A bit of a brouhaha has erupted over a brief passage in Aaron Cometbus’ brilliant tour diary In China With Green Day. What might be the most incisive and insightful thing ever written about a popular band now has certain outraged readers calling for Aaron’s head on a stick.
What they’re exercised about is this:
As excitable as the Japanese fans were, they were still preferable to the comparatively sedate Green Day stalkers back in the States. Those were an eerie bunch, mostly lost-looking middle-aged women and glassy-eyed teens, plus the occasional Green Day groupie family that contained both. Where the dads were, I don’t know—though that may have been the point.
Armed with seemingly inexhaustible expense accounts and trust funds, they crisscrossed the country attending every single Green Day-related event. That kind of frivolousness I could understand in a once-in-a-lifetime or one-last-wish scenario, but not every single week! The decadence of it made me sick. I was grateful, and a bit shocked, that none of them had followed us halfway around the world. The Japanese fans were starstruck, but not crazy enough—or rich enough—to devote their whole lives to the band.
I don’t know if Aaron had any particular individuals in mind, but there definitely are superfans – I personally know a few of them – who do seem to attend “every single Green Day-related event.” And I mean every, from band members’ side projects to anything tangentially involving American Idiot cast members to photo exhibits, literary events or simple social get-togethers that could in any tenuous way be connected to Green Day or the East Bay/Gilman Street scene the band emerged from.
Not, in the immortal words of Jerry Seinfeld, that there’s anything wrong with that. Even if there is, I’m no position to judge, having myself traveled thousands of miles and spent similar amounts of money to watch not only bands, but also 0-0 draws between indifferent and uninspiring English football teams. But some of the superfans felt as though they had been personally singled out for attack by Aaron, and they attacked right back.
“He’s got anxiety about aging, & women being involved in the scene threatens him, so he projects his negativity on the two,” suggested Katelyn Zimmerman via Twitter. “He is in denial of growing up himself cuz he’s in his early 40s,” said Abbey Fox, and “In Aaron Cometbus’ world, it’s only for dudes.” She even tried to contact Bluestockings Books about “a publication you carry that has a sexist and ageist attitude.”
Granted, these opinions are in a minority – reaction as a whole to the new Cometbus has been overwhelmingly positive – but it’s a highly vocal minority of (mostly) women who seem to feel as though they’ve been personally attacked. As someone who’s known Aaron for considerably more than half his life, it’s bizarre to hear him being accused of things like ageism and sexism. If anything, I’ve always thought of him as someone who leans more toward the Berkeley PC end of the spectrum. He’s often spoken out on the importance of female visibility and participation in the scene, as well as the necessity of questioning and challenging habitual ways of seeing things. Just the other day, in fact, he called me out for something I’d written more than 20 years ago, a review of an all-female band that focused on their looks more than would have been the case if it had been an all-male band. Having just re-read the article, I realize he was completely right.
And ageist? I don’t know what your definition of middle-aged is, but Aaron himself probably fits into the demographic. Many if not most of the people he’s closest too are middle-aged as well, or in some cases, just plain old. As long as I’ve known him, even when he was still a teenager, he’s been interested in the wisdom and experience of previous generations, to an extent one rarely sees in the young. So, sexist or ageist? It’s more of a stretch that I can make.
But what about uncharitable? Did he really need to say what he did about certain Green Day fans? Was it essential to the narrative? “Slagging off someone else’s fans is wrong. Particularly when he knows they will read it,” claims Tanya Elder, and Michael Fisher responds, “Aaron has trouble relating to or dealing with his own fans. Solution: push ‘em away.”
Personally, I think anyone who has a problem with Aaron forthrightly expressing his opinions on anyone and everything must not be that familiar with his work. Love him or hate him, agree with him or not, a punch-puller is one thing he can’t be accused of being. In the course of In China With Green Day he describes past incidents where speaking his mind has got him in trouble, and as he and I were going over the manuscript in advance of it being sent to the printer, I pointed out several comments that might have a similar effect. In a couple cases, he softened or removed items; with others, he decided, “Yeah, maybe, but I think I’m going to say it anyway.”
We talked about his description of the superfans – we’d talked about them before as well, not in the context of editing his manuscript, but simply as a point of interest – and while I might have suggested that his words could be seen as a bit harsh, I didn’t recommend deleting them. I anticipated that feelings might be hurt, but thought it was more important that Aaron write as true and faithful an account of his experience on tour as he could. Telling the truth – as, of course, he sees it – is what makes him a great writer.
What really flummoxed me when the uproar arose was simply: why was any particular fan or superfan so certain that it was he or she being talked about? Many, many middle-aged people attend Green Day shows, some on their own, some escorting their young children, and I’d venture that most of them don’t think of themselves as “eerie” or “lost-looking.” And while I’m getting a bit long in the tooth to qualify even as middle-aged, if you’d seen me stumbling around the labyrinth of entrances and exits in search of the will call window at Wembley Stadium last summer, only to discover that my name had been inadvertently left off the guest list, you could have been forgiven for thinking I was a little lost-looking, if not outright eerie.
Yet I never felt there was anything unusual or unacceptable about me being at a Green Day show, and if I’d overheard someone complaining about “old weirdos,” I would have looked around and tried to figure out who they could be talking about. I’m reminded of a time in the 80s or early 90s when in my scene report-cum-gossip column for Lookout magazine, I made an offhand Page 6-style remark about a girl who’d been working her way through the singers of several local bands and, as it happened, infected them all with the same STD.
I didn’t name or describe her; nobody but she and her infected paramours could possibly have known who I was talking about, but the following week she chased me around in front of an audience of 15 or 20 people outside the Maximum Rocknroll radio show, shouting, “How dare you ruin my reputation?” It didn’t matter how many times I pointed out that she was the only one ruining her reputation, that nobody would have known I was talking about her if she hadn’t announced it; she was determined to be insulted and outraged, and her determination was not to be denied.
So I guess I can’t help wondering if the offended superfans have a legitimate reason to assume they’re the ones Aaron was referring to, or if it’s simply a matter of being, like Carly Simon’s protagonist, so vain that they can’t help thinking the song is about them. I should mention that I have met a number of the superfans (a title I’ve hung on them, not one they’ve claimed for themselves, and which only means that they’re more devoted and attend more events than I do) and like nearly all of them. They tend to be bright, friendly, happy people who just happen to have what borders on an obsession with a band that I also happen to like quite a lot.
The ones I’ve met range in age from 16 to, well, a certain age that’s in the same ball park as my own, and none of them struck me as eerie or lost or frightening. If I did see anybody like that at Green Day shows, well, they would have been the ones I didn’t know, and I suspect that may be the case with Aaron as well: he’s observed people acting in ways that seem bizarre or unsettling to him, and based primarily on appearances, made the assessment he did. Would he feel differently if he actually met and conversed with some of the superfans? Very possibly, but then again, maybe not.
Those who feel wronged might be interested to know that this is hardly a new issue: complaints by one set of Green fans about other Green Day fans date back nearly as far as the band itself. From the time Sweet Children began playing regularly at Gilman, there were complaints about “Concord chicks” or “West Delta poseurs” who would line up in front of the stage to do the “trout dance,” which was viewed with considerable indignation by the usual young male crowd working out their testosterone issues in the pit.
The same thing had happened with Operation Ivy, inspiring similar disquiet; while I, as a budding young record label exec, took note of the fact that whenever crowds of girls started accumulating around the stage, it was a reliable sign that a band was about to break out of the punk ghetto, the old school Gilman crowd moaned that the scene was going to hell in a handbasket.
Simply put, no set of Green Day fans – and I suspect this applies to any wildly popular band – has ever, nor probably will ever measure up to the expectations and standards of the fans who were there first, who know in their hearts that Green Day are “their” band, not that of the relative newbies who didn’t discover them until 2004 or 1999 or until Dookie came out or when they were still playing Eggplant’s back yard. Hell, I was at the band’s third or fourth show ever, and I feel a little deficient to those who were smart or lucky enough to be at the Rod’s Hickory Pit show.
Does any of this explain why Aaron said what he did? I have no idea. I suspect it’s more a case of a casual observation than a calculated attack on people who, in his view, might love Green Day just a little too much. By the same token, maybe those who feel so aggrieved might want to wonder just why they were so quick not just to take offense, but to wear the “eerie, lost-looking” mantle like a shroud of victimhood.
We become, as the great Screeching Weasel song had it, what we hate, but we’re also shaped, and in some cases, misshapen, by what and who we choose to love or obsess over. Do I claim to know who loves a band (or a football team, or a way of life or a person) in the “right” way and amount and who goes dangerously overboard? Not even, and I don’t think Aaron does either. I will say that it’s worth thinking about from time to time, and frankly, I believe that’s all Aaron was doing: thinking about it, and inviting us to do the same.