Music, violence and the absolute limits of the ‘scene’

Perhaps The Beatles are the worst thing to have happened to music. Not in the sense that they were bad musicians. Such a claim would be suicidal, given their hegemonic weight as the precursors to modern rock; barring the obvious influences of Berry, and the African American scene et large.

The Beatles were horrible abusers of women, for the most part. Yet their clean-cut image has continued to stun audiences through the years, with many on a conservative or nostalgic trip down yesteryear remembering The Beatles as, somehow, more wholesome than modernised music. This could not be less accurate.

The irony of the later careers of The Beatles is apparent. Lennon was violent towards his wife, Yoko Ono. He forced her to accompany him to the bathroom. Somehow, history blames her for breaking up the fab four. Perhaps the same history that privileges Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page – who dated fourteen-year-old girl and possibly kidnapped her. ‘Wild,’ in the terms of a Rolling Stone hagiography.

Of course, this culture extends into the modern era: the highly publicised abuse of Kesha by Dr. Luke (and, her alleged assault) fit into this continuum of gendered violence in the music industry. Consider also at this point, in the alt-scene, the lead singer of the band Gaza and the allegations made against him, which were not – despite widespread reportage to the contrary – retracted. The other members of Gaza didn’t take this well; the band broke up (good), and the newer, better, harder band Cult Leader formed from its remnants. Or, more well-known, the Lost Prophets abuse case. Let’s not even start on the blatant sexism of John Mayer.

Incidentally, one can still find Lost Prophets CDs for sale at a large retail outlet in Broadway. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo – or, more likely, gendered violence is so endemic across the music scene, both among prominent musicians and their fans, that it’s simply written into the history.


Violence permeates the live music scene right down to the punter level. It’s a bare-bones fact. And as more and more bands come to recognise the critical mass of sexual violence in the ‘scene’, it’s time for a brief re-evaluation of what it means to have a ‘scene’: what the scene is, and the role of violence within it.

And there’s no better place to start than with one of the most performative, common forms of violence in live music: the mosh.

It’s a marketable quality. ‘See you in the pit’ has become so memetic that it has spawned its detractive quality; Facebook pages such as Millions of Dead Posers frequently draw attention to the half-assed-ness of advertising a band’s show through the promise of a mosh. One need only watch recorded videos of, say, The Chariot’s live performances, to see the intricate way in which the mosh is interlinked with the overall experience of the music. It’s not only expected. It’s a crucial part.

And it’s a masculine expression. At least, primarily. Actualised gender identity doesn’t really enter into this equation. Rather, the performative masculinity of this violence as such lends itself strongly to a fractured, frustrated selfhood, born of the absolute limits of the capital system.

‘Capital’ here being in the sense used by Mészáros, as the replication of a system of control that enables the capitalist economy. Gramsci theorised a system of hegemony through which capitalism’s strictures of economy were built and reinforced through the application of itself, through the layers of culture that permeate every aspect of waking life. Mészáros’ The Necessity of Social Control explores this most fully.

Mészáros decried the ‘unhindered growth and multiplication of the power of capital, the irresistible extension of its rule over all aspects of human life … taken for granted and declared to be a permanent feature of human life.’ He meets the interests of, say, Laclau and Mouffe: hegemony is a ‘contingent intervention required by the crisis or collapse of a “normal” historical development,’ in that both recognise and stigmatise the growth of capital as a response strategy to its own internal limitations, as an economic system and as a system of governance. It regulates itself – it possesses ‘incommensurable power of social control,’ while simultaneously generating the crises – here, gendered violence – that it nominally seeks to resolve.


Perhaps one of the most shocking incidents of gendered violence in recent memory occurred at hardcore-cum-metal band Code Orange’s Salt Lake City show, when a woman was kicked in the face by a ‘crowd killer’ in steel cap boots. Her jaw was broken in two places. She had bleeding on the brain.

No wonder, then, that groups with a feminist slant have often banned, or sought to control, the mosh, repurposing it as such. Camp Cope’s #ITTAKESONE makes note of the high levels of incidence of sexual assault within the mosh; queer Philadelphia punks RVIVR have a stringent no-mosh rule; and Modern Baseball, darlings of the indie punk circuit, implemented something similar, and a hotline to keep folks safe at their concerts.

All of this is great. It opens up, so to speak, the pit; it’s a sort of punk glasnost that makes the scene accessible for those for whom physical violence is untenable, for any reason. But it doesn’t get to the core of the problem. As positive as it is, it is a reform born of the structural limits of capital.


The marketability of rage and anger, and its performative violence, is possible only insofar as the actual limits can control it. The theory of metabolic self-regulation ties in with this; where capital can flex to incorporate dissent, it will do so, as part of the manufactured rage it directs outside of its own structure. Think about the way that violence is exported from colonial power to colonised subject, from man to woman; violence is always externalised from the master-subject of the regulatory system. And consider Spivak: ‘the epistemic story of imperialism is … a series of interruptions, a repeated tearing of time.’ That is, to Spivak, and to us by extension, violence – in the sense of stricture of control – is a methodology that ingratiates itself within a framework of the capital system, in a gendered sense, alongside the way Spivak considers the colonial master-subject relations.

In other words, violence is ‘mediated’ through its externalisation: where it can be controlled and directed outwards, it can be regulated. It can even be put to good use. Mészáros frames war in the same terms: it imports ‘a vital element of rationalization’ to a system that we can see, from its propagation of misery and sexual assault, is wholly irrational.

The ‘anomalous’ violence of Code Orange and The Chariot is possible only as it is allowed as a limited self-expression. In this, the key. The flexibility of capital to regulate – and indeed, sell – performed violence in the form of a mosh, allows it to delegitimise other forms of violence, namely political dissent of more radical kinds. Similar to how the liberal anti-fascism of the broad coalition against Reclaim Australia is tolerated, whereas Antifa is not; similar to how liberal feminism of a white, middle-class orientation is palatable, whereas radical critique is not; similar to how the politicised Islam of Al Jazeera and Wadah Kanfar is rejected in favour of liberal doctrines of assimilation – indeed, what would Spivak say to the critics of political Islam? Assimilation, surely, must only be ‘an effort of inserting non-Europe into a Eurocentric normative narrative.’ How is this more rational than a radical alternative? Perhaps in that it controls the ‘rage.’


Rage is a manufactured entity. It is a byproduct of the disempowerment wrought by certain political superstructures and the hegemony of a permeating, ever-present metabolic system. The evolution of such a system to defend itself from the rage it creates must be in its flexibility, and proactive ability to contain, control, and market rage as such.

Wherein, of course, a masculinity that benefits such rage is manufactured also, the vile forms of gendered violence visible at Code Orange, at Falls, are proportionate to the tacit acceptance of sexual and gendered violence more broadly. While violence, where structural, is invisible, the more blatant forms are obvious. This enables a ‘serial pest’ to assault five women at a concert. Casting a light on it only in the terms of the knee-jerk flex of our current liberal order serves only to solidify its presence and potential. That is, the visible narrative of violence immunises us to the more invisible aggressions that make up structural capital, and the masculine ideal as market commodity. This is Hobbesian, I suppose: where the ‘natural law’ of the free economy is allowed to flourish, the result is a sort of violent ‘anarchy’ (in the derogatory sense), analogous to the violence of the mosh, of the festival.

The broader solution lies more in a critical rethink of how masculinity is actualised and performed. In the meantime? Camp Cope have a point, and so do RVIVR. It takes one dickhead to ruin it for everyone. The absolute limits of the regulated system benefit dickheads. Let’s be real. Violence is no aberration. It is a systematic, motivated method of control. It can be situated within the continuum of masculinity as such, and further to that, within the confines of the capitalist framework that directly sells and profits from ‘dickheadness’ at a structural and local level. Heineken sales at shows are directly proportionate to the number of disaffected, alienated young men flailing and hitting on San Cisco fans, after all.

The scene has absolute limits, imposed by capital and performed by violent men. And to those men: you’re being exploited. You’re being sold a lie. Be a bit more self-reflexive. As in, perhaps the best of the Beatles’ words: I don’t know how someone controlled you. They bought and sold you. And so on.


Image: Sabino dall’alto! – base_nroll / flickr

Hamish Wood

Hamish Wood is a poet and student from Sydney, Australia. His writing has appeared in the Fat City Review and Hermes, and won the People’s Choice Award in the 2013 Verge Festival. He tweets occasionally under the handle @natureofthewood.

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  1. Often referred to as a quote from Plato: “Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.”

    It’s hardly surprising that the heavy metal music scene is filled with sex and violence. I’m not trying in any way to push a religious message, but it is worth considering the spiritual roots of music. Even a cursory look at many heavy / black / death metal albums / lyrics reveals the diabolical nature of this dark art. Have a look at some of the artists / albums / lyrics on, for example. Many would rebut the view that the satanic content of such music is merely a gimmick. But a thorough examination of the metal music industry unveils some very curious and even downright eerie links with dark spiritual forces. I believe a mature discussion could and indeed should be had about this phenomena.

  2. Perhaps it’s time to rediscover the Girls To The Front movement kicked off by Bikini Kill. It was a potentially revolutionary event and still could be.
    And as an aside John Mayer’s misogyny is well captured in Taylor Swift ‘s ‘Dear John’.

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