Fanservice and new music

Darcy has introduced me to the term “fanservice” with two provocative posts – here and here – on its application to music.

I’m not talking about the gratuitous panty-shot variety of fanservice. I’m talking about the impenetrable, continuity-heavy storytelling-fanservice that plauges mainstream superhero comics — the barrage of needlessly insular and obscure references that make it impossible for the average reader to pick up an issue of a big-label comic book and have the slightest fucking clue what is going on. This kind of incomprehensibility isn’t just a side-effect of long-form serial storytelling. It is deliberate — a conscious strategy to reward hardcore comics readers who come to the table with an encyclopedic knowledge of the last 20 years of comics continuity, and to drive away everyone else.

[N]obody except the most hopeless, pathetic mouth-breather actually thinks the preponderance of fanservice in superhero comics is respectable or defensible. But when the exact same variety of insular, exclusionary, pointless pandering to the the in-crowd goes on in our favorite music (jazz, improv, new music, indie rock, hiphop, whatever), the people being pandered to — that would be you know, us — tend to get their backs up whenever anyone suggests that there might be something unsavory about circling the aesthetic wagons, or wondering whether practices that are deliberately designed to alienate intelligent, sophisticated, open-minded listeners from outside your little scene are really such a good idea.

And:

Fanservice … [is] a marker or signifier that serves no legitimate aesthetic purpose, but is there to stroke those in the in-crowd while simultaneously alienating even the most sophisticated and open-minded newbies.

I would cautiously agree. In-jokes and so on have their place, but when they are used as a way of segregating the musical experiences of ‘real’ fans from everyone else then that is a problem. I don’t know the comic scene anything like well enough to know if the cases Darcy describes there are true, but assuming that they are then it sounds like a sort of aesthetic apartheid. The question is: is “the exact same variety of insular, exclusionary, pointless pandering to the the in-crowd” going on in music? At the risk of being the first to circle the aesthetic wagons, I’m going to try to answer that question.

In support of the theory, Darcy lists some examples of musical fanservice:

• ensemble orchestrations of classic jazz solos (Supersax, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, etc). The only example I can think of where this actually works is Hal Overton’s chart on “Little Rootie Tootie” from the Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall record.

stopping the opera dead in its tracks just so the tenor can sing nine more high C’s.

Mamma Mia!, We Will Rock You, Across The Universe, and every other jukebox musical ever.

Dread Zeppelin, Hayseed Dixie, Is It Rolling Bob?, Gold Sounds, etc.

• all of the hoary rituals surrounding classical concertgoing — the no-clapping-between-movements rule, the taboo against speaking to the audience, the ridiculous tuxedos, various and sundry other bits of formalized pandering.

playing the head to “Donna Lee” displaced by one beat.

the spiteful parody of Shostakovich 7 in the fourth movement of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which is never actually funny. (Okay, almost never. But it’s still a nasty bit of fanservice that seriously detracts from my enjoyment of what is otherwise one of my favorite Bartók works.)

that new Weezer video.

• Milton Babbitt. “The Composer As Specialist” (aka “Who Cares If You Listen”) is essentially one long defense of fanservice.

Now, this covers a pretty wide territory of musical activity – not just in terms of genres, but in terms of what is done to and with music in the (ahem) service of fanservice. In the Weezer video, for example, pretty much the entire content is fanservice – it’s nothing but refs to YouTube memes. If fanservice is about unnecessary, titillating interpolations into the central story, then where are we if those interpolations are the story (or, rather, there is no story but the interpolations)? The video looks to me like a web-geeky version of Sonic Youth’s Teenage Riot video from back in the day. That basically spins out a bunch of visual refs to assorted rock, alternative and jazz musicians. What the Weezer and Sonic Youth examples have in common is that the videos fit the basic aesthetic of the bands: self-conscious nerdiness and alternative rock historiography. Yes, there’s a degree of onanistic gratification (to quote another – equally knowing – Sonic Youth track: “Holy shit, it’s Sonny Sharrock!”), but what we see is also, without wishing to overstate the case, aesthetically honest and consistent with the band’s general approach. What you see and hear is basically what the band is about: it’s not unreasonable to ask that your listener engage with that context on some level at least. Some Sonic Youth is quite fanservice-y – quite a lot of the Master-dik and Ciccone Youth records fall into that category – but we should distinguish this from a confident and coherent artistic presentation.

The ‘Teenage Riot’ video is the canon according to Sonic Youth – which further recalls the famous Nurse With Wound list. Now, here we are somewhere interesting, because around here fanservice for a clique of listeners who are in the know starts to break down into a Baedecker guide for listeners who would like to know more. The NWW list invites rather than excludes; somewhere between Weezer’s ‘Pork and Beans’ video and here we have crossed from exclusion to invitation.

The majority of Darcy’s suggested examples of musical fanservice are to do with quotation or reference, with the extraction of a theme or other musical element from its usual situation and its gratuitous placement somewhere new. If we are to have a taxonomy of musical fanservice, it seems to me that we should be able to distinguish firmly where quotation or reference is self-serving, and where it is musically valid. If Orlando di Lassus uses a secular melody as the cantus firmus to a Mass setting, is that fanservice? It’s a nod and a wink to those in the choir who know their drinking songs, but does he get away with it aesthetically because his polyphonic development of the melody creates a new, holistic context that forgives the forced transplantation of material from one genre to another? Does he give that drinking song a new, musically valid, home? And does that stop it being fanservice or does it merely distract us (enough)? Is it different if he had used a liturgical melody instead?

Two things define fanservice, I think (and I write as someone who only today started reading about the term): its disruptive quality, that it intrudes upon an artistic continuity for the purpose of easy gratification; and the set theory model of “people who listen to this” and the subset “people who really get this”. The former is very difficult to pin down in music – much harder, I would say, than it is in comics for example – because the concepts of musical continuity and disruption are both extremely slippery. That said, Darcy does include a couple of extreme examples – the operatic high Cs, eg – that sound plausible. For this reason Lassus, I think, is OK.

I would very strongly resist, however, the idea that an entire aesthetic can be fanservice-like: here the sets of “people who listen to this” and “people who really get this” would tend to be the same; especially over time. This is where I disagree with Darcy’s assessments of improv and new music as fanservice-like. If people are listening to your music because of what it sounds like, is it fanservice to keep playing them that music? Or are you just remaining true to yourself?

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9 comments

  1. I have to say I find the term ‘fanservice’ as he defines it to be really … problematic, I guess (and not in line with the wikipedia either). His chief dig at comics is because of their serial nature. The same thing could be said for an episode desperate housewives, or part of the Ring Cycle, or any number of serials. Requiring every part of every creative product, taken out of context, to be immediately accessible and understandable isn’t, for me, a reasonable thing to do at all. Or even requiring that there always be a clear, delimited ‘work’ that the viewer can self-satisfactorily say “oh yes, I understand that fully”, seems to be a bit anal.

  2. I agree there’s a bit of a step between the two uses of the term, increpatio, but I don’t find it quite as problematic in theory – comics are serial, but I don’t think every new reader is expected to start at Batman no.1 are they? Beyond a certain serial dimension (say, to the start of the current story), Batman just becomes ‘a body of work’ and therefore relatively unserial – like a composer’s output. I think?

  3. Thanks for the link, Tim.

    If fanservice is about unnecessary, titillating interpolations into the central story, then where are we if those interpolations are the story (or, rather, there is no story but the interpolations)?

    In pretty dodgy territory, I would argue. (Your post nicely encapsulates why I’m generally not a big fan of Sonic Youth, either.)

    If Orlando di Lassus uses a secular melody as the cantus firmus to a Mass setting, is that fanservice?

    The passage of time affects the perception of fanservice, and that can work in both directions.

    For instance, jazz musicians covering tunes from the Great American Songbook didn’t start out as fanservice, because it was fundamentally inclusive — everyone knew those songs. Now, it’s become somewhat fanservice-y, because in many cases, only jazz fans know those songs, they only know them at a remove, from jazz reinterpretations (certainly not the Original Broadway Cast versions!), and the reason they like hearing them is so they can compare your solo on them to the classic jazz versions they have in their record collections.

  4. [quote]Beyond a certain serial dimension (say, to the start of the current story), Batman just becomes ‘a body of work’ and therefore relatively unserial – like a composer’s output. I think?[/quote]

    There is some overall intended continuity, but sure on the big scale there are definite episodes; equally though there is an overall progression: characters do have memories (while at the same time there’s a sort of timelessness to everything).

  5. “the reason they like hearing them is so they can compare your solo on them to the classic jazz versions they have in their record collections.”

    I totally see why a jazz musician might suspect that other jazz musicians are only into GAS renditions because of their glosses on earlier soloists’ work. I always just assumed that people liked those tunes because they are good tunes. Maybe I’m missing the trees – disdainful, elitist trees – for the forest.

    I also want to point out that I have never known anybody, ever, for any reason, who included “fanservice” (a term I understood to have a much narrower definition, restricted more or less to anime cheesecake and questionable pictures of Kitty Pryde) with the goal of driving away listeners. I have never known anybody who did ANYTHING with the goal of driving away listeners. Bartok, Babbitt, et. al. made the omelettes they felt they had to make and some eggs got broken, but it’s not like they at at their desks and wondered how to motivate ignorant listeners to stay home.

  6. “Fanservice” most often refers to cheesecake, but it does have a much wider definition. The Wikipedia article has sections on “Cameo” and “Homage” that are closer to the usage I’m talking about — for instance, they cite the Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno cameo in the (Ang Lee) Hulk movie as an example of fanservice.

    And I meant it when I said that “The Composer As Specialist” is an unreconstructed defense of fanservice. His entire argument is that ordinary listeners are not qualified to have legitimate reactions to his work. He absolutely intends to exclude such listeners, and says so in no uncertain terms:

    And so, I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition [emphasis mine]. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.

  7. I suppose the TV show LOST falls in to the fanservice category: it’s a complex story with tons of references both to itself and outside sources that’s almost impossible to jump in to at this point (end of 4 seasons) and have it make sense unless you go back to the beginning and catch up. You’re either on the bus or you’re not and I don’t think that’s a problem; neither do I think it bad form for us obsessives to be impatient with newbies who barge in to message boards and act all huffy when we say “Yeah, we knew that….2 seasons ago“.

    I’ve had the experience of being an outsider to a clique: the electronic dance music scene here in Los Angeles in the mid-90’s. I was a good 15 years too old for one thing and I came from the most commercial of angles: Chemical Brothers, Orbital, that sort of thing. I got some really heavy “We don’t want you here” vibes thrown my way, but I just ignored ‘em, learned from the old-timers and most importantly, shut my fucking cake hole so as not to embarrass myself with my lack of knowledge. I find the idea that a bunch of insular hipsters would keep someone away from an artistic experience utterly baffling.

    the spiteful parody of Shostakovich 7 in the fourth movement of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which is never actually funny.

    Hmmm…I guess the crowd at Disney Hall two years ago that burst out laughing didn’t get your memo. *Anything* that mocks and scorns Shostakovich’s mostly awful music (IMO, natch) is fine by me.

    all of the hoary rituals surrounding classical concertgoing — the no-clapping-between-movements rule, the taboo against speaking to the audience, the ridiculous tuxedos, various and sundry other bits of formalized pandering

    ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ. I fully approve of those various and sundry bits. The piece isn’t finished after the first movement, keep your damn hands in your lap, you’ll have the opportunity to go wild after the piece is done. The taboo against speaking to audiences is brilliant, I wish it were more rigidly enforced. After 18 years of Esa-Pekka Salonen insulting my intelligence by acting as if those bits were his audition for a slot at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard, I *yearn* for a total ban. Oh, and Michael Tilson Thomas? Shut. the. hell. UP., I don’t give a flying damn about the fabulous dinner you had with Copland way back when. No, really, put a sock in it, MTT, and spend your time getting the damn brass players in your orchestra to play in tune more often instead.

    Tuxedos and black dresses perform a perfectly useful function: they’re the same, visually, so there’s no visual distractions such as the principal horn wearing a loud, tacky Hawaiian shirt or the second flutist dressing like a hooker.

    What else? No talking once the conductor raises his baton, unless you are having a grand mal seizure, how little Johnny is doing in school is irrelevant once the music starts; that’s what intermissions are for. Please note: whispering is just as bad.

    If you *MUST* open a throat lozenge while the music plays, do it while the music is loud, don’t wait until the flute and harp are playing ppp. And hey, you, the lump 3 seats over? If you don’t stop rustling your program, I’m going to turn you to cinders with my glare; if you’re bored because you’re only there because your wife wanted to go, tough, just sit still, be quiet and don’t ruin *my* concentration.

    Oh, and spikey haired hipster doofus behind me? Despite all the nonsense about “interactivity” and your MySpace mentality, there’s only one thing that matters at a concert: the music as played by the orchestra. If you pull your iPhone out and start texting while the music is playing again, making that hideous click-click-click sound, I’ll complain to the head usher and do everything I can to humiliate you in front of your friends.

    No, I like concert etiquette as it is, just fine.

  8. I don’t watch Lost so I can’t say how much fanservice its creators give, but as I pointed out in my original post, fanservice isn’t an inevetiable side-effect of long-form serial storytelling. It’s only when the creators start making choices that detract from or undermine the integrity of the story — like awkwardly reintroducing fan-favorite characters who have already been written out of the show and don’t have any reason to be back other than “people loved that guy!” — that you really have true fanservice.

    It also makes big difference whether you are talking about a TV show that’s been around for four years — where it might be reasonable to expect newbies to start from the first episode — versus a comic book franchise that’s been around for 70 years, or a musical tradition that has been around for over 1000 years. Viewers aren’t expected to have seen and have a perfect recollection of every previous James Bond movie in order to make head or tail of the latest one.


    No, I like concert etiquette as it is, just fine.

    Spoken like a true fanboy, Henry.

  9. Spoken like a true fanboy, Henry.

    I think all the handwringing in the classical blogosphere about concert etiquette is really so tired and boring. It’s so navel gazing because so many people don’t seem to realize –or care– that all the stuff they’re advocating: making concerts less stuffy, more informal, more inviting to younger people, had been addressed at least since the late 60’s-early 70’s.

    My favorite band, ELP, had the genesis of one of their best pieces, an adaptation of the fourth movement of Ginastera’s piano concerto, in a “happening” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta in 1968 when Keith Emerson and his then band, The Nice, were involved and heard the Ginastera performed . The New York Philharmonic dressed more casually and during Boulez’ tenure, took out all the seats at Avery Fisher Hall and put couches and beanbags (!!) so that people could splay themselves about. Wow, *that* really caught on, didn’t it! The people clutching their pearls about the state of concertgoing in 2008 have nothing new to add, northing fresh to propose, just the same old tired bullshit that’s been around for 30 years or more.

    So, you get charlatans like Greg Sandow who, in 2008, is suggesting that opera companies should act like the Paris Opera during the Jockey Club days and have people sit around and talk and play cards and oh yeah, have the opera performance as background music. The mind boggles.

    Even worse are the people who have writing orgasms over some cellist and pianist who go to play in a dive bar and giddily proclaim “I’ve seen the future of classical music and it’s in dive bars without tuxedos! where people can clap between movements without getting Shushed!”. So, tell me, how are you going to get 150 people in there with all their instruments so they can perform Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln? Oh….wait….the dive bar thing only applies to a small niche of the classical world, chamber music. Never mind.

    The nadir though are the people that think if you just remove every vestige of the classical concert experience from the, um, classical concert experience that people who are bizarrely intimidated by the idea of people wearing tuxedos or having to actually shut their gobs and put their Blackberry’s away for a whole hour –a whole freaking hour! oh the humanity!– that those same people will flock to classical concerts.

    Yeah, I’m a fanboy; I have reservations: the overture > concerto > symphony format should be put out of its misery, new music needs to be better framed than as an overture to an all Schubert evening and a few other things, but if people think that replicating the Downtown experience ca. 1980’s is the way forward, they’re as delusional as the nutter who rants about aliens and the government by the boat rentals shack at MacArthur Park across the street from my apartment.


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