Fandom and Partisanship II: Under the Empire and Dreaming

Seemingly, fandom isn’t gauged just by what you like, but also how you like it and what else you may dislike. This partisan aspect has long baffled – and often irritates – me. I touched on this a bit in this long post about Dave Matthews Band specifically.

Allow me to briefly indulge one of my great lifelong interests that hasn’t yet been mentioned once on this site. In doing so, I’d also like to go far out on a limb to offer an unexpected analogy. Consider it in the vein of one of my favorite posts (on Wagner & Seinfeld), though neither as detailed nor robust. That as yet unnamed interest? Star Wars. Its analogy? Dave Matthews Band.

Unless you haven’t heard, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is out now. Commercial ubiquity notwithstanding, this is a big event for myself and legions of other deep fans. Taken together, the Star Wars series are my default favorite movies, and the story has been with me as long as I can remember. (A cherished childhood bath toy of mine was a Gamorrean guard action figure.) I won’t go through and defend my Star Wars pedigree, but suffice it to say that I’ve dedicated a significant amount of time and money (and my mom’s when younger) to the franchise over my life. As an example, though, I can’t recall a year in which I haven’t received at least one Star Wars-related gift.

Once this new sequel trilogy (ST) is complete, it’ll tell a tale that spans three generations and has been over forty years in the making. It’s been a decade since the last entry (Episode III); or, according to some, it’s been over three decades (Episode VI, discounting I-III altogether). Episode VII‘s opening night was, admittedly, emotional for me, and it was one of the most fun movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long while, likely since the final moments of Episode III in 2005.

I write series above to take the entire story into account. Yes, I’m a prequel trilogy (PT) defender. It’s worth mentioning, of course, because nowadays (and in recent years) the PT has come under universal fire from both non-fans and fans alike. I’ve been hard pressed to find an article or conversation about VII that doesn’t also include at least a glancing blow to the prequels. Similarly, in conversations with other fans over the years, it’s become apparent that fandom becomes partisan: it’s not enough to love Star Wars, but one must also distance himself from the PT (and, to a certain extent, George Lucas himself). I’m the first to acknowledge the prequels’ myriad flaws, the two most pronounced of which are the acting and the special effects. However, the PT’s biggest asset, to me, was that it told a new story. Granted, the eventual destination was a given (i.e., the rise of Darth Vader), but little of the journey was known. And, though it may seem counterintuitive considering the near universal praise of VII, I believe that the prequels have, in a sense, been propped up a bit by the newest installment.

I came home from my first seeing Episode VII to a quiet house with everyone asleep, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I was pretty jazzed up and still sporting my ear-to-ear grin. Aside from the movie being so fun, I was greatly impressed by J.J. Abrams’s ability to powerfully capture the look and the feel of the original trilogy (OT). Unable to sleep, I ruminated on what I had just seen, and gradually a big concern started to accompany the giddiness: I’d seen this all before, but in Episode IV (and bits of V and VI). I of course noticed all of the cues and nods (and “echoes” as it’s been euphemistically stated in the press) while watching the movie (e.g., Tattooine, Death Star, Death Star II attack run, Mos Eisley, Luke’s lightsaber in the wampa cave, etc.), but I let them go. The more I thought about it, however, the more I felt almost insulted. A number of reviews mention this, but often only in passing. I mean, in a vacuum, the movie is really great. But in the context of the overall series, it treads trodden trails. Much like Rey nesting in an aged, abandoned AT-AT, Abrams has come home to roost in the decades-old shell of the OT. I waited many years to see the story continue in a new direction, only to get a quasi-reboot, albeit cleverly executed.

As George Lucas correctly noted in his recent interview with Charlie Rose, “[Disney] wanted to do a retro movie. I don’t like that… Every movie I work… very hard to make them… completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships… make it new…”

(This of course makes it seem like I dislike the movie. My repeated viewings attest otherwise. I’m just airing a grievance.)

Disney and Abrams decided to play it safe “for the fans.” In corporate speak, that just means “recycle what’s popular.” Instead of an inventive space opera about family dynamics (OT) or an unexpected dive into political gamesmanship and interpersonal relationships (PT), Abrams et al. decided to don Han’s proverbial old coat (new coat?) for one last joy ride. Now I sit and wait for Episode VIII, as that will certainly determine the ultimate fate of VII. If it’s a re-hashing of V, then that’s truly bad and VII becomes deeply scarred. If it goes in a new direction, this can be largely forgotten. As a craftsman, Abrams did a near perfect job, but I’m delighted that he won’t be directing the next installment.

It seems odd to complain so much about something I so much enjoy. I just can’t believe that, with everything VII got so right (the atmosphere, acting, and minutiae), the story goes almost nowhere new.

I said this had something to do with Dave Matthews Band, right?

As detailed here (and so I don’t have to again in this post), I find myself, once again, in the perceived minority when it comes to their discography (similar to the series above). As I explained in that post, I believe that the now-eschewed post-Lillywhite albums of the band’s arguable “middle period” (Everyday and Stand Up) are more in line with the core or so-called “classic” DMB approach than its successors Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King (as electric of an album as its immediate predecessors, if not more so) and Away from the World. Yes, Everyday and Stand Up appear different on the surface — Dave playing electric guitar, shorter arrangements, a more “pop” production aesthetic — but the overall musical formula remained: saxophone and violin as lead melodic and solo instruments, intricate rhythm guitar parts and patterns, and despite the songs’ lengths, many of them stretched out when performed live.

(It’s worth noting, for the record, that a third studio album, Busted Stuff, was released during that “middle period.” Nowhere near as electric as the other two, it was a re-recording of much of the fabled Lillywhite Sessions, released with less fanfare than is typical of the band. Fan reception is often mixed on this one as well.)

Supposedly, this “classic” sound returned with Big Whiskey…, an album in which Tim Reynolds’s electric guitar starts to dominate melodically and the horns (and there’s still a violin, right?) become more a stereotypical rock horn section than individual melodic assets. (Coincidentally, Big Whiskey… is the band’s seventh studio album…DMB’s own Episode VII?) Part of what makes the band stand out from the rest — a rock band with no lead guitar — was largely foregone. This move was further solidified in Away from the World, the band’s triumphant return to its partnership with producer Steve Lillywhite, lauded by many as was the ST’s stewardship by J.J. Abrams — a return to the “original approach” done “for the fans.” And yet both missed the mark in certain respects: Away sounds more like a Dave Matthews solo album than a DMB effort, and Abrams’s VII is a quasi-reboot of IV as opposed to a new story headed in a new direction.

One big difference between these two properties is that, regardless of approach, DMB’s sound continues to grow and evolve. Any discussion of a “classic sound” is largely an academic exercise. Star Wars, on the other hand, risks no longer growing nor evolving in new directions depending on what happens after VII.

Taking a step back, however, my little analogy comes more into focus. For both DMB and Star Wars, respectively:
• The early releases — the first three studio albums and first three films — loom large over the rest of the catalogue.
• The middle period — the second three studio albums and films — are often vocally disliked by the fan base despite being commercially successful.
• The middle period brought divisive technical change — commercialized production and special effects.
• The middle period continued using parts of the old approach — keeping the guitar out of the spotlight and telling new stories to establish the series’ mythology — even though such aspects were obscured by the technical change.
• Fans have an almost Tourrette-like need to voice their disapproval of the middle period to one another and non-fans alike.
• The recent period — the seventh and eighth studio albums and the seventh film — saw a move away from core approaches (guitar as lead instrument and re-treading old stories).
• Fans have, curiously, thus far lauded the recent periods of both as having righted the wrongs of each middle period despite going in starkly new directions — directions that, in theory, are odd ones to be celebrating.

In both cases, I’m not saying that the middle period (the three studio albums and/or the PT) is better than the rest of the its respective catalogue, but rather that it’s not quite the black sheep that it’s made out to be. Similarly, the partisan back-and-forth that surrounds each is lost on me. (It’s a reason I’m not actively involved in fan club/membership community threads and discussions, though I observe such from afar and in conversation. I just like each for my own enjoyment.) With two more ST films on the way and another DMB studio album in progress, I’m curious to see how each progresses and how the “true fans” will react.

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