Fandom #1: Choosing Your Fighter
Learning to love Joy Division _and_ New Order
Hey everyone, I’m back! I’d like to say I’ve been spending this time making myself a better person, but I’ve mostly been recharging mentally and recuperating from some physical setbacks of the type that happen when you’ve been mostly around the house and then try to get back into the swing of things too quickly. I knew it’d be an adjustment to try and return to a sense of normality, but this wasn’t quite what I had in mind/ But my ailments are getting better, spring is here, and there’s lots to get to (just be careful to not overdo it).
I’ve also been growing grass in a part of my lawn where experts have told me is impossible to grow grass without cutting down half our tree canopy. It’s brought me no small amount of joy to see grass shoots emerge from earth I tilled, seeded, covered with straw, watered, and generally overthought like a new parent. While it might be early to declare victory, my experience brings to mind a question - is there any more powerful motivation than wanting to prove someone wrong when they’re telling you what you can or can’t achieve?
As I mentioned last time, I’m reconfiguring this newsletter to be more like a long-form podcast, organized into “seasons” around a specific theme.
The theme I’m going to start with is fandom. Most of us are fans of something - a band, a sports team - or even a brand or a restaurant. Our fandom offers us connection and the comfort of belonging - and sometimes the thrill of standing out.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to dig into these relationships and what they can tell us about ourselves.
Deadheads, Rush Fans, and Goths
For many, if not most of us - our initial gateway into fandom revolved around sports or music, often passed down from our parents or absorbed from peers. Music was formative for me, so I’m going to start there.
When I talk about music’s influence on my life, it’s partly because it represents my own personal journey from one of a crowd to one of a kind - that experience that’s so intertwined with adolescence.
My high school years began with me obsessing over classic rock bands like Pink Floyd & Led Zeppelin and ended with me exploring music that took inspiration from punk and early New Wave. Not necessarily in the way they sounded, but in their viewpoint and the way they created their music.
In the late 80’s - as I started to realize how small my suburban Ohio town really was, I was drawn to bands like The Cure, R.E.M., Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, and Joy Division - music that seemed to come from the same world of isolation and pain that was so familiar to me.
At the time, I put so much weight into the bands I would align myself with. It felt like there was a lot at stake. Looking back, it was really about identity and wondering to myself if I wanted to be the kind of guy who listened to (fill in the blank). The Grateful Dead were thought of as a band with fans who were reluctant to let the 60’s go. Rush fans were developing such a reputation of being argumentative know-it-alls, they practically became a meme of late 80’s internet boards. A lot of bands I listened to were associated with goths back then - a lifestyle that favored lots of black apparel and seemingly embraced all things dark and morbid.
These days there’s a concept of choosing your fighter (along with the related concept of choosing your class) - born from games in which you had to select an avatar to represent the version of you that would inhabit the game’s world. The choices could signal style and identity, and could also speak to values. There is no right or wrong choice, but your choice can literally define you.
It’s a durable and translatable concept, which has spawned many a meme - such as this one from Julia Burnham, who linked email sign-offs to Dungeons & Dragons alignment on Twitter in 2019 before apparently deleting her account:
And I think the idea fits in well with the world of music. Take the Beatles’ John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Do you identify with Lennon - the intellectual anti-establishmentarian? Or McCartney - the crowd-pleaser with a prodigious gift for pop melodies? It’s a duality so classic that there is literally an entire documentary of celebrities choosing their fighter in that band.
In those days (and still, if I’m being honest), my preferred fighter in the extended Beatles universe is the Fluxus artist (and Lennon’s partner) Yoko Ono. But the dichotomy that’s been on my mind of late is Joy Division and New Order.
How It Started / How It’s Going
Earlier this year, I was asked to write about New Order by a client of mine. As you can read, I’ve come to have a lot of respect for the band - after contending with my own personal feelings about them, which stemmed from their origin as the band Joy Division.
If you know anything about that preceding band, it might be that its talismanic leader, Ian Curtis, took his own life just before they released their second album. That’s not something I include as a macabre detail - it’s something that cannot, for better or worse, be separated from how fans of the band perceive it. The pain that Curtis felt is front and center in his lyrics, and in the closed emotional space of Joy Division’s music.
The remaining members of the band would add another member and carry on as New Order, quickly discovering their own voice. Yet some of Joy Division’s fans remained encumbered by their history, even though New Order became a great band on its own merits. For the longest time, that included me - I viewed them as oppositional to their predecessor.
Part of that is because - more than any band I can think of, Joy Division and its music _is_ the idea of its leader - fixed in Curtis’ words, music, and a life that ended too soon. And it’s an idea that has a strong pull - especially for people who are coming to understand how confusing life can be (such as teenage me).
Case in point - “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the band’s best known song, Curtis sings about love from the viewpoint of a relationship’s end - how resentment and distance create alienation.
The lyrics aren’t particularly artful, but it feels like a universal message that few bands I knew of talked about in that way. As much as I loved mid 70’s Pink Floyd, it was hard for me to relate to their songwriter’s distinctly British viewpoint of growing up in the shadow of World War 2’s toll on the country and England’s uniquely repressive grammar school experience.
But feeling alone and disconnected? I’m pretty sure everyone on this planet has felt that way one time or another - just ask Billie Eilish, whose 2019 debut album about “depression and suicidal thoughts and climate change and being the bad guy,” has sold 4 million copies to date.
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a marked contrast to New Order’s 1986 hit, “Bizarre Love Triangle” - a song that captures a moment of falling in love, the eager anticipation of hearing “I love you” (its title is typically obtuse for the band - no love triangles in sight). The song is set against a sugary synthesizer riff that felt as uplifting as the song’s message. While both songs had their club appeal, the club you imagined while listening to them were very, very different.
They’re both great songs, but one of them really taps into something raw - there’s something about Curtis’ vulnerability that gets people on his side in his music. So it’s easy to imagine his fans wanting to protect him by protecting his legacy. And what more reflexive way to do that than to look down on the band that left his musical vision behind as they got on with their own lives?
And on a more personal front - I have to admit that part of my rejection of New Order is because I always thought of them as a band popular with affluent Asian Americans: The Los Angeles-born playboys who spent hundreds of dollars on table service in Korean clubs during the summer my parents convinced me to go to a summer school there. The frat boy in my freshman dorm who wore glasses with clear non-prescription lenses because he “liked the look.” They were my version of Crazy Rich Asians.
Me? My family didn’t have that kind of money and those weren’t my values. If I was predisposed to dislike New Order, this gave me a reason - I’d hate to be thought of in these ways.
In retrospect, I was being silly. I don’t think anyone would have mistaken me for the Asian American stereotype I had in my mind. And what a musical artist does later doesn’t invalidate what they did before. I don’t know what I would have had New Order do - retire from what they love to do?
And the two songs I described above as polar opposites? They’re each fueled by a catchy synthesizer hook. There’s a reason why they were both hits. Going back to the Beatles, choosing either McCartney or Lennon looks past the fact that they made each other better songwriters.
But this idea that choosing to like one thing means you hate another thing feels embedded in the concept of fandom and identity in a fundamental way. During the mid-90’s UK rock revival known as Britpop, fans were invited by the UK media to self-identify themselves as fans of Blur or Oasis. The bands weren’t really musical groups, they were avatars. Were you a London-born middle class art school graduate or a Salford-born working class lad who was one failed single away from stealing cars for a living?
What I’m describing may seem hopelessly teenage, but I have a sneaking suspicion that for most people the music we loved as kids remains the music we love as adults. If you have a favorite band, or a go to album when you’re deep in your feels or full of elation - when did you discover it? I bet for a lot of people it was in those formative early adult years.
To the extent we started to stake out our identity with these choices, I wonder if they somehow affect the way we see the world. In 70’s terms, if you chose rock over disco, are you taking a stand - no matter how deliberate - about the way you want the world to look?
More on that idea next time.
Your weekly moment of zen
Yoko Ono, “Mirror Piece” (1964)