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.
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.
• 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.
• 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.)
• 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?