Popular music fandom and the Public Sphere

On a very sunny Friday 60 academics locked themselves away in a few rooms at the University of Chester. Why? To exchange knowledge and present about how popular music fandom relates to the public sphere.

The theme of the symposium – Popular music fandom and the Public Sphere – (organized by Mark Duffett) had attracted many interesting papers over a diverse range of topics. Most of the panels centralized a fan practice or a certain mode of fandom. As there were three sessions and per session three panels, I couldn’t see all papers (I would have loved to visit the panels on archiving, and fans as artists and writers), but here’s an impression of the panels I visited:

Fan Shame

The first panel I attended was about ‘Fan shame’ – in three paper presentation the topic of ‘shame’ somehow played up. Most interesting in this panel for me was Bethan Jones’ paper on the fandom of the Lost Prophets and how they dealt with their love for the band after Ian Watkins (lead singer) was sentenced to prison. The fans felt disgusted, almost betrayed and felt a very strong sense of (almost) hatred towards the singer and his crimes. So, their love for the Prophet’s music became overshadowed by Watkins’ horrendous acts. To express their grief they did not per se go online – only 18 out of a 100+ sample showed their grieving online – Jones argues this is a form of self-censorship, yet I wonder whether it is also just another signal of a decrease of ‘message boards’ or forums since the entrance of networks like Facebook and Twitter (where these fans btw also did not out their grief!). Jones conceptualized the move these Prophet fans made as ‘post-object anti-fandoIMG_2958m’. The fandom felt as if their fan-being was over, and due to Watkins’ acts they felt so disgusted that they moved to developing an anti-fandom attitude about their previous object of affection. However, whereas 68 of the participants felt closer to being an anti-fan than a fan, still 59 of her respondents considers their fandom to be about the music and not about Watkins. A very interesting development that was clearly illustrated in this presentation about how fans deal with not just the ‘stop’ of an object they love, but also feeling a very strong aversion for this band they once loved.
The second and third papers in this panel dealt not with shame because of somebody else, but with personal feelings of shame: Second in the panel, Carla Schriever discussed the male adoration of Prince fans (aged between 45-60) – her paper highlighted how these fans have to become an insider in order to really be part of the fandom, and how this ‘inner circle’ is not well understood by the outside world. I also had the impression that the male fans she studied had not just a strong adoration for Prince, but Prince offers them a sort of wishful mirror? As in: he is the man these male fans want to be, at least for a moment – he offers them a dream.
The third paper, by Helen Davies, addressed how young girls negotiate their music consumption in everyday life. Davies interviewed three young girls and their preferences in music; if they listened to something considered cool they listened in the open, if the music was ‘old’ (Blondie, Abba etc.) or from a different genre the others didn’t like (e.g. nu-metal) the girls put their headphones on. However, if they found out from each other that these deviant listening practices took place they were bullied for it – or at least called out to liking this ‘weird’ music.

Fan CelebrityIMG_2972

After these three papers, I visited the Fan Celebrity panel in which three paper presentation took place that highlighted either a strong connection between fan and celebrity or how fans engagement with celebrities could be valued.
Georgina Gregory explained how impersonators / tribute bands’ mimetic embodiment (e.g. the right dress code, the right accent, the right moves to resemble the artist as closely as possible) contributed to their cultural capital (which even turned into erotic capital for the male members of these groups). Gayle Stever talked us through fan activism – and how that that is not a new phenomenon at all. She argues that already in 1986 (pre-Internet) the first actions by fans for celebs / in order to help celebs took place. And lastly Mat Flynn opened our eyes by describing how Spotify measures our listening behaviour and what we can learn from those practices, and what/how the industry can learn from this – e.g. we have a max. of listening to a certain amount of new songs per year, and there’s 68 (depending on age / gender group) that are in ‘heavy rotation’ during a year. This paper really opened my eyes in realizing how much these algorithms actually ‘know’ about us and our music consumption – yet, we it can’t explain why we listen to this music, or if we feel like we’ve indeed listened to this music most during a year. So, that’s where there’s still enough room for research to be done.

Music fans are not very good listeners

In the afternoon it was time for Cornel Sandvoss’ keynote ‘To listen and make yourself heard’. He kicked off with a cute picture of his son, explaining how he was perfectly able to make himself heard – but also to listen whenever the song to Maya the Bee was put on. With that brilliant metaphor Sandvoss described how current studies connecting music and fandom often asIMG_2983sume that there is somehow a political motivator of value for music fans (referring to the work of John Street and David Hesmondhalgh), but Sandvoss thinks it time to start questioning these assumptions: He critiques the authors by pointing to the lack of engagement with modes (genres) of music in Hesmondhalgh’s work Why Music Matters, whereas Streets’ Politics and Music can be critiqued on calling out on the consequences on processes of reception & participation – that’s beyond its scope.
Sandvoss therefore gives the critique that many studies show how fandom indeed facilitates agency and amplifies articulations of the Self – but this does not imply or equal that there is progressiveness or political participation per se. He proposes to make a further distinction if we want to consider music as a sphere for alternative imagination or if music should help to imagine a different world based on textual gaps: he puts forward the terms ‘utility’ and ‘value’ as two distinct categories to closer examine the ‘worth’ of popular music fandom. Utility is what we now often label as value – the enhancement of one’s agency vs an Other’s agency, whereas ‘value’ as a concept is to be considered that which facilitates imagination beyond current macro-structures. Summarizing, this illustrated that music lovers are not great listeners – the focus in music consumption IMG_2984is still very much of the self-narrative instead of macro-engagement.

Continuing Fandom

The last panel of the day was my own panel – in which three cases that connected to the continuation of a fandom in one’s life were presented. Rachel Cohen, Julian Hunt & Charles Musselwhite formed a multi-disciplinary team with a great interest in looking at the continuation of punk and progrock in aging fans’ lives. Thereafter, I presented how post-youth Backstreet Boys deal with the continuation of their fandom in the private and public sphere and how a different discourse has formed over this in recent years (e.g. being an adult fandom the fans feel a need to defend / or frame the fandom as a guilty pleasure because it is not very accepted as a practice in the public domain). Leonieke Bolderman closed the session with her research on music tourism as a fan practice by reviewing and relating how fans of U2, Wagner and Abba continued their fandom by going on tours related to the musical objects of fandom.

If you want to read a bit more about the papers / event –> ##pmfps2015

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