Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fandom Before the Internet: The Fan Club Directory

How did fans keep up with the latest news, enthuse with friends, and sustain their enthusiasms before the Web, Facebook, and Twitter? We take it for granted that a "community" can be non-geographic these days, but before the Internet that concept was not wholly accepted; a community without shared experiences and practices in a particular place felt considerably weaker, more like a loose association ("the international community," "the scientific community") than one based in a neighborhood or other locality. Nevertheless, fans' intense feelings of connection motivated them to seek one another out and attempt to build a sense of community, something that they did mostly with regular face-to-face meetings (at conventions, performances, and parties) and print communication (fanzines, newsletters, and private letters). Much of this activity, especially for fans of lesser-known stars and art forms, was DIY, and it required an amazing amount of labor and love. You really need a certain level of devotion to work at a job all day, manage a family, and then also spend your remaining time, night after night, doing the rather isolated work of collecting clippings, writing articles, compiling fan art, and mailing out photos and tapes to fellow fans.

I'll be exploring these aspects of fandom a bit more (and maybe compare them to today's practices), but for this post I just wanted to highlight an extraordinary publication, which is now defunct: The Fan Club Directory. Published between 1979 and 2002, the Directory was a two-staple, roughly 75-page booklet, produced annually by the National Association of Fan Clubs (NAFC). It listed alphabetically every fan club that elected, for free, to become a member of the NAFC, giving readers the U.S. mail address of the current president and/or contact person. The NAFC was an organization dedicated to representing "all fan clubs in all fields of entertainment," and so the listings in the Directory were unintentionally jarring: announcement of The Amazing Pudding, the fanzine for Pink Floyd, sat right across from the Annette Funicello fan club (both are listed alphabetically under "F"); "The Celestial Affiliation of Time Lords: A Time Travel Fan Organization" was next to the "Charlie Daniels Band Volunteers;" Elton John and Al Jolson were side by side. It read like a fantasy middle-school classroom before everybody went off to become famous in their various pockets of the world.

Some of the clubs were focused on stars or shows that I don't recognize anymore--Becky Hobbs, Secret Oktober, etc. But full-page breakouts were allotted for entertainment stars with more than one club, including Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Barry Manilow, and Elvis Presley. There seemed to be a mixture of both "official" fan clubs, run by an artist's management, and "unofficial," run by fans out of their homes. Of equal historical interest were the details in the Directory's ads. You could learn, for example, that The Flying Nun Fan Club "has been looking for the original hat and dress from 'The Flying Nun' for the 25th Anniversary." (One can only wonder: did they find it? What did they do with the artifacts?). Or that there was a new Keith Carradine Club in Gronau, Germany, "searching for new members who are interested in international contact with other Carradine fans all over Europe." Or that a group called "Operation Tribbles" helped to coordinate Star Trek clubs to donate stuffed "tribble" toys to people in rest homes, hospitals, and hospices around the world. In all, the Directory offered a heterogeneous slice of late 20th century popular culture in the English-speaking world. 

When I first received The Fan Club Directory in my mailbox back in 1993, I remember being amazed at how many clubs there were and how much work it must have been to bring that information together in one place. Of course, that was right at the dawn of the World Wide Web, when fans were just joining online "bulletin boards" and "discussion groups." Blanche Trinajstick, the Editor/Publisher of the Directory, retired from "fan club work" in 1992, stating that "for more than 30 years I have not known the meaning of 'spare time.'" Her successor, Linda Kaye, published the Directory for another decade before finally calling it quits in the face of the Internet explosion, which both made being a fan and communicating with other fans far easier and slowly eroded the usefulness of a printed directory. As Kaye wrote retrospectively: "While the NAFC provided a great service for a quarter of a century, the Internet made the task of keeping up with confirming the legitimacy of 'new' website clubs and responding to mountains of e-mail requests for fan information and clubs dealing with fans most of us have never heard of a burden too overwhelming to continue."

Yes, the Internet changed things. But I am wary of simply understanding technology as determining radically new kinds of human behavior. In fact, I see The Fan Club Directory as an important and necessary antecedent to today's social networking. While it is all but forgotten among the current iPod generation, I hope that at least it will be preserved (along with fanzines and other fans publications) as evidence of how enthusiasm in our culture has been continuously, as well as variously, organized.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Fan's Perspective: McCartney as Dad

Musician Robert Burke Warren has a thoughtful article over at Paste on his fandom for Paul McCartney. His reflection was prompted by McCartney's recent concert at Yankee Stadium, which he describes as a powerful show for the audience gathered. As he put it, "I was a riot of sensation and notion; chill bumps, laughter, singing with strangers—all messy, uncool spillage from an open heart." Part of that spillage was realizing the extent to which his fandom has, in some way, always been about McCartney as a father figure. "I was struck" he wrote about the finish of the concert, "by the amount of families, some of whom carried sleeping children out of the still-charged stadium. This had been a family event. Of course."

In public discourse, fandom is typically reduced to stalking or silly teenage enthusiasm. (Certainly, the story of Beatlemania was always centered on screaming teenage girls). But, here, Warren shows us that such stereotypes of fandom fail to get at the consequences of individuals' long-term attachments to public performers. Devotedly following a star's career over time--for years or decades--transforms most people's initial attraction, however motivated, into a significant force for meaning in daily life. Songs get attached to personal memories and values, lyrics begin to illuminate diverse circumstances, concerts start to feel less like entertainment events and more like repeated rituals of affirmation.

McCartney as an iconic dad? Sure: for Warren. Fandom is complicated--as complicated as the diverse experiences and life stories of the millions of people who identify as fans. Especially in our complex culture, in which intense fame vies with widespread anonymity, fandom works not only as a framework for consumption but also as a technology of the self. Few have really bothered to articulate the latter, but it is obvious when someone does.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Name That Audience 7

I've been focusing a lot on music lately, so time for something different. That's your hint for this week's Name That Audience:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

An Ecological Approach to Awe

There is a very interesting moment in the narrative of Geerat J. Vermeij's The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything From Seashells to Civilization, when, after laying out some of the basics of his thesis about adaptation, he describes a profound concert experience:

On a cold Thursday evening, Edith and I sit in the cavernous Hooglandse Kerk in Leiden, the Netherlands, immersed in sonic splendor, and move to deep contemplation as the sacred music of Tomás Luis de Victoria and other Spanish late Renaissance masters, performed alternately on the great Baroque organ and a capella by the choir, fills the church. Everyone and everything--the audience, the chords and melodies, the organist and his craft, the singers and their conductor, the artistry of the composers, and even the church with its echoing acoustics--have become one, a three-dimensional edifice of harmony and meaning.

I've been collecting descriptions of concert experiences for as long as I can remember, but this one is different than most. Being moved by a performance is most often described by contemporary Americans in the language of religious faith; the feelings generated by experiencing something greater than oneself most closely recall one's feelings about God. But Vermeij, as a biological scientist, offers a slightly different analogy, using the principles of ecology to account for aesthetic pleasure. In fact, after admitting that the concert is "a transcendent construction, inspired by a fervent faith in God, anchored in beliefs in miracles and creation stories and the afterlife, all doctrines I rejected long ago," he explains his being moved in terms of his own awareness of participating in a complex ecosystem, as a one component among many:

But the magic--the ecstasy created by coordinated complex machines inside a massive box of stone--endures. The components taken singly may be ordinary and undistinguished, but the whole achieves a grandeur and significance, a richness of experience, that transcends the context in which it was created....This is as compelling a demonstration as can be found of parts working together to produce an emergent whole, a unit with properties that none of its components possesses. Water, a molecule consisting of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, is utterly unlike the two component elements. It is a liquid rather than a gas at room temperature, it expands rather than contracts in the solid state, and it is an exceptionally good conductor of heat. The properties of water seem irreducible, much as our complex brain might appear to be irreducible to its many constituent parts; but in fact they arise through the interaction--the working together, or synergy--of components. Likewise in music, chords and melodies convey patterns and evoke emotions that single tones cannot. Sentences, paragraphs, and books have meanings that individual words and letters do not. Living things, too, work together to add dimensions of value, function, and meaning. Survival and propagation are themselves expressions of emergence and synergy common to all life-forms; but we humans are motivated and enriched by more than these lifewide aspirations. We perceive a greater purpose--through love, curiosity, a social conscience, helping others, and perhaps above all, through aesthetics--a deeper meaning that makes our individual lives worthwhile to others. Without that added significance, and without the intentionality that enables us to create a future according to our tastes and values, life would be empty; we would descend into apathy and callousness. Purpose and meaning, however they come into our lives, are as real and as essential as the evolved imperative to survive and reproduce.

It might be productive to place this understanding of a "transcendent construction" next to others that have come down to us over the years from more religiously-minded philosophers (enthusiasm, the sublime, etc.). In fact, I see the beginnings of a bad academic joke: "Plato, Kant, and Darwin are sitting in the audience at a concert...." Seriously, Vermeij's ecological approach to thinking about aesthetic experience recalls early American concert-goers in the 1840s and 1850s. Before reformers insisted on reverence for great works, concert-goers primarily reported being moved--sometimes overwhelmed--by the entire experience of a concert, from acoustics and seating to the sensation of mass applause. I'm not sure their experiences included Vermeij's admiration of "synergy," but they did involve heightened attention to the interaction of multiple and dynamic parts, which was, in a way, a nascent sort of ecological awareness.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Latest Work on Opera Fans

Looks like I need to catch up on a recent publication: Claudio Benzecry's The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession. Jessa Crispin has a review (combined, somewhat oddly, with Wayne Koestenbaum's now 18-year-old The Queen's Throat) over at the Smart Set, including a reflection on her own fandom. She focuses on the importance of love as an independent organizing force for fan behavior, a motivation that, in most post 1970s cultural studies work on fandom, is de-emphasized in favor of social and political meanings involving subculture, hegemony, resistance, etc.

I assume this focus is the case with Benzecry's book, as well; my cursory reading of the introduction indicates that he is interested in staking a claim for understanding opera fandom outside of Pierre Bourdieu's highly influential ideas in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. All good. It might be nice if, on occasion, sociologists were to consider seriously the growing work on music fandom in disciplines outside of sociology (I had the same complaint about Tia Denora's otherwise brilliant Music in Everyday Life), but I'm open to Benzecry's fieldwork insights and hope to read it thoroughly soon.

My Music, Part Two


I am sometimes asked whether I will ever join my old colleagues, Charlie Keil and Sue Crafts, and create an updated version of My Music: Explorations of Music in Daily Life, which we published in 1993. But I have to say that it seems to me that Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton are doing just that lately over at All Songs Considered. They've now produced two great podcasts based on audience submissions and stories; one was on "Summer Music Memories" and the latest is about "Songs That Make You Weep." The show usually features Boilen and Hilton (and sometimes other critics, as well, including Stephen Thompson and Ann Powers) highlighting their favorite new releases or shows, but these episodes offer stories of ordinary people using music in the daily lives, often in their own voices.

So much has changed in the world of popular music, especially in terms of its technology, business model, and distribution. However, at the same time, Boilen and Hilton are pointing to many of the same meanings and actions that we discovered in the Music in Daily Life Project back in the late 1980s: the uses of music to shift or match mood, the deep connections between music and memory, and the transformative power of being moved by a song. This is a balance that really interests me: what has changed about the practice of audiencing, thanks to new technologies and social forces, and what remains the same, thanks to the constants of cultural and human behavior?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Audience Approval

Tom Bartlett, at the Chronicle of Higher Education, has an amusing post on who gets a standing ovation  for a TED talk. Applause, when you think about it, is pretty bizarre, no? Clapping our hands together vigorously to indicate approval? Standing, while clapping our hands together, to show super approval?

It's no weirder, I suppose, than rock concert audience members holding up cigarette lighters during a power ballad (for young people that currently use a cell phone: sorry, it's not the same--no flicker). We no longer yell "huzzah!" but we do still cry, "bravo!" and, in other venues, "woooooh!" Today, we "like" messages by clicking a symbol on a keyboard, but that's really no match for the forceful and sustained physicality ("thunderous applause", etc.) of audience approval in the 19th century.

There is a BBC radio piece on the history of applause, which is useful. Otherwise, Alex Ross, of the New Yorker, has dug up fascinating details about the increasingly limited role of spontaneous applause at classical music concerts. London's The Musical Times of July 1, 1897 (pp. 448-449) offers some insights, as well, particularly regarding changes in the relationship between applause and gender:
Thirty years ago it was hardly "good form" for a lady to applaud. She allowed her brothers or sons of husband to express her approval vicariously. But emancipation and the athletic education of our Amazons have changed all that. In applause nowadays, as in everything else, dux femina facti, and when a Paderewski plays lovely woman does not merely clap her lily-white hands, but she stamps her fairy feet and thumps on the floor with her elegant parasol or en-tout-cas. And certainly musicians are not likely to resent the innovation, for they would scout as a counsel of perfection the maxim that "virtuosity is its own reward." No; it may be a sign of weakness, but musicians, when they perform in public, like to be applauded, and as fully three-fourths of the tribe of conert-goers are of the fair sex, it is just as well, in the interest of the performer, that women should have abandoned their old prejudice against testifying their approval in the way practised by the mere male person.
I need more, though. Has anyone done a serious scholarly history of applause? If women and men, or refined and non-refined persons, were expected to show appreciation differently at concerts in the past, were fans and non-fans doing the same? How exactly? How do we vary our approval in today's digital age?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Name That Audience 6

What are these people looking at?

FNL Fans, Not NFL Fans

While its not about the origins of fandom, it's worth considering as another key moment in fan history: the story of "Friday Night Lights." FNL concluded forever last night, prompting longtime supporter and TV critic Matthew Gilbert to reflect on its meanings. He talks especially about the fans, who had a particular relationship to the show that had little to do with either Texas or football, which is interesting, given that the show was based on a book and a feature film about Texas football. (Talk about "encoding and decoding"...).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Landscape Audiences

I've been immersed in the life and work of Frederick Law Olmsted since school ended in June, planning for a new interdisciplinary course this fall. In conjunction with the National Park Service, furniture-maker Dale Broholm and I have been teaching an interdisciplinary curriculum at Rhode Island School of Design, called the Witness Tree Project, focused on fallen historic trees from national historic sites. Essentially, the students study the history and context of a "witness tree" in a seminar, and then use that research in a furniture studio to make objects out of the historic wood. We've already taught courses using trees from the Hampton National Historic Site in Maryland; the George Washington National Birthplace Monument in Virginia; and the Sagamore National Historic Site in New York. Next up is an historic elm from the Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts.

The relevance for this blog, where I think aloud about enthusiastic audiences, is the extent to which Olmsted understood landscape as a powerful means for creating very specific effects and experiences; the natural environment was always, for him, an intense performance that needed to unfold in myriad ways as people moved through space. Especially important was his ideal of "passages of scenery" in which people are drawn through passages that dramatically lead from one scene to another. As Olmsted wrote: "The chief end of a large park is an effect on the human organism by an action of what it presents to view, which action, like that of music, is of a kind that goes back of thought, and cannot be fully given  the form of words." (Boston: Parks and Parkways, 1882, in S. B. Sutton, ed., Civilizing American Cities, 1997: 259). This ideal is also the source for things like parkways (an Olmsted invention), which are intended to connect various natural space in the urban environment.

I've always thought of landscaping as rather static, a still-life of sorts, an attitude that Olmsted frequently and frustratingly encountered himself throughout his career. But understanding the intended dynamism of Olmsted's creations was a big clonk on the head for me. In my recent research, I've been thinking about antebellum working-class parades and the ways in which they moved through the spaces of cities; parades were powerful not only for being loud spectacles but also for crossing private/public and class boundaries, dynamically marking and re-marking territory. While movement through space was not political act for Olmsted, it was equally powerful aesthetic act. In fact, the success of any of Olmsted's designs were dependent on a certain willingness, on the part of park-goers, strollers, and leisure-seekers, to willingly give themselves over to Olmsted's manipulations, to the effect of an "action...that goes back of thought."

Nineteenth-century Americans keenly attended to their experience of landscape, staged or otherwise, much in the same way that they were fascinated by their experience of plays, concerts, shows, and other performances. They had to become enthusiasts in the true sense of the word, participating in a process of "taking in" a somewhat mysterious but invigorating force outside of oneself. Of course, urban amusements and nature parks were opposed in the view of moral reformers, but I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the reformers' view was not necessarily one shared by the middle-class public, many of whom (in diaries and letters) tended to enthuse about, and make connections between, their experiences of space. (Thus people would "take in" the scenery, as well as "take in" a play; the act of "promenading," too, was integrally linked to both pleasure gardens and commercial concerts). I can't quite prove it yet, but I believe the sensation of space was a primary allure of the Victorian era, and audiencing--whether in a new concert hall, exhibition building, or park--was very much a part of that allure.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Lost in Harry Potter

The final Harry Potter film opens this weekend, and a York farmer has commemorated the event with an impressively complex and artful maze. Landscape art seems to be the province of British Potter fans, who have done this sort of thing before.

Of course, displaying one's investment in Harry Potter with a maze has deeper meanings for those familiar with the books, since a maze featured prominently in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Friday, July 8, 2011

Fan Shorthand

Like any members of a distinct cultural group, fans invariably develop their own language, which helps them to symbolize their specialized knowledge, emphasize group cohesion, and communicate more effectively. Slang and shorthand are typically the mechanisms for developing this language; knowing the shortcuts for communication is a powerful kind of insider knowledge that takes study and experience to truly understand. At any rate, I was interested to find that even American Girl fans have their own shorthand:

AA: African-American, Asian American
AG: American Girl
AGB&B American Girl Boutique and Bistro
AGP: American Girl Place
AG(o)T (#): American Girl Doll (of) Today (Reference Number)
BB: Bitty Baby, Bitty Bear
BT: Bitty Twins
GoML: Girls of Many Lands
GotY: Girl(s) of the Year
HH: Hopscotch Hill
JLY: Just Like You
JLY(#): Just Like You (Reference Number)
My AG: My American Girl
Not!Doll's Name: A nickname for My American Girl dolls that resemble retired Girls of the Year.
PC: Pleasant Company
PM: Pre-Mattel

You might be tempted to see the acronyms above as a product of the current texting generation but I'm not so sure. Springsteen fans were doing this sort of thing with album titles (BitUSA, etc.) in the late 1980s, as were Deadheads and other fans of bands with multiple albums and elaborate titles. (Acronymy itself goes back to ancient Rome). I'd put American Girl shorthand into the broader history of fan slang, which ranges from the lingo of baseball fans in the 19th century to Star Trek fans since the 1960s.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Give the People What They Want, Seriously

Sixth Symphony Concert, Greek Theatre, Berkeley, California, 1906. Library of Congress.
There is an interesting article by Norman Lebrecht on the demise of urban symphony orchestras over at Standpoint. While this is a theme that has been repeated for at least the past several decades, things do seem to be more dire than usual this year.

He talks about why orchestras have mattered, in terms of civic boosterism and social cohesion, but one thing he adds, which in my view is probably the most important factor, is that people wanted them. As he notes, orchestras have survived historically because they signified valuable meanings for listeners: in the 1830s, they were part of "a rising demand for entertainment from a growing middle class;" in the 1900s, after both World Wars, they were symbols of hope and a better, civilized future. "It was both 'the done thing' in English cities to go to symphony concerts and a refuge from the otherwise inescapable gloom of postwar austerity. In America, GIs returning from war to a free college education and a small-town life demanded orchestral concerts of the kind they had heard abroad."

Lebrecht goes on to make an argument for orchestras today as a much-needed antidote to our hyperculture of communication: "...In a lifestyle of wall-to-wall wi-fi and instant tweets, the concert hall is one of the few places where we become reachable, where we can switch off our lifelines and surrender to a form that will not let us go for an hour or more. The symphony orchestra is our relief from the communicative addiction. It forces us, willy-nilly, to resist the responsive urge. It is a cold-turkey cure for our reactive insanity, our self-destroying restlessness. The more concerts I attend, the more I see how they restore balance to over-busy lives. It may well be that we, as a society, need the symphony orchestra now more than ever before."

I suppose this is true for some people but probably not the people orchestras need to reach in order to survive. In my view, this describes a perceived cultural need but not a popular want. Orchestras can be a part of people's daily lives but only if they become more vital to people's actual desires and enthusiasms. The instinct to pose the arts as a corrective to society, as a distinct alternative to a speeding world, is not the way I'd think about it, however much I might sympathize with the sentiment on occasion. While Lebrecht turns to 1940s post-war audiences' desire for contrast and redirection as his model for how to revive orchestras, I think our "over-busy" lives are more like those of the music lovers of the 1850s, who were, in their way, also people of "busi-ness," in awe of technology, living in topsy-turvy urbanized environments. Before genteel reformers got to them, they saw a symphony orchestra concert as an exciting extension of the exuberance, sophistication, and progressive promise of urban life. Concerts were part of going-out and moving up, of being with thousands of strangers, of participating in a world of sensation.

How can orchestras and their public concerts more actively and dynamically connect to this new age of technology, migration, and urbanization? What's the new role for art music in civic boosterism? How can the sonic palette of symphony orchestras truly create excitement for potential audiences, on the move and on the keyboard?

A Wilco concert--I'm there. A BSO concert--questions, hesitation, memories of discomfort. That's the problem.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fourth of July Spectators

The Fourth of July, Independence Day in the United States, is a time of public celebration and spectacle. In particular, it occasions the public display of values central to the nation: history, citizenship, unity, etc. Display, of course, depends on spectating; performance is for the benefit of an audience. Below are some historical images related to audiences at the Fourth of July celebrations.

Fire Balloons and Fireworks

Raising a Fire Balloon, 1871
The Illumination of Union Square, New York, 1876

Speeches and Dedications

Fourth of July in the Country, 1867
Fourth of July Celebration, Woodstock, CT, 1870

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Becoming a Fan of Mahler

Michael Tilson Thomas at Mahler's house in Maiernnig, Austria.
In Tramps Like Us, I wrote about the "becoming-a-fan" stories shared among Bruce Springsteen fans. They were essentially conversion narratives, articulating an intense realization of Springsteen's music. Fans reported that their discovery of Springsteen felt like a lasting dividing line in their lives, creating a transformative "before-and-after" that didn't exist previous to their conversion experiences.

I was reminded of such becoming-a-fan stories last night while watching Michael Tilson Thomas on public television hosting a documentary on composer Gustav Mahler. Mahler is an interesting figure in his own right, but what was most engaging about the program (part of the San Francisco Symphony's "Keeping Score" series) was Thomas's palpable enthusiasm for the man and his music. He just seemed so delighted to be talking about Mahler with you, the viewer, it was almost impossible not to get swept up in the whole thing. And unlike many documentaries on composers, which over-emphasize the otherworldly talent of an individual, this one actually opened with a string of becoming-a-fan stories from listeners: Thomas, Susan Graham, Frank Gehry, Patrick Stewart, and Yo-Yo Ma. (Thomas also did an interview last year in which he told his Mahler becoming-a-fan story, noting at the :50 mark that "I divide my life between before I heard that recording...and after).

Springsteen fans share their stories of becoming-a-fan to both confirm their membership in a wider community and to help others, just discovering Springsteen, to frame their experiences in understandable ways. It seemed to me that Thomas was doing something similar, except for a television audience. Thomas used his passion for Mahler as a basis for organizing the program's content; it helped to make Mahler's greatness not simply an abstraction but real, relatable, felt. By earnestly offering his life-changing discovery of Mahler, he made himself a little vulnerable--not the distant scholar or elitist expert but someone who was unexpectedly blown away by a recording when he was thirteen years old. Personally, I've never really connected with Mahler's music, but encountering Thomas's obvious love for it made me want to go back and listen again.

PBS's typical soft-spoken erudition isn't going to bring new audiences to Mahler, but Thomas's fandom just might.