Toward an Experience-Near Understanding of Popular Music
Early on in graduate school, I wrote a paper for a seminar on popular culture in which I used cultural theory to interpret the activities of Springsteen fans. Specifically, drawing on the work of neo-Marxist theorists of culture like Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, and Frederic Jameson, I argued that Springsteen fans were consumers who, in a certain position of economic power since they were regular and dependable customers, sought to actively resist marketing manipulation by Columbia Records. By analyzing closely record company advertising for each of Springsteen's releases and then also the fan "response" in Backstreets magazine, I showed how fans constantly redefined their tastes in order to engage the record company in a process of negotiation about the meaning of Springsteen's image.
Such an interpretation of fandom as social and political "resistance" seemed to fit with the tone of the class I was taking and also with the academic study of popular culture in general. It was (and still is) commonplace to think about popular culture as a tug-of-war between corporations and consumers, to talk about a "star system" and "consumption," about "ideology" and "utopia," and about "negotiation" and the "struggle for hegemony." By speaking such a language and engaging in those theories, I was striving to become a member of a specific interpretive community, to prove myself a "serious" academic scholar of popular culture.
However, while writing such a paper, I became increasingly uncomfortable with my argument. While it made sense to me in an abstract way as an intellectual, I also knew that it did not fit with the way I, as a fan, understood fandom. I had never thought about Springsteen's image or being manipulated or resisting record company hegemony much before writing that paper, nor had any of the fans I knew. In fact, such things seemed quite irrelevant to my experience. At best, I felt that the paper was too strident, wrapped up in a leftist intellectual