The recent spat between The 1975 and Reverend & The Makers has been a Twitter battle which nobody has come out of looking good. Reverend & The Makers’ Jon McClure has come across as petulant and bitter, complaining that popularity doesn’t equate with quality in a snobby way (‘Ur Boyzone mate. Yr not Cobain’), while The 1975 frontman Matt Healy’s retort ‘you make music for Carling adverts in 2006’ might be accurate but comes with an air of arrogance and dismissal. It’s easy to be cynical – McClure garners his band a few sidebar clicks, while Healy involves an audience who may be resistant to his band’s charms, and it’s absolutely nothing new. But fandom explicitly relies on these battles – and it’s these battles that make being a fan so much fun.
When we think of the idea of taste, it’s in terms of things that we like. We think about genres and styles, performers and songs. But taste is just as much concerned with the things that we don’t like – and it needs to be so, or else there would be no personal filter on quality. In other words, taste is about the ability to dislike something as much as it is about liking something – the two sides can’t exist without each other. This may seem obvious, but it helps to understand fan culture.
Anyone who has ever used Twitter or Tumblr has come across the One Direction fan that falls into the stereotype: besotted to the point of obsession (it tends to be young women, which in itself is not an argument against fan culture – the fact that wider society thinks nothing of ridiculing and dismissing the taste of female youth is more an indictment of modern times than any measure of quality). Such fans are devoted, and to criticise the band in any way is forbidden – so any attack on One Direction’s perceived rightful place at the top of the charts becomes a war against these challengers and critics. For this audience, the pleasure of listening to One Direction extends into the pleasure of espousing their excellence to anyone not already predisposed to their brand of stadium pop.
Social media can make this seem new and extreme, but this type of cult adulation is nothing new. It’s been twenty years since the BBC listed a Samaritans helpline for the first break-up of Take That, and slightly fewer since Girl Power conquered the world. Even the Manic Street Preachers’ fanbase-driven hits at the start of the millennium, or the Blur vs Oasis feud, are comparable – particularly for the amusement of the idea of Oasis fans realising they’re not that different from Directioners.
The classic chart battles and fan rivalries become so fraught because they’re concerned with the tiniest of differences between pop factions. On paper, girl groups and boy bands are all the same: capable singers, good looks, radio-friendly choruses. But think of the different archetypes: for example, the Sugababes’ positioning as stylish, edgy and urban only worked because their nearest rivals Girls Aloud were so brash and unpolished – quite simply, one needs the other to survive. It’s a binary set-up as old as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, with each generational audience recasting the roles with the names in their music library. The 1975 and Reverend & The Makers are a smaller-scale version of the model, but the same rules apply.
Of course, rules are made to be broken, and as the traditional chart model erodes so too does the way pop works. As a system directly based on sales, the singles chart has always been a measure of cultural moments as much as populism and quality – the highest-selling single of all time is a tribute to a deceased princess, while Christmas songs, charity campaigns and controversial themes have historically done well, regardless of the merits of the actual music. Context is vital to pop – but thanks to streaming, downloads and reduced physical sales, that contextual element is constantly being reframed. Facebook campaigns range from the vital (the NHS Choir’s necessary Christmas success) to the pointless (Rage Against The Machine’s petulant victory) to the cynical (‘Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead!’). Even the tragedy of Viola Beach has inspired a campaign of honour. These battles have become less about winning that top spot, and more about simply creating presence. The charts were once about reflecting the culture; now, it’s a tool to shape and direct it.
And as for Reverend & The Makers, and The 1975? The latter have just released their latest album to a mix of adulation and criticism. Their latest single ‘The Sound’ comes with a video of the band performing in a box, viewed by critics as quotes flash on screen, savaging their perceived weaknesses. The band then view the critics from outside the box, turning their words against them, revelling in the put-downs levelled against them. It’s a blatant play on perceptions of the band, endearing to fans while trolling their opponents. It’s brilliant.
But of course I would say that – I’m a fan.
Featured image of Reverend and the Makers by EMILY BRINNAND
Split picture by our friends at www.gigwise.com