By Mara Woods-Robinson
Image: “Various Actions (Actions variées),” by Vasily Kandinsky, 1941.
Penelope Spheeris’ 1980 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization opens on a boy talking about punk rock, followed by a montage of the various front(wo)men of the film’s featured bands reading a disclaimer that the shows and crowds will be filmed. As the opening credits roll, the frontmen continue speaking over the soundtrack, until one voice commands: “Dance!” As if cued by the word, X’s song “Nausea” bursts into the soundtrack over the title credit, and then Spheeris cuts to a closeup of thrashing bodies in the pit. Initially, the image is abstracted: bodies move too quickly and ferociously to be clear; all that registers is the chaotic, blurred movement of flesh and clothing in and out of frame. Sound and image are at odds: the crowd’s arrhythmic (or, perhaps more appropriately, anti-rhythmic) thrashing contradicts X’s hypnotic, steady beat. For all we know, the crowd could have been dancing to another song, at another show, by another band. On the soundtrack, Exene Cervenka screeches into the microphone, irreverently warning the crowd about their impending hangovers—“Today you’re gonna be sick so sick / you’ll prop your forehead on the sink / say oh Christ oh Jesus Christ / my head’s gonna crack like a bank”—and submerged in the tight, abstracted frame, we get a little nauseous too. Gradually, the camera zooms out, revealing the wider scene: a nightclub, chock-full of young white men colliding furiously against each other. Instead of cutting to the band, we linger on the crowd, watching the bodies thrash in a free-for-all medieval-style melee. Ironic or sincere, Spheeris makes her point clear: this is the titular decline of Western civilization.
That was America’s introduction to the mosh pit. Decline gave the nation a glimpse into the underground Los Angeles punk scene of the late 1970s, and with it the first footage of the new, radical dance that emerged at its shows. Still nameless at the time of Decline’s production—the term “mosh” would not be coined until the 1980s, after the dance spread to the up-and-coming hardcore and metal scenes (Riches, 315)—the film’s subjects situate it somewhere between the punk “pogo” (jumping up and down to the music) and a “riot.” By introducing the (then-nameless) mosh pit through nauseating yet mesmerizing abstraction, Spheeris incites her viewers’ curiosity. Are these people enjoying themselves? Are they in pain? What is the purpose of this performative display of aggression? How could such a dance come to be? Such questions highlight the mosh pit’s contradictory nature, consisting of a series of oppositions—chaos vs. structure, individuality vs. unity, and violence/pain vs. physicality/pleasure—that reflect the contradictory, anarchical nature of punk subculture and ideology. Through such contradictions, the problematic gender and race politics of the mosh pit and punk culture become apparent, which have since only been exacerbated by the pit’s departure from subculture and entry into the “mainstream.”
Watching the “Nausea” sequence in Decline, Spheeris prompts us to ask how such extreme behavior could become a normalized audience activity. Decline frames mosh as a form of dance: the frontman’s command to “dance!” is answered by the formation of a pit—a radical dance in response to a radical music. Club owner Brendan Mullen offers the speed of the music as an explanation of how such a violent mode of expression could have come to be: “You can dance easily to a disco rhythm, which is, I understand, 126-132 beats a minute. Whereas [punk rhythm] is upwards of 250, 300 beats a minute, which is not comfortable or normal to dance to. And that is why this dance … is at an abnormal level of adrenaline. And so sometimes, some violence breaks out” (Spheeris, Decline). Alternately, Steve Garvey, bassist for early U.K. punk band Buzzcocks, points to the close proximity of bodies as the source of mosh’s origin: “At all our shows, it would be so crowded up front, and you would have no place to move so you would go up and down, and pogo. And then because the floor is so crowded, people start banging into each other” (Christman, 22). Garvey adds the inevitability of physical human interaction to Mullen’s argument of speed, suggesting that moshing is what happened when the pogo was situated in a crowd, and multiple people jumping up and down turned into collision. Both perspectives trace the pit’s origins to punks’ attempts to dance to a beat—Mullen explicitly in his numerical naming of the rhythm, and Garvey indirectly in his description of “up and down” movement, syntactically mirroring the up- and down-beats of music. Yet in both versions, the dance goes awry, leaving us with the chaotic, apparently arrhythmic (or anti-rhythmic) slamming of bodies we see in Decline. Rather than dancing to the beat, moshers dance to the noise—as Bradford Scott Simon notes, “The movement started and stopped with the music, and appeared to be driven by the music” (Simon, 162).
Just as the mosh pit can be seen as a physical enactment of punk music, it can be more abstractly understood as a microcosmic staging of punk ideology. Although Mullen and Garvey trace the origins of mosh back to a mistake, the dance caught on for a reason. Punk, a scene founded on a rebellion against foundations, constituting both culture and counter-culture, is structured around contradictions. Mimi Thi Nguyen elaborates: “punk manifested all the contradictions of a modernist avant-garde movement—unsentimental and romantic, revolutionary and reactionary, a draw for queers and freaks and the worship of tortured white male genius” (Nguyen, 174). Accordingly, its dance (or the dance that emerged from it) is contradictory in nature. Simon highlights the pit’s “several diadic oppositions, including order/chaos, absorption of self in mass/centrality of individual asserting self, and violence/physicality” (Simon, 149). I will examine each of these oppositions, in relation to both the pit and the broader context of punk culture, and the structural inequality they reveal within a supposedly anti-structuralist subculture.
In regards to the “order/chaos” opposition, the pit’s chaotic appearance disguises a fundamental structure underlying both pit politics and punk culture as a whole. Punk anarchical ideology manifests itself in the chaos of the pit. The moshers’ detachment from the beat of the music—as exemplified in the “Nausea” sequence—seems a corporeal defiance of the intrinsic musical structure (the beat) maintained even in punk rock. Analyzing moshers’ accounts of their experiences in the pit, William Tsitsos observed “the [shared] impression that slamdancing is just an adrenalised dance with no rules at all … This idea of the lawless individual in the pit reflects the vision of rule-breaking individuality which is such a large part of being a punk.” (Tsitsos, 408). Moreover, Simon highlights punks’ “dual philosophy of ‘do-it-yourself’ self-sufficiency and the archetypal punk ‘no future’ nihilism” (Simon, 156). In theory, moshing embodies both the anarchic and the D.I.Y. aspects of punk ideology: the pit appears a space of free-for-all, lawless chaos that anybody can join, because no prior knowledge of moves (or laws) is required.
But in practice, neither of these elements proves entirely true: tendencies emerge in the pit that can be examined through the lens of various structural models. A 2013 scientific study examined the movement of bodies in a mosh pit, observing that it “resembles the kinetics of gaseous particles, even though moshers are self-propelled agents”—a “nonequilibrium system [that] exhibit[s] equilibrium characteristics” (Silverberg et al., 1). Undermining such a qualitative analysis of the pit as a space of equilibrium, however, Gabrielle Riches notes a different kind of structure to (heavy metal) mosh pits: a hierarchy, wherein “status is achieved by demonstrating bravado and inflicting pain on one’s body” (Riches, 319). Daniel Traber, in his examination of punk’s aesthetic and behavioral appropriation of predominantly non-white urban poverty, elaborates on such a hierarchy: “The lifestyle works as an inverse form of social mobility; in their own social formation punks earn status by becoming tougher and going ‘lower’” (Traber, 35). This valuation of lowness is reflected in the title of Spheeris’ film, which labels the advent of punk culture a “Decline.” Multiple structures—an equilibrium of apparent chaos and an inverted hierarchy (if you will, a lowerarchy) of status—coexist within the pit and within the scene, adding another layer of order/chaos contradiction.
The hierarchy (or lowerarchy) most clearly manifests in the gender inequality of the pit, and therefore of punk as a whole. Riches notes that because status depends on acts of physical strength, women are often left by the wayside due to their smaller statures and the threat of sexual violence in the male-dominated pit. She argues for the subversive potential of women who do join the pit to simultaneously defy gender norms and gain acceptance (status), which they would be unable to do outside the subcultural “scene” (Riches, 319). But because the mosh pit exists as a male-defined, male-dominated space, any female “subversion” would be a concession to the patriarchal structure: the only way for women to achieve status/power is on an individual basis, by emulating male definitions of status/power. Additionally, the threat of sexual violence in the pit further ostracizes women from becoming respected members of both the pit and the punk community in general, reiterating the structural inequality underlying the apparent “equilibrium” of punk chaos/anarchy. Because moshing is a physical activity and men are physically dominant, men set the rules in a mosh pit; despite its detachment from mass culture, patriarchal ideology still pervades punk subculture, through which rape culture can enter the pit. As demonstrated in several scenes across Decline—including a bouncer’s story about a group of men who jumped onstage during an X set and tried to rip Exene’s dress off—and later in the many accounts of rape and sexual assault in the pits of Woodstock ’99 (Anderson, The Punk Singer), the male notion that “anything goes” in the pit makes it an unsafe place for women.
Historically, there has been a feminist backlash against the pit’s violent sexual politics. The radical feminist riot grrrl movement of the early 1990s attempted to upend the “boy mosh pit” (Anderson, The Punk Singer) and its dominance over punk subculture. Riot grrrl historian Sara Marcus highlights an anti-moshing behavior that some riot grrrls adopted at shows: “they’d stand, planting their legs in broad Vs and linking arms with each other or balling their fists at their waists, daring anybody to challenge their right to the space where moshing usually held sway” (Marcus, 124). This image of strength in stillness contrasts the frenetic motion that characterizes the pit, subverting the male-dominated pit in a way that, unlike Riches’ participatory women, does not concede to patriarchal definitions of power. Kathleen Hanna, frontwoman of Bikini Kill, regularly called girls to the front of the crowd, both to give her female fans a privileged position at shows, and for her own safety on stage (Marcus, 255).
But “Bros Fall Back,” a 2013 zine published by “The Secret Society of Femmes,” criticizes both the riot grrrl movement—“exclusively white, transmisogynistic, and classist” (“Bros Fall Back,” 7)—and the riot grrrl slogan “girls to the front.” The zine argues, “[‘Girls to the front’] claims that dismantling patriarchal dynamics in a show space is the responsibility of non male people … bros need to take it upon themselves to commit to undoing years of patriarchal socialization” (“Bros Fall Back,” 7). The discussion of “patriarchal dynamics” defies any inverted notion of punk hierarchy: from a feminist perspective, the mosh pit (and thus punk) is merely an extension of dominant societal power structures. Though the zine disagrees with riot grrrl’s approach, the mosh pit remains the source of the problem in both ideologies, reinforcing rape culture and gender inequality within (and without) the scene under the guise of “chaos.”
The second opposition, Simon’s “absorption of self in mass/centrality of individual asserting self,” or more simply togetherness/individualism, examines another aspect of both mosh pit and punk scene. Physically, the dancers in a pit collide with one another over the course of their individual trajectories across the space (visualized by the abstract closeup in Decline’s “Nausea” sequence). But like the gaseous particles colliding at random to comprise a distinctive mass, the dancers’ individual movements are part of a unified whole, “the pit” (visualized by the zoom out, whereby we recognize the fluidity and uniformity of group movement). In Garvey’s account of the pit’s origins, he sources the dance to the tension between bodies moving individually in a tightly packed group setting, emphasizing the importance of collectivity to the creation of the first (or any) mosh pits (Christman, 22). Tsitsos highlights the emergence of unspoken mosh pit etiquette as evidence of such unity: dancers look out for each other, picking each other up when they fall (Tsitsos, 407) Emotionally, moshers’ accounts of their experiences in the pit mirror this tension between unity and individuality. In Tsitsos’ interviews of moshers, several identify personal pleasures derived from the pit, such as adrenaline or an outlet for aggression. Yet experiencing such personal pleasures alongside others turns moshing into a shared experience, which becomes a further source of pleasure. (Tsitsos, 407-9).
At the same time, the unity/individuality opposition is reflexive of the punk scene’s ostracization of its own members. Simon argues, “In the slam-pit at least some people (primarily white and male) are able to mediate the existential conflict between individual expression and group equality under an aegis of belonging” (Simon, 171). But what are the implications of that parenthetical, which Simon largely passes over, to the non-white, non-male subjects who seek belonging? At one point in Decline, Spheeris sandwiches a white skinhead boy’s racism between two snippets of an Asian-American boy’s interview. The simple sequence of three shots (“Kenny,” the Asian-American boy lamenting police; “Eugene,” the skinhead claiming he gets chased by “niggers”; back to Kenny in the midst of refuting, “…but it doesn’t mean I’m gonna go kill a Jew”) highlights the tense proximity of racial minorities and racist ideology within the subcultural community. Punk anti-Semitism, hinted at through Kenny’s comment, returns visually during Fear’s set, when the camera hones in on multiple swastikas in the crowd. Richard Lakes argues that punks’ appropriation of “German war relics” was “relegated to merely shock value” and “devoid of any meaning attached to Nazism or any neo-fascist movement,” although later skinheads used them to more overtly political ends (Lakes, 26). Regardless, the swastika highlights an environment of hostility, especially directed toward minorities—including the nonwhite and queer members of the punk community. Moreover, the swastika comes minutes after Fear bassist Derf Scratch jokes that “girls’ holes are so close together … so you can carry them like a six pack.” The overt misogyny in the joke’s crude objectification of the female body reflects punk’s attitude toward women. Women who enter the mosh pit subject their bodies to the threat of being groped or worse; so if participation in the pit translates to “belonging” in the punk scene, that belonging is inherently less accessible to women.
The third opposition of the mosh pit, “violence/physicality” (“violence” as negative aggressive collision, “physicality” as positive human touch) is closely connected to unity/individualism. In a pit, the violent crash of bodies—both interactive and repellant—becomes a source of both pain and pleasure, or pain as pleasure. Tsitsos notes, “Naming this area the ‘pit’ designates it as the site of some type of battle” (Tsitsos, 405). Moshers stage violence within a confined space, wherein it is socially acceptable to release “pent-up aggression” on other bodies, and wherein pleasure (or “fun”) is actively derived from such an act. The intermingling of bodies, though colliding in polarized moments of crash, enables a closeness not possible in everyday interactions. In his analysis of the Germs’ song “The Other Newest One,” José Esteban Muñoz comments on the homoeroticism of the pit:
“The flaying, annihilative spectacle of a mosh pit was the gateway for many boys to touch other boys without having to wear a helmet and catch or throw balls in the air. It is through such moments of touching and being touched … that a certain acting crazy together is possible … corporeal selves crash and careen into each other and some kind of recognition becomes available.” (Muñoz, 102)
The homoerotic potential of the pit, a place where boys derive pleasure from breathing, sweating, and moving together, coexists and even feeds off the pit’s deflective violence. Throughout Fear’s set in Decline (by far the most inflammatory set in the film), the band and the crowd spew venomous, homophobic insults at each other across the stage (Spheeris, Decline). Yet the hateful, in-your-face unpleasantness is part of the band’s appeal. Crowd and band alike “get off” on the insults, riling each other up so that when the show begins, they hurl themselves at one another all the more eagerly. The complex interplay between homoeroticism and homophobia reflects punk’s position as both a bastion of testosterone-fueled hatred and a magnet for (queer) outcasts.
The distinction between pit violence and actual violence becomes clearer if we read moshing as performance or staging of violence. Moshing exists less as a form of real violence and more as a form of dance, in which participants perform violent behaviors to music. Although bodies careen into one another, most do not actively wish harm unto one another. Problems arise when someone unfamiliar with this distinction, who does not know the “rules” of the pit—perhaps someone from outside the subcultural community—enters the pit (Simon, 164). Yet though it provides a relatively controlled mode of venting (white male) aggression, the performativity of violence in the pit has problematic cultural implications. Traber critiques punk’s—specifically, the late-70s L.A. punk scene’s—white-dominated appropriation and fetishization of an impoverished “sub-urban” (his equivalent of “inner city,” which he juxtaposes against the typically suburban origins of the white punk scenesters) lifestyle. For punks born into the affluence and comfort of suburbia, “living on welfare becomes more like a game than a necessity, daily navigating danger is a source of excitement rather than terror” (Traber, 54). Similarly, the violence performed in a pit fetishizes the violence faced regularly (in homes, from gangs, and from police) by the mostly non-white “sub-urban” poor. Choice is crucial to this interpretation of punk lifestyle. Punks actively choose to enter the scene and pit, they choose to “lower” themselves to filth/ugliness in a rejection of the affluence they could have maintained in mainstream culture, and they choose to engage in (controlled) violence. Whereas the “sub-urbanites” have no choice: their abysmal living conditions are thrust upon them, by their lack of means and by institutionalized racism. Choice enables punk rage against the dominant system, but it also perpetuates punk’s complicity in that system, in its reification of racist and sexist power structures.
Today, the mosh pit has traveled far from its obscure punk origins, to become a common fixture at a variety of shows. After the so-called “death” of punk in the early 80s, elements of punk music and culture—including the pit—crossed over into the burgeoning (and also predominantly white and male) hardcore and metal scenes (Tsitsos, 397). Still tied to a subcultural context, the pit evolved (and was finally given the name “mosh pit”) to reflect various local scenes, just as the original nameless pit had reflected punk culture. For instance, Riches and Tsitsos, who studied mosh pits within these more recent non-punk contexts, observed similar parallels between pit politics and subcultural politics. In the 90s, the pit finally entered the “mainstream” alongside the mass popularization of “alternative” culture. Although an oversimplifying reduction of the complexities of cultural trends, the moment of transference of the “alternative” from subculture to mass culture is often traced back to Nirvana’s 1991 release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Anderson, The Punk Singer).
The music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” features a recreation of a mosh pit, which, if framed against the documentary footage of Decline’s “Nausea” sequence, highlights the intricacies and implications of the pit’s entry into dominant culture. Nirvana performs in front of bleachers in a gym, as part of what appears to be a pep rally. Cheerleaders dance alongside them with anarchy symbols on their uniforms, recontextualizing punk iconography into the institutional space of a high school. The predominantly white, long-haired, male audience head-bangs to the music, eventually getting up to form a mosh pit complete with crowd-surfing, flips, and pogoing. The video stages a visualization of subcultural practices and aesthetics’ entrance into the mainstream context of a high school gym. Slow motion highlights its artifice: as the crowd jumps around, their movements are softened—a world away from the chaos and speed of the bodies thrashing to “Nausea.” Kurt Cobain bellows into the microphone, the voice of a generation of angsty teenaged consumers, demanding, “Here we are now / Entertain us.” This video is a product: a commodification of various components that had once worked together to form a distinct subcultural identity and a (albeit exclusive and discriminatory) sense of belonging. This was the “new mosh pit”: the mosh pit of the masses, the likes of which could be found at Lollapalooza, Warped Tour, or (at its worst) Woodstock ’99. Divorced from its subcultural context yet still replete with problematic race and gender politics, it was adopted by a generation of “sell-outs” and “posers.” The subculture that emerged from a fetishization of poor urban living conditions itself became fetishized and mass-produced, dragging the contradictions of punk and the pit into dominant culture and widespread public scrutiny. “Enter at Your Own Risk,” one might say. Or “Bros Fall Back.”