This op-ed originally appeared in Issue 01 of Lamplighter Magazine in March 2012 and subsequently on LamplighterNJ.com in August 2012
Hardcore dancing. Now, before you hand me the Pulitzer for that opening statement, let me get to the rest of the article. For those unfamiliar with the term, hardcore dancing is the name for the seemingly random kicking, punching, and flailing of limbs that can be seen in the “pit,” a name for the circular opening that often forms in the middle of the crowd at a hardcore show for the purpose of hardcore dancing. Not to be confused with “moshing” or “push pits,” which consist of a group of fans violently pushing each other around in a big circle, hardcore dancing can almost be thought of as a form of interpretive dance, with participants utilizing their own combinations of windmills, two steps, kicks, spins, punches, or flips to express anger or excitement during a song. However, like “The Wall of Death,” it’s a topic that tends to divide crowds. You either think hardcore dancing is the bee’s knees, or you prefer to enjoy a show from a stationary position, in which case hardcore dancers are probably a nuisance to your viewing experience. Whatever your stance, hardcore dancing is a part of the scene, and it deserves an honest examination of the pros and cons. It’s a legitimate form of expression, but, in some cases, potentially dangerous, detrimental to the very music it celebrates. All of which begs the question: is hardcore dancing necessary?
If you’re going to defend hardcore dancing as a necessity, you’ll no doubt first argue the simple fact that it occurs at hardcore shows. This might be a bigger problem at a Taylor Swift concert, but these are the sorts of shows that kids go to in order to let out their anger. And let’s face it: we wouldn’t be listening to this music if we were interested in butterflies, puppies, and, well, Taylor Swift. No, we turn to hardcore music because we have energy that needs to be released, and hardcore dancing is a positive outlet for that. In most cases, like some strange Fight Club musical, it succeeds: the kids go into the pit, throw a few kicks and punches at their friends, and everybody comes out sweaty, bloody, and smiling, better for the experience. While not my cup of tea, I wouldn’t dream of getting in the way of that, because good music has that power over people, which is one of the many things I love about it. It moves us in ways that we didn’t think we could move, or would move, or even should move.
More importantly, hardcore dancing plays a large part in the give-and-take cycle of live performances, which has existed since before hardcore music even became its own genre. The band plays music. The crowd dances. The band feeds from the crowd’s energy, and the cycle continues. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that there is no greater performance-enhancer for hardcore music than the presence of flailing limbs in the pit, and, conversely, there is no greater performance-killer than their absence. On the merit of this symbiotic relationship alone, hardcore dancing is a necessary ingredient for a healthy scene.
But this would not be a debate if all hardcore dancers were the polite, empathetic, and respectful participants we want them to be. It’s a great idea on paper, but not everyone follows the script. There are always a few bad apples at every show who go out of their way to start a fight. And when it rains haymakers, it pours haymakers, with innocent bystanders, venue owners, or even the bands themselves bearing the brunt of that one jerk’s misbehavior. Kids get hurt. Sets are interrupted. Shows get shut down. Some venues even stop hosting shows or increase their admission prices just to cover the risk of damage, not to mention all of the potential shows and venues that never happen based on that risk alone.
In addition to a lack of show opportunities due to a lack of willing venues, many bands miss out on even more shows thanks to a tarnished image from one or two misbehaving fans. Whether you know it or not, the way you dance for your favorite band affects their career. Having put together more than a few shows myself, I’ve seen personally how promoters must select bands based on the quality of their music, while also taking into account the potential problems their fans may cause. For small venue owners with no real security or insurance, some bands don’t make the cut simply because they have a history with rowdy fans. If it seems unfair, that’s because it is. Bands shouldn’t pay the price for the individual troublemakers who enjoy their music, but kids with a lack of self-control and misplaced aggression are destroying the scene from the inside out, taking the bands they love down with them.
To fully understand the nature of the beast, we should first look at what these kids are being fed before they even step foot inside of a venue. Because, as much as it is a problem of individuals acting out, this is a cultural problem, too. I’ll leave bad parenting, the MPAA, and Grand Theft Auto out of it for the sake of relevance, but it can’t be ignored that the current state of hardcore music is a culture of violence. Not the senseless violence that parents blamed Eminem for, but violence, nonetheless. Just take a look around at any hardcore show, and you’re bound to see a shirt proudly bearing big, block-lettered lyrics depicting violence aimed at ex-girlfriends, wayward females, drug abusers, haters, posers, Christians, atheists, or all of the above. And while I don’t believe that kids are actually going out and hurting people solely because of what they’ve heard in a song, I do believe that we can only chant things like “Disrespect your surroundings” so many times before it influences the scene as a whole (though it would be hard to argue that A Day To Remember’s neon-wearing, teenage fans are contributing to the problem in any way).
But the problem runs deeper than a few violent lyrics. It has rooted itself in the unspoken rules of live hardcore music. In the American judicial system, the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The way I see it, the same should apply everywhere. Unfortunately, thanks to mottoes like, “Talk shit, get hit,” or, “If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t go to a hardcore show,” we’ve adopted a “Swing first, ask questions later” policy. As a result, innocent bystanders are mistakenly (or intentionally) singled out and hurt, only to be told that it’s just part of a hardcore show. The sad part is that everyone is there to enjoy the same music, so what should be a close-knit community of fans enjoying underground music has instead been overtaken by a small group of miscreants puffing out their chests and ruining the show for everybody else with their unbridled hostility. I can relate to kids in the hardcore scene feeling unaccepted by the rest of society. The tattooed kid with an undercut probably won’t be prom king, and MTV still isn’t playing our music (though, to be fair, MTV isn’t playing anyone’s music these days). I can maybe even relate to those made violently angry by this. But what I can’t comprehend is why kids in the hardcore scene take out their anger on the only ones willing to accept them, all to prove something to some imaginary jury that actually cares about how “hard” they are. We should be standing together, picking each other up, and supporting one another. Instead, we’re too concerned with our reputations in the pit to smile and let a misplaced punch slide.
While I understand that these reckless kids are the exception to the norm, I’ve seen far too many fans take a punch to the back of the head because they wore a polo to a hardcore show for me not to at least question the status quo of hardcore dancing as a whole. Yes, hardcore dancing is a necessary part of a healthy scene. But is it so necessary that we’re willing to risk the well-being of the fans, venues, and bands that make up the scene itself just to allow a small part of the audience to dance? There has to be a better way.
Here’s the good news: there is a better way, and I’ve seen it. As a member of a touring band, I’ve played shows far outside of New Jersey’s borders. In every other state we’ve played, the shows are filled with a contagious positive energy. The bands are still playing the same violent songs, and the kids are still going just as crazy in the pit. But when somebody gets hit, they are apologized to. When somebody falls down, they are picked up. Fans thank the venue owners with a smile instead of destroying their property with a scowl. Admission is cheap because it is understood that kids will check their egos at the door and come to the show with respect for their surroundings. To put it simply, the music comes first.
Call me soft, but I think that’s beautiful. I’m not naive enough to think that New Jersey is the only hardcore scene with a twisted understanding of what community means, but I am hopeful that we can one day change our definition. Hardcore dancing may be necessary, but it doesn’t have to come with the warning label it currently carries in this state. You have the right to enjoy music in your own way, yet just because you want to bleed for the music doesn’t mean that everyone else has to. Yes, there is a social contract we enter into as fans of hardcore music, and that contract does involve more sweat, pain, and discomfort than other forms of music. But it also involves looking out for your fellow fan and respecting the different ways in which they enjoy the performance, which does not get in the way of the level of energy and enthusiasm you can bring to a show. There’s a reason why your parents used to give you a hard time about going to a show, lecturing you about being safe before they dropped you off. They haven’t seen the positive things that hardcore shows are capable of. Well, I have, and this scene could become something really amazing if fans would just come together as a community instead of constantly trying to prove something. If you want to prove anything, stand together and prove that our scene isn’t beyond saving. I haven’t given up on you yet, New Jersey. But you have a lot left to prove.