What does it mean to be a fan?

It’s a question that is asked hundreds of times per day: “Are you a real fan?” For everything that can be enjoyed, there are those who scrutinize their fellow fans, and attempt to create a distinction between ‘true fans’ and those who are merely capitalizing on the act’s popularity in order to seem cool. 

This artificial distinction is everywhere, including sports teams, television shows and, especially in my daily life—music. Even when I discovered The Who as a teenager, my newfound fandom was met with old anecdotes from my parents and jeers of not being a “real fan.” This is a scenario that many music lovers find themselves in during at least one point in their lives, especially when dealing with bands that are only a decade or two past their heyday.

In early February, legendary alternative rock band My Bloody Valentine released m b v, their first album in 22 years, and the follow-up to 1991’s Loveless. I had heard of the band before, but the first time I listened to them was after the recent surge of publicity sparked by m b v’s release. Even though I chose to listen to Valentine’s albums chronologically, and enjoyed what I heard, was that enough to deem me a fan? I read an essay by Pitchfork writer Jayson Greene discussing the moments leading up to his first listen of the new album, condensing 22 years of waiting into 900 words. The emotional impact for Greene was something that I cannot yet fathom, as I have been alive for less than 20 years.

A week after m b v’s release, some friends and I trekked to Portland, Maine to see reclusive indie-rocker Jeff Mangum, former frontman of Neutral Milk Hotel. At the concert, we noticed the disparity between the adults, who would casually mention that they remembered when his album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was first released in 1998, and the many other college-aged kids, including us, who had only discovered Mangum in recent years. The community of Mangum fans was divided by age and date of discovery, and witnessing this divide in person helped to reignite the debate that had been burning in my mind since childhood.

Unlike some of my fellow concertgoers in Maine, I hadn’t been waiting for 15 years to see Mangum. The timeline of my first listen of m b v, immediately followed my first listen of Loveless, was unlike the decades traversed by Greene, and many other Valentine fans. But with that understood, can my contemporaries and I still achieve true fandom?

My answer: does it really matter? While I’m sure that not all of the adults who saw Mangum with me that night appreciated the horde of teenagers singing along to every word, or potentially reducing the number of tickets available for their friends, they must also be aware that enjoyment transcends time. While the factors surrounding someone’s appreciation differ from person to person, it is not necessary to create a hierarchy of true fandom. Especially in the aforementioned cases, where chronology is a major factor in separating groups of fans, what’s the point of creating this distinction ,other than to further one’s own social standing? Classifying fandom brings the classifiers down to the level of those who they attempt to belittle.

Rock mainstays, Queens of the Stone Age performed their 1998 self-titled debut record in its entirety during a handful of 2011 tour dates, despite most of the performing band members not being present during the album’s recording 13 years prior. Reviews of the tour were positive, uniting fans old and new, and allowing them to ultimately listen to good music together.

Having seen bands such as Arcade Fire, Japandroids, and The Black Keys before, and after their mainstream breakthroughs, I somewhat understand the plight of the older fans. The venues are bigger and less personal, and the newer crowds are rowdier and more prone to shouting obscenities in between songs. But few things beat the feeling of everyone staring wide-eyed at the artists who have caused such joy in the lives of all the attendees. For just a few moments, it doesn’t matter when and how one discovered the artist, all that matters is that everyone is enjoying them together. Pretension makes way for sheer musical enjoyment, and that’s what it’s all about in the first place.

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