“stop sneering at our joy like it’s a careless mistake”

This past week I attended two out of four nights of Jeff Rosenstock’s mini-residency at Bowery Ballroom (nights 2 and 4 – the 7th and 9th -, respectively). Since I have chronic pain, I had a seat in the balcony which meant I had a great view of the show and of Jeff’s fans on the floor below. In fact, I probably watched them for at least half of Jeff’s sets. They were mesmerizing. They were a caring mass of people, and I suspect some of that comes from the messages in Jeff’s music and imagery and the rest comes from the speech Jeff starts his shows with:

“Before we get started I’d just like to quickly acknowledge that despite how many fucking pride-weed-666 flags you hang or songs you write about being sad or just wanting to be alone, people still come to these shows and think it’s their business to grope women who are in the audience. [crowd boos] So I would like to, first of all, ask anybody who is, like, who does that shit, who comes here to be a predator to fucking leave. [crowd cheers] And also I would like to ask everybody in the audience, if somebody reaches out next to you and is like ‘hey, I’m in trouble,’ taps you on the shoulder, can you reach out to the people next to you and say ‘hey, this person’s in trouble’ and get that stupid fuckface out of here so everybody can enjoy the show? Yeah?! [crowd cheers] Cool! Sick! I’d also like to add: that I say this like every day – it seems to have helped which is nice – but, yesterday there was still like some dumb violent shit going on. So don’t do any violent shit, what the fuck? We can all be excited and enjoy ourselves without, like, being violent and aggressive, right? [crowd cheers] I’m not talking about like, I don’t know… we can dance! I’m not saying that… I’m just saying, like, come on. Don’t be annoying, don’t hurt each other. It’s really simple. Yeah? [crowd cheers] Okay! Y’all with us? [crowd cheers] Cool, let’s do this.”
– Jeff Rosenstock, February 9, 2019.

Wendy Fonarow in the Grove Music Online defines a “mosh pit” as “a region for audience activity found at live concerts… [that is] associated with a variety of punk, post punk, and alternative music genres… Visually resembling a mêlée, it generally takes the shape of a circle enclosing participants who perform a stylized form of frenetic dance known as moshing and/or slam dancing. This dancing takes the form of forceful physical contact between participants who run, jump, and smash into one another… Moshing is aggressive and physically demanding. At times, it results in injury or physical altercations between participants because there is a narrow margin between appropriate dance and transgressive offense. The most pit is surrounded by audience members who block the participants from falling outside of the dance circle by continually pushing and shoving dancers back into the pit” (Fonarow, 2014).

Needless to say, Jeff Rosenstock shows have mosh pits. But unlike Fonarow’s definition, they did not appear aggressive from above, there were no altercations or injuries on the nights I watched. I saw fans of various genders and races, with tattoos, piercings, and colored hair singing as loud as they could, watching the show with smiles on their mouths and awe in their eyes, fists held up in the air or fingers stretched out towards the stage in a desperate reach for something that only the music could give them. They jumped in place or jumped into one another, they danced with their friends and strangers, they held up crowd surfers who – as Jeff noted on February 7th – were doing trust falls into the audience below them: standing on the lip of the stage, making eye contact with the people they were about to land on, arms out wide, as they slowly fell back on those who caught them every. single. time. When people came down or fell, they were instantly brought back up and checked, to be sure they were okay. When one song ended and a fan found a shoe, he held it up in the air until he found its owner on the 9th, and then the crowd made a circle around them so they could safely tie their laces.

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On the 9th, when Jeff and his band launched into the last ten tracks in a row from their 2016 album Worry. without breaks, I watched the crowd below me shift to match each song. Clapping, swaying, jumping, moshing, skanking, holding for the moments when the drums were about to kick in and then lashing upon each other. One track, “Planet Luxury,” is thirty seconds of fast and loud punk with lyrics you can hardly make out that critique consumer capitalism and the myth of the American dream. It’s over before you can fully register it has begun and then you’re quickly onto the next song. But that thirty seconds in the pit showed me everything I needed to know about this fanbase. The song starts with the sound of police sirens, and from that moment it was on. As if they had all taken a deep breath right before the plunge. The crowd below me swarmed and moved and thrashed. They crashed onto and into one another as the lights strobed, making it look even more dramatic and, honestly, a bit worrying. Then just as quick as it had started, “Planet Luxury” was over as fans screamed along “you want more? You want MOOOOOOOOORE?!” The track ends abruptly and dives right into the next song “HELLLLHOOOOLE” with a simple plucking of a few strings and hits of a xylophone. In the twelve seconds before Jeff began singing again, I watched hundreds of hugs take place as everyone caught their breath after “Planet Luxury.” Individual hugs between two people, group hugs between more. High fives galore. Smiles all over the place and even a few thumbs up, I assume to let others know they were okay. And just like that, they took a deep breath and moved on to the next song, ready to scream “we don’t wanna live inside a hellhole.” Over two nights, I witnessed hundreds of happy people who were embodying the idealized punk community right in front of me. The kind I dreamt of as a kid, when I was seeing Jeff in his early band the Arrogant Sons of Bitches in 2003. The ideal punk community that is above the bullshit and drama, that looks out for each other, that supports the artists playing and supports your fellow fan.

These gigs reminded me of David Verbuc’s article in the Journal of Popular Music Studies, “Theory and Ethnography of Affective Participation at DIY Shows in the U.S.”.  In this piece, Verbuc explores what kind of community is created at live concerts, and how it is achieved. He proposes a socio-musical participation model based on the practices of DIY music communities. To me, this seems exactly the sort of thing happening at Jeff Rosenstock gigs. The DIY lifestyle is clearly important to Jeff, who has his own label, Quote Unquote Records, to put out his and his friends’ music for free/pay-what-you-want, and plays many shows that are usually all ages and relatively affordable. Through all of this though, Jeff does not do any of it alone. He is surrounded by like-minded individuals, from his band and crew members, to when he partners with other labels to put out his music, like Polyvinyl (who released his 2018 album POST-). This reminds me, again, of Verbuc’s writing:

“DIY participants in the US endeavor to redefine the implied individualism of a DIY (do-it-yourself) approach by sometimes using the concept DIT (doing-it-together) and thus stress the importance of community for them… these values and ideologies of community and participation not only emerge from the positive, affective, and corporeal experience of DIY collectivity, but are also promoted and maintained as a rationalized response to the lack of public space, social alienation, corporate power, and perceived consumerist passivity in American society. In other words, whereas American DIY communities internally define themselves by DIY practice (e.g., acts of collective participation), they simultaneously establish themselves through DIY ideology (e.g., value of collective participation), by opposing the dominant society” (Verbuc, 2018, 82).

Jeff Rosenstock encourages this do-it-together ideology from the moment he steps on stage and tells the audience to look out for each other, to not be bystanders to horrible, aggressive, or violent behavior. He encourages it with the inclusivity he speaks and sings about, by the charity fundraising he does through benefit gigs or album downloads. It truly becomes a slice of tangible magic, though, when a bunch of his fans are crammed into a venue to see him; from the tiny, now defunct, Silent Barn, Brooklyn to larger venues like Warsaw, Brooklyn or Bowery Ballroom, Manhattan.

After the show on the 9th, my brother said to me he has never seen such a joyful and uplifting pit outside of a Jeff Rosenstock show, and while he doesn’t much like mosh pits, that he felt if he went in one for a Jeff show he would be all right; taken care of. And based on all the evidence, he would be. Because that’s just how it is at Jeff Rosenstock shows.

As we’re bouncing up and down, trying to make the floor break. Stop sneering at our joy, like it’s a careless mistake. – “We Begged 2 Explode,” Worry.

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Works Cited:

Thanks to Peter Gritsch for recording Jeff’s gig introduction speech from February 9, 2019, and allowing me to transcribe it for this blog.


If you enjoyed this piece, feel free to support a broke grad student who studies music fans by buying me cup a coffee.
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