Phish Fan Subculture
Losing the Meaning of Style
Phish is an American rock band known for its improvisational experimentation and large arena concerts. However, Phish is also famous for its dedicated fans, nicknamed “Phish heads,” that follow the band across the country. They subcultural styles and performances they embody borrow from subcultures that came before them: such as the Deadheads and hippies. Postsubculture studies theorists look at subcultures as entities that are performative: behavior is inscribed on the surface of the member of the subculture and has no authenticity. Members of contemporary subcultures borrow philosophies and wear styles of past subcultures without understanding their meaning. I cannot agree with conclusions that members of a subculture perform an identity that is not unique to them, or that subcultural affiliation is one that requires no thought. From my research and experience, Phish fans, at least, think about the choices they make. They follow bands that challenge mainstream music; not only the music itself, but also the business practices of the bands. Most fans, although in a capitalist system, at least are concerned about choosing to whom they give their money, for the sake of an ideal community. In this paper, I will analyze the postsubcultural borrowings of Phish fans and argue, using Dolan, Bulter, and other scholars, that even though performance may be weakened by subcultural borrowing, there are still possibilities of resistance within the performances Phish fans embody. There is still a good deal of possibility in performance: possibility in critiquing society and possibility of imagining a better world.
PHISH FAN SUBCULTURE: LOSING THE MEANING OF STYLE
Christina L. Allaback
Department of Performing and Visual Arts
Umpqua Community College
June 3, 2019
PHISH FAN SUBCULTURE: LOSING THE MEANING OF STYLE
Anybody who attends a Phish show will be greeted by a myriad of sights to see and sounds to hear. From the second one finds themselves in the vicinity of a Phish show, one notices that things are changing. You might see cars smothered in stickers that you do not understand, that reference songs, or that might be shaped like red donuts. You will notice the music to which people are listening. You will notice the different kinds of clothing fans are wearing and the language they use when talking about the band. Then, there is the concert in the venue: with long improvisational jams going in and out of different genres with an incredible light show. At every point in your journey, there is something to experience.
Phish is a rock band that started in 1983 with four college students in Burlington, Vermont. They became locally famous in New England, but all this changed on their first tour west. The internet was invented shortly after Phish was born, so many fans began trading tapes of shows and discussing the band over the internet. Phish’s songs are rarely played on the radio and their album sales are very small compared to larger acts. Nearly each summer, Phish hosts its own massive festival, in which the band plays six sets, three a night. The attendance of these festivals can reach tens of thousands of people. What is it about Phish shows that make people such devoted followers of the band?
While Phish provides its fans with an exciting musical performance, the fans themselves provide an equally interesting performance. The Phish fan subculture is one that follows its favorite band from town to town and performs an identity to the communities in which the band plays, as well as to the community of fans. Before each concert, many fans gather in the parking lot for socializing. Typical “parking lot scenes” can demonstrate many aspects of the subculture’s theatricality through costume, spectacle, dialogue, and the Shakedown Street economy— an impromptu marketplace where more dedicated fans sell items to make money to continue touring. In the parking lot, there is a good deal of freedom to do whatever one desires. Here fans are drinking beer, ingesting and selling illegal drugs, bartering for goods and tickets, selling food and clothing, and creating community. Performances of identity at Phish concerts simultaneously resist and affirm what fans would call “mainstream” social values through their style, music preferences, anti-corporate jargon, inattentiveness to hygiene, and use of drugs. Scholars often analyze subcultures in terms of their polarity with society: a subculture is against society or maintains society’s values. However, newer scholars disagree regarding contemporary subcultures. This, however, does not negate the liberation or personal change fans feel as a result of the experience. It is my hope that this project may inspire a greater understanding of our social experiences and what part performance plays within these experiences. The Phish scene teaches us not only how a subculture works and about how our own society works, but also how people attempt to perform resistance, or whether or not it is even possible to perform opposition to a dominant mainstream in an attempt to escape it. Performance is a part of our everyday lives and this paper will hopefully contribute not only to cultural studies regarding our society, but also to the dialogue regarding performance and its potential. There is possibility in Phish fans’ performance: the performance of liberation and of what a better society could be.
In this paper, I am primarily concerned with ideas and questions about performativity and authenticity. We can use the term “performativity” when discussing the performance of identity of Phish fans in everyday life. “Performative” means that behavior is inscribed on the surface of the member of the subculture rather than that identity having any inherent “authenticity.” A performance of an actor is a physical act of carrying out a part in a play. An actor’s performance happens in a specific context. The idea of performativity is more complex. It is a mode of communication and social action that creates an identity. An actor carries out a performance. A Phish fan is performative in that they communicate their identity of a fan via slang, material culture, and dress. Many aspects of the Phish fan identity, such as clothing style, are borrowed from subcultures that came before them, such as the hippies. Because their style is generally seen as borrowed, their identity created by their performance as a Phish fan can be viewed, by some, as inauthentic.
Because these styles are borrowed, some Phish fans might not understand the original meaning of the style. For example, Phish fans wear the clothing of the hippie subculture, who wore the styles from Native American culture, and therefore the original meaning of that style is lost. Phish fans “perform” their identity as Phish fans by wearing the costume and performing the behavior of subcultures past. However, they are in a different time and context, so their identity and meaning of their costume is not the same as the subcultures before that were resisting the mainstream culture. One can interpret the performativity of Phish fans as one that has no meaning and is empty because it is merely a performance and not actually acting upon or resisting the mainstream culture. Some scholars’ criticism of contemporary subcultures is that they are very much a part of mainstream culture they are resisting through purchasing the commodities of past subcultures and copying them. Therefore, fans do not resist anything through the performances of their identity, and therefore, their performance is not authentic or real.
Along with this discussion of “performativity” is the discussion of “authenticity.” How are performances of Phish fans authentic, if they are? At its basic definition, authentic means real, valid, or genuine. According to some subcultural scholars, because of their “performativity” –that which is inscribed on the surface and is merely a copy of an original—members of a subculture are not “authentic.” In terms of philosophy, authentic is related to existentialism: it is the way that the self is true to their identity.(1) Authenticity is how consistent an individual’s actions are with their belief systems. In simpler terms, does the individual “talk the talk and walk the walk.” Subcultures like the hippies looked for an authentic self away from a mainstream society: freedom from social and sexual mores, and freedom from American consumerist society. Their performance might be considered authentic, as they lived the lifestyle of the identity inscribed on their bodies. Contemporary subcultures, like Phish fans, are looking for freedoms while at the Phish show. However, is it an “authentic” performance? Many scholars would argue not, because of the subcultural borrowing in which Phish fans take part. They are merely copies of the subcultures that come before then and have no authenticity. Going to the Phish show, fans play with the hippie identity, but return back to the mainstream culture from which they came and therefore have no authentic resistant identity. They wear the costume, but do not play the part. In this way, their identity is performative: an identity that sits just on the surface of the person and is not a part of their real and true identity. Phish fans copy the material culture of subcultures fast, giving it no thought, merely wanted to look the part, and according to some contemporary scholars, have no authenticity.
Because of this, scholars often use the term “performance” as a negative, a falsity, as inauthentic or maybe simply ephemeral “show.” Many cultural scholars believe that members of contemporary subcultures are merely performers with no real identity that is resistant to the mainstream. I, however, argue that the performativity of Phish fans’ identity through subcultural borrowing is a positive and “authentic” by applying Bourdieu’s idea of mimesis to describe how subcultures embody norms and tastes. Mimesis infers imitation, but also interpretation. An actor might stand up on stage and mimic someone that they are not. But they also are interpreting the playwright’s words and making it their own. In this way, performance is a positive and an active process in the creation of a character that is the actor’s own. Not unlike Phish fans performativity in their creation of identity. Subcultures today interpret their own style, through imitating styles that have come before them. So their performance is not totally insincere; it is perhaps much like acting, an interpretation of a character from a script. Subcultures today are a veritable pastiche of styles they get from past subcultures. Phish fans, through borrowing other subcultural styles, are constructing their own unique identity as Phish fans. And maybe it is not totally resistant to a mainstream culture because it only happens during the context of the Phish show, but their identity is still authentic and the show is a of positive identity construction for many fans.
I find a good deal of criticism of fans and subcultures quite harsh in arguing that they merely play a stylistic game or are copies of previous groups. I cannot agree with conclusions that members of a subculture perform an identity that is not unique to them, or that subcultural affiliation is one that requires no thought. From my research and experience, fans in the Phish subculture, at least, think about the choices they make. They follow bands that challenge mainstream music; not only the music itself, but also the business practices of the band (who allow fans to record shows and disperse them on the internet, for example). Most Phish fans, although in a capitalist system, at least are concerned about choosing to whom they give their money, for the sake of an ideal community. Their performance may borrow from subcultures before, but to argue, as many subcultural scholars do, that such borrowing is “erasing ideological commitment” ignores an important potential of such subcultural performance.
Yes, some forms of subcultural borrowing do weaken resistance: Phish fans become subcultural imperialists, looking to any subculture from which to appropriate cultural material in order to make their statement against the society of which they are so very much a part. But my studies and experience suggest attending a Phish show or festival is, to a certain extent, a resistant act. Once someone enters the world of the show or festival, there are different rules and values to which he or she must ascribe, and a wide variety of available roles to perform. Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Dancing in the Streets gives a useful history, from Greek Dionysian ritual up to contemporary raves, of ecstatic dance or “collective joy.” According to Ehrenreich, with the growth of Christianity and capitalism, ecstatic dance, popular in Ancient Greece through Medieval times, started to disappear, first replaced by carnival and festivals, in which class distinctions were inverted or mocked through “inappropriate” celebration that included drinking, singing, dancing, and social parody. Such celebration eventually became a threat to the ruling classes and the Church. Carnival and festival finally developed into set rules, dates and orders in an institutional attempt to control ecstatic dance and festivity. As a result of this evolution, Ehrenreich argues, spontaneous collective festivity disappeared and there was an increase in “melancholy,” or what Ehrenreich argues we might call depression today. According to Ehrenreich, carnival re-appears approaching ecstatic experience in rock and roll concerts. In this way, most in attendance at a Phish show are oppositional, in my view, just by the very act of going to such a carnivalesque spectacle. The collective festivity and the ecstatic dance contained within the Phish subculture nears the experience that Ehrenreich describes in her book. However, it is still contained within the space of the Phish concert, but the performance within that confined space still tries to resist that outside culture.
Phish fans, although in some ways mirroring the society they resist, perform a resistant position in terms of a complex community. One example of this is the Shakedown Street economy. Shakedown Street is the unregulated marketplace that forms in every venue parking lot before a Phish show. It comes from the Grateful Dead song “Shakedown Street.” In this marketplace you can purchase any number of items: food, beverages, t-shirts, souvenirs, etc… Through Shakedown Street and the goods they sell there, Phish fans use capitalism and free enterprise to feel oppositional to American consumerist capitalism. Their performance of community, at the very least, rehearses resistance. These may be small events compared with radical protests of the past, but as the Situationists(2) suggest, protest remains most viable in transgressive performance of everyday life within capitalist society. The Situationists believed everyday life was the correct place for political resistance and that play and spontaneous creativity could open the possibility of a revived desire for change. Thus, Phish subculture, or any other subculture for that matter, has the possibility for resistance to a mainstream culture through simple acts of performance.
The Situationists used an oppositional tactic in everyday life called detournement. Sadie Plant translates this as lying somewhere between diversion and subversion, writing: “It is a turning around and reclamation of lost meaning: a way of putting the stasis of the spectacle in motion. It is plagiaristic, because its materials are those which already appear within the spectacle, and subversive since its tactics are those of the reversal of perspective”. (3) The May Events of 1968, the large workers’ protests in France, featured detournement. Slogans commonly used in graffiti included “Live without dead time,” “Play without shackles,” “They’re buying your happiness. Steal it!” and “Run for it! The old world is behind you!”(4) These slogans rework phrases or clichés that then become a sort of subversive joke. One can see Phish fans using detournement in their use of parody shirts, stickers, and other material culture. Phish fans use logos that already exist and make the logos their own by changing them into song titles. The logo that once belonged to a corporation now belongs to the fans. Not only are they subversive, but also very referential: a joke only another Phish fan will get. In this way, the possibility of oppositionality lies in the performance of detournement, in small everyday actions.
Theater scholar Jill Dolan also sees possibilities in performance, not of resistance, but in the utopian performative. In her book Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater, she argues that performance gives people a place to come together to share experiences, which can give the audience a glimpse of a better world. She uses the term “utopian performative” to describe a moment in which the audience is moved to a hopeful feeling in the theater, making them think critically about the possibility of utopia. Dolan sees “art as an arena in which an alternative world can be expressed—not in a didactic way . . . but through the communication of an alternative experience”.(5) Dolan analyzes utopian performatives in the context of theatrical performance, but the idea applies to Phish fan subculture’s performance of resistance.
Dolan extends sociologist Victor Turner’s theory of communitas to partially explain the phenomenon of the utopian performative. She says that audiences form Turner’s communitas, or a strongly bonded community, while experiencing utopian performatives. This feeling of being part of a strongly bonded community is what gives the audience the feeling of hope that utopia is possible. Communitas is a strongly united community that shares a liminal experience and, as a result, forms a tight bond. Turner defines a liminal experience as part of a ritual in which someone is separated from society to temporarily experience an unreal world, or in-between world, that prepares one for a new identity, just as an audience in a theater is separated from the real world.(6) Dolan believes theater audiences are separated from society, in the liminal phase of the ritual of attending a theatrical performance, and as they see and experience utopian performatives, the audience forms a bond, creating communitas.
As Dolan reminds us, Thomas More defined Utopia as meaning literally “no place”.(7) Utopia is a place separated from society so that members of society may imagine what they wish it were. Dolan interprets this as meaning that in order for theater to enact a hopeful future, it must move away from reality into a performative (Dolan 38). The utopian performative does not necessarily change the world, but gives us hope that the world can change. It might not provide the audience with the exact means to change the world, but it produces feelings of hope and pleasure, and the possibility of change.
One can criticize Phish fans in stereotypical ways for merely wanting to find a party or that they are merely subcultural borrowers, but I argue they experience a utopian performative at a Phish show, in much the same way Jill Dolan’s subjects experience it. Phish fans separate themselves from society for a period of time, forming a tight bond with each other and creating communitas. As Phish shows the audience a utopian performative, the fans express and feel utopia and recreate it in their experience at a Phish show and in turn perform that which they wish to see the world become. Maybe they are not changing the world and maybe they are not directly attacking the society from which they are separated, but they attempt to transform their own personal worlds through their actions, and may envision a better world through going to Phish shows. If they do not truly resist outside mainstream society, they may at least perform a rehearsal of resistance and a sort of utopia. Retreating from society into the performative in order to provide hope as to the possibilities of society, they perform an imagined, ideal world as it should be. They are “feigning what [society] would like to become”.(8)
Subcultures of the past tried to change society or rebel against society in mass-organized ways, rather than performing an imagined ideal. Phish fans are not the subcultures of the past that lived their resistance. The hippies dropped out of society as a social experiment and changed the face of American history. The punks lived their resistance and created new styles and values that challenged the mainstream. Rastafarians lived in their own world outside of Babylon and followed their own set of rules. Phish fans today live in a different world than these subcultures and their resistance is a performance of what could be, rather than living their resistance directly and daily. Through the lessons of past subcultures that did not change society but left a mark on history, perhaps Phish fans strive to leave another mark, rather than trying to change society as a whole. Through using capitalism itself, Phish fans try to resist society in a slightly different way. It is nearly impossible to completely resist and change the world, but through small transgressive behaviors, Phish fans show the possibility to others or experience it themselves. And through their small daily acts of resistance, they may make those around them who are not fully part of the subculture think about the possibility of resistance.
In using styles and philosophies of the past, some knowledgeable Phish fans also pay homage to the subcultures they emulate and they may reinvent the original resistant intent. Phish fans show us an interpretation of resistance of the past, much like an actor or director shows us an interpretation of a character or a play. The Phish fan subculture copies and reinterprets those previous styles in an attempt to create meaning or to change the world around it, rather than doing exactly what those subcultures did. Through copying and interpreting, Phish fans may resist mainstream society in some way, although not completely transforming the social order.
Finally, perhaps the potential for authentic action in the Phish subculture is not merely about social change, but also about personal change. Ehrenreich believes that ecstatic dance is something we need to maintain for the health of society. As stated before, there was an outbreak of depression when the Church banned festivity from society as it proved too much of a threat. Perhaps, as a civilization, we need festivity and ecstatic dance to be happy. We need to have communitas in which we can express our discontent and desire for change, or we need a space in which we can do whatever we want for a short while and imagine that we are outside the bounds of society. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn describes the signs he believes show that citizens of the United States are unhappy and dissatisfied with the economic and governmental systems. Zinn cites surveys since the early 1970s which show that 70 to 80 percent of the population is distrustful of the government.(9) He says,
There are other signs: the high rate of alcoholism, the high rate of divorce . . . of drug use and abuse, of nervous breakdowns and mental illness. Millions of people have been looking desperately for solutions to their sense of impotency, their loneliness, their frustration, their estrangement from other people, from the world, from their work, from themselves. They have been adopting new religions, joining self-help groups of all kinds. It is as if a whole nation were going through a critical point in its middle age, a life crisis of self-doubt, self-examination.(10)
In response to widespread feelings of estrangement, alienation, or lack of community, the Phish fan subculture fulfills a need for people living in today’s society. It is a place where people find community, satisfaction, alternative ways of living, connection, and happiness. It might not be about changing the world and making political statements at all.
Shortly after Phish announced reunion shows in 2009, much discussion regarding what the band means to fans appeared on internet blogs and forums, suggesting the subculture is partially about personal change. A Phunky Bitch, Tara, said this on a forum message board: “[I remember] feeling so happy. I mean so damn happy . . . and free and content and just *perfect.* And yes I was sober. But that was really amazing to me and absolutely changed me”.(11) In response to Tara, Rosedancer said this:
I remember being at my first show and feeling like I was being given a glimpse into some secret, magical world that I didn't know existed. And feeling that I would LOVE to be part of that world: to know all the songs, to know the phans. . . . So I guess in some ways, the Phish experience gave me a different perspective; an ability to expand my thoughts beyond the world as I knew it, to think about the world as it COULD be; to think about things that may seem off-the-wall, but still be possible; to expand my definition of what is "possible." Seeing Phish also made me more aware of the Unity and Connectedness that IS inherent in the world (and in the Universe), but that many people don't perceive. There's something that happens when Phish plays that, when they're on fire, seems to me to be stronger than any other live musicians I've seen, no matter how talented. And it screams to me of Oneness. And it's really awesome.(12)
Mr. Miner of Mr. Miner’s Phish Thoughts, a Phish blog, said this of the community:
You are about to arrive at the greatest place on Earth: Phish. Yes, I speak of it as a place because in many ways it is. In the most literal sense, you must go to the show, so it is a concrete location. But more figuratively, Phish is a place inside of you. Phish ultimately has nothing to do with the spectacle and madness of “tour,” and everything to do with what happens inside of you. Sure, everything else is a blast, but it wouldn’t exist without that inner connection.(13)
Perhaps at this time in our country’s history, a group such as the subculture of Phish fans is able to help people with feelings of disillusionment and loss of community. Through all the problems and issues that our society faces, even more now than when Howard Zinn was writing, maybe it is through the performance of community and utopia that we can find a place to heal humanity and ourselves. The Phish fan subculture provides, for those who seek it, some sort of feeling of community, euphoria, or personal change, or fans would not go to the extent they do to attend shows and festivals, or follow bands across the country. But perhaps these fans need to follow their respective bands because there is no way to experience euphoria, community, or personal change outside the space of the Phish show or festival.
The Phish fan experience shows us the importance of performance in our social experiences. Through communication, argot, clothing, and behavior, Phish fans experience the vitality of performance within their subculture, demonstrating that performance and theatricality are very much a part of our lives outside the theater. Performance is the way these fans communicate with each other, even warning fans of others who might be disingenuous. Maintaining their subcultural values, Phish fans developed a complete and flexible set of performance codes which with they communicate. They know who is who with very little discussion. By maintaining their subculture’s values, many of which are positive—peace, freedom, and individualism—Phish fans can experience possibilities through performances that enjoin alternative frames for communication, personal expression, community, and hope. In this way, Phish fans can be a model of our society in its continuing search and maintenance for such values. Fans, of anything, are often scoffed at as merely consumers of their chosen media or as crazy “fanatics” that take their devotion to a band or movie or television show too far. But I argue that Phish fans are showing our society a positive way of living by following that which they love as well as creating community and searching for utopia. If we, as humans, are unhappy with the world around us, we can look to subcultures like Phish fans to show us how to communicate and maintain our values with likeminded people. Fans are not crazy “fanatics,” but thoughtful through their way of life and performative codes.
However, Phish fans seem to express a resistance, but are unable to effect change. Theirs is an open, imaginary community rather than one that directly fights the powers-that-be. In this world, real resistance seems impossible. Phish fans continually return to the lifestyle they had before the tour or the festival, showing how our society strictly ingrains its rules within each person. Although our society wants invented communities to reinforce normative American values, I argue our society needs these communities to give its members a sense of freedom, a place for rebellious expression, and a place to feel a sense of community, even if the freedom is an illusion. As historian Edward Muir stated, subculture is a “safety-valve”(14) to help us feel release from rules and restrictions in our everyday lives. He says that carnivalesque events “allow subjects to express their resentment of authority but do not change anything and, in fact, strengthen the . . . established social order”(15) We return to the outside culture when the experience is finished, after the “safety-valve” has done its work.
Even though these fans are not truly performing resistance, their performance cannot be dismissed as a failure or as inauthentic. These fans create a community around each other with positive values. As Barbara Ehrenreich theorizes, maybe we need the type of behavior that Phish fans exhibit in our society. If only for a short time, Phish fans are experimenting with a lifestyle that is different, positive, and somewhat utopian. Fans help each other and are kind to each other, even though their subcultural styles and philosophy might not be “authentic” like the styles and philosophies that came before them. In fact, this weakens their resistance, as I have said before, but they pick and choose their styles and philosophies from successful subcultures that were able to bring about some sort of change. Phish fans perform their interpretation of the resistant subcultures that came before them. Is an actor’s interpretation of Hamlet inauthentic because actors have been playing Hamlet for hundreds of years, creating new meaning? As our society keeps evolving, so does the interpretation of Hamlet, and so does personal interpretation of resistant style and philosophy. An imagined, performative resistance that affects no real change is not necessarily “inauthentic” or a waste. There is a good deal of possibility in performance: possibility in critiquing society, and possibility of imagining a better world.
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- The Situationists, a group of neo-Marxist philosophers in France during the mid-twentieth century, used the term “spectacle” to describe how some societies are controlled by consumerist capitalism.
- Plant, Sadie, The Most Radical Gesture , 86.
- Plant, Sadie, The Most Radical Gesture, 103.
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- Qtd. In Dolan, Jill. Utopia in Performance:Finding Hope at the Theatre. 36.
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- Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States, 637.
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- “Phunky Bitches Forum.” The Phunky Bitches, 3 March 2009. www.phunkybitches.com.
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- Muir, Edward. Ritual in Early Modern Europe. (New York: Cambridge, 1997), 98.
- Muir, Edward. Ritual in Early Modern Europe. (New York: Cambridge, 1997), 98.
Allaback, Christina, PhD. "Phish Fan Subculture: Losing the Meaning of Style."