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Modern Society, Youth, and Identity I

Paper submitted for

Senior Honors Thesis
Kansas State University
April 15th, 1997
by Michael Wesch

X U4&&
Michael L
( wesch
undergraduate, ~raduate
Teaching Asst,

~ 6 i s t a n~rofessor,
t b'
Foreword :
Membership Cards, Secret Handshakes, and Super Decoder Rings
Little did I know to what depths of consciousness this
project would end up taking me. It started off as merely a
combination of laziness and trickery on my part. I had been
interested in going to see this band called "Phish with a 'ph'"
since my friend/x-girlfriend told me about them almost two years
ago in the summer of 1 9 9 5 . She told me about the laid-back
atmosphere of
thcfIhi.ppy-squL an& a-ie +whiekyou

could not keep from dancing. So when it came down to deciding on

a topic for my thesis a year later I thought about how much fun
it would be to follow this band ("what was their name again?
Phish?"), meanwhile writing an ethnography of their subculture to
pass off as my thesis.
I started writing in my head before I even showed up on the
scene. I came up with titles such as "The Ethics of Being a
Rebel" and "Conforming Non-conformists" and a killer conclusion
that I thought was sure to stun the readers -- These neo-hippies

who think they're so "different" are really all the same. Not

long a f t e r I a r r i v e d onltke sane *bug& 4~ e a k i z e cthat-I-

would have to abandon all my preconceived notions, catchy titles,
and knock-out conclusions.
I met up with the Phish Summer Tour ' 9 6 on August 4, 1996,

in Red Rocks, Colorado. I planned to spend four days with these

"neo-hippies" as both a participant and a researcher, plotting
their daily activities at first, then taking part myself and

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striking up conversations that I hoped would lead to the
discovery of the motivations behind their activities.
Eventually, I wanted to determine the group's core values and
hopefully discover some to which they unconsciously adhere to as
part of the "mainstream society" I thought they were against.
However, what I thought was a subversive counter-culture united
and striving for some sort of freedom that they could not find in
"mainstream society" was not that at all. As my first
interviewee said, "There's all types of Phish-heads. It's like a
microcosm of the whole thing."
He was right. I soon discovered a whole range of different
"types" of Phish-heads, all there for different reasons. I also
detected different levels of Phish-heads: some seemed to devote
their entire life to Phish, others were just there for the day
before returning to "normal" life. I soon realized that
describing the Phish subculture was going to be much more
difficult than I had thought.
To complicate matters even more, interviewing did not go so
well from the start. When I asked, "How does one recognize a
Phish-head?" I hoped for detailed answers referring to
everything from clothing to values. Unfortunately, such
responses were few and far between. One respondent stated,
"We're the ones who pick our noses and wiggle our hands like
fish." Another responded, "We have membership cards." Then
another chimed in with a chuckle, "What about the secret

Wesch 2
handshake and the super decoder ring?" I was devastated by these
responses. Fortunately, I eventually learned to look at the
interaction, rather than the words themselves. The interaction
told me volumes. It told me that Phish-heads tend to be fun,
creative, and they didn't appreciate being the subjects of a
sociological study while on tour.
To make up for my underdeveloped interviewing skills I began
frantically taking notes. I began noting every mode of
expression including language, clothing, eating, drinking,
trading, and doing drugs. Anything I observed ended up in my
notes and photographs in that four day span. I knew when I left
that it was far too short a time span and my work was incomplete.
With so many different types and levels of Phish-heads, so many
different people and ways of doing things, I could not begin to
sum it all up. Furthermore, I had made several friends and I did
not want to misrepresent their subculture in my writings. I
decided to extend my research and follow them to Deer Creek,
Indiana where they would be until August 13, giving me 3 more
days of fieldwork. It still wasn't enough. As I left I wrote in
my notebook, "I wish I could s t a y longer and just s l i p i n t o t h e

oddity. Normality already seems l i k e such a t r i p . .. so

f l e x i b l e , malleable, so . .. nonexistent."
Fortunately, I have been able to keep in touch with
informants over e-mail and interact with a part of the subculture
on a newsgroup on the internet devoted to discussing anything and

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everything about Phish. I also met some Phish-heads here at
Kansas State University who have been very helpful, lending me
tapes and insights whenever I needed them. I was also able to
attend one more show in Kansas City on November 19.
Finally, by late January, nearly six months and a thousand
pages of notes after I began the project, I felt competent enough
in the Phish subculture to write a brief description of them for
my thesis. However, in those six months many questions raced
through my head. I sketched some of them into my notebook as I

thought of them. One page in my notes reads, "Why d o p e o p l e

become P h i s h - h e a d s ? Did P h i s h c r e a t e t h i s o r d i d the f a n s c r e a t e

this? W h a t ' s wrong w i t h frmainstreamll s o c i e t y t o d r i v e these

p e o p l e away from i t ?'I Now that I had a grasp on what the Phish
subculture is, I could not get my mind off these other questions.
Namely, I wanted to find out why and how the subculture exists.
The following represents months upon months of intense
inquiry into these questions. In the process, I traveled through
nearly two centuries of social scientific thought. My first
hypothesis had a distinct Spencerian evolutionist (Bohannan and
Glazer 1988:6-28) flavor to it, fading into a Durkheimian
structural-funtionalism (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:231-253), and
then died out as I was drawn more and more to the
phenomenological constructionist school as illustrated in Peter
Berger and Thomas Luckrnannvs T h e S o c i a l C o n s t r u c t i o n o f R e a l i t y :
A t r e a t i s e i n the S o c i o l o g y o f Knowledge (1966) . Although I have

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used this approach, I have no interest here in polemics and
attempting to boost one school of thought over another. I have

chosen this perspective because I felt it was best for the

problem at hand of explaining why and how the Phish subculture
exists. It has also served me well in describing the Phish
subculture, especially as relates to the consciousness of its
As my mind wandered through theory after theory, and
laziness and ambiguity transformed into motivation and interest,
the questions " W h y ? " and " H o w ? " became paramount over the simple

question, " W h a t ? " . However, my probing into "why" and "how"

brought about tremendous insight into my understanding of "what"

the Phish subculture is. I looked at it with new eyes. I
stepped back and looked at the whole society to see where they
fit in. Conversely, yet closely related (as you will see later),
I looked beyond the shared symbols and patterns of behavior to
see the underlying consciousness. Eventually the project grew to
be much more than just an ethnography of the Phish subculture.
It is about modern society, youth, and identity.

Wesch 5

Certain aspects of life are shared by all humans. We all

need food, water, and a certain degree of warmth in order to
survive. Furthermore, we all share the same world: a world that
rotates as it revolves around the sun giving us periods of
darkness and light; a world with an atmosphere giving us warmth
and cold, rain and drought, wind and stillness; a world that
sometimes sends us disaster; and other times sends us pleasure
and awe. We all share the same bodies too: bodies that sense
the darkness and the light, the warmth and the cold, the rain and
the drought, the wind and the stillness, the pain of a disaster
and the pleasure and awe of a beautiful day. The world presents
our bodies with a countless array of sensations. In turn, our
bodies present our minds with the task of making sense of them
(Schutz and Luckmann 1973:18).
Let's compare this situation to that of Storm, my sister's
cat. Storm lives in the same world that we do and has a similar
body in that it also senses the world around it and requires
food, water and warmth to maintain itself. However, left on his
own Storm seems to do just fine, bringing home gourmet dinners of
mice and birds rather frequently. Storm does this without any
knowledge per se (I assure you my sister did not teach him to
"make his own dinner"). Storm has instincts. These instincts
manage his interaction with the world enough so that he can
survive. Humans on the other hand have no such instincts to

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manage their world. With such a barrage of sensations from the
world not organized by instinct, humankind is faced with a
frighteningly open world. This precarious position of humankind
is commonly referred to as "world openness" (Berger and Luckmann
1966:49) .
We see then, that the world does not make sense; we must
make sense of the world. Our minds must order the countless
array of sensations or our bodies and our minds will perish for
lack of the necessities: food, water, and warmth. We order the
world through a subjective meaning system in our consciousness,
telling us what is edible and not edible, what will quench our
thirst and what will not, and what will make us warm when we are
too cold. It is this meaning system that transforms a world
which is otherwise a random blob of color, sounds, smells,
tastes, and sensations into something meaningful. Other human
beings are transformed into boys and girls, and friends and
enemies. Their sounds are transformed into language; their
movements into gestures; their smell into something attractive or
repulsive; their taste into subjects we are not supposed to talk
about. In effect, "reality" is what we perceive as we apply our
subjective meaning system to the objective givens of the world.
This subjective meaning system is learned through
interactions the individual has from birth throughout their
lives. Furthermore, this meaning system is maintained and
sometimes even altered by these interactions with others. Hence,

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the meaning system is not just subjective, it is intersubjective.
It is this intersubjective quality that makes it mostly agreed
upon and allows for meaningful interactions with others. This is
the foundation of society (technically defined as a system of
interaction) (Berger 1963:26). Coincidentally and perhaps
prophetically we arrive at our definition of society at the very
moment that we come to our first paradox in this discussion
(there will be more): the common meaning system is created and
maintained within interactions which are not possible without a
common meaning system.
Society built upon this intersubjective meaning system is
the ultimate antidote to the frightening condition of "world
openness". It not only provides definitions or words to apply to
objects, it also provides patterns and norms of behavior. It
provides routines as to how, when, and where to eat, sleep,
work, play, and even love. These patterns for doing things
sometimes become so common that they become taken-for-granted as
the only way to do things. As opposed to "world openness" we
have a situation we may refer to as "world
taken-for-grantedness" .
This "world taken-for-grantedness" is extremely important
because it is this context of taken-for-grantedness that allows
one to create and innovate. These taken-for-granted patterns,
norms, and definitions serve as reference points for one to
navigate the social world and find their place within it.

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We see then, that this intersubjective meaning system
provides a social map, locating human beings into roles and
statuses. Ultimately, by acting within the background of
taken-for-grantedness one can experience the self in a social
situation. In other words, one can attain an identity. An
identity is simply how one defines oneself, a process which can
only occur in a context of taken-for-grantedness (Berger
1963:129). We see then, that society, with this intersubjective
meaning system and background of taken-for-grantedness does not
only provide meanings for words, acts, gestures, and behaviors,

it provides identity and meaning to life.

Now we have arrived at our next paradox. This is often

considered to be the paradox of social existence. We know of our

existence because of society, yet society itself exists by our
knowing it (Berger 1963:129). We see then, that knowledge and
society have a dialectical link. To analyze this linkage a
discipline has come about known as the sociology of knowledge.
Unfortunately, the sociology of knowledge has mostly been
used to analyze the linkage between grand theories and ideas to
the social world. In 1966, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann
reformulated the discipline to show how the knowledge of everyday
life and not just grand theory is connected to the social world
(1966:14-15). This is the form of the discipline that will be
applied here.

Wesch 9
This "knowledge of everyday life" is composed of those
routines such as eating, sleeping, working, playing, and loving
discussed earlier. In other words, the "knowledge of everyday
life" is just common sense. Curiously, "common sense" seems to
be an oxymoron when we step back and examine different cultures
outside our own and even subcultures within our own. Sense is
scarcely common. Only within a group that shares the same
subjective meaning system can there be common sense.
Furthermore, what is llcommonll
doesn't make sense, we must make
sense of it. Therefore, there is a structure of consciousness
that must accompany any sort of "common sense".
Fortunately, the structure of consciousness illuminates
itself in the "routines" or patterns of behavior and shared
symbols of the group (Berger et. al. 1973:14). Once the
structure of consciousness is discovered, we can use the
sociology of knowledge to discover something about its
social-historical context.
Let us now turn our attention to'the research questions:
What is the Phish-head subculture? How does it maintain itself?
Why does it exist? Given the previous discussion, we see that
our analysis is a multiple step process. First we must determine
their patterns of behavior and shared symbols. From this, we can
deduce elements of consciousness that they share. Then, by
analyzing the demographics of the group (their social place)
within the context of the modern world (their historical place),

Wesch 10
we can discover what it is about the modern world that has
produced thousands upon thousands of people cheering, singing
along with, and one might even say, "worshipping" four
thirty-something year old men with a guitar, bass, keyboards,
drums, and of course, a vacuum cleaner.

Who i s Phish?

Phish is a group of four guys. This is perhaps the only

comment one can make about them without facing a counter-argument
from somebody. Even this statement could be a matter of
contention, however, when one considers all that goes into
producing a Phish show. Perhaps we should include Chris Kuroda,
the light guy who always manages to bombard the senses with a
dazzling array of color. What about Steve Pollak, otherwise
known as "The Dude of Life"? Shouldn't we include him? After
all, he helped write some of their songs. What about the guy
behind the soundboard? What about the guy who carries the
trampolines? What about the fans? After all, many are on a
first name basis with members in the band. Even the band members
themselves admit they are nothing without the fans. And wait a
minute, "Are you sure those are four guys?" you ask. "What about
the one in the dress and what's that (s)hetsholding or ...
playing? ... a vacuum cleaner?!?!?!"
After ten years of touring, seven major label album
releases, 250 songs, a guitarist listed in Guitar magazine's 100

Wesch 11
best, tens and hundreds of thousands of the most dedicated fans,
and the absolute biggest concert event in North America in 1996
(Puterbaugh 1997:44) one would think that Phish would be
well-known by now. Yet they still exist in obscurity. Even
music executives were caught saying, llPhishwho?" when they
appeared on the industry's top concert-earners charts in 1991.
In fact, they were originally omitted from the charts because
executives thought it was a hoax (Bernstein_amLSkeh199kW T

They are only just now beginning to rise from obscurity much

to many long-time fans' displeasure. There latest release Billy

Breathes debuted at No. seven (Puterbaugh 1997:44). Magazines

such as Rolling Stone, Musician, and even Parade magazine have
recently done feature articles on the Vermont-based quartet.
They even have their own Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavor, "Phish
Obviously, Phish is no ordinary music group. In the most
basic terms, Phish is four musicians with a guitar, bass,
keyboards, and drums. Trey Anastasio, the guitarist, calls their
style of music "a cross between EasL
------------ _BocIc-~-Su~yitffcLRs&- -

Donkey Dunkel" ( 1997) . Mike Gordon, the bassist, calls

it a mix between llbluegrass,Latin, rock, funk, classical, jazz,
calypso, hard-core, and Broadway" ( 1997). If one has
to narrow it down though, call them a jam-band. They've made
their way by rigorous touring and intense live performances. In
an age in which a "good" concert sounds just like the CD, Phish

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steps outside the norm and plays a mix from their diverse
repertoire of 250 original songs, along with covers, and
narratives about the "lizard people" in a magical land called
"Gamehenge". Most importantly for Phish-heads, they will jam on
some of these songs for thirty minutes or longer. No two shows
are ever the same, opening the door for thousands of hard core
fans to follow them and hang on their every note, discussing
when, why, how, and even who changed to an E minor and lead this
or that jam in a totally new direction.


There is considerable controversy over use of the term

"Phish-heads" among Phish fans. However, I use the term
primarily because this is a paper intended to be read by people
both inside and outside the Phish community. The term has
continuously been used by both the media and Phish-heads
themselves despite many who do not like the term because it stems
from a comparison with the Grateful Dead, or because it reminds

them of the old Barnes and Barnes tune Fish heads.

I must add here that I do not intend to use the term

Phish-head for all members of the Phish community. The Phish

community includes all those who follow Phish on tour (regardless
of whether or not they actually attend the concert), those who
listen to Phish extensively and/or trade tapes of live shows, and
as of recently I must add a growing population of neophytes out

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to catch the latest "big thing". The term Phish-head does not
apply to those who go to the concerts for "the scene" or to those
out to catch the latest "big thing". Rather, the term applies to
those who attend shows primarily for the music. The reason for
this distinction is that there are different structures of
consciousness for one who goes on tour for the music compared to
one who goes on tour for "the scene". There are also obviously
different motivations behind a Phish-head coming to a show to
"feel" the music as compared to someone out to catch the latest
"big thing". Difficulties arise in attempting to make such
distinctions by the physical appearance of individuals or
devising a set of criteria such as number of shows one has seen
or live tapes one has to mark a "true" Phish-head from a "poser"
who does not enjoy the music and just wants to be a part of the
latest "big thing". There is, however, a consciousness which I
have alluded to which sets them apart. I will eventually
describe the elements of this consciousness, but first I must
describe the symbols and patterns of behavior Phish-heads share.
Phish-heads are often associated with many shared symbols
and patterns of behavior such as long hair, tie-dyes, handicrafts
(especially made from hemp), hackey sacks, Frisbees, dreadlocks,
drum circles, patched corduroys, "kind bud" and other illegal
drugs, beer in coolers on skateboards, grilled cheese sandwiches,
"phatty fat-free veggie burritos", mushroom soup, and the smell
of all these mixed with sweat, dirt, and patchouli (e.g. Reiner,

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Denver Post 1996). These symbols and patterns of behavior
actually belong in a different, but not entirely different
segment of the American population often referred to as
"neo-hippies" .
While "neo-hippies" or "scenesters" as they're sometimes
called hang out outside the show, there is a significantly
different scene inside. Inside there are tie-dyes, but they are
clean; there is long-hair, but it is combed; and there is a
significantly lower proportion of dreadlocks, hemp necklaces, and
patched corduroys. It is almost as if by stepping into the show,
one has crossed into a borderland between Hippy-ville and "normal
life", remnants of each combining into something a little
different. Many Phish-heads claim that the difference is simply
that those inside the show are there primarily for the music and
"the scene" activities outside the show are a secondary (and
sometimes unwanted) attraction.
A recurring theme in Phish-head identity is a strong
connection with the music; a connection that transcends catching
the latest "buzz" from MTV. In fact, some fans such as Amy
Skelton, Phish's "first phan", exemplify this strong connection
with the music to the extent that they have become nearly as
legendary as the band itself. Many Phish-heads claim that love

for the music is the only unifying theme among Phish-heads

because Phish-heads "come from all walks of life." However, I

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will argue that there are many other elements of consciousness,
shared symbols, and patterns of behavior shared by Phish-heads.
A simple look at the demographics of the group can begin to
dispel the notion that Phish-heads "come from all walks of life."
An estimated ninety percent of all Phish-heads are between the
ages of 19 and 26. The majority of these are in college or
graduate school. Most Phish-heads are also upper-middle class.
Class was determined by rough estimates of car values at the
shows which averaged about $7,000. Many cars were worth well
over $15,000. Furthermore, most of my close informants claimed
to be of the upper-middle class and stated that most Phish-heads
were generally upper-middle-class. Some informants added that
the expenses for going on the summer tour were about $3,000,
therefore the possibility of avid fans outside the
upper-middle-class is limited. Later, in the analysis of why and
how the "Phish consciousness" arose, these demographic features
are considered.
On tour, outside the show, Phish-heads tend to blend into
"the scene". Much of the identity of being a Phish-head is
indeed related to "the scene", but they do not absorb themselves
in it as do the "scenesters". For instance, Phish-heads, like
"scenesters", tend to dress in earthy tones or tie-dyes, have
long hair, enjoy smoking marijuana, play in drum circles, and eat
grilled cheese sandwiches. Overall the behaviors and appearance
may be considered "organic" or "natural", almost "native".

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However, unlike the "scenesters", Phish-heads tend to be clean,
walk without a swagger, and have a general distaste for the lingo
of the scene (such as "right on", "kind ", "phat / phatty",
"dank", etc.). Most Phish-heads tend to look as if they
partially want to be in "the scene", but don't want to overdo it
and look as if they are not interested primarily in the music.
Some Phish-heads want to make a statement that they are not there
at all for the scene and only for the music and therefore wear
"normal" clothes. However, when they do this they run the risk
of being labeled a "frat boy" and/or some may question their
intentions for being at the show.
Off tour, there are many ways in which Phish-heads remain in
contact. The most common is simply through peer groups in their
home towns. Phish is often a focal point of a peer group,
becoming a bond between friends. Most informants responded that
three to five hours a day was spent with some element of Phish,
either listening to their music, watching them on video, reading
about them, or dubbing live tapes. Many of these activities are
done with other Phish-heads.
Dubbing live tapes and trading them is another way in which
Phish-heads stay in touch while not on tour as well as build
friendships while on tour. These live tapes are available
because Phish sells special tickets for a "taper's section". By
show-time, the taper section is easily marked by towering
microphones. The taper section is almost like a subculture

Wesch 17
within a subculture. Most of them tend to be a few years older,
many in their thirties. Most of them are also more analytical of
Phish as they have heard and/or seen hundreds of shows. Some
Phish-heads get discouraged with tapers for having what is often
perceived as a jaded, too-critical attitude towards Phish, but
none-the-less highly respect the tapers for their vast knowledge
of the band and most importantly, because they are the source for
live tapes.
These tapes are continuously dubbed and traded and spread
throughout the Phish-head community. There are many norms
associated with the trading of tapes. The ultimate goal
expressed by those who trade is to spread Phish's music. It
follows then that the first rule of tape trading is that no
profit can be made by the trading of tapes. Only straight trades
are made, no two for one deals. It is also important that the
person making the tapes uses good equipment and makes a high
quality copy. Many friendships are made through tape trading.
Also, a person can make or break his/her reputation by the
quality of tapes they trade, the expediency of the trade, what
else they may send with the tapes such as elaborate tape covers
with setlists written out on them, or by sending little tidbits
of Phish facts associated with the show being traded.
Some of this trading takes place within peer groups in home
towns, while some takes place nation-wide and even
internationally since Phish has begun touring in Europe. Many of

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the nation-wide and international trades are worked out on the
internet newsgroup or e-mail.
The internet newsgroup is much more than just a forum to
exchange tapes. It is the only place where thousands of
Phish-heads can gather on a daily basis and "hang out". However,
the atmosphere is certainly different than on tour and it often
isn't so much "hanging out" as it is letting your opinion be
heard. Therefore, much of the 200 to 300 posts per day that are
sent out to an estimated readership of 50,000 contain opinions on
everything from "the note" in "Tweezer" to hammering out the
norms and values of themselves as a group. Post subjects include
Gamhenge sagas, setlists, tape trading grovels and offers, drugs,
the Simpsons, movies (especially Star Wars), and of course "flame
wars1'. Flames are posts attacking an individual for a breach of
netiquette or any other one of a number of "violations".
Extended touring, home peer groups, tape trading, and
discussions over the internet maintain a subculture centered on
Phish. But as stated before, the subculture does not only relate
to Phish. There are many other shared symbols, patterns of
behavior, and ultimately a shared structure of consciousness
uniting Phish-heads. Following is a list of elements of this
shared structure of consciousness with supporting examples of
their patterns of behavior and shared symbols.

Relativity: Relativity is the ability to think in complex

ways requiring one to abandon their usual pattern of thought.

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Some Phish-heads certainly have more ability to do this than
others but it is universally respected and desired among
One might refer to this in everyday speech as
"open-mindedness" or empathy, although relativity is much more
encompassing than these terms imply. These terms suggest an
ability and a desire to see things from "the other's"
perspective. This consciousness is illustrated in the variety of
people accepted into the group (on the condition that they are
there for the music). It is also exhibited in the group's
overall intolerance of intolerance. Although there are very few
people of color in the group and I witnessed no certain
expressions of homosexuality, Phish-heads are by their word, open
to such individuals.
Passivity: Passivity is seen in the Phish-heads' overall
lack of aggression. The most aggression one will see at a show
is the race for the front row when the gates open. Once everyone
is in their place though there is very little aisle hopping or
jostling for spots. While other concert settings are an arena
for stage-diving, crowd-surfing, and moshing, a Phish show lends
each his/her own space to twist, turn, and groove in a manner
sometimes referred to as "noodle dancing."
Furthermore, none of my respondents expressed any interest
in sports, and despite beautiful weather no one ever broke out a
football on tour. The only sports played were frisbee and

Wesch 20
hacky-sack, both of which require very little aggression. At the
shows, I witnessed less than a dozen who were muscular and looked
as if they might play aggressive sports.
Also, I have yet to witness a fight among Phish-heads
although "scenesters" have had their share. There was one
occasion in which a member on the internet claimed to another, "I
could probably kick your ass in real life." He was promptly
flamed by many because of this threat of personal violence.
Inquisitiveness: Phish-heads incessantly gather information
about Phish. Many Phish-heads could report exactly how many
times "Chalkdust Torture" has been played and exactly when it was
last played. Some could take it a step farther and report which
performance of this song was the best and explain why in a minute
by minute review of the entire song. Phish-heads spend much of
their time on tour discussing these things.
Some of these conversations centering on Phish facts lead
into deeper questions involving the "soul", "the meaning of
life", and "reality". Then we see that this inquisitiveness goes
beyond the band. Many knowledgeable references are often made to
religions from all over the world (a further example of
"open-mindednessll) .
That Phish-heads are inquisitive is further exemplified by
the fact that most Phish-heads are in college or graduate school.
Most report that they are in school for eduacation's sake and not
to attain a better job.

Wesch 21
Creativity: Many Phish-heads bring something along with
them on tour as an outlet for their creativity. Such outlets
include bongos, guitars, or handicrafts.
Creativity is also the most used legitimation for drug use.
Many Phish-heads claim that drugs free up their mind to see the
world in new and different ways (another example of relativity),
allowing them to be more creative.
Autonomy: In everyday language one might refer to this as
individuality. Phish-heads are often quite unique and admire
other unique individuals. Many disagreements are promptly
resolved by a prophetic statement such as, "1 guess that's what
makes us different."
This element of consciousness can also be seen in the
majority of Phish-heads distaste for MTV and other brands of
corporatism which they feel taint artistic integrity and treat
unique individuals as a mass populace. This leads to an overall
distaste for the "pop" songs and so-called "alternative" songs on
MTV that are neatly packaged into four minutes or less. For the
weeks preceding Phish's appearance on David Letterman on March 5,
many Phish-heads expressed concern that Phish was "selling out"
by playing the four minutes or less musical guest spot. After
the show, most fans expressed disappointment that they didn't
play longer but none-the-less were happy with it because, "It's
Phish. "

Wesch 22
Another interesting conversation that was ignited by their
appearance on Letterman was the discussion of what exactly the
guitarist, Trey Anastasio, said to Dave after the performance.
He did not speak into a microphone so it was difficult to
understand. However, it was agreed that he said something about
ice cream, referring to the new Ben and Jerry's flavor known as
"Phish Food". Some claimed that Trey was upset that Dave did not
express that Phish's share of the proceeds from the sale of Phish
Food will go to environmental efforts on Lake Champlain.
Eventually, someone with closed captioned TV cleared it up by
saying that Trey said, "Hope you got some ice cream." Once again
though, this shows Phish-heads distrust of corporatism. They
wanted the rest of the world to know that Phish is not "selling
out" or taking advantage of their popularity by selling ice
cream. They are merely helping the environment.
Phish fans who use America On-Line for access to the Phish
newsgroup find out this distrust for corporatism the hard way.
Phish-heads have a profound hatred for America On-Line as they
see it as a mammoth corporation taking advantage of people.
Those who use America On-Line are often not respected and they
may have a hard time finding someone to trade with them.
However, if they show knowledge of Phish and a love for the
music, someone might suggest to them an alternative internet
service to use, thereby regaining respect.

Wesch 23
Anonymity: Conversely, Phish-heads also like to maintain

somewhat of an anonymous profile in that they desire a sense ot

belonging to the group. It is because of this anonymity that a
strong sense of community is formed among Phish-heads. Fellow
Phish-heads are trusted and respected for no other reason than
that they are Phish-heads. This leads to openness, sharing, and
bonding among Phish-heads. This is demonstrated in the tour
setting. Food and water are often given away. In fact, in four
days on tour I only spent three dollars. Most of my meals were
spent with a new friend and the gift of a grilled cheese

Autonomy vs. ~nonymity: The preceding two elements of

consciousness present a paradox. Phish-heads desire autonomy and
a level of anonymity at the same time. In other words,
Phish-heads want to belong, and be considered llPhish-headslf
do not want to be considered solely as Phish-heads or "just
another Phish-head" for that would threaten their sense of
At the core of this struggle of maintaining a sense of

individuality and belonging is the problem of "world-openness".

A completely open world in which every aspect of life must be
decided upon using a set of reference points which themselves

must be decided upon using another set of reference points ... ad

infinitum, would be a world of pure individuality. However, this

individuality could not be expressed to others for there would be

Wesch 24
no intersubjective meaning system. On the other end of the
spectrum, a completely taken-for-granted world in which all
choices are made for each person by the shared meaning system of
the group would be one of pure anonymity; everyone would act and
be exactly the same. As will be shown in the following section,
the Phish subculture has formed in response to this dichotomy,
delimiting choice without taking it away completely, allowing its
members to maintain both a sense of individuality and oneness
with the group.
These are the elements of consciousness of Phish-heads.
Before we proceed any further, we must remember that we are not
only dealing with a shared consciousness, but shared
demographical features as well. Most Phish-heads are
upper-middle class, 19-26 year old college students. So now the

question becomes, what i s i t a b o u t b e i n g a n u p p e r - m i d d l e c l a s s ,

19-26 y e a r o l d c o l l e g e s t u d e n t i n modern s o c i e t y t h a t l e a d s t o a

c o n s c i o u s n e s s marked by r e l a t i v i t y , p a s s i v i t y , i n q u i s i t i v e n e s s ,

c r e a t i v i t y , autonomy, a n o n y m i t y , and a s t r u g g l e t o " b e l o n g w w h i l e

remaining an "individual"? To find out, we must turn our

attention to modern society and the position of upper-middle
class youths within it.

Wesch 25
Modern Society

As stated before, society is the ultimate antidote to the

frightening condition we called "world openness". It takes what
otherwise would be an incomprehensible world and provides
patterns and norms of behavior for us to navigate our way through
it. It provides routines as to how, when, and where to eat,
sleep, work, play, and even love. Without such routines we would
face an incomprehensible number of choices in how we might live
our lives. These routines sometimes become so common that they
become taken-for-granted as the only way to do things, freeing us
from choice all together. However, modern society does not fare
so well providing us with such routines and meanings. There are
essentially three reasons why modern society fails us in this
respect: social mobility, globalization and change.
The first of these, social mobility, refers to the fact that
life in modern society is highly mobilized. A person may play
the roles of family member, student, intern, and hockey club
president all in one day. Such role switching requires a
migration through distinct social worlds, each with their own set
of norms, values, and meanings. This migration can lead to
questioning as to which set of norms, values and meanings is the
"right" one. Modern society then, can be seen as a world with
many discrepant sub-worlds within it.
Globalization is the process driven by the technological
production of modern society bringing other social worlds which

Wesch 26
were once scarcely known into our homes. Our televisions and
computers tell us of completely different sets of norms, values
and meanings from all over the world. High speed transportation
brings members of these other social worlds to our doorstep. In
a sense, the boundaries between "our" world and "their" world are
becoming less and less defined.
Finally, modern society is one rampant with change, be it
through technological production, bureaucratic process, or social
movement. This poses new problems to being human, because the
set of values, norms, and meanings we hold as valid today may be
invalid tomorrow. All understanding of society is based on
previous experience. However, social change makes this previous
experience useless. The world we know today, will not be the
same world tomorrow.
When we put this all together we see that modern society is
one with many different sub-worlds within it, mixing with other
social worlds outside it, and changing at a rate that makes
today's world different from tomorrow's world. For the
individual, this means that while modern society continues to
supply certain patterns of behavior, values, norms, and meanings,
no particular set of these can be regarded as the only one and be
taken-for-granted as such. Without this taken-for-grantedness we
have a state of "new world openness", not quite as terrifyingly
open as our previous example of world openness, but none-the-less
intolerable for some.

Wesch 27
When we remind ourselves that it is only with a background
of taken-for-grantedness that we can know ourselves, we see that
modern society may hold serious problems for identity. It is no
wonder that our literature, music, television programs, and
cinema bombard us with buzzwords and phrases such as "Who am I?",
"What is real?", "What is the meaning of life?", "What is
truth?", and many others.
To deal with this "new world openness" and the problems it
holds for identity, persons in modern society are forced to make
sense of a world which is incomprehensible in its entirety. Many
become experts of a specific niche, be it in medicine,
automobiles, society, or any other one of an infinite number.
These people and others also may claim membership to the bridge
club, the pub, an ethnic group, a nationality, a religion or a
combination of these and others. These subworlds are
comprehensible, and they can "find themselves" within these
smaller groups. The Phish subculture serves this same purpose of
delimiting this "new world openness" and providing patterns,
symbols, and a "style" for living out daily life.
We see then, that modern society offers an infinite number
of identities, leading to an extremely diverse array of
individuals. This extreme individuality has lead to a
consciousness celebrating individuality, expressed in most
sectors of American society, including the Phish-head
consciousness. However, such individuality is in conflict with

Wesch 28
the desired sense of belonging to a group and we arrive at the
anonymity-autonomy paradox. Autonomy is desired but not at the

expense of being alone and likewise a sense of belonging is

desired but not at the expense of being "another face in the
crowd". This paradox creates a difficult situation of
In this climate of uncertainty, childhood has become revered
and admired. Childhood is seen as a time before one sees the
complexity of modern day life, a time of innocence and blissful
ignorance. Everything is "simple". The child is seen as
extremely valuable as the future of the world and the "hope of a
better tomorrow". The child is protected from the distress,
harshness, and frustration of the outside world.
Especially in upper-middle-class homes where most
Phish-heads come from, childhood has an almost magical ignorance
to it. The majority of it takes place far away from the strain
of "the real world" where one tries to "make ends meet". Here,
children are encouraged in their creative endeavors and given
ample time to explore them because they are not required to join
the labor force as was once common (and still is in poverty
stricken homes). Upper-middle-class homes also differ in that
they generally lack the ethos of aggression. While in the
inner-city children are taught to fight, upper-middle-class
children in the suburbs and the countryside are taught a more
passive stance exemplified in the consciousness of Phish-heads.

Wesch 29
Most Phish-heads, coming from upper-middle-class backgrounds,
were treated well throughout life. Furthermore, they have grown
up on the tail end of the civil rights battle and the women's
movement and taught that all men and women are created equal.
This has helped bring about anonymity or "love for all humankind"
as an element of their consciousness. Anonymity has also helped
spawn relativity, for understanding the ways of other people
requires this relative thinkinq.
- - - - - - - - - -

After childhood, the youth passes into a peculiar stage of

development known as adolescence, created by modern society's
high rate of change and the many years of education now needed to
contribute to technological production, bureaucratic
organization, or scholarly pursuits. Less complex societies
stage elaborate rites of passage to mark a person's passage from
childhood to adult. There are no such ceremonies in modern
society and no clear lines between childhood and adulthood.
Rather, people go through a stage "betwixt and between" the
stages of childhood and adulthood. The first is marked by
dependency, the latter by responsibility. The youth falls-
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

somewhere in between, in a stage most prominently marked by

The child passes into this stage relatively unaware of the
drastic transformation that is taking place. Puberty hits,
bringing with it physical changes and inexplicable desires and
urges. Parents and society in general begin treating them

Wesch 30
differently, expecting more and giving less. The expectations
are ambiguous, somewhere between dependency and responsibility,
and changing time to time, and situation to situation.
Meanwhile, the innocence and the blissful ignorance are swept
away as the new youth becomes aware of different ways of doing
things, different systems of right and wrong, and altogether
different worlds.
The youth is thrust into the state of "new world openness"
not only by his discovery of discrepant social worlds, but also
by his lack of social place. Making matters worse, the youth has
very recently been a child, ignorant of such discrepant social
worlds, and cherished as an autonomous human being. Hence, the
youth feels a loss of identity in the transition.
The number of discrepant subworlds a youth must deal with in
modern society has further developed this consciousness of
relativity exemplified in Phish-heads. As mentioned before, a
youth may be a family member, hockey player, student, and intern
all at the same time. Each role calls for a different
consciousness and therefor an exercise in relative thinking on
the part of the youth.
It is no wonder then that we find sub-worlds of social
cliques and peer groups forming among youth. Here, the
incomprehensible modern world is delimited to a specific set of
"cool" ways to go about the activities in daily life. Within
these sub-worlds, the youth can establish an identity.

Wesch 31
These groups often center around music. Hence, a high
school is full of "Gsl'that listen to rap, punks that listen to
punk, metal-heads that listen to metal, cowboys who listen to
country, and neo-hippies who listen to songs from the Woodstock
generation. The identity comes complete with proper clothing,
lingo, and patterns of "cool11behavior. Essentially, it is
packaged individuality; the perfect blend of autonomy and
As the youths in these groups "grow up1' and pass into
adulthood, they cease to identify strongly with the music, and
sometimes stop listening to it altogether. A song that once made
them feel empowered now makes them feel nostalgic. However, like
the passage from childhood to youth, the passage from youth to
adulthood does not have any clear boundaries. Some may make the
transition when they are 18, others may be said to never make the
transition at all. On average, the shift seems to occur in their
early twenties.
Phish-heads also make a shift in their early twenties,
however it is not to adulthood. Rather, this is the age when
most of them first began listening to Phish. To see why
Phish-heads turn to Phish, we must remember that most Phish-heads
were raised in upper-middle-class homes where they were highly
valued and their opinions were respected. They were encouraged
to further their education and so went on to college where they
also were respected and listened to by professors. Here they

Wesch 32
become more inquisitive. This inquisitiveness, combined with
relativity, leads to a lack of ability for these people to settle
into a taken-for-granted routine or system of belief.
Furthermore, from inside this world of college, the outside
world looks terrifying. It seems to be one that doesn't know the
"individual", and he/she fears becoming a "nameless face in the
crowd". It is often seen as too stiff and constricting. One
Phish-head revealed to me, "I could not see myself right now with
a job, a wife, and kids. I just can't. That's just crazy." For
many Phish-heads then, Phish is an extended youth. As one
Phish-head put it, "Phish is pure fun, spelled P-H-U-N." Phish
offers a way to "stay young" well into the early twenties and
even thirties for some while delimiting this condition of "new
world openness".
We see then, that the Phish subculture exists as a response
to the existential condition of being a youth in the modern
world. The Phish subculture provides a means for its members to
delimit this "new world openness" while conversely giving them a
sense of individuality. Importantly, this is achieved through a
shared consciousness expressing itself in shared patterns of
behavior, values, norms, and meanings.
The only question remaining is "Why Phish?" Why have
thousands upon thousands of people with a consciousness of
relativity, passivity, creativity, inquisitiveness, autonomy, and

Wesch 33
anonymity come together to watch and listen to four
thirty-something year old men play music?
Any Phish-head will tell you it is because the music is so
good. However, there are also many things about the band which
match up well with the consciousness of the fans. Therefore, I
propose that they have chosen Phish as a means of coming together
because Phish is creative, jamming and improvising for over 30
minutes at a time. They choose Phish because they change the
setlist every night giving them plenty of musical tidbits to be
inquisitive about, discuss, and bond over. They choose Phish
because its members seem to be the epitome of individuality,
relaxed, having fun, at peace with themselves on stage. They
choose Phish because while other bands may scream at the crowd to
get them going crazy, Phish just lets the music flow through
them, appealing to the passive nature of the llPhish
consciousness11. They choose Phish because they have taken a
stand against corporatism by creating their own production
company dedicated to Phish, bypassing MTV and other major
corporate sponsorship. And finally, they choose Phish because
until very recently they offered a nice balance between obscurity
and popularity that brought like-minded people out to the shows,
and kept those searching for MTV's latest "buzz" at home. All of
which creates a community of like-minded people with a shared
intersubjective meaning system serving as a background on which
to act and create, forming individuality and ultimately, an

Wesch 34
Works Cited
Berger, Peter. 1963. Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic
Perspective. New York: Doubleday.
Berger, Peter and Luckmann, Thomas. 1966. The Social
Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the
Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Doubleday.
Berger, Peter; Berger, Brigitte; and Kellner, Hansfried. 1973.
The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness.
New York: Random House.
Bernstein, Andy and Steele, Lock. 1996. "A Phish Story." in
The Pharmer's Almanac. Volume Three. Bernstein et. al.,
ed. Pp. 4-10. New York: Melting Media, Inc.
Bohannan, Paul and Glazer, Mark. 1988. High Points in
Anthropology. Second Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1997. February 27.
Puterbaugh, Parke. 1997. "Phresh Phish: On the Road to
Unlimited Devotion with America's Biggest Jam Band." -
Rolling Stone. February 20:43-47
Reiner, Eric. 1996. "Real Phish Fry: Neo-hippies follow band
like Deadheads." in The Denver Post. August 6:1Ef3E.
Schutz, Alfred and Luckmann, Thomas. 1973. The Structures of
the Life World. translated by Zaner, Richard and Engelhart,
H. Tristam, Jr.. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern
University Press.

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