Backpatches & Elbowpatches #4: Fan Studies in the Realm of Metal Academia
Just put another school year to bed, so now it’s Backpatches and Elbowpatches time... just before the summer session starts.
This month I got briefly back into the world of Fan Studies, and I thought it might be worth exploring here a bit. It’s been of interest to me lately because I think it provides a decent body of work from which to start exploring the relationship between academia and media products, and those who consider themselves “fans” versus those who consider themselves “scholars.” Naturally, the division between those two ideas is pretty sticky, since most (if not all) academics enjoy their chosen subjects as consumers or producers, and the depth of knowledge and criticism among self-identified fans can be scholarly. The importance of fan labor in terms of zines and archives is also often underestimated. In my opinion it would be counterproductive to attempt to construct any sort of clear boundary between fandom and academia, but I think the space where the two overlap is quite interesting. It’s maybe a bit self-consciously meta, but I’d go so far as to say that this column explicitly tries to inhabit and embody this space.
Fan Studies is a relatively new wrinkle in the world of media studies and cultural studies, only really coming into its own in the early 1990s. Being a “fan” can actually be rather fraught in the world of academia, and is laden with generations worth of value judgments and social hierarchies. Even the word “fan” itself is an abbreviation of “fanatic,” a term often indicating near-obsessive devotion to a single cause, often with overtones of religious or political zealotry. It overlaps with the various musical “-manias” over the years, stretching from Franz Liszt to Frank Sinatra to The Beatles. Historically some types of fandom have enjoyed significant social and civic support, especially sports teams, while others have not. In particular, self-identifying as a fan of comic books or science fiction & fantasy movies used to mean you were just asking to get stuffed in a locker, although this is obviously not the case anymore in the 21st century. We can probably credit/blame J.K. Rowling and Peter Jackson for setting the stage for nerd culture’s mainstreaming, followed up by the Web 2.0 tech bros, huge superhero movie franchises, and so forth.
In any case, one of the main things that set Fan Studies apart from existing trends in media studies was its focus on the multifaceted ways that fans react to media products, sometimes in subversive ways. It was one of the final nails in the coffin of the outmoded “hypodermic” model of media consumption, in which fans were thought of as passive consumers of products who consistently absorbed its intended message. Although reception studies weren’t exactly a new thing, fan studies first came into its own as a separate discipline in the early 1990s, with books by Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith that focused mostly on TV and movie fan communities around Star Trek, Doctor Who, soap operas, and so forth. They were particularly interested on creative works done by fans, including fan fiction and erotic slash fiction, and also focused much of their attention on areas of fandom that were then dominated by women. In many cases, the studies highlighted resistant or subversive practices that re-envisioned those media products in more socially progressive ways, often through an explicitly queer lens. Similar fan fiction communities also coalesced around musicians and bands, particularly those with emotionally fraught histories like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Metallica, along with fandoms centered on boy bands of various generations, emo & punk bands like My Chemical Romance, among others.
Like many of the first academic studies of heavy metal, these early studies of media fandoms also aimed to counter negative and pathologized portrayals of fans in the media. Like supposedly “delinquent” metalheads and punks, fans were usually either Comic Book Guy-esque losers or potentially unstable killers in the Mark David Chapman mold. There’s also a decent argument, in my opinion, for considering metal as a musical facet of a larger constellation of fantasy/sci-fi/horror media alongside various novels, films, and games dating back to the 1960s. Similarly to the initial skepticism towards musical inquiries into metal, it also took awhile for academic institutions to accept studies of things like Days of our Lives fanclubs or amateur erotica featuring Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock. Like many studies of heavy metal or other music subcultures, there’s an almost reflexive focus on aspects of these communities that could be considered subversive or resistant to mainstream norms. And finally, since most academics in the humanities or social sciences are also fans/practitioners, there are occasionally colleagues who worry about a lack of objective distance...although that usually still comes down to a perceived lack of legitimacy.
But this is where Fan Studies’ (and Metal Studies’) focus on resistance and subversion becomes a useful political tool and possibly also a form of cover, even if wielded subconsciously. After all, participation within both media fandoms and metal communities is largely consumerist in nature, driven by buying and collecting stuff, going to concerts and conventions, and so forth. There’s not that much daylight between a drawer full of black t-shirts with skulls on them and a minivan with a row of Disney silhouettes stickered on the back window. They might even belong to the same person. As Matt Hills suggests in Fan Cultures, framing fan practices as “resistant” works to re-envision these activities without the stain of consumerism. Not coincidentally, this also brings fan activity more into alignment with progressive politics, which has been de rigeur in cultural studies since its inception. Fans may or may not experience their community in this way of course, since not everyone is concerned about burnishing latent countercultural bonafides the way academics and metalheads often can be.
The worlds of Fan Studies and Metal Studies have overlapped occasionally in publication, particularly regarding fan fiction. In 2015, I published a study of a short-lived mid-2000s Livejournal fan fiction community that focused on a constellation of pop-punk bands like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, and Panic! At the Disco. More recently, Catherine Hoad’s article “Slashing Through the Boundaries: Heavy Metal Fandom, Fan Fiction and Girl Cultures” explores how the online communities focused on Metallica fan fiction work to upend many of the masculinist tropes of metal culture. For further deep dives into this world, Archive Of Our Own is an essential resource, along with its parent organization the Organization for Transformative Works, which maintains a journal, engages in archiving and legal advocacy, and maintains other resources regarding Fan Studies and the works of fan cultures.
Before signing off for this month, however, I do need to announce that Metal Studies has a newly redesigned website thanks to our new webmaster Dr. Steven Gamble. It’s sooo much better than the bare-bones thing I clumped together a few years ago, especially in terms of following our blogs and other campaigns like MMS-101 and the Metal Methodologies interview series. Becoming a member and subscribing to the journal is also a bit more streamlined. Easily the best new feature, however, is the new Metal Studies Bibliography, a research database with more than 2000 entries of metal books and articles in multiple languages. The bibliography is a true labor of love spearheaded by Brian Arnold Hickam and Amaranta Saguar García, who thankfully are continuing to keep it updated with lots of new nerdly metal delights. Be sure to check it out! Cheers,
Ross Hagen is a musicologist at Utah Valley University and is the author of A Blaze in the Northern Sky from the 33.3 series. Fun. Core. Mosh. Trends.
Graphic used under creative commons.
Toxophilus, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons