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Modern Society, Youth, and Identity
Paper submitted for Senior Honors Thesis Kansas State University April 15th, 1997
by Michael Wesch
X Michael L wesch ( undergraduate,
~raduate Teaching Asst,
~ 6 i s t a n~rofessor, t Sociology
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 I had been
combination of laziness and trickery on my part.
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
an& a- e i
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
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.
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~ t
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 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 Wesch 1
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 It's like a
interviewee said, "There's all types of Phish-heads. microcosm of the whole thing." He was right.
I soon discovered a whole range of different I also
"types" of Phish-heads, all there for different reasons. 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. Phish-head?" When I asked, "How does one recognize a
I hoped for detailed answers referring to
everything from clothing to values. responses were few and far between.
Unfortunately, such 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?" responses.
I was devastated by these
Fortunately, I eventually learned to look at the The interaction
interaction, rather than the words themselves. 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 I knew when I left
notes and photographs in that four day span.
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.
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
f l e x i b l e , malleable, so
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 Wesch 3
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
I sketched some of them into my notebook as I
through my head. thought of them.
One page in my notes reads, "Why d o p e o p l e 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
become P h i s h - h e a d s ?
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 Now that I had a grasp on what the Phish
p e o p l e away from i t ?'I
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 My first
nearly two centuries of social scientific thought.
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
used this approach, I have no interest here in polemics and attempting to boost one school of thought over another.
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 members. 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.
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.
Certain aspects of life are shared by all humans.
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 In turn, our
our bodies with a countless array of sensations.
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 Wesch 6
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
Our minds must order the countless
We see then, that the world does not make sense; we must make sense of the world.
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 Hence,
sometimes even altered by these interactions with others. Wesch 7
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 It
objects, it also provides patterns and norms of behavior. provides routines as to how, when, and work, play, and even love.
where to eat, sleep,
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. Wesch 8
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.
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 We know of our
considered to be the paradox of social existence.
existence because of society, yet society itself exists by our knowing it (Berger 1963:129). We see then, that knowledge and To analyze this linkage a
society have a dialectical link.
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.
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 Curiously, "common sense" seems to
life" is just common sense.
be an oxymoron when we step back and examine different cultures outside our own and even subcultures within our own. scarcely common. Sense is
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 First we must determine From this, we can Then, by
our analysis is a multiple step process.
their patterns of behavior and shared symbols.
deduce elements of consciousness that they share.
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 Shouldn't we include him? After What about the guy
known as "The Dude of Life"?
all, he helped write some of their songs.
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
9 k executives thought it was a hoax (Bernstein_amLSkeh1 9 W T
They are only just now beginning to rise from obscurity much to many long-time fans' displeasure. There latest release Billy Magazines
Breathes debuted at No. seven (Puterbaugh 1997:44).
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 food1' . 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 _BocIc-~-Su~yitffcLRs&-
style of music "a cross between EasL
Donkey Dunkel" (Phish.net 1997) . Mike Gordon, the bassist, calls Latin, rock, funk, classical, jazz, it a mix between llbluegrass, calypso, hard-core, and Broadway" (Phish.net 1997). to narrow it down though, call them a jam-band. If one has
They've made In
their way by rigorous touring and intense live performances.
an age in which a "good" concert sounds just like the CD, Phish Wesch 12
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.
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 Wesch 13
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 The reason for
those who attend shows primarily for the music.
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
I will eventually
have alluded to which sets them apart.
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, Wesch 14
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
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". Wesch 16
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 "dank", etc.).
"phat / phatty",
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 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. 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 By Many of these activities are
because Phish sells special tickets for a "taper's section". 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 Some
Phish as they have heard and/or seen hundreds of shows.
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. associated with the trading of tapes. There are many norms The ultimate goal It
expressed by those who trade is to spread Phish's music.
follows then that the first rule of tape trading is that no profit can be made by the trading of tapes. are made, no two for one deals. Only straight trades
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. Wesch 18 Many of
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 However,
Phish-heads can gather on a daily basis and "hang out".
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 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 is the ability to think in complex
ways requiring one to abandon their usual pattern of thought. Wesch 19
Some Phish-heads certainly have more ability to do this than others but it is universally respected and desired among Phish-heads. 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 Although there are very few
overall intolerance of intolerance.
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 is seen in the Phish-heads' overall The most aggression one will see at a show Once everyone
lack of aggression.
is the race for the front row when the gates open.
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". beyond the band. Then we see that this inquisitiveness goes
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
Many Phish-heads bring something along with Such outlets
them on tour as an outlet for their creativity. 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.
In everyday language one might refer to this as 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.
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. "
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 They
though, this shows Phish-heads distrust of corporatism.
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.
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 Fellow
strong sense of community is formed among Phish-heads.
Phish-heads are trusted and respected for no other reason than that they are Phish-heads. bonding among Phish-heads. setting. This leads to openness, sharing, and This is demonstrated in the tour In fact, in four
Food and water are often given away.
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 sandwich. 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,
but 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 individuality. 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 infinitum, would be a world of pure individuality.
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 So now the
upper-middle class, 19-26 year old college students.
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.
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 There are
so well providing us with such routines and meanings.
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 In
brings members of these other social worlds to our doorstep.
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. experience useless. 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 However, social change makes this previous The world we know today, will not be 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. 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 Many
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
uncertainty. 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 Here,
of "the real world" where one tries to "make ends meet".
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 While in the
they generally lack the ethos of aggression.
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 The youth falls-
dependency, the latter by responsibility.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
somewhere in between, in a stage most prominently marked by insecurity. 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.
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. 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 Hence, the
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. these sub-worlds, the youth can establish an identity. Wesch 31 Within
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, Essentially, it is
behavior. lingo, and patterns of "cool11
packaged individuality; the perfect blend of autonomy and anonymity. 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. early twenties. Phish-heads also make a shift in their early twenties, however it is not to adulthood. Rather, this is the age when To see why On average, the shift seems to occur in their
most of them first began listening to Phish.
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. Wesch 32 Here they
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."
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
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 Therefore, I
match up well with the consciousness of the fans.
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 identity. Wesch 34
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translated by Zaner, Richard and Engelhart, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern
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