Fandom in the time of COVID19

In the past week, from March 16th to March 22nd, I have watched more live music than I had ever had in such a short time frame. That is solely due to current technology and that I’m fortunate enough to be a fan and friend of many musicians who can and are willing to livestream performances. Sometimes I have two streams going at once on different devices! And while streams will never compete with actually, physically being in a room with my fellow fans and the musicians I enjoy, there is honestly little difference in the joy I’m getting out of these performances.

Anthropologist Victor Turner coined the term “communitas,” and it suggests that “individuals at live mass public events can feel blissfully united and are thrilled to realize that they are at one with the assembled community” (Duffett, Understanding Fandom 144). This sensation is very easy to experience in a concert venue, and I was surprised to experience it time and time again this past week. For those unaware, livestreams come with the accompanying live-chat of all those who are also watching as things unfold in real time. And I have found myself opening these streams and seeing so many familiar faces, names, and usernames watching and chatting along with me. And we still sing along, at least I do to my dogs confusion, and I see others type out the lyrics to sing along as well — especially to big refrains. Instead of the deafening roar of a crowd singing, I’m in awe of us all typing a mile a minute. We are all seemingly finding the same joy in knowing in our self-isolation and quarantining that we are blissfully united and are at one with the assembled community.

In a lot of my academic work I focus on symbolic pilgrimages, which is a way for people to travel-without-moving to a place in question. This can occur in many ways, from “walking” through a neighborhood on Google Street View, to watching other peoples vlogs of places and experiences you hope to someday visit. The key thing is that these symbolic pilgrimages can happen anywhere, from wherever fans have access to the media surrounding the site in question, and, crucially, new bonds are created and deeper meanings are evoked when these occur within fan communities. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike argues that “by ‘experiencing’ the same thing with others around the world, a new definition and form of participation is forged . . . here fans from across the world can share a pilgrimage to the same place at the same time which may have the same profound meaning to their lives as a visit to the actual place” (Secular Religion 25). While we are not making a pilgrimage to the front rooms or bedrooms of our favorite musicians, we are definitely sharing this universal experience with other fans. Livestreaming in this current time, therefore, could be considered “symbolic performances.” Seeing my friends online again and again over these live-chats during these performances, and having the ability to connect with other fans who are presently strangers to me, is absolutely giving a new definition to participation and performance. And, hopefully, in the future we will be able to stand or sit shoulder to shoulder at a brick and mortar venue with each other, singing together instead of typing together.

I also think a lot about how music can give many, including myself, a sense of comfort. I even tweeted a few days ago that music is “our permanent best friend, always there to hold our hand when no one else can” after watching a livestreamed gig I helped organize and promote through Isolate Live. And it strikes me that this is always true, but it carries even more weight in a time when we have to be physically alone. Recorded music is always there for us, but this factor of immediate performance and participation from livestreams, not only with our fellow fans but with the musicians themselves, just touches me differently. We’re all sitting alone as we watch normality erode, shift, and change, but through these symbolic performances we are together.

Emile Durkheim’s work on totems in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life is a piece I reference frequently in my academic pursuits, and I’ve argued before that we can draw comparisons from totems to musicians. Especially when we consider that the community aspect of organized religion is replicated through live music, which is able to fulfill fans (like me) spiritually. In the current climate, livestreams are able to facilitate this relationship between musician/totem and fans/congregation and empower ordinary individuals “in a key moment that Durkheim calls ‘effervescence,’ each emotionally heightened crowd member is given attention by the totem” — or musician — “and experiences a life-changing jolt of electricity as they subconsciously recognize a one-to-one connection with such a valued individual” (Duffett, “Fan Words” 152). Just like at physical performances, in symbolic performances fans are able to engage and experience the affectual attachments and benefits from the musician(s) they’re watching, and hope for a chance encounter with them through having their message in the live-chat seen and responded to. Of totems, Durkheim wrote “the feelings provoked by his speech return to him inflated and amplified, reinforcing his own. The passionate energies he arouses echo back to him and increase his vitality. He is no longer a simple individual speaking, he is a group incarnate and personified” (158). Hopefully for the musicians performing, they get out of it what their fans and viewers are, and it seems that many do, as people who do one often say after the fact they plan to do more. To this fan and observer, it appears there is an exchange occurring between performer and viewers with these symbolic performances, just like Durkheim wrote of.

I don’t have a succinct conclusion here. This is just a casual blog mixed with academic thoughts and arguments that remain in my head. But I do know that what is happening online right now is special. I can feel that it is special. It is building and reinforcing the fandoms of these artists and the musical community. Fans are donating to those that they watch perform to help them through this uncertain time, they’re sharing the links, buying albums, and creating watch parties. It’s wholesome and wonderful. One of the few constants in my life is music, and it is just really gratifying to see, and participate in, these performances. I hope they continue to happen, and as long as they do, I will be singing along from my bedroom in Queens, NY.

Works Cited

  • Bickerdike, Jennifer Otter. The Secular Religion of Fandom: Pop Culture Pilgrim. Sage Publications, 2016.
  • Duffett, Mark. “Fan Words.” Popular Music Fandom: Identities, Roles and Practices. New York: Routledge, 2014, pp 146-163.
    • —————- Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
  • Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: George Alien & Unwin, 1976.
  • Gritsch, Valerie, ““Something Happened on the Day He Died”: How David Bowie Fans Transformed Brixton” (2020). CUNY Academic Works.
  • Turner, Victor. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Cornell University Press, 1974.
  • @valderie. “Live recordings and live streams of gigs are what is keeping me sane. Music is so special. Our permanent best friend, always there to hold our hand when no one else can.” 21 Mar. 2020, 3:44 PM EST.

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