By Isaac Butler
Of all my enthusiasms over the years, the one I am the most mortified about is my (it turns out not) undying love for Phish from Freshman year of High School until roughly Senior year of college. And here I want to already insert qualifications. How starting in Sophomore year at Vassar I had stopped liking them, or anyway had my suspicions that they weren’t actually worth the love I had poured into (over?) them and was largely forcing myself to like them. How you probably have some other band or artist (for most of my friends, its Ani Difranco) in your past who is equally embarrassing (and save it, Ani fans, it is equally embarrassing).
I’m even having trouble articulating what drew me to them in the first place. Sure, they were all talented musicians. And the goofiness of their lyrics surely had something to do with it, as my love for them flowed out of (and back into) a love of They Might Be Giants who, for all their faults, are vastly superior song writers. And, yes, the live show, that must’ve been part of it. I went to my first live show Freshman year of college and that experience was the one I was addicted to, the one I wanted to keep having and perpetuate with bootleg tapes.
And what was that live experience? What was so great about the largely-interchangeable guitar solos, solos that teased whatever the highest possible note in the dominant key of the song was until finally playing that note and holing it at great length? At the heart, the live experience of Phish was about being in a crowd moved to ecstasy, it was about collective will and joy. It was about losing yourself.
Fan, of course, comes from Fanatic. While its first use shows up in the 17th century (spelled “phan”), it’s first modern usage is in a newspaper article about baseball in the 19th century. The word is then a particularly American invention, like the musical, like jazz. Add the suffix “-dom” on the end—meaning both a condition or quality and belonging to a domain or jurisdiction—and you get Fandom. Fandom is a nation without borders, thanks to the internet it thrives all over the world, it’s boundaries supersede national ones.
It seems that to become a fan is to lose yourself. That we cross the line from audience member to fan when we become part of a community of people who love the same thing we love. And these communities have (as communities do) rules and customs and norms, shibboleths and secret ways. And they can be coercive and destructive and totalitarian, and generous and wonderful and inspiring and creative.
I wonder if this cross from self to group is part of why we find our fandoms so shameful. We live in a culture that places primacy on the individual, after all. Maybe what I’m embarrassed about when I look back on my love of Phish is the tape trading, the internet message board posting, the hanging out with the undesirables, the unwashed (in this case literally) masses. One thing I remember about Phish—or about my fandom of them—is that I never liked other fans. I found them snobby, mean spirited, THC-soaked losers who used their picayune knowledge of obscure songs to make themselves feel better about the fact that their lives were dedicated to a band that sang nonsense songs about tweezers. And yet, although I never liked them, I was one of them. I surrendered a bit of my individuality to a community I had contempt for and found a cure for loneliness, an outlet for passion. Or perhaps I had contempt for them because I needed them.
I am less interested personally in whether the Rise of the Fan is good or bad for our culture, and much more interested in what it means. This week, we assay the Fan from a number of different angles. Who are these fans? And what does it mean to be one? What happens to love when it becomes a communal activity? And what happens to it when the beloved cannot or will not respond?
This week, we're assaying the wild world of fandom from all sorts of angles. I hope you'll stay with us and join the conversation as the week continues.