Mosh Pit Etiquette: Oxymoron or Sensible Thought?


Oxymoron or Sensible Thought?

By Clay Smith

‘Mosh pit’ and etiquette; these two words don’t collide very often- not nearly as often as kids do at metal and hardcore shows, that’s for sure. With the advent of ‘moshcore’ bands who readily become brawl soundtracks, the aggression expected of fans is pushed ever further. “Don’t get involved in [a mosh pit] if you don’t want to get hurt,” one fan contends. But, is physical harm inevitable to those who mosh? With musical and subcultural lines blurring, the need for a serious dialogue about acceptable pit conduct seems more and more pressing.

Unspoken Rules Of The Pit

To the untrained eye, the pit is simply a crowd embroiled in violence and chaos. However, when an actual fist fight erupts, the pit collapses. Sometimes, the whole show does as well. This is to say that there is some desired balance to be found in the angst and adrenaline- a most delicate balance that crumbles at the slightest provocation. There may not be a formally declared set of rules in the mosh pit, but there certainly is the expectation of specific behaviors therein.

In short, there is a set of do’s and don’ts. But, everyone in the pit seems crystal clear on his own set and skeptical at best of everyone else’s. Moreover, each tends to hold not only himself, but everyone else accountable to his own standards, whether or not others even know what they are. And I hardly ever hear someone shout at a show, “sir, you are in breach of mosh protocol 7.04.0961-B!”

No, the mosh world often speaks only with its fists, I’ve found, avenging itself decisively and mercilessly. One astute observer of the scene’s cultural implications posits that “what was once a pure and innocent form of release now becomes specified dance moves and social rituals.” If neglected, these rituals “dictate a slew of consequences from the protagonists.”

But, mosh critics have long conjectured a simpler explanation as to this excessive violence: the two different moshing styles, push-moshing and hardcore-dancing, are at odds with one another. It’s easy to see how. Push-moshing requires physical contact between participants while hardcore-dancing inherently rejects it. Hardcore-dancing also allows for only a few to mosh at a time and push-moshing is more of a communal interaction. Some even insist on pit-segregation; “if throwdown pits and push-mosh pits would establish away from each other … there would be way less fights.”

With these two contradictory expressions of anger incited by similar styles of music and quite often at the same shows, one can see where confusion and resentment could easily enter the equation. However, I wanted to delve deeper into how the pit differentiates between the violence it encourages and that which disrupts it. So, I put together an online questionnaire of the subject and collected some rather telling responses.

The survey was brief and polled one-hundred mosh enthusiasts from the Southeastern Wisconsin area. Participants were asked two demographic questions up front: “which style of mosh do you prefer?” and “what do you make of the other style?”. The idea was to polarize respondents into four unique profiles; ‘tolerant’ and ‘belligerent’ push-moshers, and ‘tolerant’ and ‘belligerent’ hardcore-dancers. The reply seems to expel any hopes for a one-size-fits-all approach to mosh etiquette. Both sides of this “war” seem evenly divided over the issue of “the other guys” in the pit:

The rest of the survey consists of simple “for instances” which attempt to question each mosh profile’s understanding of physical confrontation as a means to enforce the unspoken rules of the pit.

The data I collected is by no means exhaustive and should not be taken as absolute to the exclusion of other research and personal experience. However, many of the anomalies found seem to hold water for the scene at large. They also raise new questions. Let’s take a look at the data itself:

Question #1:

This was the null question. More than three fourths of all respondents across the board are empathetic to wayward moshers who have fallen into apparently undeserved trouble.

Question #2-3:

These two questions, almost identically-phrased, were designed to probe how justice is carried out in the pit. The majority we observed in question #1 carries over to #2, almost entirely. However, a different picture altogether emerges in question #3.

Mosh-guilt does exist, but so does mosh-taliation. Mantras like “don’t start shit in the pit” are born of this mindset and further a kill-or-be-killed ethos that prevails throughout all mosh profiles. The mentality also manifests itself in the fact that not one participant out of one-hundred chose “fall down and cry” for question #3. Whether it is for pride or self-preservation, weakness is never expressed in the pit.

Also of interest here is the fact that a much higher percentage of push-moshers went with “pretend it wasn’t me” for question #2. This could be due to the fact that in hardcore-dancing a pattern of dominance and submission is established whereas push-moshing is much more of a free-for-all, leaving more room for ambiguity.

Question #4:

One pit-dweller adds, “If a bunch of dudes are going after one person, go after all the other dudes. Mosh pits should only include the mature.” Pit-sayings like that last sentence are not taken lightly. To many, these are words to live and die by. Although half the subjects seek peace in this situation, the other half either do nothing to stop the violence or directly add to it.

Question #5:

This is the ultimate question of my survey. In the end, fights are either an expected part of the fun or have no place at shows. No other question was as hotly contested as this; but when all is said and done, a general disapproval of fighting surfaces. Another participant notes, “some of these questions were hard to answer cause I’m no pussy but I ain’t a dick.” This spectrum of genitalia is often expressed in scene nomenclature, and doesn’t seem to leave room for any alternatives. One is either a “dick” or a “pussy”, a villain or a victim. This is a philosophy which assumes that violence is inevitable. One can only get behind it or step in its path.

Universal Rules of Mosh Pit Etiquette

So, what does all this tell us about the nature of mosh pits? Some aggression is inherent to the pit. Indeed, there would hardly be a “rush”, or even a reason to mosh, if this weren’t true. Still, the pit asks for an inch and takes a mile when it comes to violence. Self-validation and denial come all too easy. And so does preemptive ass-kicking.

The truth is the scene is scared to death of itself. Within our darkly lit venues and legion halls, we are divided over many things as we each seek shape and identity within our community. Straight-edgers and partiers; vegans and carnivores; Christians and atheists. If we remain isolated by these dichotomies of opposites, we are forever doomed. And from the outside looking in, we are all truly more alike than we care to admit.

Personally, I don’t believe for a second that all of this hostility is unavoidable- quite the contrary actually. According to this data, most people involved in fights don’t believe they start them. But, how can this be? Doesn’t it take two to start a fight? I’m not saying that people should roll over and take beatings from every antagonist in the pit. Though, I am saying that if some basic, universal ground rules were observed, metal and hardcore communities could be united by the mosh and not torn apart by it.

So, without further ado I give you the four rules of my proposed guide to Mosh Pit Etiquette, as verbalized by my survey subjects:

1. “Metalheads are supposed to be family.”

Awareness is the golden rule of the pit. Moshing is, after all, a social activity and thus is contingent upon culture. Rituals change from culture to culture and from genre to genre. Bearing in mind that multiple musical subcultures can occupy the same geographic space, one must follow, or at least respect, the social observances of each and every pit. This rule is to supersede all others where contradictions occur.

2. “Don’t ever do anything that takes away from the music. The music created the scene; the scene should not override the music.”

Fights steal the pit, and the show, away from the rest of us. They also force a once communal celebration into individual, petty disagreements. Violence is often the cause of closed venue doors and ruined band reputations. If the pit doesn’t take care of itself, the scene can and will mosh itself to death.

3. “There’s no need to go in looking for a fight.”

It’s a mosh pit; anything can happen. You could get several bones broken or walk out completely unscathed. It is everyone’s responsibility to accept the unexpected and expect the unacceptable. This is not an open invitation to go around punching people in the face under the guise of “pit happens.” It is rather a simple at-ease, and a reminder to reward friendly mosh, not make ‘em regret it.

4. “It should be a group of kids having fun.”

If we forget this, we have forgotten ourselves entirely.

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5 Responses to “ “Mosh Pit Etiquette: Oxymoron or Sensible Thought?”

  1. Very nice Clay! you are indeed the man :) and totally right on this issue

  2. Chaz (no current band) says:

    I completely agree with your set of rules. Pits are part of the scene whether they be push or dance pits. When entering a pit you are at your risk they can get pretty messy, but when there’s a mosh pit and a kid decides to go into it and start hardcore dancing is where alot of thrash, melodeth, and death metal fans have a problem. very well put together and i enjoyed the read.

  3. Josh (No Current Band, Ex-THFRO) says:

    Thanks for posting this, Clay! I wish we could get rid for the “belligerent” moshers off the scene, as they often start most of the trouble….I like to think of it this way: Have fun, be safe, don’t start shit, and if someone falls, help them up

  4. Clay says:

    Thanks for the feedback, guys!

  5. i totally agree with your set of rules. almost everybody are following this ‘moshing etiquette’, but a few aren’t. shame.

    great article, keep it up!

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