31 May 2008

Fanservice and Fanbaiting

Darcy James Argue has introduced the musico-blogosphere to the term "fanservice," and much discussion has ensued. To avoid redundancy, I will omit the oft-obligatory rehashing of the various comments that have been posted elsewhere by others and get straight to what I believe is a necessary observation that I have yet to come across in any of these other arenas.

DJA chides practitioners of fanservice for being exclusionary towards the uninitiated, but it bears pointing out that audience inexperience is often exploited by more inclusionary artists as well, and for no less questionable purposes. I would call this "fanbaiting," and would define it as follows: fanbaiting occurs when (1) a highly derivative or plagiaristic artist passes off his or her work as unique and personal, and (2) an audience that is not familiar with the source material or its history is none the wiser, resulting in (3) an undue heaping of praise (if not cash) on this undeserving artist.

If what distinguishes true fanservice from mere pandering is the malicious intent on the part of the musician to exclude the uninitiated, then what distinguishes true fanbaiting from mere vanity is the malicious intent to garner attention and monetary gain from audience members whose lack of experience leads them to form an unduly high opinion of the musician.

The Joyce Hatto scandal is a good recent example. In this case, Hatto's husband exploited the inexperience of many thousands of listeners before a few concert-piano-world initiates recognized the recordings as those of other artists. Most examples of musical fanbaiting fall well short of such blatent plagiarism while still being highly derivative and wholly unremarkable as achievements.

My point is not to paint all musicians who seek to expand their audience as fanbaiters, but merely to point out that inexperience can be exploited in different ways by different people for different reasons, and that before we go around judging artists and their work by whether it is inclusive or exclusive (which is, it seems to me, only a small step away from judging them by the sheer size of the audience they attract), we ought to understand that both can demonstrate the very same contempt for the uninitiated.

It would be easy to suggest that the musico-blogosphere itself has become a hotbed of both fanservice (memes, listening lists, obscure literary references, etc.) and fanbaiting (the ArtsJournal-driven obsession with the economics of classical music, the recreational bashing of atonal composers). What prevents such claims from having any validity, however, is a clear lack of the malicious, preconceived intent referenced above, intent which I think we (myself included) are often too quick to accuse others of harboring simply because doing so makes us feel better.

As others have already pointed out, a blanket condemnation of insider cultural references seems to embrace an unduly rigid distinction between form and content, as if Ives could have based his Concord Sonata on any old lick from the classical canon, or quoted any old march at any old time in no particular order (See guys? I can fanservice, too. I just talked about Charles Ives). Ultimately, the question for both the artist and the audience is not "Does it work socially?" but "Does it work aesthetically?" As always, we must each answer that question for ourselves on a case-by-case basis rather than condemning entire groups of artists for their perceived hostility towards newcomers.

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