Have You Felt Collective Effervescence Lately?
It turns out, feeling a cult-like connection with people can, and most likely will, happen through music.
Momentarily, in my youth, I found God in a Dave Matthews song. This is a humiliating canon event, a memory so sharp I nearly cut myself every time it revisits me. At a Young Life retreat in the North Carolina mountains, I stood in a sanctuary with a couple hundred teenagers in American Eagle polos, crying in unison. “Ants Marching” served as irreducible proof that we were forgiven of the sins we’d go on to commit, maybe already had. We were taught that God was everywhere, in everything; would it be so farfetched to imagine He’d choose a pop song as His vessel, reaching me the same way He reached the frat boys chugging solo cups on Chapel Hill lawns?
I’d probably kissed a boy by then, but can’t be sure; I’d definitely kissed a girl, multiple times, which we’d written off as “practice” for our worshipful, heterosexual futures. My memory wavers between lying prone in cabin bunks, bowled over that we could be loved despite what we’d been taught was our own brokenness, and a drunk boy in a bathtub, where we’d snuck into a house under construction. It was powerful to imagine being swept up in a wave of divinity, to cede all the difficult choices to an older man in the sky. I was, then and now, caught between the desire for dissolution and sensation. Dave Matthews — or some college kid with the aux — took me by the shoulders and tried to set me on the straight and narrow path. I’d soon stray.
The pipeline from Jesus Freak to tattooed New York music critic is, to be fair, anything but direct; it’s more like jumping out of a plane, sans parachute. But the phenomenon I experienced has surfaced again, albeit in different contexts. Rolling on MDMA to Sunn O))) at Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival; the goosebumps and weightlessness I felt when Phoebe Bridgers sang at a camping store in the Bowery, her audience clustered shoulder to shoulder between waxed canvas wares; the wheeling, audacious edge of the pit at a Double Negative and Melvins show my first week of college. You press enough bodies into a room and a certain wavelength wobbles in the air above like an overtone. If we’re tuned in, it drives us, or we drive it.
I’ve always admitted that I’d be susceptible to cults. It’s good to know your own weaknesses (a great group hang session) so you can shore them up (look twice at the orgy invite). I watched Wild, Wild Country and could easily see myself in orange robes, cheerfully waxing one of Bhagwan’s Rolls Royce sedans while we all sang George Harrison. Seems fun, honestly! Things are always peachy until they aren’t.
Sociologist Émile Durkheim had a term for this particular sort of crowd groupthink, or group-feel, or group-act — collective effervescence. The phrase itself evokes the first swallow of a cold cocktail in a crowded venue, as bracing as a gulp of icy seltzer.
Originally coined to explain religious zealotry, the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains that when the faithful assemble, “a certain ‘electricity’ is created and released, leading participants to a high degree of collective emotional excitement or delirium. This impersonal, extra-individual force, which is a core element of religion, transports the individuals into a new, ideal realm, lifts them up outside of themselves, and makes them feel as if they are in contact with an extraordinary energy.”
In June, I felt collective effervescence at an intimate Margo Price show at WNYC’s studios, giggling next to two of my best friends; at a Mets Game, my date on one side and a stoic preteen girl on the other, exchanging wry commentary with her father; at Bushwick’s Cobra Lounge, where the back room hosts karaoke and I pinged from end to end of the stage, singing Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” cheering raucously for the strangers that came after. The people assembled screamed along to “Friday, I’m in Love,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Criminal,” and “Semi-Charmed Life,” and before I went outside for a cigarette, where I’d share an exultant make-out, I was already moved by a certain spirit — call it God, call it collective effervescence, call it a good time. I just want to be in the room.
[A Playlist For Feeling Collective Effervescence](https://open.spotify.com/playlist/32wuf6r64NjpOVLrCieB2U)
Chinese Satellite (Phoebe Bridgers)
Hold Me In Your Mind (Living Hour)
Bull Believer (Wednesday)
Jesus’ Son (Priests)
Been to the Mountain (Margo Price)
VBS (Lucy Dacus)
All of This Will End (Indigo De Souza)
Believe (Amen Dunes)
Miracles (Alex G)
Oh My God (Kevin Morby)
We All Try (Frank Ocean) (alt. Bad Religion by Frank Ocean if this isn’t streaming)
Higgs Boson Blues (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds)
Secret of the Easy Yoke (Pedro the Lion)
Relative Fiction (Julien Baker)
Faith / Void (Bill Callahan)
Easy/Lucky/Free (Bright Eyes)
The Sound of the Crowd (The Human League)
I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (Richard & Linda Thompson)
Just Like Heaven (The Cure)