Fans seem to get a lot of criticism. Sometimes this is warranted; for example I often laugh at myself for referring to my football team of choice as “we” as though I have any input into what occurs on the pitch. Similarly, it was only last year at the age of twenty-one that I waited for an hour in the cold to meet one of my favourite songwriters. To many people I know this is not normal behaviour and for some reason as a society in general we appear to look down on those who display their passion as fans most openly.
This stems in part from the fact that the term “fan” is an abbreviation of “fanatic”, but this also delves deeper, belying a level of age and gender prejudice. Helen Davies has argued that the music press in particular has helped to foster a culture of ridicule around young female fans, and the “assumption of their stupidity” when contrasted with their male counterparts. As a slightly obsessive fan, and more importantly as a historian, I can’t help but feel we should be embracing the behaviour of those most wrapped up in culture of fandom and attempting to understand its uses as a subject of historical enquiry, rather than criticising it.
A historical assessment of fan culture can lead to useful inquiries into identity, sexuality, and gender amongst other topics; for example Cheryl Cline’s piece “Essays From Bitch” works to highlight the double standard in the acceptability of “crushing” on famous people, in the process ripping apart the concept that “female fans” and “groupies” are synonymous phrases. However I particularly want to discuss the role the fans themselves play in forming these histories.
Typically down the years fans have presented their devotion to their chosen subject through their outward appearance, physical actions (such as attending concerts or events), and through discussions with other fans. In fact, productivity and participation are key aspects of fans’ devotion, and these elements of fan culture have been added to in recent years by the use of the internet to help link those with shared interests.
The rise of blogging in particular has aided these connections and also allowed devotees to embrace creative reactions to their heroes, whether through photo editing, journal writing, or again simply by discussing their chosen interest with like-minded people. From a historical perspective, this is fantastic – not only do we now have access to quasi-databases storing information on certain musicians, actors, and writers, but these sites also act as a means of studying the fans themselves. Historians are now provided with a means of surveying the depth of obsession; an insight into identity of fans and the ways in which they are formed.
One of my favourite examples of this fan culture is displayed by followers of the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers. Emerging from Blackwood, Caerphilly in the early 1990s, the Manics (as they are more affectionately known) failed their initial aim of selling sixteen million copies of their debut album and immediately disbanding, instead battling on through the disappearance of lyricist Richey James Edwards in 1995 to become one of the biggest bands in Britain the following year. Since then commercial and critical success has ebbed and flowed for the band, with their twelfth effort Futurology gaining wide acclaim last year (go and listen to it, it’s a masterpiece). However despite their turbulent backstory, one particular aspect of the band’s existence has remained consistent throughout – the incredible devotion of their core fanbase.
Manics folklore has long maintained that you can tell a fan of the band by spotting one, or all of the following indicators – some form of leopard print clothing, dark eyeliner, and feather boas. However, not only do these devotees quite literally wear their influences on their sleeves, not only do they willingly camp out over night to be at the very front of the crowd at gigs, but they also take to the internet in droves to compile an incredible set of self-made and self-curated resources. For example, http://www.richeyedwards.net/ not only displays a fantastic level of information on the disappearance of the missing Manics member, but is linked to a collection of over two hundred newspaper and magazine articles, a wealth of primary source material for a the perusal of a historian.
Similarly useful sites include https://manicsdiscog.wordpress.com/ and https://manicsongs.wordpress.com/, blogs which offer impressive summaries of the band’s immense discography, focussing heavily on breaking down the lyrical content that is so important to the very nature of the Manics. Wider fan input and discussion can be witnessed on the fansite and forum http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/, meanwhile http://www.angelfire.com/zine/thisisourtruth/fanzines.html provides a fantastic rundown of the fanzines created and distributed in the 1990s which, if located, offer a real opportunity to study the creative aspects of fan support in this period in a similar manner to Lucy Robinson’s work on the Riot Grrrl bands of the 1990s. Furthermore, one common theme to all of these sites is the way in which they collate large numbers of fans, who could be contacted for further information by a historian who wishes to study this material further, possible through the form of interview.
So where am I going with this? As previously mentioned, the accumulation of primary source material by fans can be used not only to discuss those adored by their supporters, but to also study the very nature of fandom. Therefore, to study the Manics’ fans, one could engage on a discursive level, and study the ways in which language is used by their followers to display their devotion. Equally, a historian could look at the manner in which music can influence its listeners, in terms of outward appearance, political views, and wider cultural intake.
For example, utilising this description of one of most widely recognised Manics songs “A Design for Life” allows us to envisage the meaning this track holds for fans of the band. Not only does this article provide a breakdown of the song’s music and lyrics, but it also explains why the song is so significant for the bands followers, explaining that as the song closes most gigs since the year 1996, it is “integral to the Manics live experience”. Similarly the article suggests that as time has passed, extensive airplay had made the track “a little harder to enjoy now”, showcasing some of the difficulties fans face when bands they follow push fully into the musical mainstream.
These aren’t easy projects, and these sources still leave considerable gaps in the quest to understand the nature of fandom, not least because these websites only provide a set number of opinions and experiences. Either way, more material and far greater levels of wider reading and knowledge on the nature of fandom and subcultures than I possess would be needed. However, having stumbled upon such a wealth of primary source material I figured the one job I could do would be to point this out to those who have the ability to take it further.
So next time you feel the urge to scoff when you see a row of sleeping bags outside the Roundhouse, or laugh at a teenager’s blog post on the subject they love the most, step back for a second and consider the possibilities these fans have for your historical research. There may well be a new avenue for you to head down entirely paved by the work of these loyal supporters.