Friday, September 29, 2006

Lock the Closet

Growing up, I flip-flopped living between Houston and Virginia, with a little upstate New York sprinkled in.  While it always made me wonder if I had a real home to root in, I always appreciated the perspectives it gave me.  In my opinion, the best thing anyone can do to open their mind is spend time in completely different environments.  That may be why I typically bypass tourist attractions while visiting cities to try and get a feel for what everyday life is like there.  One difference I picked up on is that once you leave the South (and I am very particular in that definition, it does not include Virginia, Maryland, Florida, or several other states that were politically affiliated with the Confederacy), being a country fan is akin to being gay.  If you were to meet someone in Virginia or New York, a few months pass by, and they find an Alan Jackson CD in your car, you’ll no longer be the same person to them.  Under that premise, I’ve found myself in similar type of closet over the past 5 years as Dave Matthews fan.

     Somewhere in the past few years, liking the Dave Matthews Band became as divisive a trait as being a Christian.  Years ago, these were things that people could say without a second thought, but today there is a serious stigma that follows.  I can accept that in today’s overly-politicized society, the socially conservative nature of the church can be polarizing.  With DMB’s flock, the answer isn’t as obvious.  Dead Heads and Phish Phans were more amusing than irritating to society, and the serious jam band scene generally shuns Dave Matthews Fans as if they were plague-infested rats.  Matthews hasn’t been a Terrell Owens of music, a Toby Keith, or even a George Clooney.  No one really cares either way about Dixie Chicks fans, it’s usually just the artist or celebrity that takes the backlash if they go Tom Cruise on us.  Dave Matthews himself has made a couple of comments, particularly when performing solo in England, that he himself can get weary of his diehard followers.  Bassist Stefan Lessard has blasted fans on occasion through his online website.  With DMB, the issue lies fairly specifically on the fan base.  

For the longest time, I didn’t really get why, just lumped it into the same category as the aforementioned country closet, and kept things to myself as I traded for concert bootlegs and joined the fanclub for easy ticket access.   Couldn’t wear the T-shirts around in public and made sure I had DMB-free mixes to play in the car if others were riding with me.  Most certainly, when I began to see them in different states, I had to make up a lie about where/why I was really going.  It wasn’t ever done out of shame – it was because I knew full well that I would cease being me to 75% of the people that knew about the DMB interest.  I’d no longer be one of the 5% of Hostonians that love the Rockets, the 0.00003% of America that could pick Mark Price out of a lineup and carry on an hourlong conversation about his career, a science guy with a decent hold on sports medicine and medical imaging, a music and Arrested Development nut, or anything else.  I’d be boiled down to one single label: DMB fanboy.  And call me crazy, but I’d rather not become a label.  That’s the same reason that I decided against joining a fraternity years ago.  

Zip up to present day, when I got a chance to reflect on the state of this fanbase while enjoying a little extended weekend in Virginia with a few college friends and the two-night tour finale in Charlottesville (note – see how I just deflected the DMB part of the visit there?  It’s such a habit at this point).  Seemed like the show to go to; I can never see my friends in the Old Dominion commonwealth enough, Charlottesville would represent a homecoming for the band (they played in town weekly in their formative years, but have only returned once in the past decade), and the tour finales tend to have special songs and guests that you might not otherwise catch in a typical show.  Turns out, tickets for this show were almost exclusively available to fan club members.  For most shows, the percentage is roughly 45% and in Charlottesville it was bumping closer to 80%.  Because of this, I got to get a full up-close look at whether this fan base’s stigma was deserved or not.  Turns out the general public may be letting them off light.

It’s tough to put this in a better way, but the only way to really describe this fanbase in Charlottesville would be to relate it to a Star Trek convention.  It’s hard not to pick them out of a crowd, the girls prefer a hippie-hobo chic, and a large number wear DMB shirts.  Now, most any fanbase wears shirts, but with this crew there’s an underground one-upmanship about the shirt-wearing.  Can you believe I was at this show?  Well, I was going to shows as far back as this tour!  I was one of the select few that had enough money to get myself to this show!  I found where the vendor kiosk was at the arena last night!  I’m wearing this shirt that I made myself that has a personal message to the band on it!  Taking shrewd advantage of this unofficial sport was Miller’s, the well-known C-Ville bar that employed Dave before he was Dave.  Miller’s sold their normally $8 T-shirts outside for $25, and took in a killing while numerous fans took group pictures outside by the door.  Each fan inevitably had the same exact unique thought that wearing a Miller’s shirt would be ultra-credible since it would prove that they knew about Miller’s.  I’m not sure if people make pilgrimages to the old community theaters in Boston that Leonard Nimoy acted in, but this couldn’t be too far off.      

I should also clear up that hippies really aren’t found anymore on the DMB scene.  They certainly used to be, peaking around the time that DMB was a H.O.R.D.E. tour mainstay in the mid-90s.  They seemed to drop out of sight at concerts almost in step with the turn of the century, which could be correlated with the steep rise in ticket prices, the in-pouring of Abercrombie&Fitch-wearing fans, the band members cleaning up, the heavily criticized Everyday album, or any combination of these and other factors.  Either way, they’re gone, and this second generation fanbase remains.  This may be the only time I say it, but it was better with the hippies.  They may have the annoying habit of wandering wherever they please at shows and dancing into your beer, but that group was fairly pure and focused on enjoying the music.  DMB fan 2.0 is a much more competitive sort, and the game seems to be proving oneself the biggest fan in the arena.

The competition is one aspect that I can fully appreciate being a turn-off to those only mildly interested in the band.  After a show I saw not terribly long ago that I thought was fantastic, I turned to a nearby attendee and said, “wasn’t it awesome when they did____?”  I was caught off-guard when he openly scoffed that they’d already done something similar a handful of times during the tour.  It stripped the fun out of it for him, and disallowed the moment from being cool.  This is a fanbase that reads nightly setlists as if they were stock reports, hoard bootlegged shows as they surface as if it were research, and openly pan good shows if they weren’t as “special” as ones that took place the week prior.  Also, don’t mention that you like any Dave song that you may hear on the radio.  The fanbase has a long history of viciously turning on singles, even the ones that were universally loved when they were first debuted on stage.  Only a few singles have escaped this persecution, while stunningly mediocre songs are lauded when they don’t make the cut in the studio following concert road testing.  Then there’s how they interact.

For instance, looking around Charlottesville, it’s clear that they travel in tight cliques, are mildly competitive socially, and some even seem to seek the status of message board celebutantes, not that I necessarily want to say that they’re all high schoolers.  Several go to great lengths to maintain a show-traveling lifestyle that their personal finances can’t keep up with, driving them into debt in the effort to maintain some supposed status.  This takes me back again to the Trek analogy; for many of them, it seems like this setting replaces “regular” friends and social circles back home.  It also makes me think back to Daredevil comic books.  Obvious connection, you know?  Well, comics teach you more as a kid than they get credit for.  In this instance, I remember a Daredevil annual (featuring a Spiderman crossover) containing a subplot of a disillusioned alcoholic realizing that the man he considered his lifelong best friend had never considered him to be anything beyond a drinking buddy.  At the time, it took me awhile to understand why that connection wouldn’t make them friends, but I think that pertains to this Dave following well.  Within the DMB fan(atic) social circles, it seems that there are tons of people mistaking “show buddies” for true friends.  If one of them were to drop out of the scene or if the band were to dissolve this winter, I think most of them would find that it was all ephemeral.  Maybe I’m being presumptuous because I shy away from these circles in preference of seeing shows with friends outside this community.

Like with any band, TV show, sport, or hobby, it seems to me that everyone follows the same basic curve: intrigued( interested( casual fan ( big fan ( fanatic ( critical fan ( cynical/disillusioned fan ( jilted/jaded former fan.  You can hop off directly at any point in the process at first, and the time at each phase completely depends on the individual.  Myself, the timeline would look like mid-1994 (intrigued) ( fall-1994 (interested)( early 1995 (casual)( mid-1999 (big)( mid-2001 (addict/-atic)( late-2002 (critical)( mid-2005, dropping me off at cynical.  The secret to happiness, I suppose, is to ride the big fan phase for as long as possible.  Once you start seeing the circus up close, of course, some of the magic melts away.  Only sports seem to be able to take fans back and forth on that circuit, not surprisingly tied to winning and losing cycles.  What took me over the Dave Matthews fan hill was the regrettable decision in 2002 to join in with the big fan tradition of traveling to see multiple shows on a tour.  Being somewhat still fresh out of college with no understanding of money, I met up with friends and show buddies for a total of 13 concerts and found myself miserably tired of many songs by the end.  It was like forever ruining the taste of pizza by eating so many of them that you were sick for a week.  However, this doesn’t faze others in the same way – they can go to countless shows and love them all.  For them, seeing the Dave Matthews Band across the country each summer is the best possible vacation and it makes them extremely happy.  In the end, that’s all that matters, and everyone has to find it for themselves.  

No friends of Evan that enjoy the Dave Matthews Band were passive-aggressively slandered in the writing of this piece.  It’s those other people he doesn’t think much of, not you.