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.

21 May 2008

You Must Believe In Spring

It's no secret that Minnesota winters can be long and brutal, and our most recent one was an excellent case in point. With spring finally seeming to have arrived for real in just the last couple of days, I once again find myself thinking that I would have rather been a professional baseball player than a professional musician, and by extension, about the sometimes unfortunate parallels between the worlds of sports and music. In spite of the income disparity between professional athletes and professional musicians, the band and the baseball team more often than not find themselves in the same boat when they are attached to a K-12 educational institution, and as with "The Arts," extracurricular sports teams are often sold to taxpayers and boosters based on a dubious array of fringe benefits.

Every time I hear a public service announcement claiming that participation in music helps kids do better in math and science, I can't help but think of the utter loathing that the majority of my music school classmates felt for these subjects, the lengths they went to avoid having to take any "real" math or science classes in college, and the range of looks (from disgust to fear to anger) I receive upon admitting that I voluntarily took Calculus and Anatomy while they were slogging through a remedial statistics course. Similarly, every time I hear a public service announcement claiming that participation in sports builds kids' self-esteem, I'm reminded of the trials and tribulations of my abbreviated baseball career: dysfunctional coaches, irritating teammates, unsportsmanlike opponents, scheduling conflicts, injuries, equipment, travel, and most importantly, the fact that I lacked the talent to continue playing beyond the high school level.

This was anything but positive for my self-esteem; in fact, it was often downright destructive to my own physical and emotional well-being. There are strong parallels here to what I observed in school band, even though I observed them from the other (successful) side: infighting, jealousy, strained teacher-student relationships, varying degrees of commitment among band members, and so on. I continue to meet middle aged people who recall with a joyful smile on their faces how much they hated practicing scales and being made to sight read when they were in high school band. By the same token, when asked about baseball in the context of polite conversation, I'd probably have a good chuckle about having to have my face rebuilt on two separate occasions after being struck by various flying objects in the course of a game. Privately, however, baseball is a sore spot, a continued source of nightmares, and a quintessential case of wanting what you can't have. I wouldn't wish that sort of condition on anyone for any reason, but specifically with regards to music, which I, of course, have grown quite fond of.

In engaging a young person in any given activity, the risk of them loving it sometimes outweighs the risk of them hating it. Perhaps this is why our culture touts the supposedly objective, empirically proven value of these activities that promise to keep the kids only casually engaged; this as opposed to embracing them as a kind of "serious leisure" that could eventually lead that young person away from becoming a cog in the New World Order and towards a lifetime of private, frivolous, enjoyable, rewarding and vital music making. Even composer Ben Johnston says that those of us who fail to embrace the supposed developmental benefits of our art deserve our "social function as dubious luxury items." Johnston's primary beef is with "status seekers," whom we all abhor, yet his words seem to ally him with the bait-and-switchers who sell arts education based entirely on factors extraneous to the art itself. These are people who are themselves zealous status-seekers, eager to paint their career choice as a community service to the rest of us, and for which they should of course be rewarded with our sympathy and tax dollars. Remind you of anyone from the world of professional sports?