On the Seculosity of Fandom, or How I Almost Got Beaten Up at a Guns N Roses Show

If you don’t move, I’ll f&%*-ing make you move, he said. I was standing in […]

David Zahl / 9.20.19

If you don’t move, I’ll f&%*-ing make you move, he said.

I was standing in a stadium, watching the reunited Guns N Roses perform. A dream I’d harbored for actual decades, finally realized. Our seats were decent but a few rows up a large-ish party hadn’t shown, so me and my friend did what serious fans do and tried to get closer.

As we shuffled into the better section, I gave the other folks on the row a nod and they gave one in response. “We’re cool,” I thought, “these are real fans.” A few songs–and a few beers–later, without any provocation, two of the guys next to us changed their tune and started making threats. They looked like the sort who might follow through. We returned to our seats, surprised and slightly emasculated.

On the way home it dawned on me: Those guys hadn’t tried to pick a fight by accident. It was why they had come in the first place. That and to get “loaded like a freight train.” What’s more, could I really blame them? It was a Guns N Roses show after all. Debauchery and aggression aren’t exactly incidental. It’s what (most of) their music soundtracks. Sure, that’s not all there is — not by a long shot — but no one gravitates to GNR for the politeness.

Perhaps they were the real fans, more true to the real spirit of the band than me. Had I betrayed Slash and co by refusing to “get in the ring”? Or were those doofuses (doofi?) the heathen pretenders, sullying my band with their neanderthal behavior, exhibiting the same insensitivity to the artistry that had forced Axl to run for cover back in 94? Hmmm… perhaps I should consult mygnrforum.com.

Ever since browsing the Internet on a daily basis became a thing, I’ve lurked on various GNR fan forums. “Lurking” here is less creepy than it sounds, referring simply to a person who reads the threads but doesn’t comment. I do the same thing on Beach Boys forums, sometimes Oasis. They’re the best places to get news about upcoming shows and releases, to catch up on the latest rumors and controversies.

Sports teams have fan forums aplenty of their own, which I’m told make the music ones look tame, full of big characters and big opinions. Reddit being the apotheosis.

I’ve long thought that fan forums represented some of the best of what the Internet has to offer. Not the shouting or the uniformly bad design, but how they’ve made it so much easier to find people who share your interests, who won’t roll their eyes or insist that you change the subject. What a joy it is to find others who are on the same ‘wavelength’ when it comes to whatever it is we’re passionate about, whether that be the NBA draft, a particular 18th century murder mystery novelist, or a little-known kids cartoon from the 1970s. Or even–let’s face it–eccentric strands of Protestant theology (and how they intersect with various hair metal bands).

What I mean is that the Internet has been a boon to fandom of all kinds.

Naturally, there’s a darkside to this, just as there is to any affinity group. What starts as a venue for connection often becomes a venue for ranking and proving. Who knows the most? Who’s the most loyal? Whose love is most pure? These are the kinds of little-l laws that bog down fangroups.

That said, not all fan groups are created equal. Beach Boys fans tend to be a lot more gentle than GNR fans. Same goes with Middle Earth as opposed to Westeros. Like it or not, the object of the fandom does shape the communities that form around them. Or, more accurately, the band/team/author/show/etc tend to attract people with similar personalities.

Consider this a long-winded introduction to Michael Schulman’s excellent essay in The New Yorker on “Superfans: A Love Story,” which traces the evolution of niche fandom from the sweet camaraderie of early Trekkie conventions to the viciousness of today’s Twitter mobs.

For our purposes, you might say that fan communities, as they’ve grown larger and more specified, have changed from gracious havens for outcasts (a place where you finally belong) to legalistic arbiters of self-justification and outright worship (a place where you better belong). In other words, the Internet appears to have turned “cult followings” into actual cults. Here’s Schulman:

Like most music idols, [Nicki] Minaj has a hardcore fan base with a collective name, the Barbz; Beyoncé has the Beyhive, Justin Bieber the Beliebers, and Lady Gaga the Little Monsters. The most fervent among them are called “stans.” The term derives from a 2000 track by Eminem, in which he raps about a fictitious fan named Stan (short for “stalker fan”), who becomes so furious that Eminem hasn’t responded to his letters that he drives himself off a bridge with his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk. Unlike regular fans, stans see themselves as crusaders, pledging loyalty and rushing to their idol’s defense against dissenters… A glance around the pop-culture landscape gives the impression that fans have gone mad.

…at the heart of modern fandom: an attack against a celebrity or a beloved character is an attack against the fans, and it is their duty to retaliate…

“Fan” is short for “fanatic,” which comes from the Latin fanaticus, meaning “of or belonging to the temple, a temple servant, a devotee.” The vestal virgins, who maintained the sacred fire of Vesta, the goddess of hearth and home, were the Beyhive of their day. But “fanatic” came to be associated with orgiastic rites and misplaced devotion, even demonic possession, and this may explain why fan behavior is often described using religious terms, such as “worship” and “idol.” (One Trekker at Comic-Con told me that the show “replaced religion for a lot of people.”)…

Newspaper writers started using the word “fan” around 1900, in accounts of baseball enthusiasts. The rise of professional sports leagues had produced a new class of spectators who didn’t necessarily play the game but pledged allegiance to a team…

At its core, fandom is a love story, like something out of Greek myth; it’s Pygmalion falling in love with someone else’s statue. Like romantic love, it can range from gentle companionship—cosplay and curtain fic—to deranged obsession.

This, I’ve come to believe, is the main chapter missing from Seculosity. I had thought it was the Seculosity of Sports, but the Seculosity of Fandom fits better, encompassing both athletics and art, celebrity and story. All of the elements of replacement religion are there: pageantry, ritual, community, righteousness, occasional transcendence. In almost every case, there’s some form of vicarious redemption on offer, where we lean on the object of our fandom for identity and purpose, as well as deliverance from the quotidian realities of our everyday lives.

Maybe it’s when my team wins, I win. When my favorite band does well, I am vindicated or exalted. Conversely, when someone attacks my favorite celebrity, they are profaning something Holy. When someone makes a disappointing Star Wars movie, they aren’t just exercising poor judgment or disappointing the audience, they are threatening my self-understanding on a fundamental level. (How else to explain the virtriol?) Or maybe I place myself in a fictional narrative to lend my day-to-day a gravity I fear it lacks, I don’t know. Lord knows that fandom offers plenty of scapegoats onto which to project our guilt and shame, heroes to carry our hopes. Just ask Andrew Luck.

Course, it’s not all toxic. Sometimes things become replacement religions for a reason, and the reason is that they deliver meaning and comfort more concretely than the capital-R Religions. For a time, at least:

Many of the people I met at Comic-Con spoke about how fandom had helped them overcome adversity. One woman, dressed as Thanos, the Marvel supervillain, told me that she got into comics after her parents died, since fantasy heroes are often orphans. An I.B.M. art director said that she became a “Lost” superfan after falling out of touch with college friends; at Comic-Con, she met people who have “become part of my family.” Michael Asuncion, an aspiring psychotherapist, told me, gesturing to the crowds, “There are three needs that all people have: they want to be seen, they want to be heard, and they want to be valued.” That he was dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants did not dilute the insight…

That’s beautiful, no? And I suppose it begs the question, is “Christian” another name for a “superfan of Jesus”? Not to be cheeky, but all the t-shirts and bumper stickers would suggest as much. And Christians certainly take up for Jesus on Twitter when he gets slagged off. They root for him, big time, sometimes brawling with those on other teams, taking his identity as their own. Plus, a lot of the fan forums have pretty bad design…

And yet, if there’s a fandom element at work, it’s a peculiar one. In his three short years of public life, Jesus did an abysmal job of managing fans’ expectations. Backlash is too light a term. Instead, he opposed any and all attempts at grandstanding, insisting that rivals/enemies are there to be loved, not attacked–that if you saw yourself as better than non-fans, you weren’t actually much of a fan in the first place.

For their own part, even his most ardent supporters proved disloyal. They went, er, full Stan in the end. The only devotion that proved pure was his own. Jesus took the shots for his followers rather than vice versa, as if to say, I see you–the non-costumed you–and this is how much I value you. All his fans got to do was watch and jeer–from the best seats in the house.

Good thing there was an encore.

The Best Crutch There Is: Religion as Relief – David Zahl from Mockingbird on Vimeo.