their songs were mostly intelligible except for blood, bodies, and fuck sporadically coming through the net of noise. All I really need to enjoy a show is that unique loudness, some friends, and probably some alcohol or THC to remind me that people making music and listening to music is one of the most genius and heartwarming things humans ever did. When I get a little too sloppy I will also remember how beautiful my friends are, how happy they make me, how my love for them is overwhelming to the point of tears. Mostly I just bop my head around until I feel like a sailor stepping onto unshaking ground, maybe moving my knees or hips in a pantomime of dancing.
In some ways, I liked the bands that night better than the ones I normally see. Hardcore music has a way of cutting to the point of things; it isn’t shy or pretty about it. This is music for your body, it says, don’t think too much about the aesthetics of the sound. The volume of the music leaves little room for thinking anyways, aside from a ginger ale with lime sounds so good right now and wow, that table is so sticky occasionally floating through.
While dancing seems a bodily response as inherent as swatting a fly when it comes too close, there is a large gap between dancing and moshing; so who first made the leap? Originally termed “slam-dancing”, moshing as we know it today is generally credited to the emerging punk scene of the late 1970s and early 80s in Southern California, with hardcore groups like Fear and Black Flag spearheading the movement–literally. Slam-dancing is likely to be a product of “skanking”, a dance popularized in the 50s and 60s by the Rude Boys of Ska and Reggae. Though skanking was more violent than any type of dance before it, it still had elements of dancing, where slam-dancing (despite the name) had none. Another early origin is the “pogo”, invented by punks of the late 70s, which didn’t start as a dance at all; as the indie/DIY scene exploded, crowd members had to cope with the unconventional spaces by jumping up and down to see the band. What we now call moshing was initially termed “mashing” in fanzines of the early 80s, named for the way one body “mashed” into another. Essentially, moshing formed itself, as music got rougher and crowds felt compelled to exorcize the new energy it created in them.
As far as I can tell from the general opinion found online, as well as my friends and my own experiences, moshing has accumulated problematic aspects over time. The fundamental issue with modern moshing seems to be that it has become popular enough to extend beyond the genre it was once contained by. At the hardcore show I went to, for example, everyone there knew what was going to happen, and was able to position themselves in accordance with their comfort and safety. Mosh pits form at the front of a crowd, closest to the band except for the few people sometimes lined at the very front. Those who don’t want to experience moshing, primarily or secondarily, stay out of that front space, and are able to watch the excitement and enjoy the music from their respective area. This isn’t true of all shows, however, as many indie/DIY bands play music that isn’t hardcore, so much of their audience wouldn’t anticipate a mosh pit to be formed (aka, why are we moshing to a cover of “Bad Romance” right now…you know who you are).
Moshing is great in the right setting, and when everyone involved is aware of the rules. Robert Palmer of Music Festival Explorer explains the golden rule in his article, The 5 Rules of a Mosh Pit , that if someone falls down, you pick them up. While I observed the pit from the sidelines, more than a couple of people fell onto the ground only to be picked up immediately and thrown back into action. Sort of like when you and your siblings fought as kids and one of you got kicked in the stomach–you have to stop and comfort them before they start crying loud enough for your mom to hear. Playing rough has to have limitations, otherwise the fun gets shut down because someone is hurt in a really un-fun way.
Be aware, however, that there are some sick freaks out there who do want to hurt as many people as possible. “Crowd Killing” is when someone moshes against the edges of the pit, intentionally smashing into non-moshers or trying to pull them in. Yeah. Fun. This is especially dangerous for smaller (typically female) individuals who were staying out of the pit for a reason. This brings me to another complicated aspect of moshing: gender inequality. While there are absolutely girls who do mosh, pits are largely male-dominated. Entering a thrashing contest in which all other contestants are larger than you is daunting, which is why many girls are reasonably avoidant of trying moshing out for themselves.
Thankfully the punk and hardcore scene, at least in Burlington, has progressed to be inclusive of non-male moshers. A large part of the reason why I felt so safe and welcome at my first hardcore show was the diversity of not only the crowd, but the performers. While my friends and I waited outside, we got to listen to most of Blossom’s set–a Burlington-based, queer, femme, punk band which was playing their first-ever show that night. It’s a shame that we weren’t able to witness it for ourselves, but we were lucky just to hear it. We heard them call “Queers to the front,” for an all-girl pit, all-queer pit; things that I didn’t think anyone with power in the hardcore scene would have wanted to create. It would be a mistake to assume that the moshing is exclusively for cis, straight, male people. After all, who was the hardcore scene formed by if not those who didn’t fit the mold?
I think the thing about moshing that initially made me resent it so much was how scared it made me; how vulnerable I felt to the whims of the large bodies slamming into anything in their vicinity. If I had been more knowledgeable about the activity and its prevalence in the DIY scene, maybe I would’ve been better prepared to deal with the potential danger and my feelings towards it. Maybe I am the only one to blame for my ignorance; maybe there was no place for me if I wasn’t prepared to move out of the way for the men in charge. Or, maybe there should be some care put into the activity of carelessness. If I have learned anything from the diverse crowd at my first harcore show, from Blossom, from my 4’11 friend who got me to come and danced fearlessly at the edge of the pit the whole night, it’s that there is space for you everywhere you go. You just have to be confident and proud enough to make it.