On the Nature of Fandom: How It Can Enrich Your Life

A very good friend once described me as “the ultimate fan.” He meant it affectionately (I think). When I become a genuine fan of something, I want to learn everything I can about it, I’m willing to drop a whole lot of dough to support whatever the thing is, and I’m generally able to maintain high levels of enthusiasm for the thing over time. So yes, I like to think my friend was right.

But I don’t become a fan of just anything. For instance, from kindergarten through college, I never went to a single school sporting event of any kind, and the entire concept of “school spirit” strikes me as misguided. With sports in general, the closest I ever came to being a fan of anything was with the New York Yankees because Dad is an almost-lifelong fan. I was a fairweather fan at best; once Rivera and Jeter retired, I kinda retired with them.

When it comes to me personally, I become a fan of individual people and art, not huge groups or institutions. Nonetheless, I can appreciate that there are many catalysts for how and why people become fans of things. So now I would like to expound on the subject of fandom here, delineating the healthy ways that people become fans of things–and also the self-destructive habits that can develop when fans become obsessive.

Sense of Community

There are upward of three paths by which people get inspired to become fans of things. The first path is through wanting to foster a sense of community. This “community” can be large (as in nationwide or global) or small, but it occurs more often in the small sense. For instance, if I moved to Pittsburgh, made some new friends, and they all were fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins–then it would be convenient if I became a fan too. That way, there would be another intuitive way by which I could bond with my friends.

“Community” can apply to an even smaller group too–family. Becoming a fan of the Yankees just because my dad and oldest brother are fans would be an easy way to bond more with them. And vice versa, Dad might become a fan of Nintendo just because my middle brother and I are fans.

Examples don’t need to be contained to sports, of course. If all my friends love Bruno Mars, maybe I’ll start checking out Bruno Mars too so that it would be worth it to go to a concert with them. If my friends are constantly referencing Harry Potter, maybe I’ll sit down and read Harry Potter to unravel those references. (This will never happen; I know who Snape killed and that’s good enough.) In reality, the Yankees are the only example I can recall of a sense of community ever compelling me to become a fan of something, but that could just be indicative of anti-social tendencies on my part!

At any rate, before continuing it is critical to clarify one point: Pursuing a sense of community can be a catalyst for fandom as I have described above, but sense of community can also be a byproduct of having already joined a fandom. I myself have joined some great communities as a byproduct of being a fan of things. For instance, I’ve made some great friends through my favorite band’s message board. And I’ve bonded with some like-minded friends over my budding love of K-pop. (Incidentally, as I write this, the group BTS just became the first Korean pop group to win a Billboard Music Award, and the amount of applause they got utterly eclipsed what even Justin Bieber received. The power of fandom at work!)

Nonetheless, “sense of community as a catalyst” and “sense of community as a byproduct” are two distinctly different things. Their functions will be demarcated later, but for the remainder of the current discussion, please assume all instances of “sense of community” refer to “sense of community as a catalyst” unless I explicitly state otherwise.

Validation of Your Identity

A second, more direct path by which people become a fan of something is when that thing validates some aspect of their existing personalities. That might sound dramatic, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. It could be as simple as me hearing a Calabrese song and thinking, “Whoa, these vocals are killer! Awesome. I need more of this!” In other words, I can become a fan of a thing because I like the thing. (Yeah, not so profound a statement.) But underscoring this obvious principle is an important concept–that the things we like are a reflection of our personalities, big and small.

I would hypothesize that the things that we are the biggest fans of are also the things that most strongly reflect aspects of our personalities. In my case, Balzac is my favorite band likely because they take dark subject matter and imagery and use it to create energetic, outstandingly melodic music. This agrees pretty strongly with my own viewpoint on the world; I’m honestly pretty much a nihilist, but I also have a really bubbly personality around friends and strangers alike. I like to make people feel good about themselves, just for the heck of it.

Similarly, I’m a huge fan of Babymetal, huge enough that I got on a plane for my first time ever to see their first U.S. concert. (The photo of Su-metal in the header is from my second time seeing them.) Babymetal is another duality of bright and dark–infectious J-pop melodies baked into brutal, best-of-breed metal songs. It’s the best of both worlds, all at once! I resonate deeply with that, for various reasons.

But again, examples don’t need to be confined to one medium. For instance, it would make perfect sense for me to be a diehard Yankees fan if I had grown up in New York City and lived and breathed the city’s culture. Because in a case like that, I might associate the Yankees and their 27 World Series wins with the strength and resilience of New York City itself; thus, being a fan of the Yankees could simply become an extension of my love of my own culture. (But don’t forget–I’m speaking in hypotheticals; I’ve only ever lived in boring ol’ Pennsylvania.)

The examples go on and on. I could go in depth about how Stranger Things and The Simpsons reflect my personality, but I won’t. Instead, I will conclude by returning to my original point, namely, this: When we find things external to ourselves that reflect our values and interests, we derive validation from it. We want to enjoy, share, and celebrate the things in the world that agree with our personalities–because if those things are good, it means we are good!

Discovering New Sensibilities

This last path to fandom, discovering new sensibilities, is nearly identical to the previous one. Here is the big difference: Discovering new sensibilities applies to situations where people become fans of things of which they did not previously know that they could be fans. For example, let’s say I discover the art of Gustave Doré without having any frame of reference for his style of art, and I end up liking his work a lot. If I thus become a fan of Doré, that means I have awoken to a new sensibility in what I have the capacity to appreciate in life.

That means that “discovering new sensibilities” actually works in reverse of “validation of your identity.” How so? Well, fandom based upon validation of our identity seeks to strengthen our self-image of what we already know about our personalities. Meanwhile, fandom based upon discovering new sensibilities actually adds new aspects to our personalities that did not previously exist, or at least aspects that we were not consciously aware existed.

For example, suppose a girl raised Amish discovers that she loves NASCAR, Star Wars, and riot grrrl bands. These are all things for which she has no previous frame of reference, and thus revision to her self-image will be required in order to assimilate into herself these new things of which she has become a fan. By discovering and embracing these new sensibilities, the girl will learn more about herself, and thus develop a fuller sense of self-identity.

Time-Sensitivity and Instability

Interestingly, one might realize that fandom by way of “discovering new sensibilities” is time-sensitive. After all, five years from now, NASCAR will likely be a tried-and-true aspect of our above hypothetical girl’s personality–there won’t be anything new about it anymore. In this case, it will have morphed into just another fandom based upon “validation of your identity,” which is perfectly natural. But alternatively, it could also be the case in five years that the girl’s passion for NASCAR has dissipated completely; people’s tastes can change dramatically in a few years. What does that mean?

It means that all fandoms are ultimately time-sensitive, or at least capable of being time-sensitive. After all, if our personalities change over time (according to life experiences), and the things of which we are fans are reflections of our personalities, then that means the things of which we are fans will necessarily change too. There is an easy example for this one–consider how many people feel retroactive embarrassment over music they enjoyed in middle or high school. I don’t think it’s necessary to feel bad when our old tastes do not jive with our current tastes though. On the contrary, running down a list of things that no longer float our boat might be an effective way to chart how we have changed over time!

However, you may have noticed that the previous paragraph’s description of fandoms does not actually apply to the rare fandoms derived from “sense of community.” Nonetheless, “sense of community” fandoms are actually even more susceptible to change with time, because they are predicated on relationships. Consider a scenario where I’m only a Yankees fan to bond with my dad: If my dad decides he is not a Yankees fan anymore, then being a Yankees fan will no longer yield any value for me. Thus, the fandom will disintegrate. The fact that I was able to preserve the fandom even as long as I did would mostly illustrate that “sense of community” fandoms are first and foremost about cultivating and leveraging relationships; the fandom itself is not the object of most importance.

To prove this idea, consider the “bandwagon” fans, the ones who become fans of things explicitly because those things are already successful (and often–even fashionable). Such fans enjoy an instant sense of power and prestige from knowing that they are part of “the winning side,” and this sensation of power in a community becomes the end goal of participating in the fandom. Note, however, that this end goal has nothing to do with the fandom itself: When it comes to “sense of community” fandoms, the fandom is always just a means to an end, whether well-intentioned (getting closer to Dad) or more singularly self-serving (deriving bandwagon prestige). One might well argue that “sense of community” fandoms are not true fandoms at all.

Thus, “sense of community” fandoms are inherently unstable, and they only stand a chance of long-term survival if they too morph into “validation of your identity” fandoms. In other words, incidental interest in a fandom has to evolve into explicit interest–one way or another. Let’s demonstrate this with one more example.

If I become a Pittsburgh Penguins fan because I live in Pittsburgh and want to bond with my Penguin-loving friends, but I subsequently move to Toronto, will I continue to be a Penguins fan? Well, that depends on two things–how deeply I cherish the associated friendships, and how invested I have become in the team itself. If I really love my friends, I will likely continue supporting the Penguins because the Penguins will have taken on abstract meaning as a symbol of that friendship. In other words, according to imaginary qualities I have assigned them in my mind, the Penguins will become a source of validation that reflects the strength of my friendships!

Alternatively, through watching games and learning about the players, I might develop a deeply positive connection with the Penguins themselves. In this case, it could very quickly become a case of, “Well, my friends said they were awesome–and they were right!” In other words, I would become a fan of the Penguins in the truest sense, as an earnest convert–regardless of where I live or who my friends are. It would be a case of a horse being led to water and then actually drinking the water.

The Connection to Fandom

All this time, I have been talking about how changes in our circumstances dictate whether we remain fans of a thing. However, the opposite scenario is also possible–we can stop being fans of something if the thing itself stops embodying the qualities that agree with our personality. For instance, if Balzac were to suddenly become a hip hop group who raps exclusively about the Colombian economy, I would likely not be able to support them anymore. I would become a “fan of their past work” and cut the cord there.

On a similar note, let’s observe a common phenomenon–the fact that, over time, our interest in a thing of which we are fans tends to cool down. No matter how enamored we are with something new, the intensity of our feeling toward a thing will likely decrease over time, at least marginally. This can be true even of the things of which we are the biggest fans, especially as it pertains to art.

Why does this occur? I would hypothesize that interest declines once we are confident that we have assimilated into ourselves the parts of the thing that we deem most stimulating. This is a fancy way of saying–we just get used to the thing. But by phrasing it the fancy way, we can see why we get “used to” things–and even better, we can see that it is okay to get used to things! Getting used to something of which I am a fan simply means I have come to understand the thing on a level I deem satisfactory.

Fandom Makes You Feel Better about Life

We have now established that there are myriad ways by which we become fans of things, but sustaining fandom over time is dependent upon a thing continuing to “validate your identity.” Why is it such a big deal for fandom to validate identity? The answer is simple. Validation provides security, confidence, encouragement, and empowerment. So ultimately, becoming fans of things makes us feel better about who we are as people, because fandom allows us to feel more deeply connected in a valuable way with the world around us. The world is indeed my oyster.

And even better, “sense of community as byproduct” functions to multiply our sense of validation according to the size of the fandom! How so? Well, it can happen in a couple ways, depending upon a person’s inclinations. In the first sense, it can be a case of–the bigger the fandom to which we belong, the more accepted and validated we feel. (There is a very obvious and empowering reason why the Yankees fandom refers to itself as “Yankee Universe,” after all!) In the second sense, it can be a case of–the smaller the fandom to which we belong, the more unique yet still validated we feel. This second sense can succinctly be described as “the hipster syndrome,” but in truth, almost everyone has hipster inclinations from time to time. I myself am a total Babymetal hipster for having known about the band long before they were on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Regardless, whether we like to be part of something big or something intimate, the allure of fandom is now plain to see. Being a fan of things is both validating and just plain fun! But going overboard with fandom can take us to dark, dark places. Are we prepared to manage those risks?

On that ominous note, let’s pause here! Please stay tuned for part 2 of this discussion, “On the Nature of Fandom: How It Can Destroy Your Life”! (That’s when we get to the fun stuff!)

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