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Our Fandom Could Be Your Life: How Fandom Became the Modern Cult

The social psychology of our cultural (and cultish) obsessions.
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Join us. (Image: David Forest Agency/Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t remember when I received my first soul vaccination. It may have been when I was eight or nine, the age when I first started knowing musicians and bands by name. To this day, my family and I can’t seem to recall the venue: Was it Sculler’s, in downtown Boston, or at the end of that long day-trip to my mother’s hometown of Woonsocket, Rhode Island? Was my brother there too, or was it just me? I’m not sure.

What I do remember is the music. I remember the thunderous, frenetic drumming of David Garibaldi, the bark of his hi hat mixed into his cascading rolls and manic syncopated bass drum. I remember the rippling, melodic bass of Frank “Rocco” Prestia, a guy whose echoes I would hear in recordings of Jaco Pastorius and Victor Wooten that I came to love while playing in my own high school jazz band years later. I remember the scream of the horns, punctuated only by the rumbling bleet of Stephen "Doc" Kupka, the “Funky Doctor,” and his baritone sax. This was the first time I met the Tower of Power, the legendary R&B outfit that’s been touring since 1968, and this is the closest I’ll ever get to joining a cult.

Twenty years later, that aural baptism into the world of my father’s favorite band has left me with an unshakeable fixation. I’ve seen the group dozens of times since, both with Keller at Large and alone. I took up the drums not long after that first show, striving to find the pocket that Garibaldi could miraculously conjure with a flutter on his snare. I drove nearly 100 miles to catch a bizarre concert in a high school auditorium accompanied by the equivalent of a drunken PTA meeting I’ve ever seen (in college! On a Saturday!). I’ve shelled out more money than is reasonable, when you're unemployed and near-broke, for a cramped show at B.B. King’s club just so I could get a good look at Garibaldi’s footwork. I listen to the Tower when I’m cooking, when I’m cleaning, when I’m reading, when I’m traveling. I sing “What Is Hip” in the shower. I occasionally watch the opening credits of SNL not for the cold open, but for bandleader and former Tower saxophonist Lenny Pickett. My friends are a consistent mix of puzzled, worried, and terrified at my obsession. I’d like to believe that this mania is hereditary, like being prone to exaggeration or hysterical alcoholism, but I know it’s more serious than that. I have a sickness, and the only antidote is a soul vaccination.

This was the first time I met the Tower of Power, the legendary R&B outfit that’s been touring since 1968, and this is the closest I’ll ever get to joining a cult.

I didn’t really understand the scope of my Towerhead status until a few years later, when (ironically) I read a book on 1980s American alt-rock. Music journalist Michael Azerrad drew the title of his respected history Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991—scenes that included Black Flag, Minor Threat, Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and my beloved Mission of Burma—from the opening strains of Minuteman classic “History Lesson—Part II”: “Our band could be your life / Real names'd be proof / Me and Mike Watt played for years / punk rock changed our lives.”

This is the simple truth of American fandom, the roiling masses of screaming acolytes that swirl around the music, movies, and megastars that shape the face of contemporary pop culture. From the Tower of Power and the Grateful Dead to Black Flag and Minor Threat to Beliebers and One Directioners, fandom may be one of the most unbridled manifestations of crowd psychology of the modern era. But is fandom a mere form social solidarity based on a common interest, or does the intensity and obsessiveness of modern fans represent a more pathological phenomenon, a psychological manifestation of the classic personality cult?

For psychologists, being a fan is, in its most basic form, a matter of solidarity: Our fixation with cultural phenomena is a matter of self-presentation, the way in which we signal our belonging to social groups. Sociologist Erving Goffman's comparison of modern public life to the performance of a theater troupe in Presentation of Self in Everyday Life makes the most sense: Where Goffman argued that the social actor chooses his stage and props for a particular audience, fandom seems like a more specialized social performance with its own manifold dances and cues. Alana Massey notes that psychologists coined the idea of “parasocial interaction” to describe the relationships viewers felt they shared with media personalities during the 1950s. Research shows these relationships can play an essential role in the development of the self in young people. Some psychologists argue that there’s an evolutionary basis for fandoms: Sprawling communities like the insufferable Red Sox Nation (I say this as a Red Sox fan), “[correlate] with concerns about loyalty, and that, among males, it also correlated with authority and purity, two other binding or group-relevant concerns.” Casual fandom is social cohesion, pure and simple.

Each wave of modern media (especially participatory media like the Internet) has lowered the barriers for fandom, reducing the costs of participation and, in turn, strengthening that feedback loop between fan and fandom.

But modern fandom as we think of it today has always been marked by a particular form of intensity. Researchers and scholars of social identity believe that this brand of group identification isn’t just about telegraphing our knowledge of a particular subculture, but “a condition under which the actions of a group are a central component of one‘s social identity.” It’s not that we “are” fans, but that a fandom is us: Our engagements with other fans and our imagined relationships with celebrities shape the nature of our daily lives, rather than functioning as passive hobbies enjoyed on the weekends or after work. It’s this feedback loop between fan and fandom that drives the analogy of cults. Although cults actually have a long and rich history in the United States, the modern manifestation of cults tends toward the authoritarian, totalistic organization that deploys psychological domination and exploitation to deprive victims of any sense of agency.

We can see shades of that authoritarian streak in some particularly devout fan communities. The Beatles are the more obvious example, from the screaming hordes who welcomed the Fab Four to America on the Ed Sullivan Show to the fans who committed suicide after John Lennon’s shooting death in 1980. John Hinckley Jr.’s botched assassination of President Ronald Reagan was ostensibly the desperate bid of a crazed fan to impress Jodie Foster. More recently, rabid fans of Justin Bieber shaved their heads after Internet trolls spread a rumor that the pop star was diagnosed with cancer. Sure, these aren’t nearly as horrific as the Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana in 1970s or the bloody Branch Davidian standoff with the ATF in Waco, Texas—the only truly “authoritarian” version in pop culture may be those hidden satanic messages—but it’s easy to see the same pathology running through both.

But how crazy are fans, really? Writing in the Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, University of Tulsa psychologist Joli Jenson observes that the idea of fandom as pathology has evolved mainly as a function of mass media, from the moral panic over teens and rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s to the surging mobs at sporting events—“a crazed and depraved crowd climbing over dead bodies to get close to their idols,” as Jenson puts it—that ended up disproved by academics. Just as broadcast news and other forms of mass media often distort the actual prevalence of social problems, the discourse about modern fandom tends to be overwrought, framed as universally abnormal, rather than universal and conventional. “There is very little literature that explores fandom as a normal, everyday cultural or social phenomenon,” Jenson says. “Instead, the fan is characterized as an obsessed loner, suffering from a disease of isolation, or a frenzied crowd member, suffering from a disease of contagion. In either case, the fan is seen as being irrational, out of control, and prey to a number of external forces.”

Fandom as we know it has always been relatively modern development, a cultural byproduct of the 19th- and 20th-century’s rising tide of mass media. Wired’s Scott Brown argues that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is responsible for the modern phenomenon of fandom, with his avid fans slavering over every tale of eccentric detective Sherlock Holmes. “These early Sherlockians weren't content simply to read the books,” writes Brown of fan angst following the “death” of Holmes in 1893. “They wanted to enter the world Conan Doyle had created, puppeteer his characters, and design their own mysteries for Holmes to solve. In short, they wanted to play, and, with Xbox still a few years off, they ended up doing the next best thing: They wrote stories. Lots of them. It was the dawn of fandom as we now know it—zealous, fractious, hydra-headed, and participatory.”

My friends are a consistent mix of puzzled, worried, and terrified at my obsession. I have a sickness, and the only antidote is a soul vaccination.

The nature of fandom has always followed the nature of mass media. During the first half of the 20th century, pulp fiction magazines that bolstered the rise of literary subcultures nurtured with a healthy mix of lurid (and inexpensive) Western, science fiction, horror, and detective comics before the Comics Code effectively cleansed newsstands of “immoral” content and unleashed the reign of the superheroes. But TV and movies soon gave rise to modern fandoms we recognize fondly today, from the expanding federation of Trekkies to the utopian geekery of Comic-Con. And it’s the ever-expanding multiverse of the Internet that’s given the emotional intensity of fandom form and voice, starting when bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead built robust Internet forums as a logical extension of the direct-to-fan relations they developed during earlier tours. One can’t help but smile with delight at the logical outcome of our right to “freedom of association” in the U.S.: Alongside religious sects and civic organizations, a million fandoms have bloomed.

Each wave of modern media (especially participatory media like the Internet) has lowered the barriers for fandom, reducing the costs of participation and, in turn, strengthening that feedback loop between fan and fandom. Where Goffman envisioned the presentation of self as an active performance engineered for a specific stage, our performances are now passive and constant, broadcast hourly on a thousands screens and platforms and stages, from Twitter to Web forums to IRL conventions.

As fandom becomes more distributed and all-encompassing, those cultish qualities become more salient. But the modern manifestations of toxic fandom aren’t murderous Hinckleys or post-Lennon suicides, but online harassment. Consider the scenario in which teenage girls devoted to British boy-band One Direction bombarded GQ magazine editors with death threats over a cover story that made the band’s members seem less than perfect. And any woman even tangentially involved in video games (or journalism, for that matter) has likely endured death or rape threats from the #GamerGate crowd who believe their beloved culture is under attack.

Every subculture has its obsessives, just as every religious group and political organization does, and the particular intensity of modern fandom may simply be a function of our media environment rather than, say, mass psychosis (although the two are, obviously, intertwined). Had I come of age during the Tower of Power’s heyday in the 1970s, my own fixation may have expressed itself differently, awaiting the latest vinyl pressing or tailgating on tour, instead of hitting up the TOP message board from my smartphone. But the upside is that it’s easier for me to engage in multiple obsessions, from TOP to the New York Times crossword to the minutiae of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (The Red Skull isn’t dead. Pass it on.) The evolution of media has bolstered solidarity around cultural associations (alongside civic ones, naturally), but also exposed us to the thornier elements of the subcultures we embrace.

Fandom at heart is not a pathology, but a natural, positive source of social solidarity. Research suggests that the social cohesion wrought by cultural fandoms like sports and television can not only build confidence and self-esteem in those who may have lacked a social niche before, but actually result in a decreased tendency to commit undesirable behaviors among those who belong to an especially close community. And for the 75 percent of young people who report “strong attachments” to a celebrity, the longevity of fandom can be an important source of emotional support in a fast-moving world of contemporary pop culture. Indeed, it’s my beloved Tower of Power that acknowledged the shifting nature of the die-hard fan experience in the 1973 epic soul fable “What Is Hip?”: “As you striving to find the right road / There's one thing you should know / What's hip today / Might become passé.”

Cults and (Sub)cultures is Pacific Standard's series of reported essays on all things cult, from religion to pop culture.