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Pandemonium 2021  •  29 July 2021

When Push Comes to Shove

A Semi-Scientific Account of My Post-COVID Re-entry into the Mosh

By Tom Disalvo
Content Warning: Alcohol
When Push Comes to Shove

“While the individual movements of moshers may be random, their collective behavior follows a few simple rules.”
— Jesse Silverberg, Human Movement Physicist.

It’s the first of May, and there’s a renewed sense of freedom in the mosh. Unrestricted by newly-lifted COVID-19 measures, concert-goers spill into the event by the technicoloured dozen. Any talk of Sydney’s most recent coronavirus outbreak is smothered by the thud of a distant subwoofer. On a dimly-lit basketball court at the end of a nameless sidestreet, the event we flock to goes by the particularly apt name of Chaos, and as the forthcoming hours would prove, perhaps no better word could describe what was my first live music experience in over six months.

Re-entering this rave feels like riding a bike after a long period of abstinence — a little shaky at first, but easy to restore balance once your limbs get used to the right movements. It’s clear in the queue that the attendees haven’t forgotten how to ride the bike. Dotted by bucket hats and lined by the stripes of button-up shirts, the unspoken rituals of the moshpit have remained seemingly intact. The bouncer scans my ticket (an interaction that feels almost ancient) and I approach a crowd in thunderous defiance of the restrictions that had since disallowed this very event: social-distancing. 

The familiarity of the scene is most apparent in the outfits. Like the days of past festivals, almost all the boys are wearing some variation of the aforementioned striped button-up shirt, the only seeming distinction being whether they opted for a horizontal or vertical stripe. 

The girls are dressed as if ignorant to the setting sun, donning cat-eye sunglasses and an array of animal printed skirts. For all its brazen behaviour, and weather-inappropriateness, the wardrobe of the mosh makes one thing clear; raving is back and the protocols which once separated us are now a distant, decibel-drowned memory. 

The moshpit itself seems to have picked up right where it left off too. An interconnected organism of gyrating limbs, the crowd bounces in a heaving mass like a hive-mind, controlled ultimately by a 20-something DJ with one hand on the deck and the other on his headphones. There’s a familiarity to this, as if the same staple characters of bygone concerts had reawakened from their COVID-19 slumber to attend this very event. 

There are the crowd hoverers, who circulate the peripheries like bees on honey. Closer to the centre lives the more hardcore moshers. These people (usually sporting freshly trimmed mullets) flail their arms and torsos in a frenzy, like those inflatable men at the front of hardware stores. I realise halfway through my trek into the crowd that I operate somewhere in the middle — close enough that I need to raise my voice, but far enough that I won’t be unexpectedly walloped by an unrestrained limb. 

In this area, any sense of order has evaporated. What was once a self-regulating and entangled blob at a distance is, in the thick of it, bedlam. I scan the crowd for the handful of acceptable dance moves which collectively assemble the mess. Head-bobbing and foot-tapping are popular, but these are outnumbered by arm-pumpers, phone-checkers, and (worst of all) hip-thrusters. Under the dizzying lights, the dancers are performing both for themselves and for the crowd; the flash of the strobe making them both hypervisible and intermittently unseen.

Dizzied by bass-drops and a few-too-many gins, I escape the crowd and take a seat alongside the crowd-hoverers. I’m reminded again of the rebelliousness of the scene, the rowdy exaltation of pent-up movement which only a mere weeks ago was considered criminal. 

The crowd moves unpredictably in my peripheral vision, bodies swayed by invisible forces like a glass on a Ouija board, in contact with a violent spirit. It’d be easy to be overwhelmed by the inertia of it all, which hits, funnily enough, like the double-decker Vengabus as ‘We Like to Party’ blasts from the speakers. But it’s in the crowd’s fringes that a semblance of form can be outlined, and if we take the perspective of the hoverer, there’s a precise science to all of this.

In 2013, physicist Jesse Silverberg conducted a study which examined the mosh pit as a unique model for human collective motion, and his findings help make the centre-stage antics of the inflatable man more explicable. Silverberg concluded that while it may appear to be in disarray (see above), the movement of the mosh is ultimately instructed by a few simple rules. In the case of Chaos, rules may mean acceptable attire or haircuts, but Silverberg’s more empirical guidelines apply here too. Buzzing to and fro and colliding along the way, Silverberg found that mosh pit phenomena closely resembles the kinetics of gaseous particles, and that to understand this organised chaos, is to understand the basic behaviour of molecules.

Now, back inside the pit and beside an arm-flailer, I take a renewed comfort in the idea of myself as a mere molecule, a bumbling, gaseous particle, moving haphazardly in the confines of this basketball court. And while it’s true that every so often some spaces in the crowd open up and make the actual floor visible, these are only momentary and quickly mended. There’s a fleetingness to it all that makes me want to dance a little more freely and sing a little more loudly. Because, a key principle of gases is their inevitable dissipation; their scattered dispersal and eventual vanishment into thin air. 

The strobes shine extra light on this revelation, my movements more aerated than before. I bask in the absence of another, more sinister molecule which had been dwindling since patient zero, but could seemingly reappear and spoil the party yet again. 

Some weeks later, news of another outbreak in NSW hit the headlines. Over night, restrictions are back. Masks and social distancing are more stringently enforced. I think of that basketball court now, completely empty. I picture its occupants; the mullet-rockers, the striped shirters, the inflatable men — evaporating from the scene like helium from a can. I think of the fleeting joy that came with our unmasked chants, our audible glee not muffled by the barrier of woven cotton, at least just for that moment. 

With the on-edge measures of lockdowns and restrictions that could be reinstated at a moment’s notice, I’m content with the fact that mosh pits may forever be a fleeting experience. Next time (if there is one), I’ll think of Jesse Silverberg and I’ll mosh alongside that flailing man, conscious of the fact that, at any moment, all of it could dissipate. 


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