Music Fandom vs. Narrative Fandom

Over the years, I’ve found myself mulling the differences between fandoms organized around narrative and those organized around music. It’s now a topic on which I have to pull together my thoughts in 1000 words or less for Henry Jenkins et al’s book on spreadable media. This post is really just me thinking outloud in a rough stab at a start. I would LOVE your feedback on the distinctions I’m drawing and those I’ve missed.

Narratives have characters, plots, and holes to be filled by fan creativity. Music doesn’t. Sure, you can get into discussions of lyrics, and there are many fan lyric interpretation sites out there, and heaven knows you can obsess on the musicians, but for all the time I’ve spent in music fandom, lyric interpretation has never seemed all that important to the social life around music. Music fans interpret what’s best and what’s worst in an artists’ catalogue, and they review shows, but it’s just a whole lot harder to talk about the significance of that chord change or the way that bridge takes the song into the third verse than it is to talk about what that shot of the window at the end of the scene was meant to imply or what a character meant when she said what she said.

Narrative also leaves space for much more fan creativity. Music fans may make their own videos to accompany songs, or form cover bands, or write fan fiction about musicians, but with the important exception of remixes, which remain a fairly marginal fan practice, I’ve never seen fans write songs in the same way that fans of a TV show will write stories using the characters. Music fans don’t seek to complete the music through interpretation and creativity. The music arrives complete. Fans can’t fix it or rebuild it in the same way they can with stories.

Music fans are far more likely to focus on news and information. Narrative fans certainly do this, building timelines and keeping abreast of production, casting, and so on, but music fans seem to do this as their primary activity. It’s all about when the album will be released, what the setlist will be, when the tour will happen, and what songs were played what night in what order. This is why music fan communities on the internet tend to get very quiet when the most recent album has been out for a while and the band isn’t touring. What’s to discuss?

Music fans also share the very objects of their fandom by making mix tapes, playlists, writing mp3 blogs, and sending one another recordings and bootlegs. On occassion, narrative fans will share a recording of a missed show with another fan, but, like lyrical interpretation in music fandom, this seems like a marginal practice in narrative fandom.

But I’m thinking that perhaps the most important distinction between the two fandoms is the way that music fans take the resources of their fandom outside of that fandom as part of their self-presentation in other contexts. Think t-shirts with band names (Rob Walker’s excellent book Buying In reports that Ramones t-shirts have outsold Ramones albums 10 to 1). Think playlists embedded on social network profiles. Think bumper stickers (I think “Republicans for Voldemort” is the only narrative fandom bumper sticker I’ve ever seen, though I’ve seen hundreds of stickers naming bands). When I used to work in a record store and grandmothers would come in at Christmas time to buy a gift for the grandkid and ask “what are all the kids listening to these days?” we’d respond “what kind of haircut does your grandchild have?” How does a Lost fan dress? Can you spot a Star Wars fan walking down the street? Narrative fandom is invisible unless it’s being discussed. Music fandom is much more likely to be made visible as an intrinsic part of self-definition in a wide variety of situations.

The upshot is that we should be wary of taking the practices of narrative fandom on which most fandom theory has been built as exemplary of all fandom. Different kinds of materials call for different kinds of practices, and if we’re to build theories that encompass all of fandom, we need to account for these distinctions as well as the similarities.

Bringing Trauma to Your Mobile

I am just back from a very inspiring weekend attending the Futures of Entertainment 3 conference hosted by the Convergence Culture Consortium. One of the most exciting elements was getting to hear directly from several media producers who are doing fascinating transmedia “world building” projects in association with their television shows and movies.

One example was Lance Weiler (seen on the far left), director of the horror film Head Trauma, recently named one of the 18 People Who Changed Hollywood by Business Week magazine. He spoke about extending Head Trauma beyond the film (transcribed by Xiaochang Li on the C3 weblog — click through to read the whole panel discussion):

The movie is about the fragmentation of memory, a guy who comes back home after 20 years to settle his grandmother’s estate and finds it inhabited by squatters; he hits his head and starts having recurring nightmares that start to turn into reality. So we started to play with what’s real and what isn’t. We started with interactive comics and there were all kinds of easter eggs and rabbit holes as you moved through it.

We interjected mobile experiences so when the movie had a world premiere we handed out these Jack Chick-style comics and there were ciphers and clues within them. On the back it asks “do you want to play the game?” and when you called the number that’s there you’d get the nemesis of the movie; they’d hang up and then we’d call or text them back. This continued back and forth. Even when you went to the website, we could figure out that you were on there and call you during your visit to it. Throughout the premiere there was a whole give and take with phones – about 86% of the audience was engaged mobilely.

And we had an online series with all these subliminal things in it, and there was a remix area, where people could remix their own fragments. At one point when people showed up somewhere based on the clues in the game for a secret movie showing I ended up calling the LAPD and they came by with the helicopter and I executed all these SMS and phone calls saying things like “We’re watching you!”

They built a fake exit box into the website associated with the game so that when people tried to get out of the site they instead got a telephone call that said “Where do you think you’re going?”


But wow.

There are many things to admire about this, but I was particularly struck by the integration of film, internet, telephone, and face-to-face encounters.

I will write more about the event in the coming days, but if you just can’t wait, check out the thorough coverage of every panel on the C3 blog here.

When the famous pop in

Bruce Willis popped in incognito to hang out in the site Ain’t It Cool News and chat about Die Hard movies. He had some rather harsh things to say, people started suspecting it was Willis (he did use his real first name, calling himself Walter B), somehow or other Willis ends up outing himself to the people behind Ain’t It Cool News, requesting a new topic:

Around 3:45am last night, Bruce Willis left a message on my cel phone regarding… talkback. As many of you have figured out… yes, Bruce is talking to you. He is Walter B in talkbacks and I’ve given him Black Box Posting powers so you can see that it is, indeed, him. I’ve also seen that he wants a new talkback, and well… what the Bruce wants, the Bruce gets… because if he wants to moonlight as a Talkbacker, that’s pretty goddamn cool!

If you want to see what he had to say, here is the ‘best of.’

Needless to say, people in the forum are tickled beyond belief that he came by to visit with them. Why don’t more famous people do this? It’s so easy. They can do it at home. And it makes their fans so very very happy.

Potter fan sites go mainstream

Harry Potter fan sites got some wide spread news coverage this weekend in an article that traces the development and breadth of the sites. It (rightly) frames the fan sites as an integral part of the Harry Potter phenomenon, with quotes like this one from a publisher:

“The Potter sites set the standard,” says Anthony Ziccardi, vice president and deputy publisher for rival Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster that releases “Star Trek” paperbacks.

“The thing about the Potter phenomenon is that it has a huge, active fan base, both young and old, with a lot of teenagers. The ’Star Trek’ fan sites are a little bit older – most of the fans are 25 and older. The Potter sites really stand out – they’re like a marketing machine in and of themselves.”

and this one from Warner Brothers:

“When we have brought representatives from some of the key fan sites and showed them the details for the film sets, even if some of them were disappointed that we had left out certain elements from the books, they respected what we were trying to do,” says Diane Nelson, Warner Bros.’ executive vice president for global brand management.”We’re not naive enough to think we’re going to avoid criticism, but bringing the fan sites into the process is what we feel is really important.”

The article also touches on the challenges of running a fan website. Very nice to see an article that recognizes online fans as important participants in the production and promotion processes rather than lifeless losers in parental basements.

Passing for Normal

If you spend any time around famous people, the first thing you realize is that they can’t go anywhere without being THAT FAMOUS PERSON. If they’re out, they’re game to be observed, evaluated, commented upon, and interrupted. You hear a lot about how the internet allows people to compensate for the shortcomings of their body-to-body persona: they can pretend they are older or younger, they’re male, they’re fully able-bodied, they’re skinny and cute, whatever it takes to get the kind of attention and connection they’re after. I’ve always thought one interesting piece of this that I’ve never seen anyone really talk about is that famous people are also invisible when they’re online. Julia Roberts can go hang out in a chat room or on a message board and no one needs to know it’s her. Or, apparently, so can Halle Berry:

Oscar winner Halle Berry loves chatting to people online using a pseudonym.The Monster’s Ball beauty regularly posts messages to fans on her official Hallewood internet site, but also visits other chat rooms under an assumed name.

She says, “I have gone online and pretended to be someone else in an attempt to have some anonymity.

“I have tried, many times, to have a normal conversation when celebrity was not a part of it. Sometimes it works and at others it gets a little weird.

I remember in the mid-1990s when celebs first started showing up in the online spaces where people were talking about them. People put Michael Stipe through quite a grilling until he answered some trick question about a movie “correctly.” People doubted Courtney Love’s authenticity until she started ranting as only the real Courtney could. There were a lot of cases of it. How weird, and perhaps refreshing, to have people challenging that you are who you say you are instead of being unable to escape being who you are. Not surprisingly, the same thing happens to Halle too:

“(Occasionally) I say in a chat room, that I am Halle Berry. But the reaction is, ‘You are kidding – get out of here.'”

and yeah, who would believe it?

Celebrities obviously aren’t ‘typical’ people, but I think they’re an interesting exceptional case to consider when we think about identity play, freedom, power, constraint, and the nuances of using the internet to perform selfhood.