May it Last: A Reflection on Fandom and Belonging
May it Last: A Reflection on Fandom and Belonging
by Frank EnYart
THERE ARE FRIENDS OF MINE who have movies and TV shows memorized to the beat. Forget having certain seminal lines memorized, or basic, rudimentary sketches of scenes in their minds, no, those are amateur fandom hallmarks—these folks have the timing, timbre, and inflection memorized. My girlfriend has every facial expression of Friends down pat. My best friend, prompted only by me asking him to "tell me about Game of Thrones," went into an unabridged and beautifully sprawling description of the franchise's geography and complicated family webs. My sister, reveling in early 90's joy, has seen every episode of Full House more times than I can count, and though she would deny it, I promise that sometimes when she talks about it, she gets a bit misty-eyed.
I don't want to overlook the devotion that this requires, or have this observation come across as a slight to them—it's an impressive feat, and more times than not, I find myself in adoration. For me, someone with a propensity for anxiety from not being on top of things that have been trending, using valuable time to play catch-up on old favorites is unthinkable in a world wherein new things pop up at an alarming rate. Friends have suggested I watch classics—Cheers, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld: the forefathers of the shows I do enjoy watching—but it's hard when everyday there is a new, interesting, perhaps improved-upon variation of these touchstone shows.
What escapes me more than extreme fandom itself is the possible motivation for it. Sure, I myself have memorized things—lyrics, poems, useless facts—but more often than not, these are mindless. The memorization is borne more out of apathy than intent or purpose. How many songs do you know the words to, while also acknowledging how little you enjoy the song? The double-edged sword of earworms. Certainly, the motivation is more than memorization or fandom. Maybe it's to re-experience a particularly poignant emotion, triggered only by the death of a favorite character. Or maybe it's to feel a specific and small joy felt only by seeing the sexual tension between two characters finally come to fruition. It's arguable, though, that even the most moving of moments is at least a bit less moving when the scene is memorized. One of my favorite movies, Dead Poets Society, features a litany of moving moments—both joyous and heart-wrenching. However, the dynamics of these are tampered with when I recite the scene back to the screen.
It's arguable, though, that even the most moving of moments is at least a bit less moving when the scene is memorized.
Maybe it's to find a place in the world, or gang with which to attack the world—the strongest bonds are formed among zealots of the same things. Whatever the case, there's an argument to be made that those who embark on a journey of such devotion are not in it entirely for selfish or solitary reasons—there's more than enough ways to find a room of one's own now, anyways—but it grows from a place of hope, joy, and connection, however odd or unique those bonds form.
MY EARLIEST MEMORIES are connected to music, like most people. These memories are, however, tied to a very specific type of music: Christian and Gospel music. Coming from a smaller, Midwest community, and even more specifically, an astute Baptist family, having memories tied to this music isn't even all that spectacular in context, but what—at least for me—made it interesting and spectacular was the depths from which some of this music was pulled. My dad, something of a music aficionado himself, had and maintains an impressive collection of cassette tapes, CDs, and vinyls that would make any music fan's head spin. Alongside niche Christian artists are some incredible finds: vinyls of The Beatles' Abbey Road, the original Grease soundtrack that he swears are his sisters', and several Steve Miller Band records that used to funnel up the staircase from our basement into the kitchen.
What this environment gave me is two-fold: an appreciation for a depth and breadth of music that I'm extremely thankful for, and an impeccable ability to dig beneath the layers of intentional metaphor and meaning to find a seed of a potential religious pretense—a last ditch effort to claim musicians—secular musicians—as closeted Believers. In my case, it was to make music not normally permissible, permissible. If there was even a kernel of a religious nature to music, my parents were down. For most artists, if you dig deep enough, you can find an inadvertent religious metaphor, or, if you dig far enough into an artist's story, you find a religious context for their music, which is even better.
Naturally then, I gravitated toward those musicians that made this digging easier on me—bands like U2, a flurry of country artists, and unexpected ones like Kings of Leon, who, now apostates with multiple songs about semen and a song called "Sex on Fire", were raised Pentecostal pastor's children. One band that came along later in this search, somewhere in the middle of high school, was The Avett Brothers, a band dyed-in-the-wool Southern, religious, and easy to justify—an album called The Carpenter was about as on the nose a Jesus reference as you could have, whether they meant it or not. In my digging I found covers of hymns I sang weekly at church, no swearing, an aesthetic that appealed to me at a time when folk-pop was back on the up-and-up, and a camaraderie that mirrored what I had felt for many bands before them.
There's a certain feeling in your chest that wells up when you see inside your favorite artist's life, and see that they are all you imagined them to be.
Over time, my fandom grew and transformed into an adoration that I held for only a few artists. So when it was announced that a documentary was premiering about the band, subtitled An Intimate Portrait, I knew I needed to see it. Production values aside, all of which were astounding—the film was produced by Judd Apatow, yes, that Judd Apatow—what was the most striking was just how intimate the film was. Interviews with parents and siblings were woven between live footage, home movies of the band's early beginnings as a ragtag North Carolina hardcore band, and quiet moments in the studio that renewed a love for both the band's unassuming songwriting and not only their music, but music of all kinds. Maybe it was the work of the editors and the pomp of it all, but there's a certain feeling in your chest that wells up when you see inside your favorite artist's life, and see that they are all you imagined them to be.
WHEN THE FILM OPENED, there was a quote attributed to a Clegg Avett flashed across the screen. I leaned over to my girlfriend and told her, for no good reason, that Clegg Avett was the band's paternal grandfather—a progressive minister who lived during turn-of-the-20th century North Carolina, a place and time when being progressive wasn't popular for white men, specifically clergy.
As I leaned back into my chair, I realized I had demonstrated that I was my own version of being the sort of fan I had heartily harped on for so long: the obsessive rewatcher, the deep-diver, my own version of the fan that for so long had baffled me.
Sure, I had never seen this film—how could I have, it was brand new? But researching, listening, and devoting hours to digging up facts about the band had led me to knowing all the information it contained. I knew about the band and their family. I knew about Nemo, their failed attempt at a hardcore rock band. I knew the heart-wrenching story of Seth Avett's divorce, and Bob Crawford's daughter's cancer. I knew they grew up and still live in North Carolina, and that the good ol' boy act they have going isn't some sort of façade. Nothing significant in the film could be news to me; so what was the point? Why watch a film that ends exactly the way you would expect it to?
In much the same way people enjoy meditating on their favorite moments time and again, I enjoy the feeling of belonging—an unromantic and pure intimacy with the things with which I choose to spend time. Maybe more than anything, I seek to find on the screen, and on a record, a mirror with which I can see myself more fondly, or differently than I do regularly. In spending my time finding out that the Avett's grandfather was a minister, I find it more comforting that my grandfather was a lay-speaker and part of a gospel band. In seeing the Avett's in a small North Carolina town—again, something I had heard about before—I see that I have the ability to make a life that breaks a precedent of so many before me. With repetition, in consuming in a variety of mediums a soothing narrative, it may be easier to call to memory that feeling of belonging, of hope, of whatever motivation is needed to get out of bed in the morning. And those who find this in stories unlike their own—whether in a fictional world or not—perhaps have an ability to see themselves more complexly and imaginatively than I can, and that's good for all of us.