Music Fandom in the Age of Viral Reproduction

Ethan Fraenkel & Alia ElKattan | June 6, 2021

Prelude: A Funny (?) Thing Happened on the Way to the Capitol Riot

On Jan. 6, 2021, Trump supporters protested Joe Biden’s inauguration at the Capitol, with lo-fi musicians John Maus and Ariel Pink in attendance. The news came as somewhat of a surprise to many fans and followers of genres not typically associated with political conservatism.

Our surprised reaction to the news led us to start questioning our perceptions of the relationships between fandoms and subcultures created around music genres and their perceived political affiliations, particularly as they manifest online. As a result, we dove into an exploration of the interplay between music genres, their associated subcultures and politics throughout history, how similar dynamics carry on to the present day, and the internet’s role in facilitating these relationships.

We became particularly interested in genres that may not be explicitly political, such as indie subgenres. That being said, it’s natural to associate indie genres with progressive political ideologies, considering it’s a genre initially defined by its independent, non-mainstream status. As media studies scholar David Hesmondhalgh wrote, the adoption of the term “indie” — derived from “independent” — was significant itself since no previous music genre “had ever taken its name from the form of [the] industrial organization behind it.” This allowed indie artists to position themselves as more “relevant or authentic to the youth who consumed it.” Nevertheless, the ‘indie’ label has since evolved beyond an economic or contractual status to a sound or genre, especially as indie bands grew in popularity and/or secured deals with prominent record labels.

The association of a music genre with a social or political affiliation is not limited to indie music, as producers and consumers of artistic genres and subcultures have long taken part in political movements. Conversely, politics has formed, shaped, or influenced music genres and subcultures in return. To better understand how these relationships exist on the internet, we found it essential to first contextualize our analysis by exploring different types of examples throughout history and geography. We won’t claim to offer a comprehensive overview of the entire history of the relationship between alternative (music) subcultures and politics (if such a thing were even possible.) Instead, we aim to highlight a few illustrative examples from previous centuries and decades to shade the contours of what the relationships between politics and music fandoms have been and by extension could be again. We then take a look at how relationships between fandoms and political participation are manifesting online today.

Music Genre, Fandom, and Politics

One of the ancestors of contemporary, progressive avant-garde culture was Dada, which formed in Zurich, Switzerland in the turbulent aftermath of World War I. As the movement’s nonsense name suggests, the milieu’s art was highly experimental and wide-ranging in both form and content. In a way, novel Dadaist artistic mediums such as sound poems and collages predicted contemporary notions of remix culture. Equally radical on a political level, Dada was often associated with anarchism and communism and some of its members even participated in the 1918 German Revolution against imperial rule. Finally, the Dadaist movement asked eternally relevant questions about the relationship between aesthetics and politics, debating internally whether artistic pursuits were an end in themselves or whether art must involve itself in politics to advance the cause of liberation.

Skipping to the Cold War era, the link between radical politics and avant-garde subculture grows more tenuous while the latter preserves some of its oppositional character. These convoluted dynamics of subculture and politics were particularly pronounced in the case of the East German punk scene, which was considered a threat to “law and order” by a bureaucratic socialist state. Despite their small numbers, East German punks were heavily and disproportionately surveilled by the infamous Stasi secret police. Criticizing state repression could itself be considered a crime as in the case of the punk singer Jana Schlosser who was incarcerated “for two years after comparing the Stasi to Hilter’s SS.” In one of the more unlikely alliances of this period, East German punks joined forces with churches not only because the latter offered a haven for shows but also out of an ideological affinity in the opposition movement which, at least in part, helped topple the Berlin Wall.

In the past decade, we’ve also seen how political movements and revolutions could birth music genres and cultures in Arab countries. A wave of indie bands, songwriters, and rappers emerged in Arab countries following the 2011 protests. In Egypt, the newfound celebration of self-expression and dialogue on sociopolitical issues allowed bands and artists such as Cairokee, West el Balad, and Ramy Essam to skyrocket in popularity and created a new wave of Arab alternative indie rock music that rippled throughout the region. The rise of alt indie rock music in Egypt in particular is more thoroughly outlined in fellow Multiplicity writer Youssef Azzam’s piece. Such music was not limited to the more explicitly political protest songs that emerged at the wake of the Arab Spring but expanded to a broad range of cultural, sociopolitical, and personal themes.

Despite the consistency of the previously listed historical examples, the contemporary relationship between genres, subcultures, and political affiliations is often unclear, dynamic, and nonlinear. While a diversity of political opinions and personalities exists among people who make and consume similar types of art, the classification of music into genres and subcultures in itself is often misleading and highly subjective. Describing the fluidity of the term, sociologist Andy Bennett wrote:

The term ‘subculture’ is also deeply problematic in that it imposes rigid lines of division over forms of sociation which may, in effect, be rather more fleeting, and in many cases arbitrary, than the concept of subculture, with its connotations of coherency and solidarity, allows for.

Bennett further argued that these groupings are better understood not as coherently defined subcultures, but as “a series of temporal gatherings characterized by fluid boundaries and floating relationships.” It is the latter definition that we adopt when referring to fandoms and subcultures throughout the piece.

The Online Evolution of Music Fandom

This perception of fandoms, particularly when it relates to music genres, led us to question how they manifest online and whether the nature of the internet makes these groupings even more fluid, loosely defined, and fleeting. There are many ways fan communities, whether music-related or not, group online. From Facebook groups and Reddit threads to the 2010s Tumblr golden days, people have found community and belonging in online spaces dedicated to sharing any one of a seemingly infinite list of interests and passions. While such examples may have more clearly defined boundaries (e.g. you’re in the Facebook group, subreddit, etc. or you’re not), internet communities also group through networks of followers (e.g. Twitter), comment sections (e.g. Youtube), and algorithmically curated feeds (e.g. ‘sides’ of TikTok).

While such loosely defined and “bordered” communities may provide the same comfort, companionship, and belonging as those more coherently defined, they are easier to access and may overlap with many other networks. Although we’ve been warned of social media’s ‘echo chambers’, recent research on political-ideological preferences on Twitter has shown that such generalizations may be overstated. It would make sense for the same logic to apply, perhaps even more so, with regards to music and art fandoms. This could be creating an effect where participation in a fandom or a subculture is very low cost and low effort. You don’t have to buy merch, put on a branded t-shirt, or go to a specific venue or gig to express your support for an artist and find community among others who do; you can simply retweet or reply to their content. While this high level of and access to participation may inadvertently dilute fandoms, it can also make them more abundant, diverse, and inclusive. What we may think of as coherent fandoms or subcultures may now be more associated with internet trends, making engagement fleeting and fast-paced.

Fandom in the Age of Ads

It’s important to acknowledge that this may not just be a product of the internet, but also a capitalist consumer culture, driven by personalized ads and marketing campaigns at every corner of the web. This evolving relationship with fandom can be best understood by drawing parallels to broader analysis on fandoms, including those of TV and film media. Varsity writer Siyang Wei drew on Mark Duffet’s "Understanding Fandoms" to explain that while highly dedicated fans were previously seen as a niche subset, they now present a “central mode of consumption.” Media and advertising agencies recognized fans’ potential to bolster sales and exposure through social media and decided it was an asset to marketing campaigns. Media Studies Professor Abigail De Kosnik argues that the internet economy now depends on “free labor” — the amount of coverage and commentary provided by fans often far outweighs that which paid laborers are capable of producing. Keidra Chaney linked fandom’s role in marketing campaigns to its relationship to highly commodified rankings such as sales, box office, and polls. In music, this influence is undeniable, with fans often leaping to help their favorite artists rise on the Billboard and streaming charts. Many viral tweets are now followed with “stream [name of artist]” replies, a signal of both the user’s love of an artist and an attempt to help often very mainstream artists rise up the streaming charts. This has been amplified by social media’s influence on music charts, most recently including TikTok, which is also further explored in Youssef Azzam’s article. Observing the relationship between fandom and commercialization isn’t to disregard it as a marketing ploy or undermine those who try to support their favorite artists on the internet, but to better understand the nuances of online fandoms and subcultures and how they can be utilized, subverted, or simply enjoyed.

Music Fans, Political Participators?

Just as the internet has enabled new forms of connection among music fans, we’ve seen new connections between online music fandoms and political engagement. Fans replying to tweets with fancams (video edits of an artist or celebrity), for example, has been used by fandoms to express political opposition to content, such as through spamming hashtags. In 2020, K-pop fans flooded the “White Lives Matter” hashtag on Twitter and Facebook with fancams and memes to drown out racist content. Over the summer, fans also came together to collect donations for organizations supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The support went beyond fancams and memes, when fans of K-pop’s BTS, one of the world’s most popular groups, flooded hashtags asking the artists they love to donate. In response, BTS donated $1 million in support of BLM. In another move by K-pop fans, they reportedly flooded a Trump rally’s registration to inflate the organizers’ expectations of a rally where far fewer people showed up than had been planned for.

While teenage K-pop fans tweeting video edits of ultra synchronized pop choreography may have little outward resemblance to East German punk musicians surveilled by the Stasi, we find a common thread in the utilization of subcultures built around a shared love of music for political participation and expression. This isn’t to say that music fandoms must organize, but to appreciate the beauty in people brought together by music, political in content or not, applying their shared community and belonging in service of their values and aid of oppressed groups.

The Dark Side of Fandom: The Alt-right’s Influence on Music Subculture

When hailing the interconnectedness the internet affords us, however, we must always examine how that connectivity impacts people in ambivalent ways. As with everything on the internet, online subcultures have become a source of entertainment, support, and friendship for some, but one of harassment, bigotry, and rightwing radicalization for others. Alternative music communities are no exception as demonstrated by the outsized influence of /mu/, 4chan’s music discussion board in these circles. Even prior to the Trump presidency and the related rise of the alt-right, the always chaotic and often toxic brew on such forums became increasingly visible.

For better and often worse, 4chan’s frequently pernicious influence on the online alternative music scene seems inescapable, despite its seemingly niche appearance. In fact, /mu/ has essentially established one of the most comprehensive canons of alt and indie music beloved by internet audiences, even creating a polished, (sub-) genre-spanning introductory chart, promising to “help you become an entry-level /mu/tant.” Although some /mu/ adjacent platforms are relatively innocuous, 4chan’s disproportionate pull on online alternative music subculture, and meme culture overall, creates an ambivalent effect in such communities. Too often the line between obscure bohemian hipster taste and reactionary politics gets blurred in anonymous forums which pride themselves in their edginess.

Anonymous 4chan posters acting as de facto alternative music critics are far from the only example of far-right influence on online subcultures. Segments of both the heavy metal genre and fandom have long harbored Nazis. Due to the niche, and from an outsider’s perspective, obscure nature of the genre and its esoteric references, many Nazi heavy metalheads hide in plain sight. The labor and extreme music journalist Kim Kelly has written extensively on the issue, noting that “widespread lack of fluency with metal’s visual language and broader political culture is why white supremacist bands run rampant on streaming platforms like Spotify, Soundcloud, TIDAL, Apple Music, Last.FM.” Far from an abstract dilemma concerning the limits of free speech, the toleration of Nazi metal music on streaming services has material and often lethal real-world consequences. Fortunately, there are signs of resistance to the racist, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic rhetoric and actions of Nazi heavy metalheads. In 2019, Kelly helped co-organize, Black Flags Over Brooklyn, an anti-fascist heavy metal festival that combined political organizing with live shows. The pushback by both fans and artists against white supremacy in the heavy metal scene sets an admirable precedent for other music subcultures, just as it recalls the legacy of anti-racist punks in the U.S. and Europe who organized successfully to keep Nazis out of their circles in the 80s and 90s.

Progressive Aesthetics in the Age of Viral Reproduction

While much of the preceding discussion has been focused on the level of content, the question of form is equally crucial to (re)imagining future possibilities for the politics of music subcultures. Even prior to the advent of the internet, diverse technological mediums have influenced the development of aesthetic forms and consequently their politics. Before social media, technologies such as fanzines and amateur radio and film among others, served as platforms for subcultures to circulate ideas and innovative works. This insight that the technological mediums of every era shape the culture which utilizes them owes much to the perspective of 20th-century literary critic Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Written in 1935 just two years after Hitler’s coup in Germany, Benjamin was responding to the rival futurist and Dadaist artistic movements and their associations with fascism and socialism respectively.

Contrasting Italian futurists’ and fascists’ approaches to art to that of communists, Benjamin states that “the logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life” while “Communism responds by politicizing art.” For Benjamin, fascism’s aestheticization of politics finds its epitome in imperialist wars which the futurists glorified. Given the precedent for using experimental artistic methods towards reactionary goals, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised by John Maus and Ariel Pink’s rightward turn in the first place.

In any case, Benjamin does leave us with a more hopeful direction for a synthesis of experimental aesthetics and progressive politics. Discussing the Dadaist alternative to the often fascistic futurism, Benjamin notes that “the Dadaists attached much less importance to the sales value of their work than to its usefulness for contemplative immersion.” By explicitly rejecting the common commodification of culture (its exchange value in Marxist terminology) and instead stressing its powers to provoke critical self-reflection (its use-value) we can begin to chart a new path forward. Following Benjamin’s advice, we need to politicize (sub)culture, but not through the limited didactic techniques of propaganda or limiting the content of music to explicitly political themes. Instead, we as artists, critics, and active audience participants (as opposed to passive consumers,) must embrace the aesthetic dimension of underground music which challenges our preconceived notions of what art and politics can be while escaping the profit motives imposed by exploitative streaming platforms and large record labels.

Looking Forward

We started this piece after having realized we’d been misguided in almost subconsciously associating avant-garde or alternative music genres and aesthetics with progressive socio-political stances. As we then delved deeper into the commercialization and politicization of music and fandoms, we came to appreciate the way music fans have both found community and taken action on- and offline, while becoming increasingly mindful of the hatred and harassment that plagues the internet. A more theoretical analysis of the aestheticization of politics (or the politicization of aesthetics), prompted us to reflect on how to expand and build on such actions without trivializing important issues or buying into the cultural cooptation of emancipatory politics. We hope this analysis pushes us to contribute to online spaces that are safe, enjoyable, and aligned with our values as we continue to share our love for music.

We believe in furthering the conversation on online music fandoms and political engagement beyond this article. Here are a few resources from Ethan & Alia to get that started:

1. Techno is Black, Tekkno is German by DeForrest Brown, Jr.

2. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin

3. Heavy Metal Confronts Its Nazi Problem by Colin Moynihan

4. Tarik Sabry and Layal Ftouni, Arab Subcultures: Transformations in Theory and Practice, Library of Modern Middle East Studies 152 (London ; New York: IBTauris & CoLtd, 2017)

5. For an interactive, reimagining of Dadaist art for the internet era, check out Dada-Data. Thanks to Multiplicity writer and friend Dervla O’Brien for the tip.