Fan Empowerment Days


He did it for England.

Zac Monro, a 32-year-old London architect, took home the gold, and a $2,000 handmade guitar, in the seventh annual Air Guitar World Championship in the port city of Oulu, Finland. Monro, using the stage name Mr. Magnet, out-gestured 11 other finalists from the U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

At the risk of reading too much into the fact that so many of the contestants hailed from nations associated with the British Commonwealth, there may be a lesson here about how popular culture gets digested. It's not simpering Anglophilia to say that the members of the extended English family have a relatively healthy recognition of the contingent, ephemeral nature of pop success. You might not know it from the long shelf lives of Pleistocene-era knights Paul McCartney and Elton John, but U.K. performers have always been rightly regarded as performing for an audience whose silliness and fickleness is not only recognized but celebrated. That drunken listener antics should eventually emerge as an art form akin to if not on a par with the production of pop music itself is a logical, and just, end to the complex relationship between artist and fan.

It's a sensibility worlds away from the monumental, High Modernist worldview that has American critics rifling through their thesauruses for words that will not identify The Rising as a musical soporific without a single catchy song. We don't know who first advanced the notion of the performer as lone man of genius with an integrity independent of the shenanigans he must pull to draw a crowd; but that person deserves a place in rock-n'-roll Hell even deeper than the one reserved for Lynn Cheney. Parental advisories and morals crusades may be dangerous to pop; Importance is deadly.

Fortunately, high points of flatulent self-regard tend to generate their own antitheses. The DIY ethic of the early punkers was a direct reaction to one of the most mind-bogglingly pompous eras in the history of rock. A different sort of dethroning of the pop star may be going on today. Audiences who once condemned the Monkees for not playing their own instruments or expressed revulsion when Milli Vanilli's lip-syncing was exposed have become comfortable watching (if not listening to) unapologetic promoter-driven concoctions like O-Town. Fox's hit American Idol, whose very appeal is the soulless fakery involved in making a star, appears likely to survive the ouster of fan favorite Tamyra Gray.

Mr. Magnet's own brand of participatory subversion has boomed in recent years, not merely in the form of karaoke but through such cult favorites as the Metallica Drummer video. Even the groupie tell-all site Donna's Long and Short Of It can easily be seen as another means for fans to get in and mix it up, on an equal footing, with the stars. These fan fantasies have a source in the legend of Scott Halpin, the 19-year-old fan called in to fill in on drums for a smashed and incontinent Keith Moon during a 1973 concert by The Who.

The message in all of these developments is clear: Anybody can do it. It's just a matter of time before Mr. Magnet brings home a Grammy.