Kate and Me, a Romance: Or, Fandom and Participatory Culture as Inoculation against the Postmodern E
Track One: Sat In Your Lap
I resisted the pull of Kate Bush as long as I could. Upon first hearing her music in 2008, my initial thought was that something was wrong with my speakers. I couldn’t believe the weird, witchy wailings, the shrieking, gasping vocals. They absolutely repelled me.
Still, something brought me back, again and again.
For a while I splashed around in the kiddie pool of her gentler, radio-friendly ’80s jams, “Running Up That Hill” and “Cloudbusting” and “The Big Sky.” Then, one by one, her other, stranger songs wormed their way into me. A scream, I found, can communicate pleasure as well as pain, as well as a thousand things in between.
“Is your record player possessed?” my brother asked the first time I played him the song “Waking the Witch.” I recognized his bewilderment. I wanted to share her with him, but part of me was relieved at his repulsion, because I also wanted to possess her for myself.
I resisted her pull as long as I could, but by the time I turned 22 I accepted that she might just be the love of my life. I didn’t realize how loudly I shouted that love to anyone who would listen, not until no fewer than three friends sent me the article “A Playlist for the Person Who Only Likes Kate Bush but Is Skeptically Willing to Branch Out” when it was published on Jezebel last year. By that time, my love for Kate Bush had become part of others’ perception of my identity. This is a vital aspect of popular culture: we all exist in a network of cultural affiliations; in addition to our endemic selves we are also understood in relationship to the fandoms (movies, television, literature, sports, academics) in which we participate, the culture we propagate. We are what we consume.
Track Two: There Goes a Tenner
We are what we consume. This is one of the basic tenets of popular culture theory, which argues that the changing forms of pop culture in the face of postmodernity have altered--and, to some theorists, eroded--the identity of the consumer. Dominic Strinati writes that the breakdown of “traditional sources of identity—social class, the extended and nuclear family, local communities, the ‘neighbourhood’, religion, trade unions, the nation state” means that “a limited and dependable set of coherent identities have begun to fragment into a diverse and unstable series of competing identities” (226). In the absence of stable, traditional sources of identity which “give people a secure and coherent sense of themselves, the times in which they live and their place in society” (227), we must seek this meaning in consumerism.
But Strinati does not see consumerism as a sufficient substitute for the lost traditions. Identity erodes because:
Consumerism by its very nature is seen to foster a self-centred individualism which disrupts the possibilities for solid and stable identities. Television has similar effects because it is both individualistic and universal. People relate to television purely as individual viewers cut off from wider and more genuine social ties, while television relates back to people as individual and anonymous members of an abstract and universal audience. In both cases, the wider collectivities to which people might belong, and the legitimate ideas in which they might believe, tend to be ignored, eroded or fragmented. Neither consumerism nor television form genuine sources of identity and belief, but since there are no dependable alternatives, popular culture and the mass media come to serve as the only frames of reference available for the construction of collective and personal identities. (227)
It is true that my performance of identity has much more to do with the popular culture I consume than my religion or local communities, that when I need to be reminded of who I am I don’t find answers in thinking of my place in my neighborhood or my nation state, but rather in switching on Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, pouring a glass of wine, and looking at pretty dresses on the internet. Does this mean that I agree with Strinati and the theorists he cites (David Harvey, Scott Lash and John Urry, Todd Gitlin), that identity has eroded, that I no longer have a central core source of selfhood but rather a thousand small reminders of who I am, each one centered in something I have bought? Is it true that my consumerism has left me isolated, with no community to serve as a reference for my identity?
Track Three: Pull Out the Pin
The Tumblr group “Your Fave Is Problematic” does exactly what it says on the tin: examines prominent pop culture characters and catalogues the problematic (often, racist/appropriative, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic) things they have said and/or done as public figures, as well as whether they have continued the behavior or apologized. Active from 2013 to 2016, the group captures something vital about the internet age and its relationship to celebrity and identity. If we are made up of the things we love (our “faves”), then the internet gives us the opportunity to know more about these people to whom we have pledged our identities, to reevaluate our alignment with them.
There is a fear of this kind of knowledge. One of the page’s final posts implies that it closed “thanks to gross-ass messages from the snotnosed sexist shitheads of the 4chan ‘takeover.’” It is not difficult to imagine the kind of person who would take offense at the activity of such a page, with its definitions of “problematic” and its criticism of such beloved figures as Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, and Louis C.K. This isn’t the first time fear on the internet has turned to abuse. This isn’t the first time it’s contributed to the silencing of projects like this one.
Yet, at the same time, there is a hunger for this knowledge. When I first came across the group, I immediately navigated to the page entitled “List of Problematic Celebrities Featured Here So Far.” I checked for Kate Bush, and, when I didn’t find her there, I heaved a sigh of relief, even though I knew that her absence didn’t speak to her perfection (as I would have liked) but rather to the fact that she’s, by and large, a bygone popstar, no longer relevant enough to have been pinned under this particular microscope.
The ethos of the group is about information (though the personal beliefs, shocked reactions, and even indignant rage of the page’s curator/compiler certainly do come through in the posts themselves as well as in responses to fan questions), though there is a page entitled “My Fave Is Problematic. Now What?” that anticipates and answers several questions. (The first of these questions is “Am I still allowed to like them?” “Yes,” the page answers. “No one is stopping you from doing anything. You can like and consume their work without liking them as a person. You can even like them as a person, so long as you recognize that they do have problematic issues.”)
Track Four: Suspended in Gaffa
It can be hard to leave the things we love, the things we incorporate into ourselves. I say this as someone who grew up watching Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, as someone who once, at the age of five or so, listened to a Bill Cosby routine on cassette tape so often I could quote it from memory. Even now, I’ll think of the old jokes (“Chocolate cake for breakfast!”) and feel a laugh rise within me. Should I feel guilty for the laugh? Should I feel squeamish about the memory? I don’t know whether I should. What I know is that I do.
I also know I’m not alone. “Am I still allowed to like them?” the Tumblr group anticipated I would ask, and I did, I do, I ask it every day. If there is a sense of fear and ambivalence in anticipating the knowledge, how much more fear and ambivalence do we experience once that knowledge is gained. (There are layers of privilege, of bitter and frightening self-awareness, in being able to ask these questions at all. Certainly in instances where my own identity--woman, queer, victim of sexual violence--is implicated in a public figure’s problematic behavior, I tend to be much happier to make the cut, a clean break, to evangelize against that person who makes me, myself, feel unsafe. And yet--“Chocolate cake for breakfast!”--I still laugh. I am crying while I do it but I still laugh. Forgive me, I still laugh.)
Track Five: Leave It Open
The term fan, in contemporary popular culture, has come a long way from its roots in the word fanatic, which Kalmer Marimaa traces back to “the Latin adverb fānāticē (frenziedly, ragingly) and the adjective fānāticus (enthusiastic, ecstatic; raging, fanatical, furious)” (30), and which since its entrance to the English language has meant, according to Merriam-Webster, “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion.” This term has found itself on the receiving end of the same kind of essential diffusion, the distancing of the term from that which it has historically signified, as has been experienced by words like radical or literally or laughing out loud. “I’m a fan,” I say, when someone asks me about this or that, about something I have watched, or listened to, or read, or eaten, or worn, or driven, or walked upon, or breathed in, without once having felt fury, or rage, or the need to whip up an orgy or storm a temple.
Uncritical devotion, the dictionary says. The desire for uncritical devotion is no doubt what motivated those “snotnosed sexist shitheads of the 4chan ‘takeover.’” In the age of the internet, uncritical devotion is becoming, increasingly, an act of willful ignorance.
Track Six: The Dreaming
Indulge me for a second while I talk about my true love.
Most Kate Bush fans cite the album Hounds of Love as their favorite of all her works. It regularly makes “best albums” lists; people refer to it as her masterpiece.
To which I say: Yes, and. The immediate predecessor of Hounds of Love is The Dreaming, a strange, experimental emotional journey of an album, one that sees Bush inhabit a different story, a different setting, a different character entirely from each song to the next. From a Cockney criminal experiencing a bank heist gone wrong (“There Goes a Tenner”) to a couple arguing over the husband’s plans to assist in smuggling people into Malta (“Night of the Swallow”), from a twangy-voiced Aussie slamming kangaroos with a van (the titular “The Dreaming”) to the wife of Houdini calling back his spirit at a séance (“Houdini”), the album plays out more like a collection of short stories than anything else. Despite her established success at the time of its release, The Dreaming is one of Bush’s least successful albums (“Even though the album made it to number three, the singles . . . tanked,” writes Matthew Lindsey of The Quietus) and yet it offers the first previews of many of the techniques of songwriting and production that would later contribute to her masterpiece.
I resisted The Dreaming as long as I could, but by the end of it all I felt it was more mine than the others. Is this the trajectory of consumerist pop culture engagement? The more we align ourselves with the things we consume, the more dramatic and extreme that alignment becomes.
Track Seven: Night of the Swallow
You know where this story is going: in November 2016, in a rare interview (she is something of a recluse) with Maclean’s, Kate Bush was asked about her 1985 song “Waking the Witch”--which she has long claimed to be about society’s fear of female power and empowerment--in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the U.S. Presidential election.
“We have a female prime minister here in the UK,” she answered. “I actually really like her and think she’s wonderful. I think it’s the best thing that’s happened to us in a long time. She’s a very intelligent woman but I don’t see much to fear. I will say it is great to have a woman in charge of the country. She’s very sensible and I think that’s a good thing at this point in time.”
It’s hard to describe precisely how these words--this wholehearted and even simplistic endorsement of a Prime Minister whose legacy of xenophobic policy was determined before she even assumed office, who has since aligned herself with the far-right, homophobic, xenophobic DUP--made me feel. In the days following my unfortunate discovery of these comments (thanks for nothing, “suggested for you” Google News algorithms), I went through all the stages of grief: first, I pretended I hadn’t read the article, that I hadn’t really taken her words in, but when I tried to revisit my favorite tracks the music soured in my ears like old milk; when I accepted it had happened, I was angry with her; then I bargained, reasoning with myself, “She’s a recluse. Maybe she doesn’t know much about politics. Maybe that wretched Brexit bus never drove past her spooky cliffside house”; then, I wallowed in self-indulgent depression, told people it was over with Kate Bush and me, that all love ends, just as all things end, and this was the last of it. For a time, I no longer spoke of myself as a Kate Bush fan. When asked what had caused the breakup, I explained that she had aligned herself--in the most shockingly uncritical terms--with a platform of xenophobia, and I left it at that.
But there’s a reason all those ex-Beatles fans burned their albums in protest to those Jesus comments, back in the day. I wonder how many of them relapsed, pressed their noses against record-shop windows and conjured up in their minds the afterimage of sounds they had forbidden themselves to indulge in again. I wonder if they lasted as long as I did. I resisted her pull as long as I could.
Track Eight: All the Love
But none of this explains why I grieved. What was this--my fanaticism proving itself unwilling to be uncritical? I return to Strinati’s assertion that postmodernity has eroded identity, that I have incorporated Kate Bush as an aspect of myself, and that to lose faith in her was to lose faith in myself, and so I believed she must be excised utterly… though it ultimately proved impossible to do so.
I think of Strinati’s discussion of mass media as an unsatisfactory alternative to the larger sources of identity and belief that have deteriorated in the postmodern age. If it is true that any relation to television (and mass media in general) occurs “purely as individual viewers cut off from wider and more genuine social ties” (227), then all moments of crisis such as mine--the discovery that one’s individual alignment with the cultural source is faulty, is to some degree based off of the absence of knowledge of the source--must occur alone, in the dark. If it is true that “popular culture and the mass media come to serve as the only frames of reference available for the construction of collective and personal identities” (227), then much more is at stake when a celebrity behaves badly than a neatly categorized loss of faith.
Where Strinati fails, however, is in his conception of community. To him, consumerism is empty and isolating, as indeed was my consumption of Kate Bush. (“Is your record player possessed?” my brother asked me. I wanted to possess her for myself.) But more and more the internet has created spaces for communities to unite around their consumption of mass media. Pop culture critic Henry Jenkins has built a career on the study of fandom as a participatory culture, tracings its origins in Star Trek conventions of the ’60s and ’70s. Fandoms are communities based around, in many instances, mass media and popular culture; fandoms do not merely receive, but rather evolve in response to the sources of identity and belief formation that have produced them. And fandom is becoming more and more a part of life. The internet has not only enabled fandoms’ formation and reified their constituents’ power for participation, but also, Jenkins argues, destigmatized crucial participatory aspects of fandom, drawing it inward from its relegated position of nerdom; Jenkins discusses Web 2.0--with its user-generated content and in-jokes and interactions--as operating according to the machinations of fandom, and even as a fandom in and of itself.
Significantly, the communal aspect of fandom distances it from the traditional meaning of the word fan, with its roots in uncritical devotion. Mass media fandoms are critical. They react to, and often against, their centerpoint. Fandoms’ evolutions are shaped by the values of and relationships between their constituent members. Fandoms make space in which participants can create and respond to material of their own, whether for purposes of entertainment (such as fanfiction, fan art, fan videos), edification (think pieces, reviews, response posts), social engagement (petitions, protests, charitable actions), and community (conventions, collaborations, conversations). Within recent years, fandom has even increased the agency of mass media consumers, not only to criticize the source material, but also to shape it themselves, with film and television creators showing adaptability in the face of negative fan reaction. This is no longer the single soul sitting in front of the television, grappling for identity through static consumerism, which postmodernity imagines. That phenomenon certainly still exists, but fandom cultures permit other, more active, methods of identity formation in relationship to mass media consumerism.
Track Nine: Houdini
This is an age for learning horrible things about beloved figures. This is an age when I look back on the Kevin Spacey movie night I once attended with a cadre of my female friends--we watched K-Pax, of all things, and talked about how great his performance was; clearly, we were in pretty deep--and feel discomfort, feel angry and sad that it ever happened. This is an age when I brace myself for the next big bombshell, when I ask myself despairingly, “What’s next?” Satirical news site Reductress poked fun at this spirit, this fear, in a recent article entitled “Woman Just Hoping a Damning Exposé About Trader Joe’s Isn’t on the Horizon,” in which the titular woman, living in a state of distress and concern about a process of unwelcome and discomfiting enlightenment that seems inevitable, asks of the universe, “Can I just have this one thing?”
But there is a difference between learning that someone famous has done something criminal, something violent, something harmful and unforgivable, and learning that someone supports Theresa May, or in recognizing that a favorite television show has a tendency to sideline its queer and female characters, or in feeling isolated when a comedian makes a joke at the expense of a disenfranchised community. In these latter instances, there is ground to be gained; fandom culture, as Jenkins conceives of it, provides a more powerful source of identity formation than the mere passive consumption of media. “We can be critical of the things that we love,” said Anita Sarkeesian in an interview with Rolling Stone. “That is possible.” When faced with materials that do not align with our own values systems, that threaten to alienate us, we are no longer limited to that binaric response--to continue to consume, or to disavow and disengage--which has typified conceptions of postmodern consumerism. The internet has empowered participatory fandom cultures to attain greater traction and agency, which in turn allows mass media consumers to engage in critical discourse and fight back against the erosion of identity so bleakly characterized by theories of postmodernity.
Track Ten: Get Out of My House
There isn’t a large fandom out there for Kate Bush. Certainly, her scanty performance history (aside from a series of shows at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2014, she has not toured in over 35 years) has inhibited the formation of a concert-going fan community like those surrounding musical acts like Phish or the Grateful Dead, and the infrequency of her public appearances speaks to a rejection of celebrity as we currently understand it, with all its demands of access and insight. While she has her adherents, and is a widely admired and even venerated artist and influence within contemporary music, I suspect most of her fans are private devotees like me, popping her albums on in a quiet moment alone, sipping something bitter while reveling in her ability to ventriloquize so many strange and disparate characters.
Or perhaps none of that is true. After all, there is the odd phenomenon of Wuthering Heights Day, a sort of flash mob event in which fans dressed in long red dresses gather in public parks and mime Bush’s expressive, enigmatic dance moves from the music video for her 1978 hit “Wuthering Heights.” What is this, if not an expressed desire for fandom, for a culture that does not merely consume but also participates?
Maybe if I had donned a red dress, if I had walked out into that field in London, or Sydney, or Dublin, or Berlin, I might have felt that there was a place I could turn when my feelings toward Bush and her work become more complicated than mere consumerist enjoyment. Maybe, after swaying and bowing and pinwheeling my arms in a sea of my red-clad peers, I could have turned to the person next to me and said, “How do you feel about that interview Kate gave about Theresa May?” Maybe we could have processed together, debated productively, discovered ways of channeling our confusion and ambivalence into an act of creation, or some other form of communal engagement. Maybe none of this would have even been necessary. Simply standing there might have been enough.
Bush, Kate. The Dreaming, EMI, 1982.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Marimaa, Kalmer. “The Many Faces of Fanaticism.” ENDC Proceedings, vol. 14, 2011, pp. 29–55.
Strinati, Dominic. An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. London New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.