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Singularity (An Excerpt)

“I Never Tho’t I Would Do That!”1

In the summer of 1896, Alice Drake left her home in Colorado, headed for the coast, and boarded a transatlantic liner for Europe. She was young, moneyed, and attractive enough to provoke the occasional ribald comment from the locals. She was also a serviceable pianist.

The Grand Tour was a rite of passage for many an upper-class American during the nineteenth century. Young aristocrats (and their entourage of cooks, servants, tutors, and hangers-on) would travel a careful itinerary of European historical and cultural sites, journeying for months, or sometimes years. In many countries, the tradition endures to this day as the “gap year,” the “year abroad,” or, in some cases, “She’s still backpacking around Europe without a job? It’s been, like, a year!”

Most parents steered their progeny toward the museums of the Netherlands and the churches and ruins of Italy. Perhaps there would be a stay in Paris for dancing or fencing lessons, or studying at the local art academies. But Alice’s destination was not the ruins of Rome or the antiquities of Pisa. With her friend Gertrude by her side, she breezed through Belgium and on to Germany, making straight for the distant city of Weimar. There, she located the home of composer Franz Liszt, who had died a decade earlier, and talked her way in.

It took two attempts. On the first try, Drake and some of her new friends arrived too late in the afternoon and were forced to content themselves with gawking at Liszt’s conservatory. Undaunted, they started again early the next morning. Drake tracked down the surprised caretaker, a “dear old man,” and slipped him three pfennigs to persuade him to unlock the door.

She played on Liszt’s pianos! She ogled his collection of gifts from the crowned heads of Europe! She prevailed upon the caretaker to autograph the back of a postcard for her (he’d lived with Liszt for twenty-seven years)!

In fact, she spent so long frolicking through the hallowed rooms that her happy little group almost missed their train, rushing from the house and catching it with only minutes to spare. They crowded into the compartment as it chugged out of the station, laughing and breathless, amazed that the caretaker had demanded such a small amount of money for access to such a treasure.

“I never tho’t I would do that!” Drake wrote that night in her diary.

Gaining access to the home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Salzburg  was less satisfying. Although it had been her top priority upon arrival, the neighborhood was of dubious repute, with narrow, crooked streets and badly worn stone stairs. At one point, she had already pushed her way through a front door and made it all the way upstairs before discovering she was in the wrong house. Undeterred, she tried again, but the small third-floor apartment filled with Mozart’s birth cradle and family portraits failed to meet her expectations. Later she wrote, “I don’t enthuse over his music so naturally all this didn’t interest me as much. . .”

At the house of the composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner, things were more difficult still. For the first time, the housekeeper proved reluctant to accept a bribe, and Drake was only allowed as far as the front yard. Later she fumed at how infuriating it was that this would be the one place in Germany where servants seemed immune to tipping.

When not trespassing, Alice Drake spent her time in Germany seeking out musical performances. Her operas of choice were all Wagner, but when his music wasn’t available at the local Philharmonic, she was happy to settle for whatever was playing. “It is great fun to sit right next to some great artist and watch them,” she wrote in December.

She carefully glued mementos from each concert into a scrapbook—playbills, tickets, and snippets of music. Also into the scrapbook went critiques of each production (“Sucha sang. Her voice is gone so she doesn’t charm me in any way whatever.”); gossip about the performers (“I think it is so strange we never heard of Alexander Petchnikoff in America. . . . He has recently married an American girl.”); opinions about the players (“This is the autograph of the director of the orchestra. He isn’t great.”); and descriptions of each opera house, diagrams of orchestral positioning, and a catalog of her mental state leading up to and following each production.

A Musical Diagnosis

Musicomania, an excessive and uncontrollable love of music, was a real and serious pathological diagnosis for late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Americans2. Young Alice Drake was not alone in her obsession; for everyone from clerks to society debutantes, industrialization brought a new approach to experiencing and enjoying what had previously been a relatively small-scale phenomenon. As the post-Civil War economy took hold, the country experienced massive social and cultural change. Urbanization! Railroads! A wage economy where people might spend their money on anything they wanted!

It was a good time to listen to some Wagner. But many enthusiasts thought, why stop there? Listening to a concert was enjoyable, but why not collect its sheet music and programs, carefully mounted in scrapbooks? Or stand for hours below a soloist’s hotel balcony to catch a glimpse of her face? Or attend every performance of a show, returning again and again to critique how the music sounded from each section of the concert hall? Or travel to Weimar, Germany, to sneak into Liszt’s house?

Young ladies forsook their gentlemen callers for the opera. Office workers bankrupted themselves for just one more performance. Music teachers rushed stages to hug musicians. Middle-aged women stood in their seats and screamed with delight. Obviously, something had to be done.

The close of the American Civil War also gave rise to a wave of social reformers intent on doing good. The crusade opposing musicomania, while never reaching the fervor of the temperance or abstinence movements, was still a force to be reckoned with. It was not enough, these activists felt, that a new wave of immigrant culture had already imperiled the purity of truly American music; this new breed of music lover also had no idea how to enjoy it properly. Music should be experienced with self-restraint and a carefully moderated intellectual response, if any at all.

“The concert room was crowded with people clinging to each other like bees,” complained one scandalized Victorian concert attendee. “We saw bonnets torn off,” gasped another. In respectable society, where even the most chaste skin-on-skin contact was practically an offer of engagement, a crowd of sweaty musicomaniacs trampling their neighbors in their enthusiasm would have been horrifying.

And yet this excitement, this visceral freedom, may be a reason why so many Victorians found musical excess an effective outlet for their repressed longings. Music was rebellious. Music was pure, and good, and beautiful, even if (or perhaps explicitly because) outsiders didn’t understand it. Music gave fellow devotees something to discuss and a reason to congregate. Music was something interesting to do.

And in a culture that barely tolerated the concept, music—and the people who made it, the activities surrounding it, and the audience who liked it—was “fun.”

To Fan Is Human

Humans have always experienced an urge to connect, with each other and with themselves. It’s an instinct buried so deep in our brains that we do it naturally, scanning our surroundings, always on the alert for bits of culture that might help us become a “better” us. From an evolutionary standpoint, a group of proto-human hunters who could find something external to bond over were more likely to eat dinner that night, whether it was a shared love of the moon goddess or a shared disdain of those weird sun goddess worshippers on the other side of the hill.

Fandom refers to the structures and practices that form around pieces of popular culture. It’s a very old, very human phenomenon; acting in fanlike ways is probably as ancient as culture itself. History is filled with tales of pilgrimages—traveling to a place, not for its aesthetic or economic value, but simply to feel close to something important. Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Canterbury-bound knight, cook, friar, physician, and other companions are traveling to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. On the other side of the world, the Kii Peninsula of Japan is still crisscrossed with trails worn by pilgrims from a thousand years ago headed to the shrines of Kumano.

The difference between Alice Drake and a modern-day fan camped outside a bookstore for the midnight drop of the next J. K. Rowling book isn’t a question of enthusiasm. It’s one of access.

It’s easy to attribute the modern explosion in fandom to the increased connectivity of a tech-savvy audience, and in terms of scale, this is certainly true. But fandom is predigital. It’s also prephonograph. It’s even preliteracy. Each successive technological gain has made fandom both more accessible and more social, but it has been part of human cultural activity throughout recorded history.

Over the centuries, advances in transportation, personal wealth, leisure time, and autonomy have given fans incrementally easier and more frequent access to the things they love. The Internet removes the final barrier, reducing the effort required to almost to zero. For media lovers, most audio, video, or literary texts can be summoned with a finger tap. For fans of a brand, the Internet allows products to be discovered, compared, and ordered without a visit to the mall. For fans of an activity, finding instructions on how to do it (and others to do it with) is now trivial. For the celebrity-obsessed, the Internet provides a whole universe of access to the private lives of the famous—their creative process, daily routine, opinions, and the occasional naked picture.

The modern term “fan object” is what we now call these centers of emotion and activity, pieces of culture that inspire both loyalty and, more importantly, activity. When finding and being close to a fan object required more energy, the result was a very limited range of audience engagement. Almost all of it relied on simple interactions—reading a book meant traveling to a bookstore or library, choosing a book, bringing it home, and reading it. Perhaps they talked to friends about it. They might read it again at some point. But unless they had access to their own printing press and a lot of spare time, few would try to add to it. No matter how good the book might be, the barriers to joining in meant that it primarily inspired consumption, not participation.

Obtaining a book today can be as simple as clicking the Buy button in the Kindle app. As fans need less energy to acquire and experience fan objects, they have more energy to spend on finding new ways to express their love for them. They have responded to this extra time and energy by doubling down on supplemental activities; a book fan might supplement the cannon—the official fan text—with their own written works of fan fiction. A fan of a movie might make their own trailer.

Any casual Red Bull fan can easily find and purchase the sugary caffeinated beverage they love, so very serious fans might display their ardor by attending an extreme sporting event sponsored by Red Bull while wearing a shirt with its logo. When fans of the Star Wars franchise have finished binge-watching, they have dozens of other points of access: books, toys, comics, fan conventions, drawings, amusement park rides, video games, and costume contests. It’s not just a set of movies, meant to be viewed and perhaps later viewed again. This is a world in which audience members can become fully immersed, one that they can make their own.

And possibly, at least sometimes, it’s a world which they might take over.

The Crowdsourced Superstar

Hatsune Miku is one of the most popular singers in Japan. She tops music charts and performs at venues around the country and internationally. She’s opened for Lady Gaga. She’s starred in commercials for Toyota, Domino’s Pizza, and Google Chrome. A YouTube search for her name returns over a million and a half results (by comparison, “Janet Jackson” only returns just above half a million). Miku has long turquoise pigtails, stands a bit over 5’2″, weighs 93 pounds, and her birthday is August 31. She is a Virgo. She’s sixteen years old. And she’s been sixteen since her birth in 2007.

Miku is a computer program, the mascot for a Vocaloid, a vocal synthesizer that allows users to write songs and listen to them performed in the software’s voice. An add-on piece of software creates music videos by animating a 3D form to go along with the songs.

The company that owns Miku, Japan’s Crypton Future Media, has been careful to provide almost no backstory for its mascot outside of matching her colors to the software interface that inspired her. Occasionally Crypton releases new clothing or a new vocal style (sweeter, perhaps, or more “vivid”), but her entire life has been created by fans.

Crypton has colonized a space that usually sits between the music industry and character merchandising. Both industries are infamous for vigorously protecting their trademarks; control over access to their media and brand symbols such as logos and other imagery is their most valuable asset. Yet Crypton goes out of its way to encourage its customer base to spread Miku and her music as widely as possible.

The result is a fan object created almost entirely by its fan base. Miku’s fans furnish her with stories, drawings, and, of course, songs, which number on Amazon and iTunes in the hundreds of thousands. Some of her fan-created repertoire is played during live concerts, where fans travel to watch her appear via pre-produced video. Miku-licensed products and appearances in video games and other media allow for collections and engagement, and Miku websites allow fans to communicate with each other.

When Crypton released the Miku synthesizer software, the company made a key decision. “[They said] you make the music; it’s your music,” explains Ian Condry, a cultural anthropologist who studies pop culture in Japan. “Theories are espoused within entertainment companies that you need a professional to create these characters, and Miku shows that’s not true.”

Miku was originally a marketing ploy: a mascot on the cover of Crypton’s synthesizer software to help make it more approachable for a mainstream audience. “We were surprised by the speed and scale with which Hatsune Miku was adopted,” explains Crypton’s US/EU marketing manager Guillaume Devigne. “We had to decide quickly how to deal with a huge number of songs, drawings, and videos that were popping up all over the Internet.”

Rather than risk the unpleasant prospect of fighting for legal control against a significant percentage of Japan’s population, the company adopted an unexpected policy of “non-restrictive use for noncommercial purposes,” which allowed fans to create and distribute their creations for free. In American terms, it would be the equivalent of Disney saying to the world: go ahead and make Mickey Mouse do whatever you want him to do, as long as you don’t charge for it. Today, Miku has hundreds of thousands of songs available on YouTube, iTunes, and Crypton’s own platform for distribution, Piapro.jp.

Miku is a map for what interactions would look like if a celebrity had infinite time and reach, and her fans had infinite access: a fan object who is herself constantly re-created by fan tributes. That Miku is digital is almost incidental—if a popular singer such as Taylor Swift had the ability to produce every single song written for her by her own teenaged fans and to make them instantly available to other fans, it’s easy to imagine the craze that would follow. The activities of her fans have made Miku one of the most recognizable Japanese celebrities worldwide. And even though it was the original impetus behind her creation, sales of the software for which she was created are only one of Miku’s many revenue streams.

Fans seem to appreciate her unchangeable nature, the very inhumanity an outsider might find odd. Miku is a safe role model. Amy, a thirteen-year-old fan, put it well in a 2012 interview with Wired: “She’s not going to die. She’s not going to turn into Miley Cyrus, where she gets drunk or something.”

In late 2014, Miku performed on The Late Show with David Letterman. A screen was set up in the area usually reserved for musical guests, and the lights dimmed to make the projected video clearer. She shimmied and kicked her way through “Sharing the World,” a song that is technically in English, although it takes some listening to decipher. At the end of the pre-recorded performance, Letterman walked over to where she was taking her prerecorded bow. She waved and disappeared in a puff of digital smoke. Letterman took it all in stride. “Hatsune Miku, ladies and gentlemen. There she is. All right, that’s fun. It’s like being on Willie Nelson’s bus.”

Having Fans Means Needing Fans

For many fans, finding their fan object is a life-altering event. Many people’s  becoming-a-fan stories tell of how listening to a favorite band helped them beat the blues or come out of their shell, or gave them the confidence to try something new. The language of self-improvement is strong. Some fans use their fandom as a way to develop skills; professional resumes are often filled with leadership or technical abilities honed in the service of a fan object. And some people enjoy the playfulness, the enchantment of inhabiting a space where the usual rules of adulthood are suspended. Fans receive very real-world benefits from their allegiances, with lower rates of anxiety and depression and greater general happiness overall.

Fan objects and their fans can live happily in a state of friendly codependence if expectations are managed. Even with the risk of an occasional porn storm—a Google search for Hatsune Miku without Safe Search turned on is a risky endeavor—today’s audiences are encouraged to experience deeper and deeper levels of engagement with their fan object, beyond the basic, linear text. And this has caused an unexpected consequence: a fan object that builds on its audience needs its audience.

The Star Wars experience would be greatly diminished without the participation of the fans; few of us would go to an empty Star Wars convention. Monday Night Football is far more fun when the audience members use the official #MNF hashtag to discuss the game with each other. Miku does not exist at all without her fan group; she has no songs to sing, no music videos to show, no advertising clout with which to sell Toyotas, no backstory to help connect with potential customers. Her audience is creating for itself, and in doing so, they create the very materials that attract more of itself.

In a world-based story, audience members are as much a part of each other’s experience as the fan text itself. Without the audience’s participation in the story, there may be very little story.

As a culture, we’re used to looking down on fandom. Our biggest critique, like that of the Victorian social reformers, is often a question of quantity. Fans love what they love too much. They watch too much TV. They play too many video games. There’s a proper and improper way to enjoy a Coke—drinking a bottle of Coke is all right, but collecting a million Coke bottle caps and using them for elaborate dioramas is not.

And yet, brand owners are increasingly reliant on these very people to support their businesses.

With the exception of fan objects such as Muku, at the moment, fan objects and their fans still occupy two distinct roles within the world of consumption. There are makers, and there are buyers. The two rarely overlap. But as audience experience shifts away from mere consumption of a fan text and toward influencing, or even adding to it, the space between the audience and the fan object is narrowing.

What will happen as these two finally meet? When materials created by a fan group begin to smoothly feed back into the fan object, without the age-old barriers to entry and access?

We won’t have to wait very long to find out. We are entering a period of convergence, of fandom singularity, where the distinction blurs between fans and fan object, between who is the creator and who is the consumer. This is a future in which the lines of communication between product and buyer go both ways.

This is a future in which everything is part of the canon.


Adapted from Superfandom: How Our Obsessions are Changing What We Buy and Who We Are by Zoe Fraade-Blanar and Aaron M. Glazer. Copyright © 2017 by Zoe Fraade-Blanar and Aaron M. Glazer. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.