30
Aug
09

Everyone’s a Critic: Fandom and Subculture

Fan

Since last year, I’ve been thinking more and more about fandom and subculture. I suppose a good deal of it came from the research involved in writing my MA thesis, but I haven’t really stopped examining both concepts. I tried to steer clear of fandom studies (led by the lovely Henry Jenkins) for my thesis in order to stay on course and not get myself mired too deeply in several different arguments (rhetoric, remediation and subculture seemed like sufficient material when studying MP3 blogs). However, I’ve now tried to delve back into the world of the fan to see how I can re-frame music fandom and MP3 blogger fandom. I also just got prompted to reconsider some ideas I’ve had about subculture via email discussion with Miles of Vanilla Swingers (but more about that later).

As I understand them, fans are often countercultural by virtue of being fans. If you ascribe to the Adorno-I’m-A-Marxist-Grumpy-Pants view on popular culture as a whole, you will see it as an extension of capitalism that reproduces power hierarchies and perpetuates the unfair economy. Fair enough. Record labels and television/movie studios have no doubt proved that over the past century. Popular culture is manufactured to be consumed by the masses, turning many celebrities into products that a passive, subdued audience can buy into without thinking too hard about it. However, many fans take their love of certain pieces of culture, popular or not, and extend it beyond a passive consumption; they extend it so far that they, in fact, become producers. This changes the power dynamic.

In books like Textual Poachers and Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins argues that fans become active, creative artists in their own right by transforming the texts sold to them. This kind of transformative actvity could take the form of fan fiction, fan art, modifying existing video games, remixing music, and creating fan video tributes. In many ways, fans are cultural magpies and intertextual innovators by taking pieces of the art they love and putting them in a new context or connecting them to something entirely different. Once you’ve started using someone else’s art as a launchpad for your own, you’re not exactly a drone consumer anymore, and you’re actually going against the prevailing culture by using it and modifying it to your own ends.

More often than not, the people in positions of power within these cultural industries don’t like the idea of losing that power or control over how and how much their products are being consumed or re-produced, as the case may be. This scenario has played out with copyright attacks on artists like Danger Mouse and on Harry Potter fan site webmasters around the globe, and through the millions of YouTube video takedowns over the past few years. However, I’m not entirely sure how MP3 bloggers like me fit into all of this. MP3 bloggers have been under an ever-increasing threat of copyright law and post takedowns (see my comments about that here), much like the artists who remix snippets of other artists’ music together, but at the same time, MP3 bloggers aren’t exactly re-creating art from art either. Just as those dastardly Napster pirates of the late 90s weren’t considered sympathetic postmodern artist types, MP3 bloggers come under fire for giving other people’s art away for free. Peer-to-peer filesharing was considered thievery despite the fact it wasn’t a countercultural power reversal of the consumer-turned-producer type. Instead, it was and is (now through torrents) a countercultural power reversal of the capitalist market system (hey, perhaps Adorno would finally approve). Is this as seemingly worthy a cause as the transformative fandom discussed earlier?

Are we MP3 bloggers actually transforming the culture we’re fans of? My initial answer is no. The closest I come to changing the context of another artist’s song is by linking it to others in a mixtape compilation. I’m not writing fiction based on other artists’ music, nor am I creating my own music videos to it; I am merely discussing, criticizing and/or reviewing others’ art. And while some bloggers arguably do it more artfully than others, it’s not the same kind of fandom practice as employed by those who write Harry Potter slash fiction or those who create new computer games from old ones. In my MA thesis, I argued that MP3 bloggers are a subculture mainly because they include MP3s for free download, which is still seen as illegal by most authorities, but I also saw them as a subculture because of the way they positioned themselves against those in power in the cultural industries – not always the record labels, but the music press. MP3 bloggers are not transforming the art of music, which they are fans of, they’re transforming the art of music journalism.

As much as the record labels (and even some artists themselves) want to lynch the bloggers, it seems many music journalists are just as antagonistic. Not one of the music journalists I contacted for my thesis came through for me; despite agreeing to answer some interview questions, they backed out without a word or explanation. They just simply refused to respond to any of my emails. Conversely, MP3 bloggers were more than willing to discuss and argue and submit answers. I would also like to point out that I didn’t present a biased set of loaded questions to either the bloggers or journalists – I honestly wanted real opinions, positive or negative. Additionally, while researching, the primary sources of music journalism that I found mentioning bloggers often denigrated them as lesser talents, as hype mongers, and as all-out thieves (along with those evil aggregators that make it easier to steal).

While the music industry reels and spins its wheels against a digital landscape, music journalism has seemingly done the same. It’s been widely reported over the last few years that magazines like New Musical Express are losing readers and bleeding money, perhaps even leading to Conor McNicholas’s relatively recent resignation. There have been many rumors about NME becoming a strictly online publication and a brand used for concert/club night promotion. And similar fates seem to be popping up for publications like Rolling Stone, which is seen as less and less the countercultural force it once was. Yes, some music magazines that cater to an older demographic, like Q, Mojo, etc., are still doing all right, but as their market ages and dies, their days seem to be numbered. Not to mention their lack of producing anything exciting or new about an art form that was built on being exciting and new. This Drowned in Sound piece provides some interesting opinions on why official music press is failing, including the question “does anyone except those already embedded in the fabric of a system so clearly trying to shed its weighty overcoat give a shit what a critic has to say about their favourite band’s latest LP?”. It all leads back to the argument of whether music journalism and criticism are legitimate in their own right; as Chuck Klosterman says, who else gets to make a career out of reviewing their mail? It’s a precarious job, as is many a critic’s job, but perhaps even more so because music journalists are usually reviewing what would be considered low culture rather than high culture; academics who review and write about culture are arguably less likely to be dismissed. Critics, especially muso types, can argue until the proverbial bovine comes home about subjective reactions to subjective pieces of art; that’s great, I love a good argument – providing it’s actually good. I would say that I haven’t seen very good arguments, nor interesting commentary on music, in print for a long time. On the other hand, I haven’t always seen very good arguments or commentary on MP3 blogs either (especially those of the “here’s an awesome track I just found – take a listen” variety).

Maybe the majority of music writers and readers are just bored with the rhetoric associated with music; maybe no one sees the use in an expert. In this digital world, we’re all experts in our own adhocracies. This can be a good thing, opening the floor for interesting writers with real opinions and the freedom to publish as they wish; however, it also seems to take something away from the fundamental mythology surrounding popular music. Just as I’m feeling less and less separated by a gulf between artist and audience (the occasional band and artist still manage to create a mystery about their work and identity, but most are very accessible, and there are several that just come across as very ordinary people), the myth of the rock journalist is vanishing. Being the collector of the tangible that I am, I miss having good music press to put on the shelves next to the vinyl records and CDs. I really would buy it if I felt it said anything or made me actually think about the music and artists I was exposed to. Just as the record industry was rendered out-of-date and is now increasingly in the hands of fans and artists themselves, music journalism is being superceded by innovations that those in the industry didn’t seem to be prepared for.

This jaded, blasé attitude toward music and its criticism can perhaps be linked to an ostensibly different stream of thoughts I’ve had about subcultures in general. This is where Miles’ email comes in. He was telling me about why he has mixed feelings about Camden, including the sense that it isn’t that great because it’s the haven for subcultural tribes, like goths and punks, to buy their uniforms. It’s a very valid point, and one that several friends have made to me over the years. If you agree with Dick Hebdige on subculture, people that start off swimming against the mainstream end up co-opted by the same system they wanted to overthrow (and this was before people gave the practice the creepy name of “cool-hunting”). Goths, punks, and their contemporary love children, otherwise known as emos, are tribes that march to a different drummer – but many of them are marching in the exact same lockstep. I don’t have a beef with these subcultural tribes (I, myself, have dressed in the “uniform” of several different subcultures throughout my life); I can’t assume that they’re all doing it to fit in or to be cool or cooly uncool, or that their fashion semiotics are ultimately meaningless and empty. I have a friend who is over thirty and still dressing in a way that makes strangers either stare or feel as though they have the right to touch her clothes and accessories, but I know that this kind of attention makes her highly uncomfortable, demonstrating that she doesn’t look the way she does for the sake of others and their reactions, but because she likes the look herself. Not to mention the fact, humans tend to re-align themselves into tribes naturally, whether the tribe is distinguished by eyeliner and bondage trousers or something less immediately visible. Semiotics in these subcultures are just as complicated and diverse as the social meaning behind fannish practices like MP3 blogging.

On the other hand, maybe globalization just makes it a lot harder to provoke or shock anymore. In my reply to Miles, I wrote about seeing a gothy teenager in West Edmonton Mall last year; this kid was wearing a full-length fox tail and all I could think was “kids in Japan have been doing this for years.” Granted, this isn’t everyone’s response, but it’s why I feel like subcultures (at least of the sartorial persuasion, and partially their musical counterparts) are losing any power they may have had at their births. Perhaps they empower those who embody them, but they don’t necessarily make a grand statement anymore as extremes of all sorts become less and less extreme. It has become a J.G. Ballardesque and Michel Houellebecqesque world, where it will take a lot to get anyone to have a visceral reaction anymore.

Perhaps the only hope for subcultures of these sorts, which are no longer dangerous, could come from other fandom practices, from the textual poachers. Even from the “amateur” music critics like us. And maybe nowadays the most radical practice that can come from the world of music and its fans is thought itself. I may never be an actual music journalist or journalist of any kind, but this blog at least allows me a little bit of control over how I consume and produce culture. Emos may, in fact, be the defusion and diffusion of goth and punk, but the more people there are creating art from art and using language as a thought-provoking weapon, the more we can keep proving Adorno wrong.

F.A.N. – New Young Pony Club

Fan Fiction – Polynya

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4 Responses to “Everyone’s a Critic: Fandom and Subculture”


  1. 1 jc
    August 31, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    There’s an awful lot to take in from this piece. And I think I’d find it really difficult to give a coherent and considered comment that pressed all the buttons. But if I may….rock/pop/music critics.

    I’ve never been one for putting music press next to ny vinyl and CDs. I read it and I usuaully throw it away as soon as I’ve finished. Just because someone has a great ability to string sentences/crochet a few cliches together in a way that is better than 99.9% of the rest of us doesnt make their views valid.

    What I adore about most music blogs – certainly the ones I read most which admitedly are ‘retro’ in nature – is the fact that people make a big effort to bring attention to music that they are fond of. Some are great at articulating why a song/artist moves them so, but most just get by with saying a variation of ‘this is so and so singing whatever and I love it’ with maybe one or two personal reasons thrown in. No clever wordplay or smugness. And they dont spend any time trying to appear cool or dishing out pointless vitriol.

    NME is now better known among the 16-25 age group in the UK as a video channel churning out indie-pop with one or two concessions to dance (as long as its quirky). Its days as a serious newspaper are numbered. Its a long time since someone graduated from the NME to become a writer worth caring about….

    Thanks again Anglopunk for caring.


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The only certain thing that is left about me

There is no part of my body that has not been used

Pity or pain, to show displeasure's shame

Everyone I've loved or hated always seems to leave

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So I turned myself to face me

But I've never caught a glimpse

Of how the others must see the faker

I'm much too fast to take that test

The Smiths Queen is Dead

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're happy

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Oh, Keats and Yeats are on your side

A dreaded sunny day

So let's go where we're wanted

And I meet you at the cemetry gates

Keats and Yeats are on your side

But you lose 'cause weird lover Wilde is on mine

The Clash London Calling

When they kick at your front door

How you gonna come?

With your hands on your head

Or on the trigger of your gun

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Charles Windsor, who's at the door

At such an hour, who's at the door

In the back of an old green Cortina

You're on your way to the guillotine

Here the rabble comes

The kind you hoped were dead

They've come to chop, to chop off your head

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Then you came with your breezeblocks

Smashing up my face like a bus-stop

You think you're giving

But you're taking my life away

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Won't someone give me more fun?

(and the skin flies all around us)

We kiss in his room to a popular tune

Oh, real drowners

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Don't walk away

In silence

See the danger

Always danger

Endless talking

Life rebuilding

Don't walk away

Walk in silence

Don't turn away in silence

Your confusion

My illusion

Worn like a mask of self-hate

Confronts and then dies

Don't walk away

Photobucket

You don't want to hurt me

But see how deep the bullet lies

Unaware I'm tearing you asunder

Oh there is thunder in our hearts

Is there so much hate for the ones we love

Tell me we both matter don't we

The Associates Affectionate

I don't know whether

To over or under estimate you

Whether to over or under estimate you

For when I come over

You then put me under

Personal taste is a matter of gender

Photobucket

I wake at dusk to go alone without a light

To the unknown

I want this night inside of me

I want to feel

I want this speeding

I want that speeding

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You'll never live like common people

You'll never do what common people do

You'll never fail like common people

You'll never watch your life slide out of view

And dance and drink and screw

Because there's nothing else to do

Vanilla Swingers

All I have is words, words that don't obtain

And I feel I'm a stain on your horizon

So I stay away - it's easier that way

And there won't be no-one I need to rely on

Is it him, is it me

Or is there something only I can see

How did I get here, why do we blow around like straw dogs on the breeze

I'm a special one, what they used to say

But I've to stay on, finish levels-A

You don't need exams when you've read John Gray

The Indelicates American Demo

And nobody ever comes alive

And the journalists clamour round glamour like flies

And boys who should know better grin and get high

With fat men who once met the MC5

And no one discusses what they don't understand

And no one does anything to harm the brand

And this gift is an illusion, this isn't hard

Absolutely anyone can play the fucking guitar

JAMC Darklands

And we tried so hard

And we looked so good

And we lived our lives in black

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Plucked her eyebrows on the way

Shaved her leg and then he was a she

She says, hey babe,

Take a walk on the wild side

Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side

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Hide on the promenade

Etch a postcard:

How I dearly wish I was not here

In the seaside town...that they forgot to bomb

Come, come, come - nuclear bomb

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Back when we were kids

We would always know when to stop

And now all the good kids are messing up

Nobody has gained or accomplished anything

Wire Pink Flag

Prices have risen since the government fell

Casualties increase as the enemy shell

The climate's unhealthy, flies and rats thrive

And sooner or later the end will arrive

This is your correspondent, running out of tape

Gunfire's increasing, looting, burning, rape

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Well, maybe there's a god above

But all I've ever learned from love

Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

It's not a cry that you hear at night

It's not somebody who's seen the light

It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah

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And what costume shall the poor girl wear

To all tomorrow's parties

For Thursday's child is Sunday's clown

For whom none will go mourning

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My body is your body

I won't tell anybody

If you want to use my body

Go for it

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Oh it's opening time

Down on Fascination Street

So let's cut the conversation

And get out for a bit

Because I feel it all fading and paling

And I'm begging

To drag you down with me

Mansun Six

And you see, I kind of shivered to conformity

Did you see the way I cowered to authority

You see, my life, it's a series of compromises anyway

It's a sham, and I'm conditioned to accept it all, you see

Japan Gentlemen

Take in the country air, you'll never win

Gentlemen take polaroids

They fall in love, they fall in love

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We just want to emote til we're dead

I know we suffer for fashion

Or whatever

We don't want these days to ever end

We just want to emasculate them forever

Forever, forever

Pretty sirens don't go flat

It's not supposed to happen like that

Longpigs The Sun

There's no perfume I can buy

Make me smell like myself

So I put on perfume

To make me smell like someone else

In bed

Calvin Harris I Created Disco

I got love for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's

I've got hugs for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's

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Does his makeup in his room

Douse himself with cheap perfume

Eyeholes in a paper bag

Greatest lay I ever had

Kind of guy who mates for life

Gotta help him find a wife

We're a couple, when our bodies double

Simple Minds Sons and Fascination

Summer rains are here

Savaged beauty life

Falling here from grace

Sister feeling call

Cruising land to land

No faith no creed no soul

Half a world away

Beauty sleeps in time

Sound and fury play

Bloc Party Silent Alarm

North to south

Empty

Running on

Bravado

As if to say, as if to say

He doesn't like chocolate

He's born a liar, he'll die a liar

Some things will never be different

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LCD Soundsystem

Well Daft Punk is playing at my house, my house

I've waited 7 years and 15 days

There's every kid for miles at my house, my house

And the neighbors can't...call the police

There's a fist fight brewin' at my house, my house

Because the jocks can't...get in the door

Johnny Boy

I just can't help believing

Though believing sees me cursed

Stars Set Yourself

I am trying to say

What I want to say

Without having to say "I love you"

Josef K Entomology

It took 10 years to realise why the angels start to cry

When you go home down the main

Your happy smile

Your funny name

Cocteau Twins Bluebell

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Doesn't she look a million with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Yes, she's a beautiful brunette angel from heaven with her hairagami set

Hair kisses 'n' hair architecture

Augment a beautiful brunette

New Order Power Corruption

How does it feel

To treat me like you do

When you've laid your hands upon me

And told me who you are

Photobucket

You must let her go

She's not crying

Photobucket

Baiting

Feeling like I'm waiting

Modern times

Valentines

Hating

Hating to distraction

Just leave them alone

Whipcrack

Girls in the back

Girls in the back

Puressence Don't Forget

They say come back to earth and start getting real, yeah

I say come back to earth and start getting real

I know I can't

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So I walk right up to you

And you walk all over me

And I ask you what you want

And you tell me what you need

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The problem of leisure

What to do for pleasure

Ideal love a new purchase

A market of the senses

Dream of the perfect life

Economic circumstances

The body is good business

Sell out, maintain the interest

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Sitting in my armchair thinking again and again and again

Going round in a circle I can't get out

Then I look around thinking day and night and day

Then you look around - there must be some explanation

And the tension builds

Psychdedelic Furs

India, India

You're my love song

India, you're my love song

In the flowers

You can have me in the flowers

We will dance alone

And live our useless lives

Ladytron Light Magic

They only want you when you're seventeen

When you're twenty-one

You're no fun

They take a polaroid and let you go

Say they'll let you know

Photobucket

No consolation prizes

Spit out your lies and chewing gum

Cut off your hair yeah that's it!

If you look like that I swear I'm gonna love you more

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All the neighbors are startin' up a fire

Burning all the old folks, the witches and the liars.

My eyes are covered by the hands of my unborn kids

But my heart keeps watchin' through the skin of my eyelids

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Prince charming

Prince charming

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

Don't you ever, don't you ever

Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome


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