Musical Fan Communities Event: 29th May 2015, Portsmouth University

Kirsty Sedgman speaking at Musical Fan CommunitiesHow do fans deal with texts in other languages?

This was the key question at yesterday’s conference, which marked the launch of an exciting new interdisciplinary project investigating fan activity across national and linguistic borders.

Hosted by Laura MacDonald and Jonathan Evans at the University of Portsmouth, the event featured a range of papers from academic and industry scholars and explored how fans translate and form communities around the genre of musicals: in the theatre, in film and on TV.

In his paper ‘Investigating Community-building Devices and Collective Identities in Fan Communities’, Luis Pérez González discussed the interface between translation and fandom. By focusing on the practice of ‘fansubbing’ (fan-led subtitling of films and TV programmes) González demonstrated the agency of translators, showing how increased technological sophistication increasingly affords amateur ‘subbers’ the opportunity to become producers – rather than simply mediators – of meaning. Similarly, Doug Reside of the NYC Public Library described how fan ‘bootleggers’ distributing illicit recording of musical performances in many ways become active performers themselves. Engaging in this ‘perversely social’ illegal activity involves tension between the almost philanthropic urge to share their ‘gifts’ with others (a ‘strange impulse’, as Reside put it) and the need to retain some control over the extent of this sharing in order to accumulate cultural capital.

This friction between the desire for communal experience and the deployment of expertise was investigated in a number of other papers. Kirsty Sedgman (pictured) analysed audiences’ responses to Smash, the NBC TV show that was cancelled in 2013. Drawing data from YouTube video comments, fan forum posts and backers’ reactions to the recent (controversial) Kickstarter campaign, Sedgman explained how a sense of competition mitigated against successful actuation of communal feeling during the mismanaged scuffle for tickets. While Smash fans sought to construct an imagined version of Bombshell (the in-text musical production based on the life of Marilyn Monroe) as a way of managing their feelings of loss, Ken Cerniglia from Disney talked about how fan demand actually brought onstage versions of High School Musical and Newsies to life, with corporations increasingly sensitive to the power of fan activity (such as YouTube videos of amateur acapella Disney songs) yet continually needing to balance intellectual property concerns against audiences’ desires.

Michela Baldo’s paper ‘Translating musicals for queer drag performances in Italy’ explained how Italian performance group Eyes Wide Drag adapted well-known musical numbers – for example, by taking Chicago‘s ‘Cell Block Tango’ and interspersing the lip-synched original with newly rewritten lyrics – queering their traditionally heteronormative narratives. On the same panel, music scholar Haekyung Um’s discussion of K-Pop, and Russell Dembin’s discussion of Sondheim, showed how committed fan communities form around very different kinds of texts. This message was reinforced by popular culture researcher Lincoln Geraghty, who reflected in his closing response on how the personal connections fans form with beloved performances tend to play an important role in the formation of self identity.

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