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.

Comments (19) to “Music Fandom vs. Narrative Fandom”

  1. Well, I agree partially with you but i don’t think we should view music fandom and narrative fandom as mutually exclusive. One can witness that very easily when following a person’s profile on Twitter. Sometimes, I stumble on someone who in one hour might be gossiping about the latest My Bloody Valentine release (dream on about it ;-)) and another about the final episode of the last season of Heroes… What I think is that those two kinds of practices fulfil two different means of expressing your own creative identity that aren’t incompatible.

  2. ::de-lurks::

    I think you might have to be more specific here about which fans you’re talking about–in my experience there are many real-person-oriented fandoms, music or otherwise, that are very narrative-driven, with a constructed narrative emerging from that news and information which then allows the fans to treat that fandom like a tv show or movie fandom, for example. When I was younger I never noticed any deep difference between my fairly typical participation in Star Wars fandom and Backstreet Boys fandom–I was writing/reading fan fiction about both, wearing t-shirts for both, lining up to get tickets for both, obsessively watching behind-the-scenes media for both, talking about the characters/individuals’ personas for both… well, you get the idea. Actually, I think many if not most music fandoms are built on some constructed identity for the band/singer/whatever–I think any situation where the only content fans can pour over is the music will probably tend not to turn fannish.

  3. Very interesting to compare the two types of fandom this way. I do feel that both narrative fandom and music fandom can be complemented by clothing styles.
    I actually think I can recognize some of the other Harry Potterfans out there. Another example would be the variety Discworld t-shirts that are available.
    Although I do agree that the practice of associating clothing with fandom is more pronounced in music fandoms, it is not to say a Boyzone fan will necessarily where a Boyzone t-shirt.
    Since a fan can belong to more fandoms, could it be the clothing is more part of a subculture statement of which the fandomparticipation is another outlet?

  4. I like the sound of this conclusion. About the notes overall, I wonder if “narrative” is such a broad concept that there might be some trickiness in using it as one arch-category of fandom, especially as some “narrative” fan practice may not be as different from music fan practices as others.

    Take, for instance, the topic of self-presentation as indicated by things like t-shirts and bumper stickers. I see comic book fans approaching this in much the same way as music fans. (And it might be worth noting that, as with Ramones t-shirt vs. album sales, Marvel and DC characters’ t-shirts sell much better than their respective comic books.) The big difference there, I’d say, but one of cultural cachet. Band t-shirts are cool; Superman t-shirts might be fun, at best, but are just as likely seen as juvenile. The practices and purposes of such expressions are pretty much the same, though, aren’t they?

    I suppose, then, that I really like the idea that there are some types of engagement and fan practice that are more encouraged than others based on the product you’re consuming, but I’m dubious of the idea that it breaks down as neatly as “narrative” vs. “non-narrative.”

  5. I was convinced that living at the coal-face (Hazel is a BtVS fan and blogger) that I’d have some insights into this but I but really don’t. The following may be influenced by the fact that the two main focuses of my musical fandom no longer exist.

    Whenever I write about music fandom it turns into a moan about how it was better in the olden days…which means that this has clearly strayed out of scope, but it’s written now so I’ll share it anyway…

    It appears to me that where music fandom is struggling under the pressures of the new open and social nature of the web, narrative fandom seems only to be getting stronger.

    Most of the key elements of music fandom are handled more completely and effectively from beyond the fan community – people don’t come to A Head Full of Wishes to find out about Galaxie 500, they go to Wikipedia; Musicbrainz will be the where discographies are handled; and/or Songkick and/or will all carry more, and better linked, and better structured, data.

    Narrative fandom however, seems to be strengthened by the slightly looser bonds that tie it together. There is no simple structure in which, for example, all the elements of Lost or BtVS can live, and therefore it becomes reliant on the fan to create a framework to hold all the diverse pieces together.

    Of course things aren’t really so gloomy for music fandom – but sometimes I get jealous of the fans on the other side…although not so jealous that I’ve felt the desire to write fan fiction…yet.

  6. Great post but I would disagree with one generalization about music fandom. For people who play music, at least, we do talk about specific moves and parts in songs. Not in the same way as I might discuss the events leading up to the BSG finale, but it would be wrong, I think, to suggest that music fans as a whole do not engage at a deep level with the textuality of music.

  7. I think you’re very correct in pointing out that narrative fandoms are not necessarily the (or the only) metonymic representation of fandoms as a whole. For that matter, they’re not even the only (or best) representation of TV and media fandoms at all times. I think Cornel’s book goes a long way to looking at fannish affect and the impulses that make us fan something. But I’d like to see us do much more work on this (though I’m worried how to do that without pathologizing fans!).

    Also, as I’m looking at your post I do wonder about our general hesitation to talk about the difference between accepted child and teen behavior (LARPing is fine if my 6-year old does it but not if my husband does; being a screaming teenie at a concert is fine but not the screaming adult; my 10-year old writing fanfic is praised for his creativity but I am a different matter) and the same in adults (how many people that are fans of bands or are writing fanfic are certain they won’t do so when they’re all growed up?).

    The other thing I’m curious about is how much the medium affects your distinction. You talk about T-shirts and the visibility of music fans, but in my world, my media fannishness is very much visible. It’s not recognizable in my clothes but since my media fannish world is an online only world, the signs are different–it may be my LJ username, my icons, maybe even the music I mark as listening (if it’s a TV show in the background or a soundtrack). Moreover, media fans do recognize one another, whether it’s clothing and paraphernalia that has shorthanded symbols or other objects. It can be the Star Trek necklace, the cylon ring, the Gandalf on my office book shelf, or the collected Dr Who DVDs in the living room. So, I think the question might be whether online music fans necessarily take their music fannish life into the real world (and if there really are all that much more CEOs wearing Ramone t-shirts than Star Trek ones :).

  8. In my view, music fandoms can be narrative: what happened on that holiday, why did he decide to go into rehab, who broke up the band? These are narrative questions, and the sort of question that RPF writers often aim to answer. Many music fandoms do languish in between albums, but then you’ve got fandoms like the Beatles that are still alive and kicking decades after the band broke up. Even more interesting, most of the (LJ-based) fans are in their teens, just as most fans were during the band’s heyday. And bless their little hearts, they’re shippers! Probably the most active LJ Beatles community is for John Lennon/Paul McCartney slash.

    Narrative fandom is a way of being a fan, whereas music fandom is a type of fandom. Seems to me that one can find narrative fen in both music and media fandoms, albeit more in one than in the other.

  9. Many thanks to all of you for these super thoughtful comments. I can see I’ll have to keep mulling this one over. Keep the comments coming if you’ve got something to say!

  10. It’s more culturally acceptable to wear band shirts then geeky Star Wars or Trek t-shirts.

    Nevertheless, as a Man from UNCLE fan, I have numerous shirts with the logo and wear them often. My fellow fans do, too.
    The logo is understated enough to get away with and I always get positive comments from baby boomers I meet.

    Of course, at MediaWest Con, lots of fans feel free to wear their t-shirts and other fan-identified clothing.

  11. Well, and narrative fandom has “filking” – which is a long tradition of fans writing songs about their fandoms or about media fandom itself – and music fandom, well. I would not be a music fan without the fanfiction and vids that led me to it. And did I ever tell you that I wrote a story once that was a narrative of all the songs on The Killers’ Hot Fuss album?

    I once identified a media fan at my work purely by her brief co-worker introduction – I’ve never been able to figure out what music my colleagues listen to unless they share their iTunes libraries on the office network.

    I think there’s a lot of bleed-through (the ways in which “narrative” fans are ALSO music fans are many, and vice versa, I would argue (hence the enduring appeal of the concept album) …

    I can’t really get into it – home with a sick kid – but while I see your essential point, I think it’s not quite so simple.

  12. Great post & comment thread. One intersection of music & narrative that came to mind while reading this was the “Paul Is Dead” facet of Beatles fandom – it seems like an early example of an ARG around a band, and the mode of “forensic fandom” that I’m analyzing in my contribution to the spreadable volume. While that may be an exceptional case, it points to the need to always categorize across a spectrum rather than clear-cut divisions.

  13. Interesting post and comments. I’m so glad these discussions always roll along!

    At the risk of missing something in the discussion, I have to ask what music fans (and for that matter, but it’s not the focus here, narrative fans) we’re talking about. I admit I’m not all that knowledgeable about bandfic and RPF, but I do know that when I think of “music fans,” I think of intensely creative, passionate people.

    Thus, this pgph doesn’t quite sit well with me:

    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.

    I’m guessing you’ve never heard bootleg reconstructions of the Smile sessions, then? Or decade-spanning Grateful Dead mash-ups and mix tapes? Or not-quite cover bands, who write songs in the style of their favorites? Or even resequenced albums?

    It seems like you’re privileging “narrative” as a kind of baseline creative form, in areas where that might not necessarily be the case. I don’t even know the names of everyone in the Shins or the New Pornographers, but I certainly know how their songs, and wonderful, non-lyrical moments therein, make me feel.

    On a semi-related note (and I’ve noticed this elsewhere, from others): is the notion of existing book/film/TV narratives as somehow “incomplete” a necessary condition of media fandom? I could say more on that thought, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

  14. Ok, lots of great examples of how the two things I’m talking about bleed into one another and are far from clear cut.

    I want to clarify for Derek that I am NOT meaning to take away from the creativity of music fans. Indeed, in the talk I gave at MidemNet I posited creativity as one of the 5 core practices of music fandom. What I was responding to is the assertion that comes out of Jenkins’s work that the entry point for fan engagement is holes in narratives. I have seen this as a central claim in fandom research many times and my point was meant to be that this is perhaps NOT what opens the door to music fan engagement and to therefore question its centrality as an explanation for fan engagement.

    I also never meant to imply that one cannot be both a music fan and a fan of narratives.

    I continue to think that there are real differences between what fan groups built around music tend to do and what those discussing tv shows, movies, and books even I didn’t articulate them adequately above. I suspect that because of LJ’s fandom culture, there is probably more overlap there than there is in the wild on the rest of the internet.

  15. “Music fans don’t seek to complete the music through interpretation and creativity.”

    I think this might be a matter of degree, Nancy. Music fans created wonderwalls and memory books, fan websites and zines …

    Many music blogs go beyond reviews to be an outlet for creative expression.

    Some fan groups are more interested in the lyrics than others – Augie March fans spend a lot of time interpreting lyrics. John Prine fans quiz each other on their knowledge of the lyrics (Which songs mention …?)

    On the Steve Earle forum there was a comment that his haiku were the only place where he didn’t swear, so fans wrote f**ku based on his lyrics but including expletives.

    There are blogs that illustrate lyrics, and a number of Flickr groups like for pictures that illustrate particular lyrics of Marillion songs.

  16. So you don’t consider cover songs or music videos to be akin fan fiction? I see them as different interpretations of the narrative of the music. I even consider singing along at a concert as participating in the narrative of the song.

    Music does have narrative in it; it builds and swells; it moves to a climax; it comes to a conclusion. The fact that a song like Boston’s “More than a Feeling” resonates with so many people is because of the dramatic structure of the song. It hooks you and takes you on a ride, building to an emotional climax. This comes from the music itself, not the lyrics.

    And there is the entire world of musical theater that is being conveniently ignored here. That world is music and narrative combined. Bands from the Beatles to The Who to Green Day have been influenced by that world.

    To write a song in response takes a certain level of skill that a lot of people don’t have or necessarily aspire to (unless you are Liz Phair responding to the Rolling Stones). However, it is easy to participate in the narrative of the music by singing along, or reinterpreting the narrative of the music by making a cover song or filming a music video.

    I think there is a lot of creativity and participation from the music fan community, but because of the way “narrative” is defined, suddenly that participation is being discounted or deemed not as creative as fan fiction.

    To be completely honest, I would rather hear a good cover song than read fan fiction any day of the week.

  17. It strikes me that as you’ve defined the fandoms, filk is closer to “narrative fandom” than “music fandom.” This may even make sense; for filkers, the words are often more important than the music, and filk is something quite different from putting music to videos. Filk songs often do tell original stories about familiar characters (the best-known example being Leslie Fish’s “Banned from Argo”). While I’m a filker primarily, I’ve also accompanied a silent movie at a con, which I think you’d call a “music fandom” activity. As with many human activities, the line can be hard to draw.

  18. Oddly enough I just did a column for Pitchfork about music fandom and wider “fandom”. Since I know a lot about the former and not much at all about the latter it’s probably skewed or inaccurate but I think it’s relevant to this question and comment thread.

  19. Really interesting post and discussion thread. I’ve become increasingly interested in this topic as well, although with relation to sports fandom rather than music. Sports fandom obviously being similar to music fandom because it is not narrative either (at least in the traditional sense of the word).

    This is purely speculation, but I’m curious how inclusion and exclusion plays a role in narrative fandom as opposed to non-narrative. For example, within narrative-driven fan cultures someone could be a fan of Harry Potter AND Star Trek, or Lost AND 24 right? Do narrative fan communities necessarily have to position themselves in opposition to something? Whereas with music culture it seems that fan communities are often in opposition to something – perhaps more mainstream cultures or particular genres (maybe?). And certainly with sports by declaring your loyalty to one team (e.g. Oklahoma Sooners) you are simultaneously displaying your “hate” for another team (e.g. Texas Longhorns).

    It is quite possible that I am misinterpreting narrative fan communities, and I’m sure there are examples that would stand in opposition to my point, but it seems to me that within non-narrative fan communities there is a greater sense of “us” versus “them” mentality than is present within narrative fan communities (which appear to be more about identification than difference – although I recognize you can’t really separate the two).