Nobody’s Army: Lessons from the Astroworld

by Gina Arnold

“The 20th century is the era of crowds.” — Gustav LeBon. Photo: Gold, by Sebastiao Salgado.

When I was young, I went to rock festivals…a lot of rock festivals. In fact, outside of the people who work rock festivals, such as promoters, bands, and stagehands, I might have been to more rock festivals than anyone you know. In the 1990s, I was a rock critic for all those big rock magazines that no longer exist, and festivals were my beat. My attendance at all the festivals adds up to having witnessed a lot of mayhem. One time for example I was at a rock festival in Ohio where a riot occurred during a set by the band Ministry. Crowds of young men rampaged through the arena and tore all the seats off their bearings, and when it was all over, the late Chris Cornell, whose band was up next, said: “You guys looked like some kind of an army out there. The question is, who’s army are you going to be?”

I thought of that question ruefully on the morning after Astroworld, the 2 day Festival that happened in Houston in November, at which 10 people were killed in a 40-plus minute melee that saw 50,00 people surging toward the stage, tripping, tramping, squeezing, stomping on, and putting almost 100 people in the hospital. Whose army was that, I wondered. And what were they fighting for?

That incident is why, in my book about festivals Half a Million Strong: Crowds and Power from Woodstock to Coachella I suggest that, by being uncomfortable, dirty, and destructive, attendance at rock festivals makes young people feel like they are participating emotionally in historic events. They are like battlefields for people who will never set foot on a real one.

a book about crowds by moi

My book was based on my Ph.D. dissertation, but in addition to research, many of the thoughts were informed by real life experiences. I’ve been lifted off my feet in the pit of Fugazi show, surfed across the top of a crowd at Nirvana, and seen boys jumping from balconies in Tijuana, upheld by a scrum of people so tight that there was no fear of them smashing to the ground, and yet, I was still profoundly disturbed and befuddled by the events that occurred at Astroworld. Clearly, there was a degree of mayhem at that looked completely unlike anything I ever experienced in front of a stage.

The first-hand reports of it were almost too terrifying to read. The pleas for help. The unconscious women being crowd surfed out. The ten year old in cardiac arrest. The tweets saying, “We were the floor.” The morning after, much blame was put on the performer and promoter Travis Scott and Live Nation, both of whom are now being sued for liability, the latter for their lax safety precautions and the former for promoting the show, maximizing profit, and encouraging mayhem.

Both of these entities are clearly culpable for much of what went down and yet, there may have been other factors at play. Was it Covid-related somehow? Was it due to the polarization of America which has made people angrier and more ‘me’ oriented? Have people literally lost their humanity?

I think the answer to all of those questions is yes. Sadly, we are living through times when life feels cheap, stupid behavior is often rewarded, and many young people are eager — even encouraged — to engage in risky behavior, such as joining maskless crowds in the middle of a pandemic. It seems as if recent events in America have plunged us into a more frightening reality which the events at Astroworld reflect.

Another thing that differs between this show and past ones has to do with new technology. Unlike previous concerts — Woodstock and Monterey Pop, say — this festival has been documented by the crowd itself, via social media, thus giving us access to what it was like in the trenches. I suspect that some of the concerts we now revere were quite horrid to be in the midst of — and not just at Altamont, where a man was murdered in full view of the stage as The Rolling Stones performed. (The murderer was acquitted, by the way.)

Moreover, although social media may bring some much-needed transparency to events in the pit, it has also played a darker role in fomenting the mayhem in the first place. Festivals like Astroworld are all about being seen at them on Instagram or TikTok — creating FOMO, recording yourself, “pictures or it didn’t happen.” Part of the appeal of these events is participating in something worth documenting, and ‘raging’ is how concert goers help to create something dangerous and edgy to brag about. This is why I don’t think that the brutal events at Astroworld will stop kids from wanting to attend festivals like it in the future.

In his Nobel prize-winning book Crowds and Power, published in 1960, Elias Canetti grappled obliquely with the unaccountable facts that led to crowd-behavior in Nazi Germany. In the book, Canetti accounts for the desire to join large, angry crowds by saying it is a way that individuals seek psychological safety from a world they perceive as being hostile — that is, they form informal armies as a way of ensuring their own survival. Canetti couldn’t have imagined an Astroworld, but I bet he would have understood it.

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Former East Bay Express columnist Gina Arnold revisits her old mode of communication. Only this time, you can reply!

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Gina Arnold

Gina Arnold

Author, “Route 666,” “Exile In Guyville,” “Half A Million Strong.” Editor: The Oxford Handbook of Punk. (Forthcoming).

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