The Big Break-Up: A Fan Perspective

So, it happened again.  I returned from Seattle a couple of weeks ago and after 14 hours of traveling, I happily settled down in my favorite couch nook to catch up on four days of missed tweets, Facebook posts and e-mails.   As I was flicking through my Facebook feed, I saw it.  A post from one of my favorite bands.  The dreaded words…

“We’re sad to announce that…”

Ugh.  Nothing puts a pit in my stomach more than band change and break up announcements.  It is seriously hard for me;  definitely makes me sad and at times, I even feel slighted and hurt.

In the past two weeks, there’s been a rash of unpleasant music news. Pioneers of indie rock, R.E.M, announced on their website that they were “calling it a day” as the band and that sinking feeling came around again.  While I’m only a casual R.E.M. fan, I do know the impact their work has had on the music world and helped to shape a lot of my favorite music.  Then, last week, one of my favorites, Augustana, announced their break-up, a mere six months after the release of their latest album (some might argue their best one).  Dan Layus is one of the most powerful lyricists around today, and as a lyrics girl, it made me almost nauseous reading that announcement.

It got me to thinking, why in the world do I get so emotional about band break-ups and shake-ups?  I mean, they’re not my bands or my career…so what’s with the heartbreak and incense when one of my favorite musical acts make a shift?  Am I alone in feeling like this?  Definitely an idea worth digging into.

There’s no denying that humans have an inextricable bond with music.  There is something about it that appeals to nearly every human – it is, actually, a universal language.  Civilized worlds and remote, untouched villages that have never had contact with one another both create music.  We celebrate with it, comfort ourselves with it, use it to express our emotions, grieve to it…Music is an ever present part of the human experience.

For diehard music fans – me included – the dissolution of a band that has been a big part of your life can be dizzying.  Whether or not an artist or act wants to believe it, the instant they put music out there for the world to hear, they’re taking the chance that they will become part of some fan’s life.  For journeyman acts – The Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, The Beatles (and Sir Paul), Bon Jovi, and my beloved Bruce Springsteen – with every piece of music they create, they become more entrenched in their fans live.

Music can be the endcaps on lives, ushering children into the world and playing quietly as others leave this world; its the soundtrack to proms and breakups; it’s the swirling happiness of wedding first dances, and the songs that we bury ourselves in when everything is coming undone; it’s the sheet music for roadtrip singalongs and the stress relief that helps us unwind after a long day.  Music has a place in nearly every part of our lives.  It’s no wonder that our emotions become entwined with songs…and by extension, the artists that create them. As humans, we literally cannot help developing an attachment to music.

If you haven’t read the excellent book by Daniel Levitin, This Is Your Brain On Music:  The Science of a Human Obsession, stop reading my crappy little blog right now and go get it.  It’s scientific and utterly fascinating.  Levitin delves into the science behind how our brains interpret and process music, why humans are drawn to this artistic medium, and even why we love the music that we do.  Midway through the book, he discusses music and its ties to memory.   His theories get at the heart of my “break up complex.”

“Memory affects the music-listening experience so profoundly that it would not be hyperbole to say that without memory, there would be no music….Music works because we remember the tones we have just heard and are relating them to the ones that are just now being played.  Those groups of tones – phrases – might come up later in the piece in a variation or transposition that tickles our memory system at the same time as it activates our emotional centers.  In the past ten years, neuroscientists have show just how intimately related our memory system is with our emotional system.”

For me, almost every significant memory of the past 25 years of my life is tied to music in some way.  Anytime I smell Aussie Crunch hairspray, which I used in high school, I instantly hear New Kids on the Block in my head.  The Violent Femmes always put me right back on the fourth floor of Minta Martin, my college dorm, drinking awful beer with my sorority sisters.  And at the first notes of The Freshmen always make me get that dizzy, head-spinning, looking at myself from outside in feeling because it brings back memories of a boyfriend cheating on me.  I definitely “attach” to music.

My good friend and fellow die hard music junkie Stacy puts it a bit more succinctly, “You spend hours, days, money and heart getting to know the music and … when they do something to go against what you know and believe, it’s like they are betraying your love and trust.”

For a handful of artists, the timing of their music, resulting stardom, the cultural happenings and the mood of the fansbase can converge to form a perfect storm in which emotional attachment becomes even more heightened than normal.  Acts such as The Beatles, Elvis and Michael Jackson have left millions of screaming fans in their wakes.  For The Beatles (particularly John Lennon) and Elvis, the turbulent political state of the world, and the Vietnam war certainly played a role in how fans related to their music.  Their early deaths also illustrate the emotional connections people build with music and the artists that make it. When Presley died in 1977, the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, issued a statement about how he had impacted popular culture.  After Lennon’s death, when his wife Yoko Ono called for a ten minute moment of silence , more than 30,000 people turned out in Liverpool, England, home of the band.  Two fans are reported to have committed suicide in despair.  When Jackson died in 2009, his memorial service had to be held at an L.A. sports arena to accommodate the crowds.  Sales of his music, and that of the Jackson Five, spiked.  Fans around the world continue to mourn to this day; and the trial of the doctor accused of improperly medicating him is one of the most watched things on television this week.   These reactions are a fascinating look at just how profound an impact music can have on an entire global society.

The paradigm shift in fan-artist relations over the past 15 years is well-covered territory.  The end of an era in big arena bands, a proliferation of smaller venues, and new and cheaper ways to record and promote music have led to more artists vying for audiences attention.   Add social media into the equation, and you have big old melting pot for musicians to find new, more intimate ways to interact with their fans (to get their music heard in one way or another).  Naturally, those fans feel more connected than ever to their favorite musicians.  Many fans feel like they truly know the artists (and in the case of many small, independent bands, they actually do know them).  That “relationship” feeling can be even more amplified when the artist or act is genuine, interacting and engaging fans, or even sharing bits of their life that fans might not otherwise see – photos of their children and pets, opinions on whatever the a la mode topic of the day might be, what they’re buying at the grocery store, who they’re supporting in a political campaign, what movies their watching, what music they are listening to…  So when there’s a break up, a band change, a career moment, or some significant shift in style or sound, it should come as no surprise that many fans feel like they’re watching a relationship that they’ve played a part in unwind.

Music blogger extraordinaire and proprietress of RadioPotato.com, Allison Rizk, weighs in on social media’s impact.  “Social media IS the reason why bands actually connect with their fans,” she says, relating watching the break-up of indie rock band Cadillac Sky unfold over social media.  “The disconnect can be disorienting.  Like a relationship break-up.”

It’s an apt comparison.  We’re all attached to our music…and maybe that gives us a little bit of a right to brood when our favorites “call it a day” or play switcheroo with members.  But, just like the demise of any break up, time heals all wounds.  And unlike all relationship break ups, at least musical break-ups leave us with a physical manifestation of the relationship.  We’ve got vinyl albums and CDs, our favorite worn t-shirts, tattered but well preserved concert posters, DVDs, YouTube videos, photos and autographs to remember them by.

And most importantly, the music.  We will always have the music.

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