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Perils of the mosh-pit: Why music drives us to mayhem

The internet was flooded with horrific videos from the Travis Scott concert where eight people were killed and hundreds injured, at the Astroworld festival in Houston on Nov. 5. Investigations into what went so terribly wrong are still underway.

Perils of the mosh-pit: Why music drives us to mayhem
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It’s clear, however, that fans of the rapper, who has created a stage show that combines mosh-pit sensibilities with bombastic technology and pyrotechnics, come seeking a physical and cathartic experience. Why are generation after generation of young people drawn to these places where they’re pushed, jostled, pummelled or worse? Why do they run into a seething crowd?

It’s not an easy question to answer, but over my 25-year career playing in bands, and now as a record label executive, I’ve come to realise that when a feeling of shared community and that primal sense of adventure and danger meet at a concert, the result can be intoxicating. 

We feel a rush when we push things to the edge, especially when we do so in communion with others. And even if the crowd is rowdy or scary, there’s unity in surviving it, a fellowship in trauma. As the journalist Bill Buford wrote in “Among the Thugs,” “being in a crowd is an act of violence. Nothingness is what you find there. Nothingness in its beauty, its simplicity, its nihilistic purity.” I once found myself in the pit at the Lollapalooza festival, where tens of thousands of bodies swayed as one mass. 

The crowd surged toward the stage, and I was lifted off the ground and floating uncontrollably, in slow motion. What I felt in that moment was a wave of tremendous terror, and I remember wondering why nobody else looked as scared as I felt. In fact, the people around me all looked as if this was why they were there, that this was the most rewarding part of the event.

Live music has often prompted a physical response. Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” received “a storm of hissing” and caused what some described as a riot at its 1913 Paris debut. By the time I went to that Guns N’ Roses show, 75 years later, chairs had been removed from arenas, bringing the audiences to their feet. Sound systems had become deafening, and concerts were extravaganzas of explosions and flames whose heat could be felt at the back of the hall. None of this was designed to keep crowds calm.

Today’s festivals and concerts are taking the athleticism of the mosh pit to a new level. As Mr. Scott himself has said, his shows feel like wrestling matches, with the audience “raging and, you know, having fun and expressing good feelings.” Part of what fans are looking for in these secular places of worship is a feeling of belonging. 

The singalong of a chorus can unite thousands, and the simple acknowledgment of the person next to us who wears the same shirt, or displays a similar tattoo, can feel connective. Humans socialise in different ways, and many of us choose to do so among people who identify with the same music.

We mosh, elbows to ribs and chins. We let others hoist us up and pass our bodies over the heads of strangers, trusting them not to drop or grope us. We climb on stages, dodging beefy security guards, to run a short victory lap before leaping into the welcoming arms of a crowd. 

We do all of these things with an unspoken understanding that we are there together, that we will take care of one another and that nobody wants to leave with more than a minor injury.

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