Almost three years ago exactly, I showed up to my first Eclectic concert, as a wide-eyed, naive pre-frosh, a total stranger to the “college music scene.” There was loud, thrashy music coming from the ballroom, where a small crowd was gathered. While dancing wildly around with all these strange older cool college kids, I thought to myself, “Wow! I am actually doing this. I am a skinny, lanky dude moshing! And it feels great! And I should totally come here and do this more!” And the rest was, as they say, history.
Fast-forward to last weekend, when I was at a house concert, full-to-bursting with people in varying states of inebriation and sweatiness. A killer student band was tucked into the corner while the crowd pushed against them, jostling the musicians and each other. Pretty quickly, the front of the crowd had become a full-on mosh, with liberal doses of jumping-shoving. While normally I’d feel inclined to join in with full force, I felt like this scene was a little too aggressive, even for me. I made my way to the side and from that position, I noticed how dominated by guys, especially white guys, the mosh pit was, while girls tended to stay toward the outside, only occasionally moving inward for brief periods.
To be honest, it was one of the first times that I’d reflected on the concert crowd scene at Wes. I recognize that this lack of reflection comes from my place of privilege as a tall, able-bodied, white, cis, straight male who can assert his presence in a crowd, and I am quickly realizing how important that reflection was, and is. I’m just now coming to terms with the tremendous importance of creating spaces on campus that are conducive to exciting music and moshing AND safe and inclusive for everyone who wants to partake.
Thankfully, there are others on campus who have been thinking about these topics. And as the punk scene has developed at Wes, while sexual assault has become an increasingly salient concern, there is a growing need to address these issues throughout our community. Sean Winnik ‘14, who is a member of Let’s Party Hats Hats Hats, has seen a development in the punk music scene at Wes since he first started here. “When I was a Freshman, any of the punkish shows I went to was fun, kinda jokey punk. But there are people taking it a bit more seriously now,” he says. There have been a slew of punky shows at Wes this year where campus bands like Pyka, Faceplant, Baby Gap, Sodomized by Angels and others have displayed their force. For the most part, the Wesleyan punk concert crowd is pretty tame, especially compared to some scenes. A recent Art House concert by Slurp’s Up, a UChicago band, for whom Faceplant opened, had a really positive, comfortable feeling to it.“That was a really lovely, raw show. And it was a very respectful audience,” Winnik says. “But the environment really depends on the size of the crowd, and how drunk people are.”
When a show is popular, and a lot of people turn out, things aren’t necessarily going to go so smoothly. “Wesleyan punk is different from ‘real punk.’ I don’t want to say it’s not real, it’s just something different,” says Ashe Kilbourne ‘14, a member of Pyka. “And I’ve seen people mosh to surprising things, even when the music is slightly aggressive, or faster.” Winnik says that it’s when people who aren’t steeped in the music scene show up at concerts (“And that’s great, that’s why people put on shows!”), an excessive and aggressive energy can arise. “People think, ‘Oh, this is what we do at a punk show.’”
Whether it arises naturally or not, moshing at shows can get intense, and divisive. “The people who don’t want to be in it get pushed to the sides,” says Winnik. But it’s not necessarily as simple as people who do want to be a part of it and people who don’t. The front of the concert is an inherently privileged space. “It’s weird to say ‘Oh, I deserve to be at the front,’” says Winnik. But inevitably, that’s a mentality that arises. The moshing at the front and center very easily becomes dominated by a certain crowd. “The mobile participants tend to be white, males, people who are big or tall,” says Molly Hastings ’17, a member of Faceplant, “So it creates this dynamic where if you are smaller or don’t feel you are entitled to as much space, it makes it frightening to participate. Even though it’s really fun. I love to mosh. But at a certain point, I can’t even get my feet on the ground.”
On a basic level, there is a “politics of touch – who gets to be touched, consensually or nonconsensually. It’s often women, people of color, trans* people, queer people, bodies that are liminal and marginalized and therefore accessible to people,” says Kilbourne. A mosh pit can seem like a beautiful anarchic free-for-all and it “presumes no structural power imbalances, that everyone is equal in the pit,” but that’s just not the case. Those very real power dynamics that exist in society are performed and reaffirmed explicitly in the interactions amongst the crowd. And this serves to marginalize, both physically and emotionally, those who are already previously marginalized in many ways. There is a general lack of awareness of this dynamic amongst those in the center of the crowd, and so the responsibility “falls on the people who do can’t get an inch in edgewise.”
At the Panty Punk show at Earth House, at which Faceplant and others played, the crowd became quite large and increasingly aggressive, the front and center made up almost entirely of guys. Hastings says, “It did not feel like a friendly environment. I am a white cis privileged girl, so the thought that I feel that terrified at certain shows, I can’t even imagine what other people are feeling.” Some of the members of Faceplant began shouting the phrase “Bros fall back!” repeatedly at the audience, at which Winnik was at the front of. Winnik felt somewhat put off at first, especially because he was going to be playing a show with Faceplant the following week. He thought, “Oh man. I like you! Why are you doing this?” Hasting reflects on that moment, saying “I feel like we may have misused it. I understand that it sounds like ‘bros, dudes, fall back,’ but that’s not really everything it’s about.”
The phrase “Bros Fall Back” comes from an eponymous zine/manifesto on the punk scene and its relationship to the normalization of oppressive behavior in society and the dynamics of social capital. It can be read in its entirety here. The title is a response to the riot grrrl phrase “Girls to the front,” which encouraged women to rush the stage. But that idea puts the onus on marginalized peoples, not the privileged. “Bros fall back” attempts to shift that responsibility.
An initial reading of it may come across as angry and confrontational. That was certainly my feeling upon first reading it. Hastings says that that anger is appropriate, and can be a good thing. Expressing anger about oppression, “showing that emotion should have an effect on people. […] Anger can be healthy. ‘Don’t be so angry’ feels like censorship […] And sometimes you’re not looking to be understood.” Kilbourne agrees with this sentiment, “The anger in that piece is legitimate; it needs to be a part of the discourse. If someone is calling you out on your privilege, you should approach that with an open mind, with reflection.”
It is important to understand that the idea of “bro” as used in “Bros Fall Back” is not necessarily the clichéed stereotype of the athletic, masculine male, but rather the idea of a person that holds social capital in an environment, one who feels privileged in taking up space. “Bros Fall Back” is an intersectional analysis, looking at gender, sexuality, class, race and other factors that make up systems of oppression in society. Winnik says he reread it four times in the intervening week between concerts and grew to understand it much better. “Originally I felt like, why are you pointing fingers? But really it’s more like ‘Point fingers at yourself’ […] It’s saying oppressed people shouldn’t be the only ones doing the work and you should recognize your privilege. Check your privilege. Check the power, the unjust power, that you are born into.”
In fact, the authors are careful to not gender the term “bro” throughout the piece. “Bro” is really not about a specific kind of person, but an idea of carrying weight and being able to take up space. It is a flexible term that recognizes different privileges and power dynamics in different environments. “It is a powerful term because it is so responsive,” says Kilbourne, who makes a point of recognizing the “bro-ness in all of us. Kill the bro in your head. Try to be self-critical and change.”
While “Bros Fall Back” is a critical element in changing crowd culture and creating safer and more inclusive spaces, it is only a part of the discourse. Winnik notes this: “Not everyone is going to read, or like it.” Hastings says that a dialogue on these issues is certainly hard to start. “It hurts to be like ‘Oh, I’m a part of the problem.’ There are steps to acknowledging privilege. ‘Bros Fall Back’ is not necessarily step one, or step two.”
But there are steps that can be taken to promote a change in the concert culture at Wes, both in and out of shows. The responsibility for making this change happen comes from all directions. Establishing a dialogue with friends is an essential first step. Whether its in the middle of a concert or not, expressing issue with harmful and marginalizing actions is critical. “Even if people aren’t receptive to it right away,” Hasting says, “it plants the idea.” People, especially those who tend to dominate the front and center, need to recognize their own privileges within a space, and learn to take steps back, allowing others to take over.
There is also a need to set clearer guidelines for concert spaces, defining what actions and mentalities are in/appropriate. Having people present in the audience who will actively intervene in the middle of shows is also important – calling people out is a legitimate and necessary action. Winnik recognizes the role of the band in changing the environment and dynamics, asking “How can we set the scene to make it the space we want? You can write in your event post, put up posters, say things from the stage. You can be aggressive – If you see someone ruining the space, you can call them out.”
Kilbourne also puts onus on concert-bookers and show organizers. Who do you choose to play shows? It’s easy to just book the same bands as always. But people who are not represented – queer people, women of color, and others who do not usually take to the stage as often – are not being brought forward. “It’s hard to feel included when you can’t even trust that you deserve to be there. It’s about creating experiences for people who experience marginalization, having people see themselves represented in who plays. I felt motivated to play after seeing a show with an openly trans* women leading the band.”
There is also growing discussion of creating new intentional spaces. Hastings sees this as an ultimate goal, creating spaces where “it’s not only to see white cis males perform, where hatred is unacceptable, where there is an ability to not let people in who are causing hatred and oppression, to take radical actions against bigotry in all its forms. I don’t know how to do that right now, but that’s the goal.”
“There are a lot of people interested in politics through music here. Support people. Support marginalized and oppressed voices […] It’s a very difficult thing to do,” says Kilbourne, “but I think there are small, tangible things that you can get to in the meantime.
All of these strategies are critical for changing the crowd culture, the music scene, and the Wesleyan community as a whole. I hope this serves as a reminder of the roles we all hold in this system and how we can work at changing that. It’s about taking personal action tonight at Punk@DKE. And whatever shows occur next week. And in the everyday.