Pop Cults: Differences and Similarities Between Fandom and Religious Devotion

Burmese punk fans

[This is the text from an interview by Professor Rupert Till with Der Falter Magazine in Vienna, Austra]

What is the difference between Fandom and religion in your opinion/in your definition?

It all depends how you define religion really. For some people religion is about believing in a God, that’s the sort of definition often used by people involved in religion, so it’s a bit of a circular argument. In this case the main difference between fandom and religion is that fans worship someone who does not claim to be a God, and that fans would define what they do as different to religion. In the same way religious people would say that what they do is different to fandom, because they worship figures who they believe are beyond human.

But that definition of religion doesn’t work in some cases, as there are religions that don’t have Gods, like types of Buddhism. A more useful definition of religion describes it as those things related to our ultimate concerns, to what is so important to us we feel we have to behave in a particular way. Using this second definition, religion and fandom are less different from one another, and when we look at the two side by sides you can see a lot of similarities between them.

Where are the parallels among them in your opinion/in your definition?                      

They both involve a passionate commitment to someone or something. They also both involve worship, usually of an individual, whose behaviour is beyond question. Both involve people doing things religiously, in a way that seems almost a compulsion. Large amounts of people’s time, effort and money are committed in both cases. Music and ritualised behaviours such as dance, theatre or unusual clothing are often involved. These help to create experiences which involve some kind of ecstatic experience, of being transported to another state of consciousness, a sort of escape from or alternative to day to day life. Sexuality is often involved one way or another, whether fans being attracted to stars who model particular forms of sexual epression, or religions providing other models of sexual behaviour, through rules, practices or instructions.

Beatles fans

Is a pop star someone like a Messiah or even God for his fans?

People copy what Gods and Messiahs do, their iconic status provide role models, individuals base their behaviour on them. These relationships help people to define themselves, help them to decide how they might act, and how they fit in with their communities. Some people today have lost faith in traditional religious figures, and look elsewhere for examples to look up to. Fans often base their appearance on their idols, just as many religious communities have typical ways of looking. They also read interviews with them, and copy their behaviour. A God is someone to look to for inspiration, and to guide us on how to behave, pop stars are certainly treated like a God by many people. Stars collect fanatics in large groups at concerts, they wear special costumes, and stand raised up on stages with lighting and video screens making them seem larger than life, more than human, with special (musical) powers that make them different to ordinary people.

Are there existing „real“ and „fake“ religions in your opinion?

It is difficult to logically separate one religion from another. Some religions start as a cult, based on the teaching of one living person who demands absolute loyalty from their disciples, who have to give up their money and jobs to follow a radical set of beliefs that are a distortion of an established religion. Some of these cults require members to believe in the magical powers of some living God, and to follow the instructions of leaders unquestioningly. But this could be a description of Christianty, as well as of new religious movements like Scientology and Unitarianism. A cult is just a four letter word for a religion you don’t like. All gods are real, brought into existence by those who believe in them.

For me fake religions are the ones that clearly do harm to their members, or that encourage participants to harm other people. Some religions have encouraged people to kill themselves or attack others, and these are the ones that one might warn against as “fake”, as not being things anyone should take part in. But then again, many major religions have advocated holy wars or crusades in the past, have encouraged their members to kill and be killed in the name of their God. What is real to one person is fake to another, and vice versa. Sadly these more dangerous beliefs are just as real as any other.

Metal Fans 2

What are the reasons and motivations when a person becomes a „hard“ fan or even a fanatic? Are there parallels to a person who lives a devout life?

This seems to be tied up in how people develop their characters, and how they fit into societies. When very young, or very immature, we all tend to believe what we are told. When we reach adolescence, we have a number of different social circles that we need somehow to integrate, amongst families, friends and in school for example, and we look for some kind of organisation that can make sense of these competing pressures. Many people look at this turbulant stage in their lives for something very specific and unchanging, something that provides a sense of belonging. What can also appeal is a set of hard and fast rules, that are laid out in black and white, an alternative to the confusing and messy reality of grey uncertainties we experience as we begin to fear that the truths we were told as children are not as simple as we thought.

So fanatics and devout followers of both pop stars and religions, are looking for something that has solid boundaries, a type of belonging that is theirs and not inherited from their families. It provides a structure within which they can live without having to try to work eveything out themselves. It is a relief from having to build a personality from scratch individually; it provides a whole system of behaviours that comes as a package, whether that’s being a hardcore metal fan or a member of a fundamentalist religious group. It also sets one aside as different from the rest of the world, and yet provides belonging and a sense of identity. It tends to focus on someone to look up to, who the fanatic identifies with, someone who other people worship, the devout follower trying to be as much like them as possible.

Perhaps the other thing that characterises the fanatic from someone less committed, is the degree of effect on the person’s life. Often for the more extreme enthusiast this is something that takes over their lives somewhat, that they are involved with all the time, every day, rather than just once in a while. They act in a somewhat obsessive manner, rather than their interests being a balanced part of their lives.

Metal fans

Does the “fan religion” replace the “church-related”-religion in history in your opinion?

Feeling part of a social group, developing identity amongst adolescents, understanding your place in the world, exploring ones emotions and the way you relate to other people, are fundamental needs within human culture. They are the glue that sticks communities together, and has allowed humanity to work in teams to achieve remarkable things. They are a social technology every bit as important to human development as fire, the wheel or farming. In the past these social functions were usually met by religions, but many of these have fallen out of favour, whether due to scandals, or people turning to science for our understanding of the world. Pop cults operate like a religion; many young people have used participation in popular music scenes or fandom to replace the social functions formally fulfilled by religions, such as community belonging, provision of heroic figures to look up to, and development of an individual’s identity. As well as that, whereas in the past people would go to churches and temples to dance, sing and have transcendent experiences, now these often happen in commercial popular music contexts, such as clubs, gigs and music festivals.

In an interview with the Guardian, Lady Gaga refers to her Monster Ball tour as “a religious experience”, becoming for many an alternative to organised faith. What do you think about the Lady Gaga „movement“? Is this already religion?

There is a term academics use call “liminal”, which is a place that is outside of normal life, where the usual rules don’t apply, and where people go to experience something different in a highly ritualised setting. This is the central section of any ritual, and it is usually facilitated by someone who knows how to guide people into, through and out of the liminal space. Priests and religious leaders of many kinds are often highly skilled at using music and elements of theatre to create a sense of otherness that helps people to let go of their day to day lives and alter their state of consciousness, to be free of their normal limits. Lady Gaga is also really good at this. Her Monster tour used stage sets, costumes and themes of sin, demons, sexuality and rebirth, to create an otherworldly atmosphere, where many normal social conventions are broken. Here people can feel free to imagine themselves in Gaga’s alternative universe, led into something new, but safe in their seats, within a set of rules and boundaries that make them feel safe. Just as Madonna understood how to make her music act like a religion, drawing upon religious imagery and content as in Like a Prayer or Like a Virigin, Gaga understands how to draw upon the same methods that are used by religions, to transport her audiences to another place. Gaga is not a religion, but she is like a religion, she uses many of the same techniques as religion, and fulfils many of the functions formally met by religions.

Gaga Fans

Do you understand your book „Pop Cult“ as a scientific book?

My work follows solid scientific principals, such as that it is based on logic, evidence and rationality, proposes a hypothesis that it provides evidence for. But I also understand that science is a form of religion. Science is the prevailing system we use today to understand our world. Most people don’t really understand a lot of what scientists tell us, we trust that things like Higgs Boson particles, dark matter, superstrings and universal field theory are real and not just made up. We have faith in what science says because of the miraculous things it is able to do. In reality some scientific concepts are terms for things we do not fully understand, a useful shorthand to fill a space that lacks evidence, and theories that are offered up as fact.

On the experimental edges of science, we start to understand a world that is not so different from religion. At the time of the big bang, none of what we think of as the laws of physics work any more. Dark matter is a term used to describe a massive hole in our understanding of the universe, we have no evidence it exists, but scientists believe it exists as otherwise a lot of their calculations make no sense. Similarly superstrings are an idea suggested as a way to explain something we don’t understand. Things we take for granted, like gravity, time, energy and mass, are in reality complex subjects that we don’t fully understand, although scientists know enough about how they work most of the time, to use that understanding to harness their powers in machines and engineered solutions.

Scientists, along with the devoutly religious and fanatical worshippers of pop stars, all present the things they focus on as unchallengable, as things that should be trusted without question. My research suggests one way of looking at things that might be useful to other people, acknowledging that nothing is absolutely certain or useful in all contexts. This is an approach that is the antithesis of the dogmatic fanatic, and a perspective I share with the most advanced scientists, alongside sophisticated appreciators of music, and those with mature spiritual beliefs. Fanaticism allows you to ignore flaws in your argument, and can be very powerful, as it gives great focus and energy to a cause. But generally as you become older, this zealous focus on one thing diffuses as you start to understand how little you know, and how much there is to gain from looking further afield and learning from a wider spread of interests. My work draws upon scientific principles but I oppose the idea that scientific approaches are all that is valid. Just as I am more interested in spritualities and cosmology than dogmatic religion. For fanatics interested in science, music and religion, their narrow focus is the most important thing that exists. For me it is the way people relate to one another that is important, which is a subject that has no right and wrong answers.