Christine Bacareza Balance
fan (n.): a person enthusiastic about a specified sport, pastime, or performer; devotee
fanatic (Latin, “of a temple”): unreasonably enthusiastic, overly zealous; a person whose extreme zeal, piety, etc. goes beyond what is reasonable.
I begin with these two brief definitions of “fan” and “fanatic”–from which the first term is typically derived–because they touch upon some of the topics I am interested in, both in my research and everyday life. As someone whose early scholarly training came by way of U.S. ethnic studies and postcolonial studies, my research today focuses on the labor (productive, consumptive, affective) of making music within Filipino America–a soundscape created by the historical relationship (imperial, postcolonial, neocolonial) between the U.S. and Philippines. It is an intimate yet oft-forgotten relationship and, thus, is charged with the racial/cultural invisibility of Filipinos within a U.S. racial imaginary. In other words, what is Filipino culture in the eyes of the U.S.?
Nothing but a merely mimetic nation, as evidenced by its most notable cover performers–Arnel Pineda, Charice Pempengco, and the hordes of cover bands playing in a global tourist circuit, the spectacular choreography of its prison inmates set to a Michael Jackson beat, and a deadly penchant for singing “My Way” on a karaoke machine.
Here, then, in a U.S. popular imaginary, Filipinos are fanatics–people who go beyond what is “reasonable”–when it comes to their relationship to their former colonizer’s popular culture. It is a type of affective charge that simultaneously places them outside of a certain modernity (and therefore, post-modernity, as well) seemingly located in a logic of culture industries–TV, film, popular music–the same industries which render them “invisible” (or, more likely, collapse them within a limited idea of “Asian-ness” as evidenced in the common occurrence of Filipino stars “playing” characters of other Asian races–Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, but never Filipino) within a landscape of U.S. racialization.
Instead, as Apl de Ap of the Black Eyed Peas–one of the most “visible yet invisible” Filipino Americans in U.S. popular music today–notes, these and other Asian Americans remain a “quiet storm” of music producers, songwriters, and simply undercover agents (note one of pop’s biggest stars today–Bruno Mars–is often noted for his Puerto Rican ancestry, Hawaiian upbringing but rarely, if ever, his Filipino heritage).
Along with this, however, I also sense a common belief within fan studies (and perhaps the term “aca-fan” specifically) that there can and does remain a divide between fans and performers–as if never the twain shall meet. Though my research has most definitely led me to examples of participatory culture–specifically, through the interactive communication technology (ICT) and everyday performance event of karaoke singing as well as the “viral aesthetics” evidenced in the recent emergence of Asian American performers on YouTube, from my interviews with and personal experiences interacting with musicians, events organizers/producers, club owners and DJs from Manila to the San Francisco Bay, I have witnessed the various forms of fan-dom these musical producers themselves inhabit.
Here, they are not only devoted the U.S. or European popular musics but, most especially, OPM (original Pilipino music)–from the 1950s up until today. In turn, my complicated relationship to this larger soundscape of OPM–as scholar, fan, and colleague–I believe, is not a rare incident. There a number of other popular music studies scholars in the U.S. and beyond who maintain a place in each of these (as well as other) categories of identification.
In the end, I am currently most interested in the styles of writing about musical cultures and sonic phenomena–in other words, the various ways that we, as critics, can attempt to write performatively–understanding our roles in the process of making meaning of culture–and, in the terms set by the late Eve Sedgwick, reparatively. Since many of the artists I choose to write about are generally people I have maintained an close relationship with–as a friend or fan or collaborator, the question of writing in a style legible to them is always there.
But, I believe that we should always be striving to be much more than just “legible” or “transparent” in our critical writing. Instead, we should, as Daphne Brooks once aptly stated, try to make the music sing in our writing. Or, as Josh Kun has shown us, we should imagine music creating places, bringing together worlds through both performance and listening. And, with their keen interest in the relationship between words and sound, Fred Moten and Alexandra Vazquez’s work always remind me, it’s not only that we try to capture the essence of music but, instead, that we travel inside of music’s poetry and allow it to show us other ways of seeing, hearing, and being.
It is hard to be a fan sometimes: a few scenarios come to mind – I am at a Radiohead show circa 2004, miles from the stage and while I am trying to be absorbed by the live performance, I am deeply distracted by a young woman sitting on her boyfriend’s shoulders next to me and singing “Everything in its riiiight place” in the same tone that she may have been singing “give me what you want, what you really, really want” just a few years earlier while swinging her blond hair back and forth and whooping “oh yeah” in between little bursts of lyrics. I remember feeling really irritated, thinking to myself, well if she is a Radiohead fan, am I?
Or, a few years before that, probably the same year that Ms. Thing was screaming to the Spice Girls, I was going to drag king shows in NYC, heading out late at night to take in the queer night life scene of downtown New York. But instead of entering into dens of subcultural intimacy, I found myself shoulder to shoulder with gawkers, the beautiful people who were following a buzz and lining up now to take in the freak show before moving on to the next hot subcultural site.
And before that it was going to punk shows and pogo-ing alongside scary skinheads who may not have been attracted to the Clash, the Jam, the Slits, X-Ray Spex for the same reasons that I was.
Fandom is full of jeopardy and heartbreak, it is a jagged experience that confirms you and shatters you and often in the same location. It summons a sense of community but also calls forth snobbish and elitist modes of differentiation (why was I SO put out by the blond girl at the Radiohead concert? What made me SO sure that I and not she was the proper kind of Radiohead fan?). When we study fandom or bring our fannish commitments into our academic work, perhaps we are just trying to smooth out the rough edges of an experience that never quite delivers on what it promises – that precisely cannot deliver on that promise if only because fantasy and impossibility are the fuel upon which fandom thrives, burns and, ultimately, crashes.
I have succumbed to the siren calls of certain forms of fandom–punk, drag, gaga–and I will be called to plenty more in the future but I am now more wary and cautious of fandom than in my younger days. I am interested in thinking about forms of fandom that not only flirt with ecstatic pleasure but that also turn quickly to hostility and even violence when disappointed – think All About Eve, think about the killing of John Lennon or Selena. I would love to talk about fandom in an age of ubiquitous and mundane celebrity – if subjectivity, more and more, runs through the territory of everyday celebrity (everyone is a celebrity in their own mind), then what is fandom? A tutelage mode? A training in celebrity subjectivities? In academia and in the realm of popular culture, I think it is time to think about breaking with fidelity, devotion, discipleship (and other quasi-religious modes of practice) in favor of what I call “low theory” in my new book, what Foucault names as subjugated knowledge and what Fred Moten and Stefano Harny call “fugitive knowing.”
Fandom does encompass many of these modes already, but lets be clear that fandom can both reproduce the norm or neutralize all that opposes it. Fandom entails risk, danger, complicity and explosive possibilities; it’s hard to be a fan.
I appreciate how Christine begins her post with two definitions of “fan” and “fanatic;” I am, I must confess, a person who often harbors unfair assumptions about the blurring of the two categories. This partly comes from the fact that I never really consider myself a “real” fan–certainly I’m a fan of popular culture in a broad sense, but I’ve never gone beyond the typical audience subject position to vote on contestants, to write fan fiction, to comment on a fan site (okay, once I voted on American Idol, but just for Adam Lambert).
So I’ve felt at times a certain (ir)rational distance when thinking about fans who position themselves in more active ways in relation to cultural texts, and am certainly guilty of occasionally merging the two definitions Christine offered, so that fans were often de facto fanatics in my mind.
Christine powerfully reminds us, though, that the merging between the fan and the fanatic is often complex and multi-layered, and certainly fans and fan activity do not circulate in culture in the same ways, across all boundaries. Fandom, as Christine points out, is often racialized, so that particular fans are seen as fanatics due to their racialization, their “irrational” or “cultural” bodies, such as the Filipino musicians Christine writes about.
Jack also reminds us that what fandom is isn’t always clear, and it can be many things at once. Fandom can entail risk and challenge, but it can also–and often does–reproduce the norm.
What I want to do in this post is to draw on this multivalent notion of fandom, and invoke yet another iteration: the fan as self-brand. I would say that all fans and fan activities are situated within a commercial context, though again, this means different things for different fans. That is, while the cultural and commercial economy is surely a framing or shaping context, it is not always a deterministic one. The fact that fans, texts, and fandom take place and are often enabled by a broad milieu of consumption does not mean that fans and their activities do not have cultural, political, and social meaning.
However, the commercial context of much fandom and fan activities also animates other processes by which the “fan” is positioned and validated as a kind of product within a circuit of commodity exchange. The practice of self-branding is an increasingly normative practice in US culture, where “building a brand” seems to more and more be the logical go-to strategy for marketing our personal and professional identities. There often seems to be a relationship between self-branding and actively constructing oneself as a particular fan.
That is, I’m troubled by the ways in which there seems to be an increasing collapse between business brand strategy and personal identity construction in digital spaces–and it seems that in this collapse, it becomes harder (at least for me) to always discern what it means to be a “fan.” Digital media, and the ways in which users are interactive within this space, offer flexibility for fans to not only produce their own media, but also facilitate strategies of self-branding.
Part of being a fan means contributing to the distribution and publicity of popular texts, especially if fan production is posted on-line. While this is not necessarily a negative thing, it does have a heightened significance in an economic context where the individual is privileged as a commodity, and where cultural and social life is increasingly organized and experienced through the terms and conditions of business models. This means that cultural values, such as morals and personal standards, can be harnessed and re-shaped within these same business conditions, so that building a brand becomes almost like a moral obligation to oneself.
In particular, I’m interested in the ways digital media and media production authorize the practice of self-branding for girls and young women, often in the name of self-empowerment, on social network sites, such as Youtube and Facebook. The practice of individuals becoming what Nikolas Rose calls “the enterprising self” has implications for women within the 21st century, where “putting oneself out there” and the quest for visibility is an ever more normative practice for young women.
So I suppose my contribution to this discussion is to ask the question: what happens when the fan becomes a kind of product? Or when the discourse of fandom and fan activities is not so much about individual tastes and desires, or belonging to a community, but is rather about fans laboring in the name of both the self-brand and a company brand? As Jack said, it is hard to be a fan.
Christine Bacareza Balance is Assistant Professor in Asian American Studies (UC Irvine). Her research & teaching interests include: Filipino/Filipino American studies, performance studies, and popular culture. Her writing has been published in Women & Performance: a feminist journal, the Journal of Asian American Studies (JAAS), Theatre Journal, and In Media Res (online). One-ninth of the Polynesian power pop band The Jack Lords Orchestra, she is currently writing a book on popular music and performance in Filipino America.
Sarah Banet-Weiser is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication at USC Annenberg and the department of American Studies and Ethnicity. Her first book, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (University of California Press, 1999), explores a popular cultural ritual, the beauty pageant, as a space in which national identities, desires, and anxieties about race and gender are played out. She has also authored a book on consumer citizenship and the children’s cable network: Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (Duke University Press, 2007), in addition to her co-edited book, Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting, co-edited with Cynthia Chris and Anthony Freitas (New York University Press, 2007). Her current book project, Authentic TM: Political Possibility in a Brand Culture (New York University Press, forthcoming) examines brand culture, youth, and political possibility through an investigation of self-branding, creativity, politics, and religion. A co-edited book, Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times, co-edited with Roopali Muhkerjee, is under contract with New York University Press (forthcoming 2011).
Judith “Jack” Halberstam is Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity and Gender Studies at USC. Halberstam works in the areas of popular, visual and queer culture with an emphasis on subcultures. Halberstam’s first book, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995), was a study of popular gothic cultures of the 19th and 20th centuries and it stretched from Frankenstein to contemporary horror film. Her 1998 book, Female Masculinity (1998), made a ground breaking argument about non-male masculinity and tracked the impact of female masculinity upon hegemonic genders. Halberstam’s last book, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005), described and theorized queer reconfigurations of time and space in relation to subcultural scenes and the emergence of transgender visibility. This book devotes several chapters to the topic of visual representation of gender ambiguity. Halberstam was also the co-author with Del LaGrace Volcano of a photo/essay book, The Drag King Book (1999), and with Ira Livingston of an anthology, Posthuman Bodies (1995). Halberstam regularly speaks on queer culture, gender studies and popular culture and publishes blogs at bullybloggers.com. Halberstam just finished a book titled The Queer Art of Failure due out 2011 from Duke University Press.