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

Articulating Attachment NB: I think people are often better able to articulate what stories mean to them in terms of the text itself: which characters they identify with (or don't), what they think about plot turns, etc. With music, it's very hard to find words to explain one's connection outside of the role songs played in that moment of one's autobiography. I have loved music more than stories most of my life but I can explain narrative conventions with some degree of competence and can't even begin to describe things like the common rhythmic or chord structures in the music that moves me.

AP: This is an interesting point, and I would readily admit that if someone were to ask me why I enjoy A. R. Rahman's music or why a certain playback singer's voice moves me, I would have nothing much to say. And as I quickly realized when I began speaking with fans of A. R. Rahman, this question doesn't move the conversation much. What would get me and other Rahman fans talking is this: tell me about your conversations and experiences interacting with other Rahman fans online. Attachment, in other words, was defined in terms of belonging in a community.

It is very important to recognize that this relates to taste hierarchies and the ambivalent status of film music in Indian public culture. The question of high culture vs. low culture fandom that Jonathan Gray and Roberta Pearson brought up is very relevant here. Given that music directors and playback singers are often trained in classical music and the fact that film songs draw on classical music, fan discussions do revolve around this. In the Rahman fan community, there are fans who are well-versed in the technical (or "formal"?) dimensions of music and go to great lengths to explain them to other fans. Needless to say, this expertise becomes a form of value and these fans quickly become leaders within the community.

In fact, film music's middlebrow status allows elite youth to claim a fan identity and belong in a fan community partly because it is not associated with lower class, lower caste, and "political" fan communities that form around film stars in south India.

NB: That's interesting, I don't see much of this in the music fandoms I spend time in. In fact, I think it's pretty unusual to see any fans talking about the formal elements that make songs sound as they do. When I read Daniel Levitin's (author of This Is Your Brain on Music) claim that the appeal of pop music is in the timbre, I had no idea what "timbre" meant, and I'd bet that most pop music fans don't. Musicians can have those conversations, but fans that aren't musicians rarely can, and I think this is very different from narrative where fans can not just articulate narrative conventions, but are often using them to write their own fan fictions. There is no music fandom equivalent of fan fiction except fan fiction about musicians, but that's a total form shift.

But I think it makes perfect sense to extend a fandom approach to "high" culture, and to look at how 'high culture' sorts of discussion permeate 'low culture' fandoms. On my blog, for instance, I've written about wine fandom and how that doesn't normally get considered "fandom" but that people who are into wine act just like people who are into a TV show or movie -- they hold gatherings, they read supplementary materials, they go on pilgrimages to wineries, they wear winery t-shirts and baseball caps, they try to connect with others who are into the same things (there are now at least 3 online wine-based social networking sites). I knew so many people who made pilgrimages to see Wagner's Ring Trilogy performed in its entirety on consecutive nights by the Chicago Opera.

Communities of Sound

NB: Another way in which the text at stake raises very different questions with music is how the social relationships formed around music differ from those formed around narratives. I love your point above that attachment is "defined in terms of belonging in a community." Music has ties to location in ways stories don't -- as you know! Where narratives have the fan conventions that bring the hardcores together, music has live performance that is integral to its very being and gets everyone from the hardcores to the curious together in place. This is again a huge contrast to, say, the fan con which is only going to get the hardcores together in space. How does music's connection to place affect the fandom that forms around it?

AP: I'm really glad you raised the issue of place.

As I said earlier, fandom has been considered an important element of film culture primarily because film stars in south India have been successful at mobilizing fans along linguistic and regional lines.

Given that the Rahman fan community is first and foremost a community realized online, and that fans bring diverse stakes and affiliations to bear on their participation, mobilization along axes of caste or language is, at a basic level, rendered structurally impossible. For example, fans based in Malaysia, for whom participation in the Rahman fan community is part of a larger process of claiming a Tamil ethnic identity, share little in common with second-generation Indian-Americans for whom dancing to a remixed Rahman song at a club speaks to a very different set of concerns. Focusing our attention on the realm of film music thus allows us to challenge the romanticization of fan culture as subaltern politics. The realm of film music fandom forces us to acknowledge other ways of being a fan and modes of belonging in fan communities.

Of course, this does pose problems. For instance, members of the Rahman fan community appear unconcerned with questions of class and caste that have been central to fan-based political mobilizations. In the very first interview I conducted, the moderator of the group made it clear that the Rahman fan community shared nothing in common with "rowdy" fan associations and went on to remark: "we're online, not on the streets!"

NB: I think one has to really stretch the definition of "politics" to argue it's an important component of the fandoms in which I spend time, but place is core. One of the topics I've been intrigued by is the role of online fans and fan communities in taking music out of place. For instance, in the Swedish indie music scene, outside of MySpace (and arguably there to an extent) the work of exporting this cultural product is being taken on by (often unpaid) fans in America, England, France, and other countries. Songs that would never be heard outside of Sweden, and might not even get heard in Sweden, are getting international audiences through mp3 blogs and online webzines devoted to that (and the broader Scandinavian) scene. Online fandom is spreading music well beyond its locations of origin on an unprecedented scale, but their place-based nature remains an important component. In terms of the individualizing function of music fandom, being able to identify with a foreign music scene is great - I could frame myself as a big fan of local music (and I've done so at other points in life), but being a Kansan who strongly self-identifies as a Swedish indie fan has a lot more potential to start conversations and allows me a lot more potential to turn local friends on to bands they'd otherwise never hear. And on the other side of that, having an online community of people who are into bands as obscure as these are in America allows me to continuously find new music and to get in-depth expertise on the bands I fall in love with. Many fans in this particular fandom are far more likely to check out a new band if they are Swedish than not, regardless of where they live themselves.

Relationship Building

AP: Relationship building is definitely an interesting issue. Fans of A. R. Rahman have positioned themselves very clearly as a grassroots marketing team. Some of them have business degrees and work as consultants, a large number work in the IT industry, and they've taken it upon themselves to figure out new ways of distributing Rahman's music, tackling digital piracy and p2p sharing, and so on. Rahman, for his part, has acknowledged these fans' efforts and has begun collaborating with them on a range of projects.

In the Indian mediascape, these new kinds of relationships between fans and producers haven't received much attention. And it would be fair to say that producers are yet to figure out ways to tap into the vast space of participatory culture that has emerged online. Fans are being courted, but only because their serve as information hubs. As I see it, talent competitions on TV are the only site where fans are able to strike up conversations with music directors, playback singers, lyricists, and others in the industry.

NB: I see a lot of norms about sharing in music fan communities, most of which prohibit fan distribution of anything that can be purchased except in the context of mp3 blogs, which often operate with the tacit approval of labels. But as I say, fans are certainly acting as distributors and publicists.

Another element that's interesting here is the huge boom in online sites built to create social relationship amongst music listeners in the name of music discovery. There are new "Music 2.0" sites launching weekly. With music we have sites that are being built from the ground up to track everything people listen to and make personal connections and music recommendations based on that. That ability to track it all and create collective knowledge algorithmically seems to be operating at a whole other level with music. These sites raise so many questions about the roles of shared taste in relationships. Looking at, whether or not a person shares musical taste is the core issue in whether or not someone will "friend" someone they don't already know, but how well does that predict whether they'll have anything else to talk about?

Boys and Girls

NB: Meanwhile, aren't we supposed to be representing some sort of gender divide? Or talking about gender?

AP: I should make it clear right away that the stakes here are very different. Given that fandom has been neglected for the most part by academics who have written on media in India, there is, at this point, little concern about who is writing about fandom. Having said that, I would like to point out that paying attention to the domain of music does create an opportunity to talk about gender and participatory culture.

So far, the spotlight has been on fan communities that meet at street corners, at teashops, or outside cinema halls. Participatory culture, then, has been circumscribed as that defined by working-class (often lower caste) male youth in visible, public spaces. Once again, turning our attention to film music presents a way forward. For both commercial and cultural-political reasons, every new medium - radio, state-owned television, satellite television (MTV-India, STAR, etc.) - has drawn on film music and developed innovative programs. These film music-based radio and television programs have had a large fan following, and women's participation in these sites has been very prominent and visible. I would argue that examining these sites of participatory culture is critical for opening up the discussion on gender and fandom surrounding Indian cinema.

NB: Pop music fandom is so blatantly gendered it barely seems worth laying out just how. Short version: girl fans want to sleep with the bands, boys want to be them. (I wrote a longer piece about this here.)

It seems like gender is being taken in a couple of ways in the discussions in this series thus far. First is a question of authority in the academy -- those studying 'female' ways of doing fandom feeling excluded by more 'masculine' scholars. This is something I just don't identify with at all, and I suspect there are several reasons. One is that I align myself with interpersonal and online communication as my primary research foci, and see fandom as an important and neglected context in which to explore them. The study of personal communication and relationships is gendered female to begin with, so perhaps my internet-based approach is considered techie and therefore gendered more masculine than the norm. I do feel some frustration at the failure of fandom research to adequately address the interpersonal relationships I think are at the core of fandom. Perhaps that is inherently gendered since looking at the fan/fan relationship gets us back to the study of personal relationships which, as I said is gendered female. But in terms of academic authority, I've never felt that my focus on fandom or the way I approach fandom has lessened that.

Gender has also been brought into the question of how people engage texts -- to crudely oversimplify the discussion, girls explore nuance and boys create with a more business sensibility? The idea that an interest in the production/economy of fandom is masculine is again something I have trouble identifying with. I see many gender issues in how men and women engage music and with what consequences, but less in how they are conceptualized (though this gets back to the shortage of fandom research in music to begin with -- there's some, just nowhere close to that around TV). Sometimes I wonder if music fandom is itself so very sexist that anything we'd encounter in the academy seems negligible in contrast!