Who Is The Boss—The Piper, or The One Who Paid?
Ryan Broderick’s excellent newsletter Garbage Day (one of my favorite sources for real-time critical exegesis of what’s happening on the internet) recently published a piece which detailed the astonishing amount of emotion and pressure that internet-based fandoms can have on supposedly immune-from-pressure content creators like Marvel Studios. There was enormous and intense speculation regarding Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Way Home trailer, which finally dropped this past week, garnering more than 350 million views in its first 24 hours. Broderick wonders if this kind of fan angst is a product of our modern social media culture. Perhaps in degree, but not in kind; fandoms have been freaking out about art for at least the last two hundred years, and maybe longer.
A notable instance of a fandom expressing disdain for an artist’s choice was the reaction of folk music aficionados to Bob Dylan’s decision to embrace electric instruments in 1965. His use of amplified guitars, drums, and all the rest angered and disappointed the purists, who wanted him to continue making the acoustic folk / social justice songs he was known for. Dylan was cantankerous enough to press on in the direction he wanted to travel, and it all worked out for him in the end, but not before he infuriated legions of his fans. (Here is a clip of a fan yelling “Judas!” at Dylan, who responds with “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!”, and here are some very upset British fans who sound exactly like today’s internet fandoms.)
Heckling at concerts goes waaaay back. Hector Berlioz, in his Memoirs, describes how he would visit the Paris Opéra as a teenager while he was ostensibly studying medicine. He would sit in the first few rows of the orchestra pit and berate the musicians if they dared to alter the scoring of Gluck’s Iphegéne et Tauride, calling them out for added cymbals and misplaced trombones. He claims that the night after his outburst, the Opera was performed as written. +1 for fandoms!
He tells this story of a time when Pierre Baillot, the famous violinist, was engaged to play a solo and then was removed from the program with insufficient explanation:
“Wait a minute, what about the violin solo?” I said, in a voice loud enough to be heard. “He’s right,” someone said, “it looks as if they’re leaving it out. Baillot! Baillot! the violin solo!” At that the whole pit fired up. And then—something unheard of at the Opéra—the entire house rose and noisily demanded that the program be carried out according to the bill. While this uproar was proceeding, the curtain came down. At that, the clamor redoubled. The players, alarmed by the fury of the pit, hastily abandoned the field; whereupon the enraged public invaded the orchestra, hurling chairs in all directions, overturning desks, bursting the drums. In vain I shouted, “Gentlemen, gentlemen, what are you doing? You’re breaking the instruments. This is madness. Can’t you see that’s old Chénié’s double bass, a wonderful instrument with a superb black tone?” no one listened to me now. The rioters did not stop until they had laid waste the whole orchestra and left numerous instruments and chairs in ruins.
It seems that the usually staid and decorous world of classical music actually has a long history of clamorous reactions to premier performances. Most of these do in fact seem to be motivated by zealous fandoms clashing with equally zealous anti-fandoms; rarely, it seems, does the music itself cause an otherwise well-behaved audience to burst into hostility, with the first performance of Steve Reich’s Four Organs being a possible exception. The infamous “riot” that ensued on the opening night of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring may be a similar example of audience expectations being unmet, but every account of what happened that night is probably an exaggeration, and the performance certainly didn’t end with throwing chairs à la Berlioz.
The same sort of thing seems to happen with the visual arts every once in a while—factions of artists, representing different methodologies, will sometimes publicly air their grievances against each other in a deliberately provocative fashion. But artists are notorious in their desire for recognition, as well as for their egos, so these sorts of public stunts aren’t really in the same league as the fandom-originated fights that I already mentioned. Perhaps there aren’t really “fandoms” in the visual arts. It seems that professional critics can be quite vocal about what they don’t like, but the art-appreciating public, the museums and gallery owners, and the collectors of art mostly follow their own whims without paying attention to the critics.
The most famous example of a fandom’s ability to exert power and influence is that of the enraged Sherlock Holmes fans who demanded that Arthur Conan Doyle continue writing stories featuring the famous detective even after Doyle had killed his main character by having him fall off a cliff into a waterfall. Although bored of writing Holmes stories, and desirous of attention from the more serious literary world, Doyle nonetheless was compelled to obediently honor the wishes of his fans and resurrect his memorable sleuth. Sherlock Holmes devotees were, in fact, the first example of a fandom in the sense that we know them now—lovers of a particular artwork who devote a great deal of emotional energy engaging with the object of their fascination.
We like to think of artists as a breed apart, immune from the petty concerns of the everyday world, devoted solely to the lofty pursuit of genius and artistic achievement; similarly we like to think that big media conglomerates are just feeding us recycled plots and genres and we have to go along with it. The real truth is that artists, like everyone else, must earn their bread, and corporate content creators must chase those dollars. The price of becoming popular is sometimes that one’s “devoted followers” actually wield the real power; the creators don’t really have as much agency as they would like to believe. The piper may think that he’s in charge, but the tune gets called by those who pay—with their emotions and their attention as well as their money.