Souring the Scene: Fandom, Identity and Legitimacy

by Alexus Davis

Fandom is peculiar- it’s both performance and experience. On its own, fandom can act as a reflexive verb. On the whole, it exists for the good of itself.

In Carrie Brownstein’s book Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, she theorizes about the phenomenon: “To be a fan is to know that loving trumps being beloved.” Fittingly therefore, fans set the pace at shows and therefore set the pace for the genre. This exchange between audience and performer can be symbiotic at its best.

Having contributed my personal work to the scene and taken up the genre and its politics as a part of my identity, I have found my positioning as a young black female musician to be a lesson in cognitive dissonance. If fandom is recognizing that the act of loving as better than being loved, then to perform is therefore to extract a little from the word ‘love’.

I have to consider the balance between freedom and responsibility. I have to consider care, reification, and dedication to the other’s good. As a black woman, punk –as well as indie rock, pop punk, emo, math rock- has never quite loved me back. Growing up, it was easy to note the divide: in the scene there was no one who looked like me, or spoke or acted in a way that was familiar to any of my identities.

In fact, women were often shrouded in violence or disregard. Male-fronted emo bands toed the line between lyrics that confront the loss of a romantic partner and language that was violent or dismissive toward women, and there was rarely, if ever, a rebuttal.

Lack of representation and perspective in lyrics made for one story – a genre-defining one. In more recent years, thankfully, there have been a plethora of articles published about what it means to be a woman in punk. Women have come forth to expose sexist, homophobic, and abusive individuals in the scene and have even taken time to theorize about the culture of the scene itself.

With fandom, as with every relationship, there is gradation and nuance. Some expressions of fandom ally with the notion of expertise. There seems to be a cis, white male authority to the Scene Fandom, leaving all other identities’ interpretations to the wayside. I have found them to be prevalent particularly in critique.

Often, women are not perceived as legitimate experts, regardless of how long they have been listening to the music or participating in the community. I have rarely been expected to know about the scene, its genre specificities and its influences. If my authority is not immediately degraded by my gender, it is by my blackness.

Women who appreciate emo are treated as teenagers without taste (another binary I take issue with). Women who appreciate hardcore are taken for band girlfriends or groupies. Blackness in the scene is often equated with confusion – people of color are, somehow, not expected to lay to a claim to a genre that lauded itself as belonging to all people.

My opinions on Drake or Chance the Rapper (both of whom I love but know a little less about) seem to carry more weight than my opinions on Brand New. My fandom, musicianship and expertise, at best, has been met with amusement, even though I dragged an electric guitar and Ibanez amp around every day for half of secondary school.

Although I was an obvious emo fan (side-swept fringe, black converse high-tops, frequently alternating between Fall Out Boy and Paramore t-shirts, reading AbsolutePunk with vigor) and a trained vocalist, I was met with a surprising inability to find bandmates as well as with pushback. The young men who tore down my posters came together to play Coheed and Cambria covers and talk about Warped Tour.

Despite my love of pop punk and emo, I found myself on the margins. I knew then that men (primarily white, cis) did not want to be in a band with me. It did not matter how well I played or what I knew. I formed a band with my friends- a drummer (a woman) and a classical violinist, whose electric violin we distorted to sound more like a guitar. It was then that, 20 years past its peak, RiotGrrl became my beacon.

It was a genre that recognized at least one of my identities and a genre where women were depicted as powerful and autonomous. It was a genre that did not shy from the political and that judged the music by both its message and its delivery. I began to better appreciate festivals and subcultures like Afropunk, where blackness was celebrated and not rendered an anomaly.

As I grew older, the performer/fan dynamic changed. I was 19, living abroad and doing a teaching series for primary school students in China, when my colleague –another young woman- noted an advertisement for a pop punk show. The band was from Australia and was touring across Asia. We were unfamiliar with their music, but happy to attend a show where English would likely be the primary interaction. It was a small venue; my colleague and I were the only native English speakers in the room.

After a few pop punk covers (think Wheatus) and plucky originals, we found ourselves at the bar with the band. It took a total of 20 minutes for me to realize how fundamentally disinterested any of them (aside from their touring drummer, who sensed our discomfort) were in discussing anything but the likelihood of me and my colleague accompanying them to their hotel for a “nightcap”.

They aggressively began to buy us unwanted shots of tequila; there was arm tugging and hip grabbing until we managed to get away. This was, of course, the dynamic of another type of fan/performer exchange, one we refused, feeling unsafe, calling a cab and returning home.

Punk claims to be for everyone, and for many, therein lies its draw. The scene’s raw expression of emotion comes with a critical implication- the freedom to express. While I still choose to support the scene and believe in its possibility, I do so with the knowledge that my contribution as a fan may be dismissed by many as illegitimate.

My work as a musician may not be considered at all. Punk and its subgenres have concerned themselves with resistance, otherness, and marginalization, so it’s still puzzling that women, and especially women of color, in the scene are so rarely granted authority in performing authentic expressions of their own otherness.

Hegemony has eaten away possibility. We are left with one type of sovereign subject and one type of object- all other perspectives fall by the wayside. This has soured the scene. In their lack of representation, women are stripped of their stories- their fandom relegated to patriarchal parameters.

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