Strong emotions, loud music

How Rock Fandom helps us escape and discover ourselves

By Anna Lillioja

Have you ever heard of the ‘wall of death’? A mass of people, usually the audience at a hard rock concert, splits into two parts. The momentum is built up, people ready themselves. Then: they run towards each other as modern day gladiators, crashing bodies in the middle. Sounds dangerous? According to Australian research the energy that is released through engaging in rock music and fan practices actually helps alienated youth gain self-confidence and creates a sense of belonging.

These findings are one the reasons that Jonathan McHugh – famous for his films on Janis Joplin and X Japan – decided to make a documentary on the phenomenon of rock fandom. His new film, Long Live Rock, had its world premiere on the 15th of August on the Tartu Love Film Festival. In the film we follow famous musicians and their biggest fans on their way to one of the biggest rock music festivals in the U.S, Rock on the Range.
We had a talk with McHugh on the afternoon of his premiere day to find out what makes rock music and its fans unique.

One of the questions your film poses is: Is rock dead? What do you think yourself? Is rock dead?
When I grew up, rock music was mainstream and being a rock music fan was still a way for youngsters to rebel. Now, many of the die hard rockers have become parents and grandparents themselves. Dance music is big. Hip hop has mainly taken on the task to help teenagers find their own voice and oppose their parents. What remains, is the binding character of rock music. The way in which rock music creates a community throughout generations and walks of life. That is what the movie is about.

In the film we witness the impact of the death of Sound Garden’s singer Chris Cornell, who committed suicide just before he was about to perform at Rock on the Range. How did this event become important for your film?
Firstly, we noticed how much impact his death had on the whole rock community. We were actually supposed to interview Cornell on the same day that he died. Instead, the whole festival became a tribute to Cornell – which showed the immense strength and togetherness of this community. When the frontman of Linkin Park, Chester Bennington, also took his own life two months later, though, it became clear that we had to address this subject more directly in the film.

Why do you think rock music has a dark side and many musicians struggle with depression or addiction?
From what I have understood, the belief among psychologists is that the affinity to be on stage and to become a big artist persona stems from wanting to overcompensate for something that is missing. Alcohol and drugs can mask dark feelings to some point and suicidality is sometimes part of that experience of wanting to escape yourself.

Of course, all music can be a means to escape everyday life. But rock music, it seems, has a specific quality about it which invites people who seek to escape. Many of the fans I met and filmed had experienced big losses in their lives. One woman had lost her mother and two brothers to opioid addicition. For these people rock music fandom is a safe harbour, where they can live out their painful emotions through music. Maybe it’s true; that the stronger the emotions you are feeling, the louder the music you will find solace in needs to be.

Can you explain how rock music can help people to gain self-confidence and grow as a person?
There are two aspects to the answer to this question: the feeling of community and the potential for expression of inner emotions. Oftentimes, this is what drives somewhat alienated or bullied kids to become rockers. They seek the music and its loudness to pour their emotions into and to feel recognized. But something else happens simultaneously. They become part of a new community; the community of rockers. The protection of belonging to this community and the appearances that go with it – dark clothes, tattoos, piercings – arm them from further bullying. They are not alone anymore and stronger for it.

Another aspect of the growth one can experience through being part of this community, is the way it pushes you to step outside of yourself. At a rock concert people are almost as if under a spell. During the show of one of my own favourite bands, Rage Against the Machine, I even considered joining the mosh pit. Something I would never contemplate, when thinking clearly. When I was filming the documentary about Cosplay (the art of becoming a character you love, practiced by comic fans, ed.) I met a person who discovered they were transgender through dressing up as a female comic character. Fandom, thus, is a means to escape, but also to discover things about yourself.