DO YOU GET IT?: PHISH SCENE IDENTITY
As the particular catchphrase for a seemingly specific known-yet-unknown, spoken-yet-unspoken, collective-yet-individual quality, “it” brings people together to form what Grossberg (1984) calls “affective alliances.” Recognizing that in the context of the Phish scene, “it” is a place, a feeling, a moment, a time-space location, a consciousness, and a reason, this essay seeks to examine the cultural significance of “it” as a constructed articulation of how individuals make both sense of and meaning in the world in which they live. Keeping the relationship between time, space, place, and consciousness in mind when unpacking these articulations of “it” leads me to analyze both embedded and embodied—what I call emplaced—cultural practices. I am interested in establishing a theoretical framework in which re-conceptualizing the difference between time and space in a manner where the two are inherently interconnected alters the way we view identity. In this vein, I draw from over seven years of ethnographic research into Phish scene identity as it is constructed by scene participants themselves to contend “it” be theorized not only as a material place but as an effect of specific emplaced practices, what I call the spatial articulation of affective authenticity. This essay builds on and contributes to other works that take seriously a spatial approach that theorizes and analyzes emplaced cultural practices by exploring how scholars work to understand affiliated, and oftentimes, affective relationships.
Do you get it?: Phish Scene Identity
Fishman: At one point some girl came up and asked if we could do any Flock of Seagulls [chuckling] and that was the beginning of the end. We took a break and they brought down a stereo from somebody’s room and started cranking Michael Jackson…and weren’t really encouraging us to go back on but we did. We played our second set—
Trey: Which was the same…as the first set—
Fishman: Right. We just started repeating…“Proud Mary” and “Long Cool Woman.” “Long Cool Woman” and “Proud Mary” were both played a couple times. Yeah.
Interviewer: Did the people like it?
Trey & Fishman: No—
Trey: They hated it…I remember it culminated…with me screaming into the microphone. They were trying to turn Michael Jackson louder than us and I was holding up the check cause they—
Fishman: Oh right—
Trey: They paid us. You paid us!
Fishman : You paid us! You paid us! Hahaha, you paid us! Proud Mary [signing]—
Trey: And it was like [chuckling] “This is thriller/Proud Mary keep on turnin’
On Friday night, December 2, 1983, guitarists Trey Anastasio and Jeff Holdsworth, bassist Mike Gordon, and drummer Jon Fishman performed their first official gig: a semi-formal dormitory dance at the University of Vermont’s Harris-Mills Cafeteria. With hockey sticks serving as microphone stands, the four founding members of the band Phish unapologetically played their way through a collection of ‘60s and ‘70s rock and roll and rhythm and blues covers while an unreceptive crowd clamored for a more fashionable assortment of Billboard’s Top 40 hits. To those whose social positionings and situated knowledges of American music soundscapes are, as music critic Kelefa Sanneh has argued “untouched” by Phish’s sonic footprint, this anecdote means very little.(2) To the legions of Phish fans—those who fervently consume the band’s music and construct what I theorize as Phish scene identity—the “Blackwood Convention” on 12/2/83 marks the moment when, to borrow from Edward Casey “space and time c[a]me together in place” and it happened.(3)
As an interdisciplinary scholar, trained ethnographer, and Phish fan I am compelled to follow Jay Mechling’s call to “listen to the silences” when examining the workings of culture and to uncover and unpack not simply meanings but the processes themselves that produce such meanings.(4) It is in this vein that I explore the cultural significance of it as a constructed articulation of how individuals make sense of and meaning in the world in which they live. In particular, this essay examines what Phish scene identity, as it is constructed by scene participants themselves, can tell us about American identity at the turn of the 21st century. It marks my attempt to follow Nigel Thrift’s steps and “lay down new casual pathways [where]…how [one] pay[s]… attention matters.”(5) Critically analyzing how Phish scene identity is enacted— that is, how the scene is spatially articulated —requires one simultaneously investigate how particular historical circumstances, material conditions, and cultural forces intersect. Adopting such a theoretical approach, where context and background are the very means by which identity or being is understood; in the case of Phish scene identity also demands, at the very least, an unequivocal and genuine recognition of a classed politics of belonging and privilege. Moreover, cultural work like this must employ a methodology that reflects and responds to this intersectional framework. It must mark a commitment to honest ethnographic research that not only listens to the cultural performers whose stories we are entrusted to share but does so in a way that follows Robin D.G. Kelley’s call to represent and convey “what it all means to the participants and practitioners.”(6) Drawing from more than seven years of ethnographic data I examine how Phish scene identity is spatially articulated amidst a politics of class, privilege, and belonging and posit it be theorized not only as a material place but as an effect of specific emplaced practices, what I call the spatial articulation of affective authenticity. Phish scene participants take part in constructed emplaced practices with the hope that they will get and feel a part of what many describe as “it.” In the following pages, I explore how Phish scene identity, as a spatial articulation, may be read as participants’ way of achieving an affective effect driven by a feeling of culturelessness within a portion of America’s predominately white middle and upper-middle class. I then return to Trey Anastasio and Jon Fishman’s recounting of Phish’s first show and explore how this process—how Phish scene participant’s way of achieving affective authenticity, of articulating it— may be read as an affective effect connected to an understanding of authenticity that is different from the constructed reality of mainstream American popular music. Finally, I suggest how research that seeks to explore the Phish phenomenon amidst America’s (multi)cultural soundscape in a manner that blurs traditional distinctions between academic and public spheres is valuable, timely, and important work.
As the catchphrase for a seemingly specific known-yet-unknown, spoken-yet-unspoken, collective-yet-individual quality, it brings people together to form what Lawrence Grossberg calls “affective alliances.”(7) In this manner, it provides common ground, gives meaning, and is filled with meaning. When approached philosophically it pushes against the simplicity of its form and embodies a much more complex, nebulous function. In this light it is dynamic. It is a place, a feeling, a moment, a time-space location, a consciousness, and a reason. It exists in the multiple arenas of human experiences and embodies a particular “liminal, processual, [and] multireal quality” that, to borrow from Richard Schechner, “reveals both the glory and the abyss of [the] human [experience].”(8) As such, it provides an informative philosophical lens through which one can examine and understand the world in which we live.
In a (p)historical context it is, as one Phish fan explained, “that indescribable place that we [fans] all know so well.”(9) While teaching at Berklee College of Music, Mike Gordon’s bass instructor encountered “countless young musicians who were inspired by Phish” that despite having difficulty articulating just “what it is that moved them” felt “the Phish experience did move them.”(10) IT is, quite literally, the name of Phish’s sixth festival; it’s third at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine, and with more than 70,000 fans in attendance on August 2-3, 2003, the second largest (temporary) city in the state.(11) Fan Andy Gadiel, described it as “a common consciousness surrounding the music.”(12) David Calarco, author of the long running Phish-centric blog, Mr. Minor’s Thoughts, cited it as “the reason we [fans] go on tour…fly cross-country for three days or less…[and] the reason credit cards are abused for hotel rooms, rental cars, airplane, and concert tickets.”(13) To borrow from another longtime fan, “Phish was where it was at.”(14)
Keeping the intersection of time, space, place, and consciousness in mind when theorizing identity marks my commitment to anti-essentialist, fluid, and nuanced frameworks that mirror the philosophical complexity associated with identity formation and as such leads me to analyze both embedded and embodied—what I call emplaced—cultural practices.(15) In this light, I contend Phish scene identity be theorized as not only a material place but as an effect of specific emplaced practices.(16) I take seriously Casey’s point that “[r]ather than being one definite sort of thing, a given place takes on the qualities of its occupants, reflecting these qualities in its own constitution and description and expressing them in its occurrence as an event: places not only are, they happen,” and I further maintain the scene be theorized as an event.(17) As an event, the place “Phish scene” happens and, as an event that happens, the Phish scene as a place “arise[s] from the experience of place.”(18) Put simply, “space and time come together in place” and it happens.(19) Viewed this way, Phish scene identity can be read as a spatial articulation that is brought into being when particular historical circumstances, material conditions, and cultural forces intersect.
At the same moment Phish first took the stage in 1983 grand narratives throughout America were being displaced by meta-narratives as efforts to highlight the politics of difference—to expose how specific social constructions intersected institutionally and culturally with forms of power— gained momentum in both academic and public spheres. Once dominant constructed understandings of “America” and “American” were exposed and simultaneously challenged by a diversity of voices and bodies once relegated to the margins of society. At the exact moment that more people sought recognition as subjects in a society that subjugated them, the theoretical concept “subject” was devalued. Multiculturalism came to signify a variety of cultural and institutional attempts to expose this relationship and promote the inclusion of multiple subjects.(20) I contend this breakdown of grand narratives, particularly under the guise of multiculturalism, a sign that signified at its most basic level a challenge to white middle class culture as American culture, left many white middle and upper-middle class individuals in the 1980s and 1990s feeling cultureless.
Sentiments of being without culture, of feeling cultureless, can be traced through a number of American cultural articulations in the 1980s and 1990s—from Generation X to classic rock—and provide a lens though which we can begin to better understand Anastasio’s assertion that Phish’s appeal was directly related to “something bigger going on culturally” and, in specific “it was a response to what was happening in the Eighties culturally.”(21) Theorized as an effect of specific emplaced practices that in turn foster the affective effect it, I treat performance as a ritual that “address[es] cultural conflicts and contradictions” and build on existing research that situates the Phish scene as a site of resistance to posit Phish scene identity be read as a performance of resistance, specifically middle and upper-middle class resistance to a classed politics of belonging enacted by Americans on the eve of the 21st century.(22) In an attempt to achieve inclusion Phish scene participants imagined an America where this perceived splintering never occurred, much less existed.
If we recognize Phish scene participants as, to borrow from Lawrence Levine, “actors in their own right who not only responded to their situation but…affect[ed] it in crucial ways,” ideas of lacking culture felt by Phish fans can be understood as classed and raced responses to Jameson’s death of the subject that parallel emotions felt by Gen-Xers at the same historical moment.(23) Following this trajectory I acknowledge the moniker’s origin as a mass-media strategy aimed at the middle class but also recognize the idea of Gen-X began to develop a reality propelled by that very same group.(24) In the bestseller Generation X, Douglas Coupland details the lives of three fictional white middle class twenty-somethings who, motivated by a feeling of culturelessness leave their homes, families, and jobs, and head into the desert to “make [their] own lives worthwhile tales in the process.(25) Similarly Phish fan, David Steinberg’s recollection that, “Few people ever [ask]…‘Wow, what was it like to be a college student in the mid-1980s?’” discursively hints at a similar ambiguity resulting from not only the theoretical de-centering of the subject but with the death of the subject.(26) Placed in a postmodern context, Gen-X analysis can be understood as a middle and upper-middle class American attempt to deal with effects of multiculturalism.
Phish’s appeal at this time marks a distinctly American white middle and upper-middle class attempt at belonging. The band’s first show, the “Thriller” show detailed at the beginning of this essay, depicts perhaps the very first example of this struggle over cultural representation. Those attending the dormitory dance to quote Anastasio “hated it.”(27) As Anastasio and Fishman recall, the show ended with Anastasio screaming into the microphone “You paid us!” as the audience turned up Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in an attempt to drown out the band.(28) To this point, many Phish fans make no qualms about their disdain for Eighties mainstream popular music. Entangled in fan descriptions of it is the suggestion that it is something both different and disconnected from the experiential realities of one’s everyday life. To many Phish fans, the band’s music represented this type of welcome disjuncture. Fan Dave proclaimed that the “80s were bereft of quality music” and Phish’s “quality music” was different from everything else out there.” (29)
These sentiments are not new in the study of popular music. A robust body of interdisciplinary scholarship explores what happens when, as Richard Middleton points out “popular music is established through comparison with…an…Other.”(30) Self-identifying by silently “othering” is a common practice in both academic and public spheres. In practice “ours”/“theirs” rhetoric does more than simply denote difference –it implies an unequal binary where power and difference intersect. Most often this is manifested in “what ‘we’ do is good while what ‘they’ do is bad” type scenarios and a fair amount of existing research is no exception to this practice, historically mapping notions of culture as a way of life onto theoretical frameworks that distinguish between high and low culture, in turn establishing class distinctions. While a number of theoretical approaches offer possible lenses though which this divide be seen as relating to notions of popular culture, I find Stuart Hall’s theorization of popular culture as a site of struggle provides a better suited lens through which multiple popular cultures—yours, mine, theirs—can be teased out. Hall’s fluid approach to traditional, unilateral frameworks of capitalism allows for a more nuanced understanding of class struggle “in and over culture.”(31)
This understanding of popular music as cultural critic Robert Christgau often argued ran counter to the classic rock that Phish was then-embracing in a way that mirrored rock fans’ anti-disco sentiments in the 1970s.(32) Prior to disco’s pop-crossover following the success of the film Saturday Night Fever disco was primarily, although not exclusively, embraced by urban, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered peoples of color. White heterosexual production and consumption of the music skyrocketed after the now iconic film Saturday Night Fever. Classic rock, and what Christgau deemed the “manipulatively racist assumptions” it represented worked to perpetuate the longstanding popular construct of rock and roll as a white man’s genre of music.(33) Phish fan Dave’s comments about Eighties mainstream music depict an inverted theoretical framing of the popular where Phish’s music, once positioned as pop music’s unnamed Other is now given full subjecthood while mainstream popular music is relegated to the margins as the less privileged Other.
The suggestion that Phish played quality music is often echoed in Phish scene participant narratives. The following three accounts illustrate this sentiment. Richard Wright, author of two Phish songs, said
I was…glad that there was actually a band like [Phish] during the ‘80s because all
through the ‘80s…there wasn’t too much…music that I liked…Phish were…a contrast to the sort of anti-music that was going on in the ‘80s…I liked their influences too…When I first heard them, they sounded a little bit to me like Yes. And then I…picked up on… Zappa…and the Allman Brothers…it was something that I felt…comfortable with.(34)
While Wright shares Dave’s aforementioned affinity for progressive rock he also explains that Phish’s music was different from most bands at the time because it was “anti-music” and not “quality” music as Dave explained. Both Dave and Wright descriptively locate Phish’s music as their answers to the constructed Other of popular music. Building on this, Dave stressed how Phish’s own music embodied a unique originality:
When I first heard ‘YEM’ I knew it was the end of an era. The lack of originality
that marked the ‘80s had come to a screeching halt. This was the first Phish
original I ever heard, and I was dumbfounded! This is the Phish sound. It’s what differentiates them from other bands. It was incredibly refreshing to hear something so different. And (for me) new…such a distinct overall sound…I knew there was finally hope in the world…musically, anyway.(35)
While existing scholarship posits alternative music often appealed to those constructed as others, my task as an ethnographer dealing with Phish fans demands I tease out fans’ own positioning and situated knowledge.
Dave and Wright’s narratives parallel the following conversation between author and fan Peter Conners and Sirius broadcaster Gary Lambert, to suggest this familiarity stemmed from a collective positioning within America’s middle class.
Conners: When I think about the music that was coming out in the eighties… it was music made by machines for machines and I wasn’t having any of it.
Lambert: Well…there was…underground music in the eighties…It…wasn’t the stuff that the mainstream was selling you…
Conners: Yeah… I had my one Sex Pistols friend.(36)
In this exchange good music is again positioned in relation to the Other. The constructed good music, “underground music” like the Sex Pistols, reflects culture as a site of struggle, in this case in and over class and privilege, while other music produced “by machine for machines” situates culture and cultural meanings as constructions produced by an ideological superstructure that are willingly accepted and consumed by a socio-economic base. Conners elaborated on his Sex Pistols mention and clarified, “The[y] were a band burning alive in poverty and rebellion…But at fourteen, I had no idea what [that]… w[as] about. The suburbs are not exactly a breeding ground for…urban social unrest.(37) This positioning bears striking similarity to Anastasio’s own assertion that, “I’m a child of the ‘70s and that’s the point…in 8th grade I was… going to the mall…and listening to what was on at the mall…the suburban white kid is a part of history,” and points to constructions of authenticity steeped in a classed politics of belonging and privilege. (38) Theorized as the spatial articulation of affective authenticity, the Phish scene embodies an understanding of the authentic as oppositional to or disconnected from mainstream popular music.
I hear Barbara Christian when she argues, “The nature of our context today is such that an approach which desires power single-mindedly must of necessity become like that which it wishes to destroy,” and I recognize her point that, “Rather than wanting to change the whole model, many…[just] want to be at the center.”(39) But might it not be the time in both the academic and public spheres to do more than simply acknowledge Anastasio’s suburban youth? To ask what we can “learn…about the workings of culture” from the matter-of-fact contention –“is what it is”—that Peter Conners made while referencing the classed and raced nature of the Phish scene?(40) While current research is making strides to no longer condone complex articulations of identity that complicate Christian’s “whole model”—Take for instance Jesse Jarnow’s recognition that the politics of dropping out be read as “libertarianism or escapism or white privilege masquerading as radical politics,” I want to assert that we as scholars and public theorists do more.(41) Specifically, I believe Phish Studies to be a field that provides us the extremely relevant ability explore alternate models though which we understand and imagine the world around us.
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- Phish: Bittersweet Motel, prod. and dir. Todd Phillips, 84 min., Image Entertainment, 2000, Videocassette.
- Kelefa Sanneh, “Critic’s Notebook: Some Small Pleasures, As Phish Dissolves,” The New York Times, June 21, 2004, E5.
- Edward S. Casey, “How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time,” in Senses of Place, ed. Steven Feld and Keith Basso (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1997), 27.
- Nigel Thrift, “Space,” in Theory, Culture & Society 23, no. 2-3 (2006): 145.
- Robin D. G. Kelley, Yo Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 41.
- Lawrence Grossberg, “Another Boring Day in Paradise,” in Popular Music 4 (1984): 225-58.
- Richard Schechner, Between Theatre and Anthropology, with a foreword by Victor Turner (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 123.
- “IT,” Mr. Minor’s Phish Thoughts, posted October 14, 2008, http://mrminer.wordpress.com/tag/the-moment/ (accessed September 21, 2009).
- Jim Stinnett, “Foreword,” in The Phish Companion, 2n ed., The Mockingbird Foundation (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2000), viii.
- The Phishing Companion, 2d ed., 659.
- Andy Gadiel, “The Genesis of Jambands.com,” in Jambands: The Complete Guide to the Players, Music & Scene, Dean Budnick (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003), 243.
- IT,” Mr. Minor’s Phish Thoughts.
- Musicologist and Phish fan Jacob Cohen in conversation about Phish and 1990s American music. Jacob Cohen, “Hip, Cool, and the Cultural Currency of the Grateful Dead,” (panel discussion at the 11th Annual Grateful Dead Caucus, February 14, 2008, Albuquerque, New Mexico).
- Una Chaudhuri, Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Drama (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995), xii. I also mean to invoke Doreen Massey’s “commitment to anti-essentialism” that “takes the constitution of the identities themselves and the relations through which they are constructed to be…understood as embedded practices.” Doreen Massey, For Space (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2003), 10.
- Lawrence Grossberg, “The Space of Culture, The Power of Space,” in The Post-Colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons, ed. Ian Chambers and L. Curtis (London: Routledge, 1996), 171. Massey, For Space, 10.
- Casey, 27.
- Lawrence Grossberg, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992), 55. Casey, 36.
- Casey, 27.
- Here I am specifically thinking of musicologist Eric Usner’s claims that multiculturalism, “challenged the implicit racial identities operating in the ‘melting pot’ model of America—the white American.” Eric Martin Usner, “Dancing in the Past, Living in the Present: Nostalgia and Race in Southern California Neo-Swing Dance Culture,” Dance Research Journal 33, no. 2 (2001-2002): 95.
- “Phish Festivalography Part I,” Jam On, Sirius Satellite Radio, October 15, 2009, http://thebutterroom.com/post/225577005/phish-festivalography-pt-1-4-i-often-find-it (accessed January 11, 2011).
- Christina L. Allaback, “Theater of Jambands: Performance of Resistance” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oregon, 2009). Wendy Fonarow, Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2006), 2. Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 4.
- Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in Everyday Theory: A Contemporary Reader, ed. Becky McLaughlin and Bob Colemen (New York: Pearson, 2005), 205. My attention to Generation X does not mark another attempt in what Alex Ross has deemed “the nation’s ongoing symposium on generational identity” and like Sherry Ortner I also find the “idea of a single generational consciousness…highly implausible, especially in an era as conscious as this one about social difference. Alex Ross, “Generation Exit: Kurt Cobain,” The New Yorker, April 25, 1994, 102. Sherry Ortner, Anthropology and Social Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 87. That said, I believe stretching this critique to dismiss the very idea of a Generation X to be a gross oversight. Reflecting on existing scholarship and my own ethnographic work leads me to posit that “it really is out there in some part(s) of social space,” and like Ortner I believe, “the question is one of locating it correctly. Ortner, 87-88.
- Jason Cohen and Michael Krugman highlight the market strategy and branding of Generation X as one that targeted a small but profitable portion of the American population with disposable income: middle and upper middle class teens and twentysomethings. Jason Cohen and Michael Krugman, Generation ECCH! (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 10. Sherry Ortner also investigates this facet of Generation X representations and concludes, “ society, it seems fairly clear that both the source and the target of the Generation X imagery is the middle class. That is, although poor people, mostly minorities, have actually been hit even harder than the middle class, the whiteness of the Gen-X imagery…indicates that these are not the people referenced in public discussion of Gen-X.” Ortner, 89.
- Douglas Coupland, Generation X (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 8.
- David Steinberg, “What Happened to the Jambands Community?” Jambands.com, April 4, 2005, http://www.jambands.com/Columns/Zzyzx/content_2005_04_04.00.phtml (accessed June 1, 2009). Steinberg is referencing his own teenage and college experience in the 1980s.
- Dave McGuriman, “3/11/88 The Base Lodge, Johnson State College, Johnson, VT,” The Phish Companion, 2d ed., 538. Phish: Bittersweet Motel.
- Phish: Bittersweet Motel.
- McGuriman, 538.
- Richard Middleton, Studying Popular Music (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1990), 6. Theodor W. Adorno, “On Popular Music,” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, ed. John Storey (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994). Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular,’” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Ortner, Anthropology and Social Theory.
- Hall, 462.
- Here I am specifically thinking of Alice Echols’ work analyzing white heterosexual Americans resistance to the urban multicultural sound of disco. Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010).
- Robert Christgau, “Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster: The Music Biz on a Joyride,” in The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates, ed. David Brackett (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 386-96. Maureen Mahon, Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
- Richard Wright, “Interview: Richard Wright,” The Phish Companion, 2d ed., 323-24.
- McGuriman, 538.
- Gary Lambert and Peter Conners, “Discussion with David Gans, Gary Lambert, and Peter Conners,” Tales from the Golden Road, Sirius Satellite Radio, April 26, 2009.
- Peter Conners, Growing Up Dead (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2009), 24.
- Trey Anastasio quoted in Phish: Bittersweet Motel.
- Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory,” Cultural Critique, no. 6 (Spring 1987): 51-63.
- Jesse Jarnow, Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2016), 12.
E. Yeager, "Do You Get "It"?: Phish Scene Identity