This is the first in a series of meta essays from Keidra and Raizel about fandom. We don’t have a name for it yet.
by Keidra Chaney
There was a recent article in Quartz about the experiences of the last generation before the widespread use of the Internet. I’m a part of this cohort, and my experiences in fandom are shaped by it. I share pop culture interests with many of my closest group of my friends, but for a good chunk for my pre-Internet life, with no social media or even USENET to seek out like-minded fans, I was a fandom of one. This wasn’t a negative thing for me; save of a handful of times I didn’t feel a strong need to share my fannish love with others, I liked being able to run off to my room after school and have “alone time” with whatever I was into. I was a mostly solitary fan for a lot of things growing up: like professional wrestling and anime to name a couple, but one of my longest and most enduring solitary fandom experiences has focused around what i like to call “weird metal”.
I was 12 years old when I discovered Faith No More and Mike Patton’s music; I was already a burgeoning metalhead at the time, but Faith No More was a particular fixation for reasons that I’ve written about before. Eventually it moved on to Mike Patton’s other work because I was obsessed with the versatility – and oddness – of his vocals. It took me year to “get” the first Mr Bungle album, but once I did, I remember in my room alone repeatedly for days at a time, pouring over the lyrics, obsessing over the samples they used, mimicking Mike Patton’s vocal tics. etc. Again, this was pre-Internet, so I had no clue if other people were doing this kind of stuff too, I didn’t really care because a lot of it seemed pretty strange to admit to doing anyway. I think the closet I came to a community message board was the letters section in the middle of Metal Edge magazine and other magazines and fanzines I can’t remember the name of.
Even my metalhead friends didn’t quite like Faith No More or Mr. Bungle in particular on the level that I did. I didn’t think much about whether there was a group of people talking about these bands; I was just pleasantly surprised when I found them, which didn’t really happen until USENET and such became a thing. When I eventually moved on mathcore and other subgenres of metal, it wasn’t hard for me to find groups online to connect with; some of those people became offline friends as well.
Nowadays, regardless of the obscurity of your fandom, you’re likely to find an online community — even if it’s small — of like-minded people to connect with. So the pinpricks of loneliness that come being in a solitary fandom may not be as common these days; wanting to make inside jokes about lyrics or whatever and mostly getting a blank stare when you try, or finding an obscure bit of merch or a rare release and wanting to share the triumph, or dissecting the difference between a demo and an album version with a bunch of people. Nowadays, even if you can’t share with your offline friends, the online “fam” that gets it is only a click away.
On the other hand, there’s a liberating feeling that comes from being a fandom of one. You can take the time to develop your own tastes entirely on your own terms, figuring out what you like and what you don’t like about an artist or media without having to defend yourself to your peers publicly and in real time. You can immerse yourself in something you really love, a particular line from a song, a sentence from a book, a scene in a movie, and have it belong only to you. It’s an admittedly selfish feeling, but it also has a certain kind of purity to it for me, and I still cling to it. I still go to social media and message boards for the kind of geeking out I enjoy doing, but a lot of my most passionate fandom experiences I still mostly keep to myself.
Other people’s opinions can and do impact our enjoyment of pop culture: knowing that what we like is popular or critically respected makes us feel good about ourselves and our own tastes; enjoying something that’s underrated, or even worse, disliked makes us want to defend it,because we are indirectly defending our tastes. So enjoying pop culture in a relative vacuum, at least for me, makes me feel free to enjoy it and be as critical as I want or simply find pleasure in it on face value when I want to, because I only have to justify it to the community of me.
However, at its best, being in a community of fans who like exactly what you like can provide a level of context or critical analysis that’s hard to do alone. A group of fellow fans will keep it real when something sucks or push back on an overly fawning review. (I’ll be honest and say I don’t know how this works in a lot of geek fandoms or in pop music fan circles. Rock music fans tend to do this but I don’t know about other communities.) Intra-fandom disagreement can be like a form of quality control, where fans educate each other and collectively refine and strengthen each other’s tastes and critical opinions. (Again, this is at its best, there are tons of examples of toxic fandom happening all over the Internet. Perhaps I’ve mostly been lucky.)
Being in fandom pre-Internet, or more specifically pre-social media, meant that for many pop culture fans, our fandom existed in isolation, or in private. There was no concept of fandom as identity because it was something that could easily be compartmentalized and sectioned off from the way you lived the rest of your life. It wasn’t that fandom was a source of shame or something to hide, it just wasn’t a side of one’s life that you felt obligated to publicly declare.
I don’t want to put a value judgement on whether is a good thing or not. However, I do miss elements of the compartmentalization of online culture and fandom of the pre social media era, when it was much easier to move in and out of fannish interests with a clear dividing line. It’s much harder to take off your fandom hat when you are always presenting your whole self online.
In the current age of cons and social media fan armies, the concept of a solitary fandom seems almost antithetical to what we now see fandom as being about. When fandom is discussed in many circles, it tends to go hand in hand with the idea of community. Fandom is not just participatory, but it’s communal, a conduit for people to connect, make friendships, develop relationships, feel a sense of belonging. Fandom is not something that is to be enjoyed in solitude, it’s something people do publicly and/or in person.
While it’s true that many of my oldest and dearest friendships were initially sparked by a shared fandom, it’s not what has kept our friendships together. Time and changing interests mean that in some cases our fandom lives are someetimes worlds apart.
Conversely, some of my most fangirly fan experiences have been primarily solitary; even when I was writing fanfic, it was something I did in a relative vacuum, dipping in and out of.conversation and being selective about my level of immersion: sometimes it was deep, sometimes, not at all.
Recently I am finding more of the joy in being a part of community of fans that see each other as a family. My current favorite band, Dillinger Escape Plan is breaking up, and it seems like fans of the band are becoming a lot more active as as a fan community during their final tour (at least on the group I’m active in) I’m actually experiencing a lot of that communal fun that I don’t normally get being in a fandom of one: the sharing of jokes, over-analyzing without judgement, real life meetups, trading concert stories, photos and videos. It’s a lot of fun experiencing fandom as part of a larger group.
Also, maybe because it’s a metal band, and one with a very specific audience, I don’t experience a lot of the fandom wars/drama that other genres (like, we don’t have fandom names, don’t really fight with other fans about record sales, etc.) So it’s a lot of fun and little stress. On the other hand, I listen to some K-Pop too and the fandom wars there stress me out. I don’t like fighting with other people about stuff I like, so I just tend to listen to what I like and stay the hell out of it. This is where being a fandom of one really works for me.
It’s easy – and often beneficial – to feel a sense of responsibility to community when it comes to fandom, but it’s only easy to feel a sense of obligation to interact or even perform in fandom in a particular way. But ultimately, no one is owed your fannish passion, not even other fans. Anyone else out there who experiences fandom in more of a solitary way should take heart in the fact that there’s much to be gained from being in a fandom of one, and it’s certainly not a lesser way to experience pop culture. You’re just as much of a fangirl/boy, and your experiences are just as rich and meaningful.