Taylor Swift's fandom: the kids remain alright

our psalms are sing-along songs

Taylor Swift's fandom: the kids remain alright

Starting this off with a note about Jesse Malin - if you haven’t read the news about the stroke that has him paralyzed, and if you’re able to contribute to his Sweet Relief fundraiser, please do. I do not understand why this world keeps terrible people alive and healthy and then delivers this kind of bullshit to someone who is only adding positive energy to the world. I just do not. Wishing him a refuah shlema (IYKYK)

I am old enough to remember when WNEW would play “Born To Run” on Friday at 6pm -- of course, they stole that gesture lock stock and barrel from Kid Leo at WMMS in Cleveland in the 70’s, when he’d play it at the end of his shift, officially 5:55pm: “It's time to punch out, wash up, come back and wrap it up." It was the official announcement of the weekend to everyone who listened to the radio, which back then was everyone. He didn’t have to explain why he did it, he just played it (along with “Friday On My Mind” and then Ian Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks”). People you didn’t know were listening to the same thing you were listening to at the exact same moment and that connection was so important. You weren’t alone even if you were alone because it was at least you and the DJ on the other side of the radio. It was about allegiance and connection and shared emotion.

We here at jukeboxgraduate dot com have spent years thinking about these kinds of things, the unspoken thread that is the connective tissue in rock and roll, the shared emotion, the unstated beliefs. It’s a reason I wrote my first novel because I was even back in the early 00’s watching important elements slip away and not be replaced by anything. It’s easy to KIDS THESE DAYS / old man yells at cloud about the current state of the music business but it’s harder to try figure out how to improve the situation.

And just when things feel hopeless I saw all of the videos of the enormous crowds gathered outside of Taylor Swift shows. Not inside, but firmly outside in the parking lot or park or other space adjacent to the blimp nests she’s performing in, using U2’s stage from the 2017 Joshua Tree tour. These are fans who either couldn’t get or couldn’t afford tickets, but they decided that they wanted to still somehow be part of the event, be close to the action, somehow participate as a fan, to be near the other people who felt the same way about Taylor Swift that they did. It wasn’t 10 people or 20 people, it was in some cases hundreds or thousands of them, standing outside of the stadium, bringing coolers and camp chairs, and singing and dancing along. This is something that has never happened before at this level, and aside from a few references to it in the media or from facilities sternly warning fans to not do this (looking at you, NJ Sports & Exposition Authority) this phenomenon is being written off as insignificant, when it needs to be examined and embraced for this enormous mobilization of emotion, energy and commitment.

Here in Detroit, they opened the merch stand the day before the show and people actually slept overnight or got there ridiculously early to be at the front of the queue. That might seem dumb but I feel like these days you are forced to wait for anything marginally worthwhile, and while they waited, they were once again with other people who cared as much as they did, and instead of talking to someone on the internet, here you got to talk to a living human being who lives in your approximate geographic location. People wait for dumb things all the time. There was a line to get into a park on the Detroit River on the first day of Walleye season, when there were plenty of other places one could go fishing. I didn’t see the trend piece interviewing those sportsmen and snidely denigrating the way they chose to spend their time.

Wearing an artist’s merchandise is an act of self-identification, a way of expressing loyalty, a way of connecting with other fans. When I was in high school, people used to bring whole-ass record albums to school and walk around between classes with them under their arms alongside their schoolbooks for no other reason than to show off that they owned a copy of the record. (To be fair, some people carried records around because they’d brought it to school to loan to a friend, and no one was putting a record album in their locker where it could be stolen.1) This was a time when band merchandise was not yet the profit center it would become and maybe you would have a choice of one or two shirts or maybe you’d run into a bootleg shirt seller when you walked out of the venue, but it wasn’t ubiquitous, and also back then going to a concert was a big deal and a rarity that you had to travel to a city of some size in order to attend. Why not shop early so you can take the merch home, not have to carry it to the show, make sure you get what you want, and not risk missing part of the concert while you’re waiting? This all seems like great planning and time management to me.

I was going to go downtown and try to find whatever parking lot the Michigan Swifties were hanging out in, but it was Pride weekend, there were two baseball games, and a whole host of other things going on and apparently all of the above shut down downtown Friday night. And also, as someone who has been immersed in this culture since I was old enough to listen to a radio station, I understand what is motivating them, and I think it is special and beautiful and if the music business was smart, it would figure out how to capitalize on all of this. They don’t because they’re not music people, they are (marginally) business people; and they don’t because it’s a bunch of young women watching a young woman sing pop music, and the fact that no one was doing this for Monsters of Rock or for the Rolling Stones or U2 or the fucking EAGLES or even Bruce Springsteen in 1985, even, doesn’t seem to be important enough to examine or discuss or mention. If nothing else I do not understand why political campaigns were not out there registering people to vote or handing out literature.

There are not a lot of IRL communal activities left for fans to engage in that allow you to express your fandom that feel good and wholesome and enjoyable. We have eliminated the ritual of going to the record store on a weekly basis to see what is new or interesting, concerts are expensive as well as require you to jump through the hoops of no bags / find parking / pay for parking / pay for water / pay for air / pay to sing along. There are almost no music magazines left and the ones that are still around have more ads than articles about music, and most of the stories and information is the same, you can’t turn on the radio and connect to a version of the zeitgeist that is relevant to you. Music fans want to do all of these things.

But you can go sit in a parking lot next to Lincoln Financial Field and meet a hundred or a thousand other Swifties who are going to lose their shit during “Bad Blood” or sing “Karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekend” at the top of your lungs, that feeling of being carried along on the wave of energy that happens when thousands of people are singing the same words, or even just to be in the same physical space with all these other people who know what you are feeling and why you are feeling it -- everyone’s personal vehicle of transcendence is slightly different but if you are committed enough to be there and participate the chances are that you have more in common with the group of women sitting next to you than you might otherwise believe. You will see that you are not alone, that you are not weird, and you will also learn more about fandom and your own particular pursuit of your love and admiration of an artist and their art. You might not have a light-up bracelet that creates geofenced artwork but you have more room to dance, and your chair is more comfortable (not that you’re sitting in it).

I do want to note that it is not lost on me that the reason that this is happening is because Taylor Swift’s audience is largely white women, and if a bunch of Black folks in the US gathered outside a stadium when Beyonce was in town in exactly the same orderly and largely benign fashion (e.g. leaving some diet soda cans behind) I am positive it would not be tolerated and in fact would be actively policed. I also know that the reason one of the larger Swiftie gatherings happened was in Philadelphia because the stadium is surrounded by acres of parking for the arena and the ballpark and isn’t in a residential zone or in the middle of nowhere (you could literally take SEPTA to go hang out). The point here isn’t that Taylor Swift fans are innovative or unique in their desire to connect, as much as they might think they are (and it is also absolutely expected that they would feel that way). But it’s interesting to think about the reasons why there has been this perfect storm of emotion and connection that wanted to be expressed and demonstrated, and how it’s manifested itself in this particular fashion.

It also points to the ways I think that fandom needs fixing: everyone just needs more ways to connect in real life. You need to go to record stores, go to listening parties, wear a shirt, put a bumper sticker on your car, pin a badge to your purse or your jacket, drive around listening to it with your car windows open. Wearing headphones and yelling at music writers on Twitter might feel good for a few minutes but it’s not going to give you the type of genuine connection and interaction that music fans are looking for and don’t even know that they’re missing, that the business giants in the music business don’t understand is important, but that the rest of us have never forgotten.

When was the last time you went to a record store? Take your aunt or your cousin or your nephew. Go see a local band. Listen to the radio stations that are left. Get a pen pal. Make a t-shirt. Find your old Rolling Stones tongue pin and put it on your messenger bag. Let’s make music fandom into an identity again. It might just save the music business.

  1. I had pretty much everything stolen out of a locker in my time in Stamford Public Schools except the ugly ass winter coats my mom made us wear, much to my dismay. I get it, you had four kids, this shit was not cheap, but I will have nightmares about the dark blue boy’s parka from Sears I had to wear for what felt like forever until I die.