Fandom, in theory, is great. It’s a way for people to connect through common interests, share and deepen their love of something that’s important to them, and maybe even contribute to that thing through fanworks, analysis, archiving, and so on. The spread of the internet has expounded this, since now people with even the most obscure interests can find each other and network. In an era where geographical affiliations mean less and less, it’s an increasingly common way of building imagined communities.
In practice, though? Fandom is often kind of stupid, if not actively toxic. It’s worth remembering that the theory of imagined community was originally an explanation for the phenomenon of nationalism, and it shows — you see the same sort of aggressive insularism, the tendency to get defensive at the slightest criticism, the need to create elaborate justifications for offenses when they’re not overlooked altogether. People without a strong sense of personal identity build it around fandom the same way they might build it around nationalism, and the results are the same — only instead of supporting a border wall, it means writing tirades about who gets to call themselves “real gamers.” The latter isn’t as actively harmful, of course, but it makes up for it in sheer incomprehensible meaninglessness.
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Death Metal Is a Joke (And That’s Alright)
Detroit Metal City is about how ridiculous it is to take a hobby so seriously it becomes your entire self. The manga-turned-anime-turned-film tells the story of Negishi — a small-town boy who moves to Tokyo to start a fashionable pop band — and his accidental rise as Johannes Krauser II, the king of death metal. According to the legends, Krauser raped and murdered his parents as a child and now rules as an all-powerful demon overlord who emerges from hell only to scream songs with lyrics like “I don’t have any friends or lovers because I killed them.” His special ability is saying “rape” ten times in one second and he has the kanji for “kill” written on his forehead.
Of course, the people behind the band are a joke. “Krauser” is a wimpy virgin who lives by the dictates of lifestyle magazines, bassist Jagi-sama is a sycophantic playboy with a crush on their manager, and drummer Camus is a filthy-minded otaku. Not one of them has the slightest interest in the so-called death metal lifestyle. But despite how fake the titular Detroit Metal City is — and how ridiculous it is to have grown men in full-face makeup and flashy costumes singing about how the world is in the palm of their hands — the fans absolutely eat it up. No matter what Krauser does, they find a way to make it contribute to his legend — even if it’s something like humping Tokyo Tower. If Krauser is ridiculous, that means they’re ridiculous too. So whatever he does, no matter how absurd, must be death metal.
This is silly, of course, but there’s a certain level of performativity to it, on the part of the fans as well as the band members. For instance, it turns out that one of the hardcore believers who appears in almost every episode gets the money to attend DMC concerts by playing the hero in a Power Rangers-style stage show at an amusement park. Negishi’s elderly neighbor gets into DMC after a run-in with their manager reminds him of the wild and crazy days of his youth. A young couple brings their toddler daughter to a concert, where she cheerfully sings “all I want is your lower body.” It’s easy to imagine these people going home, making dinner, living perfectly ordinary lives. It’s just a hobby for them, which is exactly what it should be — if you want to paint your face and scream about rape and murder with a bunch of other like-minded people a few times a month, why not? Don’t bring small children to loud concerts, but aside from that, there’s nothing wrong with it. Bending over backwards to make their idol’s antics seem cool and edgy is just part of the fun.
Trendiness Turned Toxic
If anything, Negishi is the one who has a problem for failing to understand this. His entire sense of self is built around a very specific sort of externally-defined trendiness — certain brands, certain genres of music, certain neighborhoods, all chosen less from genuine interest and more because they’re perceived as stylish — and we never see his interests deviate from that in the slightest. The kind of songs he wants to sing are utterly insipid, with lyrics like “should we sleep in the same bed tonight?/No, it might be too soon for that.” His life is hollow, vapid, and repressed. He can only express his feelings honestly through Krauser, and even then he’s just exchanging one façade for another. This is why he’s so threatened by DMC — since his own identity is built around fandom, he finds it impossible to imagine that others might just see it as a hobby.
The fact that this is only a problem to Negishi is made all the more clear by the fact that no one else takes the metalheads even a little seriously. TV hosts and interviewers react to their threats of violence with the bored frustration of professionals. When Negishi goes back home to visit his parents and discovers that his little brother has become a hardcore DMC fanatic, their mother’s only reaction is a disappointed sigh that he won’t help with the chores anymore. Oh, and she wears his death metal t-shirt as an apron. They treat it as what it is — a hobby and a performance — because that’s what fandom is to them.
But right now, nerd culture exists in a place closer to Negishi’s all-consuming pop than DMC’s irony-heavy death metal, epitomized by real-life loot boxes with random assortments of merch from media properties associated with “nerdiness.” The assumption that if you’re into Overwatch, you’ll be into Star Wars and Rick and Morty and Deadpool as well is a little bizarre, but that’s how this particular imaginary community has been defined — these are Nerd Properties, and if you’re a True Nerd, of course you’ll like them. It’s no different than how anyone who didn’t like pop singer Kahimi Karie would get drummed out of Negishi’s trendy circles.
And of course, with a sense of identity built around media comes insecurity. Any attack on that thing — no matter how slight — becomes a personal attack. Anyone claiming to be part of it with any less fanaticism than oneself becomes the enemy. You forget that it’s just a hobby, not your whole life — and you wind up looking even more ridiculous than a metalhead going crazy over Krauser spanking someone with a tambourine.