Gender and Fan Culture (Round Eleven, Part One): Nancy Baym and Aswin Punathambekar

Who are we?

Aswin Punathambekar: I am a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the Dept of Communication Arts (media and cultural studies) and will be joining the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan this fall term. My research and teaching revolve around globalization, culture industries, and public culture in contemporary India and the South Asian diaspora. These interests were shaped very strongly by my own experiences as an immigrant, and my participation in online fan communities began back in 1999 when I arrived in Athens, Georgia for graduate studies. I made the transition from fan to aca-fan in the Comparative Media Studies program and needless to say, was shaped strongly by Henry’s work. Over the next few years, I hope to carve out a space for the study of participatory culture within the larger field of scholarship on Bollywood and other domains of south asian media.

Nancy Baym: I’m an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas. I started studying fans when I became involved with the newsgroup rec.arts.tv.soaps in the early 1990s, a project that became my dissertation (I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1994) and which finally ended up as the book Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community. At KU, I teach courses about personal relationships, the internet, and qualitative methodologies. So far this decade, most of my published work has centered on the topics of online interactions in personal relationships and qualitative methodological issues in internet research (a book co-edited with Annette Markham on this topics is forthcoming from Sage Publications). Recently, though, I’ve turned my attention

back to online fandom, with my blog called, oddly enough, Online Fandom

(www.onlinefandom.com) and a just-published article about Swedish independent music fans

(http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue12_8/baym/index.html). I’m also just finishing up data collection for a study about ‘friending’ on Last.fm.

AP: I approach fan communities surrounding films and film music as a particularly compelling site for examining relationships among cinema, consumption, and citizenship in contemporary Indian public culture. And the specific group that I’ve been interested in is one that has cohered around a music director (A. R. Rahman) who composes music for Hindi-language Bollywood films, regional language films (Tamil and Telugu), diasporic films (e.g. Deepa Mehta’s trilogy – Fire, Earth, and Water), and international projects like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams. This is an online fan community, and brings together hundreds of Rahman fans from around the world (www.arrahmanfans.com). While a majority of the participants are of Indian origin, a growing number of non-Indian fans have joined this group over the past few years (although they lurk for the most part).

Given the immense popularity of film stars in India and in a number of countries with large diasporic South Asian populations (Fiji, Guyana, U.S., U.K., Canada, etc.), and the large number of online and offline fan communities that have emerged around these stars, the question that comes up right away is: why do I choose to focus on a music director?

Raising this question leads me to a broader one: What new questions can we raise by shifting the focus away from films/TV shows/stars onto the realm of music?

NB: I like that your focus positions you as a bit of an outsider to what seems to be the dominant domain of contemporary fandom research, American and British television fans. I’ve done plenty of work about American TV fans in my 1990s analyses of soap opera fans on the internet, but have always come at fandom from the outside in that my interests are first and foremost about how people create the social structures that organize them into personal relationships and communities, and how they use the internet in these processes. So I would place myself within internet studies before fandom, and that brings with it some different assumptions and approaches.

Fandom is a fascinating context to look at these things, though, because fans are always at the leading edge of using the internet in creative ways, and because fandom is a site where interpersonal and mass communication merge, which is often one of the internet’s defining qualities. Like you, my attention has turned in recent years to music fandom. I’ve been working on projects about the role of online fans in the export of Swedish independent music and also the nature of “friendship” in the “social music” site Last.fm. With a few exceptions, fan studies has little to say about music fandom and I’m not convinced it’s the same beast (or menagerie) as other fandoms, so yeah, what new questions get raised by looking at music?

The Text

NB: One question is simply (or not) the nature of “the text.” I find when I read much of current fandom studies, I have trouble making the connection between what they’re talking about as ‘text’ with many of the phenomena that interest me. I wonder how well you think all that theory that’s been built up around people engaging narrative fits music fandom? It’s particularly interesting in your case since you are looking at music that is tied to a narrative in film.

AP: For more than a decade now, Indian cinema has served as a key site for academics to re-think and rework our understanding of narrative, spectatorship, and participatory culture. I certainly see my work as contributing to this larger body of work (for a good introduction, take a look at the opening essay by Bhrigupati Singh here [http://www.india-seminar.com/2003/525.htm]). And you’re right in pointing out that film music complicates the boundaries and definitions of a “text.”

As is well known, songs have been an integral part of commercial films since the early 1930s when sound was introduced. While songs serve a variety of narrative functions within the film, it is critical to recognize that film songs have a well-defined circuit of production, circulation and consumption that is both tied to yet independent of the films themselves.

Film songs are released 3-4 months before a film hits the theatres, and are tied closely to publicity/marketing strategies. Clips of songs serve as teasers on numerous television channels, songs are played endlessly on FM radio, they are available on music websites such as musicindiaonline.com and raaga.com, and they are also circulated as cell phone ringtones. Songs circulate in the public realm long after the film itself does and song compilations (playback singer, music director, time period, actor/actress, etc.) sell exceedingly well. There are a large number of television programs around film music, and over the past decade, talent shows have become immensely popular (,em>Indian Idol, for e.g.).

The commercial value of film music has also meant that music directors and playback singers have occupied a key role in the industry from the very beginning. Film songs, then, are associated with music directors and playback singers just as much as with actors/actresses lip-synching on the screen (Neepa Majumdar uses the term “aural stardom” to argue that we need to think about ways to conceptualize stardom in the absence of glamour and the “invisibility” of playback singers).

All of these elements shape discussions in a site like the Rahman fan community. The “text,” to put it simply, is never limited to a specific film or even to A. R. Rahman. Now, it is not enough to merely point out that the film song as a “text” is very different when compared to a film or a television show, or that the music director or playback singer is a different kind of “star.” In the context of this discussion, perhaps the more relevant question is: in what ways do fan practices surrounding film music differ from those that cohere around, say, a film star? And for me, this involves challenging the dominant narrative of fan-politics in the Indian context.

Fandom has been considered an important element of film culture primarily because of its explicitly political nature. In south India, male film stars mobilize their fan base to organize electoral campaigns and run for political office. Fan clubs are, quite often, grassroots political organizations (and almost entirely a male space). Online spaces like the Rahman fan community have been ignored for no reason other than their seemingly non-political nature. Focusing on music, then, opens up an opportunity to develop other stories of fan culture (more on this later in the discussion).

NB: I guess one piece of my answer would be that the three minute pop song as “text” challenges many of the notions ingrained in fandom study. What does it mean to fill in the blanks of a text that tells no story to begin with or – in contrast to film scores – has no connections to stories? There are concepts (“neutrosemy” seems to be an important one), that kind of get there, but I’m not sure that treating meaning making as the core fandom process works as well for music fandom as it does for narrative fandom. It seems that music is in many cases a much more direct emotional experience than narrative.

Again, I find myself shifting away from the dominant focus of fan studies – how do fans engage texts as collectives – and toward what I think are much more central issues in music fandom: how do people use music as a means of constructing their own identities and connecting with others? These are not untouched issues in fan studies, but they seem to get marginalized by what I’d consider a more literary/cultural studies approach that foregrounds what they do and don’t do in engaging the text itself.

Certainly some music fans concern themselves with lyrics, but for all the years I’ve been following music as part of various fandoms, I can probably count on one hand the number of discussions about what the words to a song mean that really went anywhere. In most of the fandoms I follow, lyrical discussion never gets past “and the words are clever” or “the lyrics stink, but the hooks are so good you can overlook it” or “I guess their drummer’s suicide really influenced these lyrics.” These just aren’t rich discussion topics. There’s much more discussion of extra-textual issues like recording dates and information, discography construction, concert chronology construction, arranging trades or torrents of concert recordings, and so on. Even when you look at a site that is specifically discussing the songs, such as Pop Songs 07 where every REM song is being blogged, the discussion is mostly about the personal experiences people associated with a song rather than what Michael Stipe meant in those words or what key the song is written in. To an extent, that’s meaning making, of course, but it’s quite different from what I saw with soap fans.

Comments

  1. Great discussion. I’m very interested in the idea of “neutrosemy,” which seems to take some of the shine off of the supposedly transformative appropriations of media fans by saying that they’re just remaking the texts in their own images, as opposed to letting themselves be transformed by the texts. Nancy Baym’s take here, by contrast, seems to emphasize the positive and even self-transformative aspects of defining oneself by reference to music. I would love to see more discussion of how fans understand themselves to have been changed by their fandom.

  2. Sam Ford says:

    Nancy, you raise an interesting question about fandom, about whether it’s more about the community or about the media text. We share an interest in soaps, and I think perhaps soaps are particularly best understood as social texts, since it’s more about daily interacation with characters, and often interpersonal discussions about those characters, fit into a long tradition of “talk” culture but also into the flow of everyday life.

    Music’s interesting in that regard as well, as music fandom is often as much about common lifestyles, similar worldviews, similar outlooks on life, similar socioeconomic conditions, geographical location and/or roots, etc. But it raises a fundamental question for anyone who studies fandom, in whether it is a group of people who join together and use a text as a common bond, or whether it’s about a text that has a group of followers built around it. Of course, it’s not an either/or distinction, but it does lead to quite different focuses.

  3. Nancy Baym says:

    Rebecca — I agree it would be great to see more on how fans understand themselves to have been transformed. I know for many adolescent music fans, there is a sense that the music literally saved their lives. In my own case, I don’t think I’m the suicidal sort, but I have no doubt that my identification with punk and new wave in the late 70s/early 80s got me through high school (and its cheerleaders, athletes, and other cliques) with my mental health intact.

    A very personal version of my own music-based transformation in college can be found (in comic strip form!) here:

    http://jorff.com/rock/REM.html

    In that case, the fandom elements followed from the inexplicable changes in me that listening to that music triggered.

    That said, I’m not sure it’s always ‘positive’ construction of identity that music engenders. Self-transformation can be a bad thing too.

    In regard to Sam’s comments, even getting in to soaps is all about the connections you already have with people who are into soaps, so that fandom really starts with personal relationships and community and then goes into the fan-text relationship. Does anyone start watching soaps if no one they spend time with does?

  4. Sam Ford says:

    Nancy, my work on soaps concurs with your statement, as many of the main points in my work hinge on the social-ness of soaps and the fact that the best way to gain new viewers is through other viewers, not through any campaigns by the shows or the networks. In that case, the fan community is partiuclarly important in the soaps world and underutilized by those who need to grow their audiences now more than ever.

    In music, it seems that there is a much different force at work, since the barriers of entry are much lower for becoming a fan of a song or performer as compared to a show like a soap. We seem to identify music as being more about self-expression than almost any other media form, but I find that balance between proselytizer and self-expressor to be interestingly precarious, since using music as an identification of how you are different becomes complicated when also trying to share that affinity.