Fandom is an ugly, messy, partisan, tribal business. Pledging allegiance to a team, sport, film, TV show, actor or band is tantamount to drawing a magic circle around oneself, and becoming involved in the fan network wrapped about your chosen totem of desire can invoke all kinds of trouble.
I’m no football fan, as readers of my most recent posts should now be well aware. But I know fandom in all it’s perverse glory, and observers of human behaviour have a petri dish seething with activity to enjoy. I’ve become interested in the way the fans, most specifically the England fans, are acting during the World Cup – or rather, how they’re being told to behave and how they’re taking that advice.
The flags are everywhere. That simple red cross on white has become a unifying banner under which lesser tribes can unite for a few weeks. Notice how a lot of the England flags in the stadiums of South Africa will have local team names emblazoned across the middle (I saw a Reading one the other day, which gave me a bright shock of recognition) making the point that there are many tribes gathering under the one flag. Old enemies will set aside their grievances for a while in order to do all they can to aid the common good. It all starts to look almost medieval – the face paint, the battle horns, the war-chants. It’s the old SF saw of war being subsumed into sport, with corporations as the only true winner. Makes me want to watch Rollerball again. (The good one. The James Caan one.)
And then there’s the whole ENGLAND EXPECTS bit. Churchill, Shakespeare and Blake all have their finest words and phrases mashed up as rancid headline fodder. Wayne Rooney is wrapped in a flag and plastered over the front page of the Sun on the day of the England-Algeria game. The headline declares “OUR FINEST HOUR.” The fans are given to EXPECT GREAT THINGS, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The sad fact that our team has not lived up to expectations for forty-four years is glossed-over, hand-waved away. This time, it’ll be different.
Which is, to my mind, a lot like the Star Trek franchise. Endlessly fussed and fossicked over, each new iteration and re-invention held up as the one, the return to greatness, forget all that other rubbish, remember 1966, here we go, make it so. The fans dress like their idols, wear all the shirts, put on the face-paint (admittedly, for Star Trek fans this is a bit more complex than two red slashes on a white ground) and, somewhere in the back of their minds, get ready for disappointment.
I guess the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot is then akin to England winning the World Cup. People didn’t quite know how to react when it turned out to be quite good. It was almost a shock to be confronted with something that didn’t look tired and old. Delight was mixed in with genuine surprise.
We can therefore compare the reaction to England’s performance against Algeria to a crowd who, instead of seeing the Abrams Trek, were confronted with an episode of season three of Voyager. Lame, uncertain, confused and above all BORING.
Rooney’s reaction to the boos that rang out around the pitch at the end of the nil-nil draw say a lot about the England Expects attitude, and how easy it is for an exalted figure to face the wrath of his foes. England Expects cuts both ways. We are couched to see our team as conquering heroes, incapable of defeat. When we are instead presented with a fumbling and inadequate display, we are unlikely to be in the mood to listen to excuses about climate, the kind of ball that’s being used, or the distractions of thousands of trumpets honking in B-flat. These are all actually perfectly legitimate reasons for poor performance, and for all they get paid, the England players are not superhuman. However they have been led to expect unwavering and above all uncritical support, especially during international matches. The press, the management, the PR, all geared towards making them feel unbeatable. They are not here to empathise with fans who have sacrificed an awful lot to be with their team in South Africa this summer. As far as the team is concerned, the fans are simply there, as they are always there, and their role in the game is to cheer. If they don’t – well, things start to fall apart.
The discovery that the object of your adoration is not only human, but not a very nice human is one that most fans will encounter at some point. Whether it be a brusque refusal for an autograph, or acting counter to the way the fan thinks that you should, the actors, sportspersons and musicians on which so much adulation is stacked are in constant danger of royally pissing off a chunk of their following. When they do, they seem surprised and a little hurt. It simply isn’t done for the fans to show disappointment. This comes out of a profound misunderstanding of the whole relationship. The fans do not know the star. The star cannot know the fans. They are involved in a parasitic relationship, fulfilling a need rather than entering into any kind of deeper understanding of each other. Not that either side would encourage it. That would defeat the object of the agreement. The gods need their worshippers as much as the worshippers need their gods.
The internet has, of course, intensified the whole scenario. Fans can now talk to each other, organising and gathering into communities as rich and diverse as their focus is narrow and intense. Many tribes and viewpoints under one banner, each putting aside their individual differences. For a while, at least, until someone says something they shouldn’t and the battle lines get drawn up. Occasionally the object of devotion will appear. This would be akin to royalty strolling into a tavern for a tankard with the proles. It’s all very exciting, but doesn’t feel llke a genuine gesture of kinship. It’s like drinking with the Prince Of Wales. It would get real uncomfortable real fast. It’s a rare celebrity that has the ability to communicate with their fans directly and without corporate bullshit. Amanda Palmer springs to mind, and probably Wil Wheaton (although he’s carved out a name for hisself above and beyond the whole Star Trek thing, becoming a bona fide geek celeb). But these guys use the connection as much as it uses them, building a fan base and therefore cashflow out of this open relationship. Amanda especially works ferociously hard at this, building a career out of guerilla gigs and selling her records online.
The mainstream, and footballers in particular, don’t do it at all. They have no need. The huge online footie communities rage and conspire as usual, but have the ability to vent their frustrations in a direct and vocal means at their objects of devotion, every Saturday at grounds around the country. Football chants are the most immediate and to-the-minute way for fans to communicate how they feel straight at the players, at full volume. Any gaffe, affair or poor run of play will be met with incisive commentary and vicious humour. You simply won’t get any of that on the Twilight boards. Whether the footballers get a lot of what’s being said is another question.
Fandom, then, is an abusive relationship in which both sides are using each other, lashing out and making up in equal part, yelling at each other without really understanding what the other side has to say. At the same time it’s a focus for kinship, friendship, creativity and community. The boards are places where you can be unafraid of your likes, your urges. They are places where you can discover that you are not only not alone, but there are thousands if not millions of people around the world who think like you, like the same bands, and have the same picture on their wall or as a computer desktop. Fandom is, was, and always shall be, regardless of the figure that is praised.
I’ve used a lot of phrases like “worship”, “devotion” and “idol”, and it’s deliberate. The parallels between religion and fandom are strong. They both focus on unknowable, fantastic creatures who move in rarified circles beyond and above those of the people that follow them. They promise much, and rarely deliver. But no matter how badly or indifferently they are treated, the fans will always be there, always loyal, always devoted.
Up until England get knocked out tomorrow, anyway…
(And look, while we’re on the subject. The phrase Come On, England has a comma in it. Otherwise, it’s an exhortation to ejaculate on a field in Kent. It’s the LANGUAGE, people! Let’s use it like we know it!)