A historical study explores the reactions of music fans to inventive changes by artists.
Exactly what constitutes “authenticity” in a musical form: Is it a static repetition of the original, or evolution and growth? According to musician and historian Pilzer (A Six String History of America, 2014), “These twin goals, purity on one hand and expansion on the other, have often been in opposition.” Fans become so deeply invested in a musical form that they feel they know best what adds up to the real thing. Such fans take umbrage when artists move the music in a different direction. Pilzer details this phenomenon of “fan ownership” and how it plays out in diverse genres, including bluegrass, country, folk, rock, and rap. He also includes sections on specific artists like the Beatles, Miles Davis, and Amy Grant for their singular status either as exceptions to or particularly vehement examples of this purist zeal. Perhaps the best known example is Bob Dylan’s electrified performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. After years of cultivating an image as a folk traditionalist, Dylan’s sudden use of electric instruments seemed to many of his fans a monumental betrayal. Pilzer also delivers a pithy summation of a similar incident involving Jim and Jesse and the Osborne Brothers, two bluegrass groups: “The musicians were going to work; some fans were going to church.” As a historian, the author is a master of the succinct. His subject matter is enthralling, and his prose is ever clear, concise, and a joy to behold. Perhaps Pilzer’s most emblematic instance of this “holier than thou” phenomenon is Christian artist–turned–crossover performer Grant. Her fans were not only possessed by a religious fervor for her original style, but also felt her change defied Christianity itself. Groups, organizations, and media outlets are not immune to issues of fan ownership, the author shows in his engrossing book. He also deftly demonstrates the effects of fandom on institutions like the Grand Ole Opry.
A cogent and well-written examination of fans, this book belongs on the shelves of music lovers.