My final project before graduating next week was to write a series of personal essays about music and the way that it’s affected my life throughout the four years of high school. I wrote ten such essays, each about a different album, but my introductory essay involved a topic from my Moral Psychology class that I found fascinating: the hive switch. After I finished the project this week, I figured I’d post the first essay (and potentially post the other essays over the course of the summer).
Walking into the dimly-lit room at Double Happiness felt like coming home as I searched for friends among the sea of kitschy, Chinese-themed decorations and buzzing fans. I scanned the room and found them at the front of the stage, belting out fierce bedroom pop and jamming on the guitar. We were meeting for the last time before they moved to New York, though I didn’t know that at the time. After their band’s set, my brother and I found them at a familiar location–behind the merch table upstairs. We laughed and talked about the latest shows we’d seen and albums we’d heard, and, as usual, Cameron asked about my music writing.
Cam had always been encouraging when it came to my music blog; in fact, that was the driving force behind our friendship. A few months earlier, I’d gotten his name from a friend who suggested that I reach out to other music journalists for advice. I sent an email asking for words of wisdom. In response, I received an enthusiastic near-essay about his favorite local bands as well as tips on reaching out and making connections. He was excited about a “young female voice getting into an often male-dominated music industry.”
Around a month later, Cam invited me to my first show at Double Happiness, at which his girlfriend Sierra’s band would be opening. We had discovered that he was friends with my older brother, but my brother was busy that night, so I went to the show alone. I was still unfamiliar and inexperienced enough with music and music-lovers to be nervous walking into a half-full venue by myself. Meeting behind the merch table after their set, surrounded by other intimidating college musicians, I was introduced to Sierra, First Responder’s frontwoman and someone who would become a major inspiration for me because of her strength, passion, and advocacy. Sierra greeted me just as enthusiastically, and their immediate warmth made me feel like I belonged in this terrifying crowd of certifiably cool people. What little discomfort I still felt after talking to the two must have been clear, because Cameron asked loudly about the time I interviewed the guitarist from My Chemical Romance, knowing that his friends would find it impressive.
Months later, on a sticky night in June, my brother and I returned to Double Happiness to watch First Responder open for Adult Mom and free cake for every creature. Finding ourselves once again behind that merch table upstairs with Cameron and Sierra, we shared mildly sweaty hugs and shouted brief life updates over the deafening pop music below. While my brother decided to stay and talk, I went downstairs to watch the other bands.
After months of spending more time on the Columbus music scene, I was far more confident with being alone at a show than that first First Responder in the same venue. As I danced by myself, I was surrounded by strange bodies, but we all sang along to the same pop anthems when Adult Mom took the stage at the end of the night.
Adult Mom puts out the best kind of renewing energy, like the way the air smells right after snow melts in Ohio in the earliest days of spring. Soft Spots, the band’s most recent album, is simple yet sunny; it breaks down your walls, burrows itself underneath your skin, and before you know it, the music fits neatly between your ribs and you’re asking yourself why you feel so warm. It defrosts the darkness and the sadness in the most tender way, just like the sun in the earliest days of spring. Stephanie Knipe’s voice is mellifluous, digging a hook into emotions you didn’t even know you could feel and dragging them to the surface.
The music was easy and bright, and I found it easy to slip away from myself. Easier, that is, than to stay grounded by the anxieties and responsibilities of life outside of the venue. Because I had no friends to whom I was responsible, there was no worry about embarrassing myself with my terrible dancing in front of friends. On top of that, my phone had died, so I wasn’t distracted by the usual pull of taking photos and videos to remember the night, most of which would be so low-quality that I never return to them. I wasn’t self-conscious about enjoying the music, and, simply put, I felt freer than I had in months. It was almost a religious experience, and I remember feeling an extraordinary sense of belonging.
Any show, but especially that night, is a strangely unifying experience: dancing with tens or hundreds or thousands of strangers, and knowing that you are connected by an insane love of a certain sound, creates a unique bond. That night, the sold-out gig packed the room to capacity. There was barely enough room to breathe, let alone move as anything other than one unit and one crowd. There’s a sense of self-transcendence that comes with that environment, a sense of becoming part of something bigger than yourself instead of simply an individual. It may only last for a few hours, but it is caused by something that I would later discover to be called “the hive switch.”
The hive switch is a concept developed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. We read it in a moral psychology class during my senior year of high school, and I was captivated by his explanations for groupishness in humans. Haidt argues that just like bees, humans are “ultrasocial creatures” shaped by decades of competition with other groups. Bees have an “all for one, one for all” mindset, operating in pursuit of the best interest of the group rather than individual interests. Under the right conditions, humans can behave the same way. Thus, according to Haidt, humans are “conditional hive creatures.”
When triggered, the hive switch makes groups more successful by helping them become more cohesive. It allows for collective emotion, including joy and self-transcendence. It makes you feel as if you are simply part of a whole rather than one individual, and it is the ultimate form of escapism: hiding outside of yourself and finding a purpose as a piece of the bigger picture.
Humans are relationship-driven creatures, and we thrive when we are together. Often, searching for a calling in life leads to finding purpose as a part of groups and teams, whether those are formed at church, with friends, or in sports. We become more efficient as a team, able to form meaningful bonds with those who are like us. Thus, our groups become even more cohesive when the hive switch is flipped and the members of a group adopt an “all for one” mentality.
When activated, the hive switch generates altruism geared towards the people who belong to our in-groups, according to Haidt. It is not universal altruism that connects us to all of humanity, but rather, the switch bonds us to those with whom we share similarities in personality or physicality. This is what makes groupishness so powerful in inter-group competition and group-level natural selection. Now, meaning in life does often come from relationships, whether that is on an interpersonal level or on a larger scale. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt claims that happiness does not come from within, as so many have claimed, but rather that “happiness comes from between.”
The hive switch can simply be flipped by congregating in large groups, but several things can trigger it, including synchronous movement among a large group and bright lights, loud sounds, and hallucinogens. For this reason, raves and concerts are known to trigger the hive switch, and the oxytocin often released while listening to music certainly doesn’t hinder the process.
Not every concert flips the hive switch, however. As Haidt said, our hivishness is conditional, and there are several prerequisites that must be met to trigger it. Fortunately, several of those boxes were checked at the Adult Mom show. Even when the switch is not flipped, however, a similar principle applies in answering why people are so drawn to live music. There is a sense of togetherness that comes from watching someone create in front of a crowd. Maybe it comes from awe at a musician’s talent, or maybe it comes from that shared love of what is being created, or maybe it just comes from gathering a group of strangers in a small space. Whatever the cause, I believe in the unifying power of music, especially live music, the same way I believe that the sunshine can work miracles when it melts away the darkness of winter.
I believe that music brings people together, if only for a few hours at a time, in a borderline magical way that few other things can accomplish. That is the driving principle behind this collection of essays: the magnetic power of music, especially live music, is unmatched. This book is a tribute to the albums and artists that have proven this belief to be true in the four years that I’ve been in high school. It is dedicated to those who have unknowingly helped me close wounds and stitch together friendships through their art. Most of all, though, it is for those that carried me through four years of social and emotional turmoil, that built me back up time and time again when the vicious angst of high school and life knocked me down. It is for those albums that have both hurt and healed, that have brought together strangers and friends alike in times of crisis.
When I left Double Happiness with my brother that night, covered in sweat that was mostly not my own, it felt like I was leaving a piece of me behind, but also like I came away with something more. I felt more whole than I had felt in years, as if some part of me was previously empty and had just been filled in. Later, I would learn that Cameron and Sierra planned to move to New York together after graduation. Although First Responder and Trying, Cameron’s musical project, hosted several more shows before the move, I didn’t get to see them again before they left. Perhaps that is why even now, almost a year later, I remember vividly standing near the back and struggling to catch my breath in a packed room of sweaty strangers, or struggling to hear Sierra laugh over the other bands on the stage below.
Or perhaps the hive switch truly was triggered that night. After all, the feeling of intense belonging came from a combination of both catching up with friends and dancing with three hundred other people, but the collective euphoria came from the crowd. We danced together, despite not knowing one another, and as Adult Mom’s sunny pop ballads washed over us, I felt as if nothing else on earth could make me feel this whole. The crowd was one unit that was bound by a love of ferocious bedroom pop and a band called Adult Mom, and as I walked to my car afterward, I said goodbye to the strangers standing next to me as if I’d known them for years.