Fan. Performer with fans in the crowd.

Finding Inspiration in our Favorites: What it Means to be a Fan

This is the nature of fanaticism, to attract and promote extremes of behavior.
~Michael Chrichton

I’m a big fan!

To some, this statement engenders a visceral negative reaction. Many people want to be admired for what they do, and some people, such as authors, musicians, and actors, depend on it for their livelihood. But there are different levels of fandom. Some are healthy and appropriate, and some are extreme, bordering on harassment.

What is a fan?

The word “fan” is a shortened version of “fanatic,” meaning marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion. It comes from the Latin fanaticus, the definition of which I like even more: insanely but divinely inspired. The spectrum of fandom ranges from admiring and appreciating someone’s work, to being influenced by them, to trying to emulate them, to worshiping them, all the way to trying to become part of their lives.

We are all fans.

We have our favorite musicians, authors, actors, or artists (I’ll collectively call them artists). Everyone reaches the first level of fandom.

Sometimes, we are moved so much by someone’s work that it affects the way we think, feel, or approach our own creative endeavors. We are influenced in some way. It may be that their work reached us on an emotional level or helped us see the world in a different way. Sometimes, a creative work can help us define and come to terms with deep emotions (see Sad). If we’re the creative type, being influenced means the work had an impact on the way we approach our own work—it gave us a new creative spark or an idea that we incorporate into our own art. To me, this is a healthy way of being a fan. We are all influenced to some extent by what we’re exposed to, and being intentional about that is a good thing.

There’s a big leap between influence and emulation. If we start to feel like we want to be more like our favorite artist, we’ve reached the next level of fandom. This is a gray area in terms of how healthy or appropriate it is. On the one hand, emulating a person’s artistic approach, or even their sense of style or personality, is just a more intense version of influence. But if we go too far, we might start to lose our sense of self. We might lose originality in who we are or what we’re creating. It’s important to keep ourselves grounded in who we are, and if we start to emulate someone we admire, we lose that.

From emulation, it’s a short journey to worship. In this category of fandom, people start to have a warped sense of the importance of the artist, pushing back against any criticism. They might go so far as to buy into a cult of personality that surrounds the artist—a group of people who feel the same way and feed off of each others’ enthusiasm. If we admire an artist so much that we can’t or won’t see anything that’s not wonderful, we’ve likely lost our ability to think critically about that artist—our opinions are not honest, and we’re overlooking all the bad and only seeing the good.

The most extreme side of being a fan is trying to insert ourselves into our favorite artists’ lives. We hang around where we think the person is going to be and accost them. We may go so far as to stalk them—we find out where they live and trespass on their property. The most dangerous part of this kind of fan is that they’re generally operating under a delusion. They’ve created scenarios in which they see themselves as friends or romantic partners of the artist. “How can we both think and feel in exactly the same way and not be best friends?” It’s dangerous, both to the fan and to the artist.

The role of the artist

The relationship between artists and fans is a two-way street. Some artists, like some fans, have a healthy view of the relationship. They interact with their fans and try to encourage an appropriate fan-artist relationship. Many, if not most, artists devote some time to interacting with fans—giving autographs and otherwise providing a chance for loyal fans to interact with them in a healthy way.

There are also artists who thrive on the more extreme fans. The buy into their own cult of personality and need that level of worship for their own inflated self-image. This behavior can result in an extremely unhealthy and often dangerous relationship. The artist encourages this extreme version of fandom, which may end in aggressive fan behavior or even altercations and violence.

Do artists have an obligation to provide access to fans? That’s a good question. Many view it as “just part of the job.” They make the time, either from a sense of obligation or for good PR, to sell more records/books/tickets. However, some artists do not feel this obligation. They feel that they are just creators of their art and that fans can access them strictly through their art. Fans may balk at this—“how can they not make themselves available when we’re being so loyal to them and making them rich?” Ultimately, though, there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these approaches.

Finding inspiration and enjoyment in being a fan

Being a fan is fun. I’m a very enthusiastic fan of many musicians, actors, and authors, and I really enjoy digging deeply into their work. Part of this process is understanding who they are and how they came to create these great works, understanding their creative process, and following the evolution of their creative output, which inherently involves going to beyond the art to better know the artist. But I also have a firm line I never cross. If I see someone I’m a fan of in public, I wouldn’t dream of interrupting their dinner or otherwise invading their privacy. If the artist is at a public event, that’s a different story—they are there explicitly for their fans.

I also look for inspiration from the works of my favorite artists. I often use others’ musical ideas in my own writing and performing. Sometimes this means performing their work (e.g., playing a cover of their songs). Sometimes it means using someone else’s technique or approach in playing my own music. I’m also influenced by the feel or groove of certain artists’ approaches in what I’m playing. The key for me is not to just copy what someone else is doing but rather to bring what they’re doing in as an influence without losing my own unique voice.

A meaningful life almost always involves immersion in an art form, which can be as basic as watching movies or as involved as being a serious artist. Through our interaction with art, we get to know ourselves better. Being a fan of artists can be a rewarding part of that interaction, and it can be fun.

In finding inspiration in others, we can more easily find ourselves.

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