As an expert on music and popular culture fandom Dr Jennifer Otter Bickerdike has a deep understanding of why people obsess over acts – but her experience of fandom started from a more personal place. Here she discusses why fandom matters, to her and to us all.
Being a fan has shaped every area of my life. From the clothes that I have worn throughout my life (and there have been some challenging choices, I assure you) to the friends I have kept, to the person I aspire to be, most of my decisions, I realize, have been ‘guided’ by worshipping at the shrine of particular artists, whether that be musician, writer or visual genius. I once read that every celebrity is a composite of those that came before them, as in James Dean is not really a total original, but more so a pastiche of Marlon Brando, Randolph Valentino and every morose teenager who had ever existed. I think this holds true for us normal mortals, too, as we cobble together our own identities.
My own life is argument to the validity of this idea. I can plot, like many people, my entire life by the soundtrack of what was on my turntable (or cassette player or MP3 boom box) at any time, artist by artist, album by album. Whether it be the dark angst of Joy Division getting me through the death of my grandfather or the jangly beats of PiL singing that this is firmly NOT a love song when I have been at the dodgy end of a failed relationship, or simply blasting ‘Everywhere’ by Fleetwood Mac as I walked down the sandy beach ‘aisle’ at my wedding, they are all there, my heroes, Ian (Curtis), Johnny (Lydon) and Stevie (Nicks), backing me up, getting me through, letting me know that we are a community, a tribe found within the grooves of the record.
It was my fandom and obsessive devotion to all things British – Brontë, Factory Records, Absolutely Fabulous – that saved my life. One of my friends that I had grown up with had been murdered just blocks away from where my house was in San Francisco. It completely shocked and shook me. It forced me to take a hard, brutal look at my life. I had been having one abusive romantic relationship after another, was on the edge of having a drinking problem and did not like the person who stared back at me from the mirror. My friend, Hunter, had lived life without fear, taking challenges head on and being a light to others for them to do the same. I knew that to honour him, I had to follow his code of staying true and authentic to ones self. So I left my very well paid job at a well known dot com, sold everything I owned, enrolled in a PhD program and moved to England (as one does, right?). The topic of my doctorate? Yep, fandom (and Joy Division, if I am completely honest).
Fandom has given me not only the ‘Dr.’ before my name, but friends, memories and moments that are priceless. Today I had a conversation with Colin, a friend of mine in Manchester. I say ‘friend’ even though we have not talked in seven years, we realised today. He owns an amazing record store called Vinyl Revival in Manchester. Before I lived in the UK, I would make annual pilgrimages to see him when I visited England, picking up hundreds of pounds worth of records, T-shirts, badges, mugs and assorted other memorabilia. The store specialises in Brit-pop era, Madchester items, from original Factory Records posters to re-released compilations. It became a joke, because I would literally have to buy an extra sutcase after every trip to the store. I could always be spotted drudging through Heathrow Airport back to California with luggage stuffed, often bursting open in customs, full of books about the Happy Mondays and decade old Charlatans fliers. Colin would always hook me up with special limited edition items; he gave me one of my most treasured possessions, a Haçienda Members card. I had been too young and living too far way to actually go to the club when it was in its heyday. It seemed as exotic and glamorous and far away as Mars. Holding the card which would have gained me entry to the hallowed place was almost unbelievable. It was the closest I would or could ever get to being part of the ground zero I had only read and dreamed about, the place created by fandom and credited with the formation of so much culture and revolution. To someone else, the card may have been total garbage. To this kid from Santa Cruz who had spent an entire lifetime obsessing about all things Mancunian, it was like a piece of the holy shroud.
Speaking to Colin today made me appreciate (for the millionth time) how powerful music and fandom are. He remembered me from those yearly visits, being in awe that he had actually been to the Haçienda , or that he knew the members of Joy Division / New Order (my two all-time favourite bands). He never made me feel like the total fanatic nerd dork who viewed Manchester as a personal religion. Instead, he always made me feel included in the cities grand musical heritage: telling me stories about gigs he had attended, giving me New Order posters from twenty years ago, even getting me on the list for a Bad Lieutenant show (a spin-off project of New Order with Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris).
Having now lived in the UK for eight years, I am a bit more jaded and a lot less excitable about all things English than I had been during all of those annual visits. I don’t stock up on chocolate digestive biscuits to horde upon landing in the States, or base every decision I make upon if it will interfere with the touring calendar of The Cure (yes, I am guilty of doing both of these and more). Yet I am always thrilled to get a tweet or a message from Colin or from other friends who I may have met once at a gig ten years ago, or have exchanged stories about our favourite authors or bands at a signing or club night in the long past 20th century. The tribe of our shared fandom acts as a glue which binds us together; it means we share specific tastes, values and ethos, without having to utter a word. The other day I put on the New Fast Automatic Daffodils, another band that I listened to constantly for several decades of my life. All I could think was, ‘THIS IS SO GOOD.’ It is rare, almost never that I hear something new and have this reaction. Is it nostalgia, is it getting older, or really was the music just better? I argue that it is all of these things; but they are intrinsically linked to the fan communities, the Colins of the world, and places like Vinyl Revival, where you immediately share a bond upon walking in.
Colin has now had his shop for almost 20 years, during some of the worst possible times to be in the record store game. It is is an illustration to our punk rock roots, the going against the grain belief system, in the pursuit of something we are passionate about. Colin is also running an indie record label on top of the shop, one of my all time dreams to do myself. Ok, you say, don’t One Direction fans share this love and adoration for an artist or scene with each other? Show me a boy band who has had fans open stores, put out records, be in the community living the life that we heard via the beat of our musical heroes: fans making, sharing and recording history for decade upon decade. They don’t exist. Which makes my circle of fandom special, important and valuable.
I am constantly reminded that it is because of fandom that many of my friendships exist, that opportunities in my life have opened up in the specific way they have. I am an expert of fandom, not just because I have studied it from every theoretical and academic direction, not just because I have worked at numerous record labels, major to tiny, creating fans for new and old bands alike, but because I am a fan. I am every kid who has worn a band t-shirt proudly, every forty-something that has danced down the road when they thought no one was looking to a favourite song played through earphones, every mosh and jump and thrash in the pit during a gig. Fandom is the blood we all share, across time zones, continents and even years themselves, no matter where life takes us or what struggles and triumphs we experience.
Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is a recovering Anglophile from California living in the UK. Her new book, Why Vinyl Matters, is out 1 September on ACC Publishing. Current fandom obsession: The Charlatans newest album, Different Days. You can read more from her on Louder Than War in her author archive here.