It’s hard to think that it has been a decade since Chris Crocker became a YouTube sensation with his impassioned, if ambiguous defence of Britney Spears. He managed, to some extent, to capitalize on his own fame. While gathering material for her story,Leave BritneyAlone: 10 Years Later, theRolling Stonewriter,Allie Volpe, recently asked me some questions about the recent era of pop fandom. It was an opportunity to think about what has happened during in recent times – an era when social media has become taken for granted by many, not just as a tool, but as an environment…
Is recognizing intense fandom an important facet in studying culture?
‘Music fandom’ is a vast generalization covering all sorts of cultures and activities. With that as a proviso… Culture is about the sharing of meaning or pursuit of particular ways of life. As a role and identity based on fascination with a particular cultural phenomenon, musicfandom itself is a meaningful part of the lives of many people. I’ve been a fan myself, and have always been interested in why people devote their time and lives to their cultural passions. However, I think casual fandom is as interesting as ‘intense’ fandom. Dedicated audiences do not have to be extreme to be interesting, and extreme fans are not usually the most typical ones. In my experience, a tiny minority of people use the idea of ‘extreme fandom’ as a social alibi to do eccentric things. Chris Crocker, in effect, enacted or parodied that process. Most highly dedicated fans, however, are regular people with deep passions and sense of connection with particular genres, recordings, or performers. The rest of us are, of course, also inspired and fascinated, but our interests are more varied—and that variation is more typical and more indicative of what music fandom is about, I’d say.
Does being a diehard fan of something impact the way you view the world?
It is easy to assume that fans see the world differently, but I think that we all share certain unspoken assumptions about the social power of celebrity. We still use sales figures and other popularity indicators to measure success and worth. The difference is that fans are convinced by their hero’s performance and then use these indicators to say his or her talent is reflected in them. That shapes their perspective, but interests can wane and sometimes people can stop being fans too—usually if their hero does not conform to their values. So, yes, it does impact how you see the world, but it does not make you blind.
Why is this important in Chris Crocker’s case?
Crocker’s video sets things up in a certain, confessional way: he is the only person appearing, the only thing we know about him from the video is his Britney fandom, and he gradually becomes emotionally unraveled. We get the impression that this is a person with issues, someone who is using their fandom to express them, but therein lies an ambiguity: we’ve heard pop fans can get excited, so we wonder, are they all this eccentric? Of course we also know they are not, but public stereotypes of fandom point to it as a temptation to chaos and emotional excess.
Back in the 1950s,rock’n’roll was associated with the breaking a historical taboo against the expression of female desire. The thought of girls surrendering to their sexual desire created social anxieties. In Crocker’s case, however, it the video appears to show a gay man becoming hysterical.
Why do you think Chris Crocker’s video went viral? What was it about that time, the celebrity and the medium that made it so impactful?
Since YouTube was only a couple of years old when Chris Crocker’s video appeared, it would be easy to make the argument that it was something about the time
—a bit like Elvis’s national arrival coinciding with the adoption of television. I don’t think that is quite fair, however. Two years is a long time online. YouTube had given rise to other viral memes before Crocker’s particular piece to camera. Perez Hilton had been going for a while. TMZ was a couple of years old. Celebrity culture and its online use and abuse were not new. People—ironically including Crocker himself—were already uncomfortable about the degree of audience interest in celebrity and associated commercial exploitation. He tapped into further anxieties, too; I think gay rights had as much if not more to do with it. In pop, 2007 was the year of Mika. The Matthew Shepard Act was also being debated. And here was a gay man getting openly emotional in public—the frame of parody meant you never quite knew what was genuine of who was having the last laugh.
Crocker got a lot of media attention for the video—and how passionately he defended Britney Spears. Was that kind of fervor always there or do people now have more opportunities to publicly share their opinions?
Music fan passion had been publicly visible way before Crocker. You only have to go back to Elvis or Johnnie Ray in the 1950s—or better yet nineteenth century blackface performances—to see that.
It has always, to some extent, been orchestrated in public by bands and music managers who knew it was good marketing. Academics sometimes call that ‘fanagement.’ In the realm of popular music, the elitist critics—who historically dismissed pop as trash—, ‘low’ genres, star performances, and collective acts of fan participation wereall bound up together. They mutually produced each other, and were intelligible as perspectives on the idea of ‘excited masses.’ Even in the 1950s, rock’n’roll films were self-conscious in their portrayals of youth music as a kind of entertaining scam. 1960s artists fought against that reading by reframing popular music as art and politics. By the late 1960s, whenRolling Stonehit its stride, however, the idea of pop-as-mass culture was already a cliché. In the 1970s, even the youngest audiences had a high degree of self-consciousness about the cultural meaning of fan screaming. Punk inverted the formula, questioning ‘love’ for stars, and democratizing access to the pop spectacle, but since then we have become nostalgic for the ‘innocent yet heady’ days of Beatlemania, to the point of putting that experience of fan excitementin a museum—even as young fans still scream at the objects of their interest.
Recent years have seen a democratization of micro-celebrity, not just in relation to fandom, but in relation to all life online. Some fans have used the opportunity to become more prominent. Chris Crocker was as exceptional example: a fan who became a full blown celebrity by acting out his fandom. While fans make popular videos all the time, his caught on much more the most. It claimed to be cross talk against Britney’s detractors, but after he put it out there, it went viral, much like, say 1960s news reel footage of Beatlemania. Popular notions of hysterical fandom have been a kind of genre expectation for decades. Crocker exploited old stereotypes in a relatively new environment.
Crocker was also criticized for a number of things—from his looks to the fact that he breaks down in tears. Why do fans get a bad rap?
—for that’s what it became, whether he genuinely felt and meant it or not—struck a chord because it drew on a lot of stereotypes about celebrity fans which labeled them as irrational, hysterical, overly devoted, and infantile. The negative stereotypes had long been there, in representations of fan screaming as ‘mania,’ or the idea that fans had ‘parasocial’ relations with their heroes in which they mistakenly thought they knew what they were ‘really’ about. Such stereotypes ignore fans’ calmer, more intelligent and mature moments, plus the ordinary kinds of sociability that fans pursue with others. And there are millions of videos showing those more ordinary, less spectacular kinds of interactions, not least in the discussions offered by online fans-turned-music critics, people like Anthony Fantano.
What should be realized is that such portrayals of pop fandom are also bound up with gender. ‘Real men,’ supposedly, never scream, but it is socially accepted that girls and gay men can do so. Hence, I think the vitriol directed against Crocker was in part to do with the increasing prominence of gay issues in public space. Fandom was a vehicle to articulate that—a socially acceptable way to talk about it, if you like.
Do you think that’s changed at all?
In terms of fans generally getting a ‘bad rap,’ yes, I think it’s changing to some extent. It depends which genre, artists and audiences you examine. Boy bands and tween artists still attract a bit of derision, but the process of following music artists has become relatively normalized. The bad old days of talking about fandom in terms of addiction or religious madness are over. To be, say, a lifelong fan of David Bowie is not seen as a crime.
That is partly an issue of what is deemed ‘cool’ and partly also a generational shift—the baby boomers extending ‘youth’ ad infinitum—but it is also a technological one. People mostly record and share their fan interests in less excited ways, and I think the avalanche of appealing, fan-created products online has rather put pay to ideas about irrational fandom. After all, most of us were music fans at some point. The mainstreaming of fandom online has made us realize that we are the ones projecting these things on to the phenomenon. Music fandom can be about fascination, sure, but it is us who pathologize it when we use terms like ‘worship’ for common forms of behaviour.
That said, I think pop fans still want to register excitement, and fan communities themselves use ‘mass culture’ ideas to dismiss fans of other things, or people who seem too emotional.
So we have to think of the mass culture critique, with its emphasis on deriding fandom as an immature pastime, as a kind ofavailable resource: it’s part of our past, and we can all draw on it, but does it benefit us to do that any longer?
In your opinion, why is YouTube and “personal brand” important when considering the ways people share their views?
Video allows viewers a different kind of intimacy with people than writing or audio. YouTube turned video from a tool into an environment, creating a kind of universal, user-driven, participatory television platform online. YouTube videos vary in popularity, as do their makers. Celebrity is about being well known, but ‘totemism’—being a star, hanging in there as a centre of attention—is about beingwell loved by a particular audience. As well as having performative talent, one way to stay loved is by expressing values that are shared by the constituency who follow you. That means being consistent. In the frame of commodity culture, “branding” is another word for that consistency; “damaging the brand” means being inconsistent. Celebrities can lose their audiences when people find out things about them that are inconsistent with the images that they present. The new generation of vloggers are just, if not more, susceptible to that than the established stars.
How, in your opinion, do you think the video shaped fan interaction and criticism online?
Actually, I don’t think that YouTube’s only or most significant role has been in showcasing fan performativity. We have to consider what it has done for music fandom too. YouTube’s role as a public archive of music performances is very significant as it has become a collective resource—a treasure troveof items that fans can watch, comment upon, review, re-perform and parody. Music streaming services and YouTube are like the older brother’s or sister’s record collection that everybody from my generation wanted. The easy availability of mediated performances from the past has revolutionized the context and content of all music cultures, including fandoms. Current media culture, including our own amateur products and performances, adds to the mix. As part of that, YouTube has created new opportunities for micro-celebrity and new spaces where amateurism and professionalism could be mixed together. In the early 1970s theLA Timeswrote at least one story on Elvis’s most dedicated followers, naming them individually. So a few fans were famous fans before YouTube. Almost without exception, though, music fans are still not as famous as professional celebrities. Creating video has, nevertheless, allowed them to perform to each other and to a wider public like never before. It has also allowed fans to curate their personal interests in new ways, and make new connections. It has also allowed them to express their differences with each other and answer their critics in a public space. It has, as well, become a forum in which people who arenotprimarily known as music fans can use fandom as a kind of strategy: something that denotes their own ordinary or impassioned sides.
How do you think fandom has changed on the Internet in the last 10 years?
One of the most obvious changes is speed.New fan cultures now emerge in microseconds online. However, there are other changes too.Dedicated audiences are still there, but the rise of social media has changed the way we understand them.
The ‘mass audience’—which reached its peak with high modernity in the 1960s and 1970s—has given way to an era in which people are encouraged to broadcast themselves. This means that fans can now talk to each other in a mediated space more easily and instantly in than before. People increasingly live in an environment of ‘deep mediation’ where new norms have been established. What this means is that the media portrayal of fandom as a display of emotional excess—which was always a partial picture—has been eclipsed by evidence of fans connecting with each other and digitally ‘participating’ in different ways. If anything, I think the Internet era has comparatively reduced the excitement around bands, not because they are no longer talented musicians or stars, but because gig goers are socially conditioned torecordeach moment rather than be in it. As well as pursuing traditional fan practices—gig going, record collecting, having intense discussions, etc—we have effectively become public curators of our own experiences: uploading selfies, recording concerts, making video blogs, leaking material from albums, reporting on tourist pilgrimages, and pursuing other activities in the digital realm.
Fan creativity is not a new thing. It was always there: think of 1970s punk fanzines, for example.
Fan fiction and art also happened in times past, but now—in an era when fan clubs have largely given way to online forums—the evidence of such creativity is more accessible and more visible, creating a different kind of communal culture. We have all been given the tools to do and display it. There are several aspects to this shift:
First, the American media corporations who run the net have capitalized on fan labour and creativity. We have to see ‘ordinary creativity’ as a resource that has extended the capabilities of capital. This has been reflected in new industrial production strategies such as crowdsourcing, plus new cultural roles that position fans between producer and consumer. The idea of the ‘passive’ music fan as someone who just receives music and does nothing else is long dead.
Second, a festive explosion of communication has occurred in which fandom plays a central role. Some of my colleagues call this a ‘participatory culture’ because fans are sharing what they create between themselves—and in some fandoms, that exchange is theraison d’etre, not a peripheral activity.However, it would be foolish to say, in this explosion of visible creativity, that rock and pop stardom have disappeared. While almost everyone is a public figure now, to some extent, most of us are far less public or popular than the biggest music stars. Only Katy Perry and Justin Bieber have over 100 million followers on Twitter. As fans, we’ve got off the ground, but are hovering comparatively low in the stratosphere. If we like star performances, we still like the thrill of getting close to those who are more famous than ourselves.Behind our ‘totems’ lay ideas and values.Much of our fan productivity—art, music, fiction and the rest—is still inspired by that. In a sense, we can see iconic groups or artists as creating worlds within which large communities of fans exchange ideas. It’s at that level, I think, that rock and pop become really fascinating. Fans can now also respond to other fans and to critics in a move visible way than, say, the Presley devotees who formed a creative community of discussion after 1960 inElvis Monthly.
Third, heritage culture on and offline—what Simon Reynolds called ‘retromania’—has also shaped things a lot. The celebrated objects—the ‘stars’ if you like—at the end of the noughties were not just artists. They were media platforms too. In a context where everyone had easy access to performances from the past on these platforms, tribute bands exploded, classic albums were re-performed live and vinyl came back into fashion. Youngsters who watched movies never saw CDs or MP3 playback being fetishized; instead they watched the constant glorification of records. It is hardly surprising that they returned to playing them.
I also think the idea of music fandom itself has become a kind of cultural space that has been hollowed out, celebrated and commodified. Performing fan passion and has become a kind of socially encouraged meme, to the point where those who do not do it might be missing out on belonging. When Bowie died, for example, a surprising number of people posted things onTwitterthat began, “I’m not a Bowie fan, but…” It was as if they wanted to participate in a public form of belonging, but they did not have the entry ticket to do so, so they made their own.
Fourth, new notions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ are developing. For instance, researchers and documentary makers who track down fan conversations or fan products online and translate those to a wider audience can sometimes be accused of passing on ‘private material’ meant for consumption only with the fan community. This means some fans see themselves as making and uploading things that are ‘for the fan community only’ even when those items are publicly accessible. The idea that you can have a comparatively private forum or archive in public space seems relatively novel.
Have there been any important milestones in fan culture that shaped the way celebrities were viewed and followed?
There have been many milestones and trends over the years. In postwar music, the early ones were often based around artists, or genres, or subcultures: Elvis, Beatlemania, the R&B boom, hippie culture, mod, glam rock, punk, etc,
—and these things wereunderpinned by the availability of disposable income, rise of the youth market, and of appropriate playback technology. That has not entirely changed. In recent years, new technologies have further shifted the playing field. Think of the Napster dispute in 2000, for example. Recent changes have been hard to see because they have not necessarily changed the idea of what fandom can mean, but they have happened. Since the creation of Crocker’s video, I think aTOP TENof developments might include:
1. One key place of the impact of the rise and rise of social mediation
—Youtube, Livejournal, Instagram, etc—has been therecording and relaying of live gigs.
We now have more access than ever to live music events that we missed. I use YouTube to both re-live events I attended, and assess whether I want to see particular artists. A few of them are now too old to rock’n’roll, and it’s good to know that in advance rather than waste the ticket money!
2. Along with this explosion of social media, we have seen the emergence of‘vlogging’as a cultural form that intersects with popular music: vloggers posting their ‘fan performance’ videos of favourite songs, this then further parodied by celebrities, etc. Simon Cowell’s decision to send his boy band Union J to Digifest2014, a vlogger’s convention, was a turning point here, as it suggests the phenomenon had secured a significant audience. The music industry had to take note.
If you want to understand the importance of vlogging to popular music, consider Marcus Butler. He has legions of young female fans. His own media outlet on the YouTube platform, Marcus Butler TV, generated over 3.4 million subscribers by 2015. Exploring video edit technology, in 2010 Butler gained his first 500 subscribers making videos of himself lip-synching to mixes featuring Jay-Z and Lady Gaga. He also loves creating comedy sketches, and doing commentary videos as he plays computer games. In 2013, he released the comedy rap song, ‘I’m A Rapper,’ on both his rapidly growing YouTube channel and on iTunes. The next year he teamed up with four other vloggers—Joe Sugg, Jim Chapman, Caspar Lee and Alfie Deyes—to record a charity song, a cover of McFly’s ‘It’s All About You.’ They called their collaboration The YouTube Boy Band. The song attracted over 6.5 million hits for Comic Relief’s YouTube channel.
The YouTube Boy Band was, in effect, a vlogger super-group: its members had already had a collective total of 384 million views on their combined YouTube channels before the single was release.
Like more easily identifiable music makers, such as One Direction or Justin Bieber, Butler has his own success story, and is immersed in online social media, using it as an outreach tool. Like other boy band members, he comes across as approachable, funny and well groomed. Like many music superstars, he has branched into his own product lines, including t-shirts and a recently released life lessons paperback, written with the help of music journalist Matt Allen. Butler compares with—but is in important ways alsounlike—heart throbs from earlier regimes of media production like, say, John Travolta, the film and TV actor who released his own eponymous LP in 1976 as a secondary project. Instead the vlogger is emblematic of an age of digital fandom. Here, the area in which each celebrity starts in or primarily pursues—whether TV, music or vlogging—matters less than their currency as an object of desire. Authenticating celebrity primarily by means of social media, they are free to move between a range of cultural forms and styles.
‘The music fan’ is a persona that vloggers use to authenticate themselves as ‘ordinary people’ who happen to be celebrities.
3. Increasingglobalizationhas created new kinds of cultural interchange. There is an increasing interest and awareness of Asian pop—notably K-pop: Psy’s ‘Gangham Style’ in 2012 and its many fan videos.
4. Alongside a culture of ‘retromania,’ more live shows and festivals have become family events. To some extent, multi-generational gig-going was always there, but I think parents bringing their toddlers to rock gigs in ear muffs seems to be a relatively new thing. Rock is turning back into a folk culture where parents can relay their experiences of amazing performances to their children.
5. Increased acceptance of past phantoms—Elvis on the video screens since 1997, Tupac as a hologram in 2012, etc. The music industry loves dead labour, and stars are safe bets, but these performances also mix recorded and live music in new ways.
For many fans, such performances are the nearest they will get to experiencing the excitement of seeing the artist on stage.
6. Adecrease in the event horizon of nostalgia—so more recent bands become objects of remembrance—along with an increased emphasis on fan ‘participation’ in heritage. Fans have become privileged witnesses helping other imagine memories of earlier times. By‘imagined memories’I mean things like the Beatles early gigs at the Cavern: few people were there, but many wish they were there. Fans speak on documentaries of what it was like to be there. It is as if history has extended the space of aura beyond the stage and into the audience. However, if being in an audience as part of an important past moment—say, watching the Beatles play the Cavern, or waiting outside of Graceland, or seeing the Sex Pistols—remains socially prized, but the real people who constituted those audiences are sometimes also lost to history. We want to franchise the experience and turn it into a role, but tend to evacuate it in the process.
7. Anextension of nostalgia culture specifically to pop—so, for example, people reminisced about loving Take That in the 1990s during their 2011 reunion. What is interesting about this is that previous rock was taken as historically important—and a starting point for imagined memories—while pop was seen as trivial and ephemeral. Pop is still seen asrelativelytrivial, but it is now used as a vehicle for the sharing of generational memories, as girl band and boy band reunions become media events.
8. A renewal ofmainstream pop stardom
—Justin Bieber and 1D in 2011, etc—as the youngest end of the markets continues to demand its own heroes.
9. Popfan baseshave been developing in particular ways. Think of Lady Gaga’s folk-like organization of her fandom as ‘Little Monsters’ who formed a community of outsiders, particularly around 2008-9. Allied to this, music fans have addressed contemporary issues, such as gay rights and the acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities. Of course, we can rewind to New York punk, or Bowie, or the New Romantics, to see an increasing acceptance of ‘queer’ identities, but millions of ordinary millennials have pursued this in a very public way, supporting musicians and vloggers like Tyler Oakley. While their efforts may have connections to the media establishment, they also genuinely reflect something of a generational shift registered by activist music fan phenomena.
10. A growingconvergence cultureof fan fiction and fan art in popular music, including ‘bandom’ and slash speculating on ‘bromances’ and stage gay antics. The online shaping of fan practices is making media fans, in turn, converge to a point where the conceptual worth of separatingmusicfandom as a separate category is called into question. It is not that we have stopped being music fandom, but rather that our music fandom is pursued alongside film, sport and TV fandom, through the same medium. This creates omnivorous fan cultures that roam between different fan objects, to some extent regardless of where those objects begin. Terms that were special to music fandom, such as talking about a fan base (rather than a ‘fandom’) are increasingly disappearing, while activities such as fanfic writing, which were less common in popular music culture, are becoming more universal.
… We might say that changes on the media side rather than the fan side have caused these phenomena, but the truth is that there is always a relationship. Fan creativity manifests most clearly when it appears on the side of production—so, for example, fans move into the industry and change the way things happen.