Critically assess fandom in popular music as a strategy for gaining control over consumption Essay

During his career, Elvis Presley sold more than 500 million records and grossed over $180 million at the box office. Since his death in 1977, the star’s sales have actually increased. He still has over 400 fan clubs and a vast loyal following.

One can point at a variety of plausible explanations for his popularity after death; the man was a musical and lyricist genius; he was extremely fortunate to break into the music industry when a gap in the market was more than available; he was young and incredibly good-looking; and he was marketed to the American (and world) public as a person to be idolized, by men or women (Stromberg,1990:p12). It is more than likely that all of these explanations are valid in helping Elvis become one of the most popular, revered music stars of his, or any other, generation. However, because of his natural talent and handsome features, ‘Elvis the marketing tool’ was the perfect instrument to attract mass consumerism through gaining popular appeal, or more acutely, a serious case of fandom.

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This essay uses a number of examples to look in detail at the relationship between fandom and consumption in the music industry, in particular the role and influence that celebrities have on their fans, and to what extent this can deceive the enthusiast into buying products related to their favourite star. The essay will begin with a definition of fandom, and cite any possible deviations that do not necessarily point to a distinctive link between fandom and consumption. A basic example of how stars can be marketed effectively and hence create mass consumption will then be given, followed by an analogy of how and why fans are influenced in this way. The essay will also focus predominantly on female pop stars, (in particular the Spice Girls and Madonna), who have begun to come to the fore of the music industry in the last twenty years and are becoming more and more entwined with the marketing and consumerist side of business

Fandom can be defined or explained as the state of being a fan or all that encompasses fan culture and fan behaviour in general, or the study of fans and fan behaviour. www.sopranosforum.com/press/what_is_fandom.htm

Fandom and stardom are inherently linked together; they could not be analysed in isolation from one another because the rock or pop star could not exist as such without the adulation of the fan, or the capital that the fans bring in through their consumer tastes.

Fandom, in many respects, must be earned; not just by the artist, but also by the marketing group behind him/her who need to decide on a number of important criteria. If one concentrates on an emphasis towards fanaticism and adulation, a certain degree of talent is needed. Although there has been a number of cases where a celebrity has reached the top 40 in the UK charts, when it seems to the uneducated ear that there is little talent at their disposal, this does not necessarily encompass fandom. Indeed, it is important to distinguish between the them. For instance, Craig Phillips from Big Brother crawled into the top 10 in December 2000, but this was more to do with his fifteen minutes of fame on the reality TV show as well as the cause that he was trying to raise money for (his disabled cousin Joanna Harris). He did not primarily rely on a degree of fanatical consumption for the record to sell. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/1224664.stm

An excellent example of how fandom is incorporated into influencing consumption is the phenomenon that was the Spice Girls. The Spice Girls were a British manufactured all-female pop group that had an unprecedented success in the global popular music market of 1997. Their first single “Wannabe” was the biggest selling debut single ever and was number one in the charts of 32 countries (Dibben, 1999:p333). Their first disc (Spice Girls) sold over 50 million copies within 1 year.

Pre-adolescent girls worldwide are admirers of the five “Spices”: Emma (“baby spice”), Geri (“ginger or sexy spice”), Melanie B. (“scary spice”), Melanie C. (“sporty spice”), and Victoria (“posh spice”). The girls enthusiastically listen to the group’s latest hit disc or tape, watch their video-clips on MTV, attend to every detail about them in the gossip columns of their magazines and newspapers, hang their posters above their beds, wear their T-shirts, watches and wrist bands, collect their memorabilia, bind their school books in Spice Girls wrapping paper, and talk about them among themselves (Lemish 1998:p145). The target audience not only consumes ‘spice-girl’ brandished products, but is manifested through consumerism, their lives becoming influenced perceivably through the actions of the girl-band.

The five “Spices” suggest five different personality-types, and five different definitions of femininity. They therefore appeal to a variety of teenage girls (and boys) through taking on different appearances, attitudes and personalities….. a brilliant marketing strategy that broadly widens the target audience for this particular brand of popular music. They advertised a variety of different products, from Impulse fragrance to Pepsi to performing songs and raising money (with their profiles) for Comic relief. They were one of the few groups in the world who could put their name to almost any product without being stereotyped or labelled. Their relationship with the fans and who they represented was the key to their marketing success, controversially more so than their musical talent. (Lemish,1998;p160)

The Spice Girls’ friendship is clearly framed as being that of an adolescent nature. Ample examples exist in the movie, newspapers and book photos, presenting the “Spices” in typical girls’ bedroom scenes. They are sprawled on bed covers or stretched out on rugs, lightly caressing each other, having pillow fights, sharing secrets, trying on each other’s clothes, gossiping about boys, examining their appearances, teasing each other, engaging in “compare and contrast” rituals, grooming one another. In one such scene in the movie, they are in their bathrobes as if at a sleepover, and in another scene they are out together in the dark menacing woods, searching for a good place to pee, as girls might do when camping out.

The Spice Girls’ marketing, as is often the case with other artists, is to establish themselves in such a way that their musical and visual image transcends specific genres or lifestyles. In the case of pre-teenage pop, the emphasis has always been on “fun, energy, glamour and dream material” (Negus 1996:p77). However, the extreme popularity of the group (and many new female groups inspired by them all over the world) may well reflect something beyond those conventions.

MTV introduced a different variety of female images from familiar representational forms of the plastic arts or of Hollywood movies. In reviewing the development of female expression in MTV, Lewis (“Gender Politics and MTV”) suggests that the ’80s exposed young audiences to women performers through “female-addressed videos designed to speak to and resonate with female cultural experiences of adolescence and gender” (1990:p109). Madonna (with “Like a Virgin”), Cyndi Lauper (with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), and Tina Turner (with “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”) are the more pronounced among them.

As Tapper and Black suggest, female musicians have been producing video-clips that differ on a number of dimensions from those of male performers, such as: musical genre, sexual appeal, objectification of women, presence of violence, opposition to authority. These differences appeal to women seeking their own identity; this time the music and lyrics is the deciding factor in creating a bond between star and fan. Therefore, millions of records are going to be bought by the millions of fans who believe that Madonna, or Tina Turner, or Cyndi Lauper are thinking along the same lines as they are. The fact that these are beautiful women who often have started out with little or nothing also has a major influence, no doubt about it; the whole package creates an unstoppable, marketable force.

Indeed Kaplan argues that Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” marks girls’ unique space as being related to bedroom culture, magazine consumption, clothing styles and the like, through resisting dominant culture. Madonna, a pre-teen idol, has received much academic attention, as a performer who bases her career on challenging conventional perceptions of femininity, combining seductiveness with independence, and articulating a desire to be desired.

“Madonna’s popularity is a complexity of power and resistance, of meaning and counter meaning, of pleasure and struggle for control” (Kaplan, 1996:113). Her image serves as “a site of semiotic struggle between the forces of patriarchal control and feminine resistance, of capitalism and the subordinate, of the adult and the young” (Schwichtenberg, 1993:97). However, as Kaplan suggests, Madonna’s challenge to patriarchy still remains inherently constrained through her focus on the female appearance as being crucial to identity. Her feminine identity is pivotal to the consumerist values that she promotes.

Another influence that stars can incorporate over to their devoted fans in order to raise consumption is by openly showing their similarities and humble beginnings to the public. Stars who gleefully live lifestyles of conspicuous consumption appear to demonstrate the other world’s existence. Those that appear “ordinary” become special mediators because they begin at the same starting point as the rest of us, therefore people can relate to the feeling of elation of essentially, ‘striking gold’. For example, by getting rich quick, blaming luck, and staying loyal to his humble Southern roots, Elvis Presley implied that a life of luxury is also within our grasp. Because he brings the possibility of transformation closer to a general audience, Elvis has become an especially potent mediator and an excellent form of stimulating consumption through stardom. (Lecture Notes, 2003)

This ‘special relationship’ is essential in order for the process of fandom to succeed in providing a strategy of gaining control over the market. Often, we become devoted to a particular person or group not only because they enjoy the music or the new trends being displayed, but also because we sense a bond between ourselves and the star(s): a connection or similarity that makes us believe the musicians we worship are not too dissimilar to us. There are many examples of this: Peter Stromberg (1990:p14) suggested that fans understand problems like Elvis’s pill addiction as a sign that he was just as mortal as they are, so his fortune feels closer to hand: “The minor set-backs that do occur even in paradise–divorce, addictions, at times even suicide–are fascinating because they reveal these celestial creatures to be just like us.”

Fans are not simply materialists who celebrate the monetary value of their spoils. Neither are they fetishists who confuse the meaning of each commodity with the labour involved in its production. Their particular interest in commodities comes from a belief that consumption will change the way they feel. The thrill of trying extravagant goods and services is deferred and included in the fantasy of stardom: buying a CD or video gets you closer to the star, and being closer brings you nearer to the luxury goods which will make you happy. The fantasy of being a star, or just simply being with one, lets each fan imagine the emotional benefits of a high-consumption lifestyle. In many respects, it is an expensive form of escapism from reality. The use of fandom may be an abuse of devotion on the marketing guru’s behalf’s, but at least it provides a pleasure to every fan who ever felt a bond between themselves and a celebrity.

Bibliography

Dibben, Nicola. “Representations of Femininity in Popular Music.” Popular Music 18 (1999): Routledge

Kaplan, E. Ann. “Feminism/Oedipus/Postmodernism: The Case of MTV.” Turning It On: A Reader In Women and Media. Ed. Helen Baehr, and Ann Gray. London: Arnold, 1996.

Lemish, Dafna. “Spice Girls’ Talk: A Case Study in the Development of Gendered Identity.” Millennium Girls: Today’s Girls and Their Cultures. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

Lewis, Lisa A. Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Differences. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990.

Negus, Keith. Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. London: Polity Press, 1996.

Schwichtenberg, Cathy, ed. The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities and Cultural Theory. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1993.

Stromberg, Peter. “Elvis Alive?: The Ideology of American Consumerism.” Journal of Popular Culture 24:3 (1990): Routledge

http://www.poppolitics.com/articles/2002-06-24-fandom.shtml 4/12/03

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/1224664.stm 4/12/03

www.sopranosforum.com/press/what_is_fandom.htm 4/12/03