Indian Idol and Flash Fandom

Curator's Note

In summer 2007, media coverage of Indian Idol-3 focused on how finalist Amit Paul managed to create a space for people in northeast India to cast aside decades-old separatist identities. In Shillong and other northeastern Indian cities, hundreds of people took to the streets to express their support for Amit Paul. Incredulous journalists from mainstream media outlets – who rarely cover northeast India – noted that Paul’s fans seemed to look past linguistic and ethnic identifications. Following along online, I was struck by this moment of fan expression and excited to see rallies on the streets of Shillong with people from different age groups carrying banners and posters announcing the formation of an Amit Paul Fan Club. Given the broader socio-historical context and tensions in northeast India, I also found myself asking if we can expect this moment of fandom to have any sort of lasting impact on inter-personal relationships in this region. How will different stakeholders cash in on Amit Paul? The state government had already appointed Amit Paul a brand ambassador of peace and communal harmony, and with elections to be held in February 2008, it was clear that politicians were keen to leverage Amit Paul for their campaigns. Further, given the structure of the show, isn’t it unfair to expect an Amit Paul fan community to cohere and sustain itself for a long period of time? After all, there will be an Indian Idol-4. How, then, do we think about this instance of fan expression and politics? Would it be useful to conceptualize this as an instance of flash fandom? Flash fandom - like a flash mob, a fan community that coheres for a brief time period and draws people together but is so inclusive that it can only be fleeting. I think this notion of flash fandom allow us to acknowledge that this was a space of sociality that allowed people to transcend rigid definitions of identity and, crucially, doesn’t force us to pose the “so what” question in entirely negative/cynical terms. Perhaps we could even argue, more broadly, that flash fandom is *the* modality of fandom for reality TV.


I like the concept of 'flash fandom' -- potentially very useful in drawing our attention to the different temporalities and cyclical possibilities of contemporary fandom, as fan investments perhaps shift, year-on-year, in relation to new series or seasons of reality TV. The concept reminds me a little of what I called 'just-in-time' fandom in Fan Cultures, i.e. the idea that expressions of fandom might be bound up with the broadcasting times and rhythms of the fan object. Though this may enable us to avoid thinking of such fan modality as 'inauthentic', does it fully evade the 'so what?' question. For me, anyway, a question that does remain is this: to what extent are these temporalities/modalities of fandom replaying the media/TV industry's definitions of cyclical 'eventness'? And hence, even though there may be greatly progressive possibilities inherent in these seemingly restricted times and spaces of fan sociality and communitas (Victor Turner would approve of this, perhaps!), if such fan events -- rallies, emotional unity and so on -- are tied to media 'events', then aren't these still formally or structurally tied to media power even while they substantively and perhaps temporarily open up new cultural possibilities? Put more succinctly; do we still need a dialectic of power and communitas, of liminal/liminoid fandom, to think through the suggestive and evocative notion of 'flash fandom'? And what of those fans who perhaps refuse to let go of last year's idol; would they be deemed culturally deviant, thus regenerating old stereotypes of fans who can't let go and won't move on at the industry's appointed time(s)? Is it culturally acceptable to be a fan, but only as long as you express this identity at the right (flash) time, as a 'proper' response to industry/commercial product releases?

Aswin, I really like your notion of "flash fandom", particularly in this case where the unexpected flurry of responses supporting Amit Paul calls attention to the invisibility of northeastern India in both popular culture in politics. Your instance of flash fandom indicates a return of the repressed in "virtual" and televisual geographies and the ways that the intersection of geography, audibility/visibility, and identity is evolving in current convergences between television and technologies. At the same time, your mobilization of flash fandom avoids the technoutopian trap. My concern would be, however, that the term flash fandom may come close to assuming the use of the cell phone and new media technologies. While outside the scope of this post, can we talk about flash fandom and its relationship to space in offline acts or historicize the ways that flash fandom evolves [e.g., how letter-writing campaigns and text messaging are interconnected but distinct phenomena]?

Matt - thanks for those terrific questions! Let me say right away that I had your ideas re "just-in-time" fandom and the question of temporality in mind as I wrote this. To begin with, I wasn't sure of "flash fandom" being the most useful concept to explain this moment of fan expression. I was toying with the term "mobile publics." And I think "mobile publics" forces us to outline how rallying around Amit Paul was shaped in very specific ways by the dynamics of the TV-cell phone industry relationship. I also wonder if using the term "publics" might bring in the question of media power in much more direct ways than just "flash fandom" does. Perhaps there is a way to think about flash fandom as a subset of many different kinds of "mobile publics" in a convergent media environment. Ben - I agree that it is critical to not limit this to new media technologies. In fact, it is clear even in this case that the SMS voting, structured by the show, was only the starting point. Activities organized by the Shillong Music and Arts Lovers Forum, for e.g., were less about new media and more about tapping into a longer history of music fandom in Shillong and other parts of the northeast. And it is also striking to note how this brought together people across age groups with very different experiences with media technology (an 84 year old woman, for instance, wrote letters and drew portraits of Amit Paul).

This discussion is beginning to remind me of the issues that Joshua Green and I looked at in our article on the "public sphere on the beach" (European J of Cultural Studies 9:3), where we talked about a "cultural public sphere" forming where mainstream media temporarily turn their attention to goings-on that might otherwise appear only as counter-cultural, certainly not political in any modernist sense. Our example was the "race riot" that occurred on Cronulla beach in Australia in 2005, but I think the concept might also apply to exorbitant fannish outbreaks like the ones mentioned by Aswin. Another example might be the hoo-ha surrounding Li Yuchun, winner of the "Mongolian Cow Sour Yoghurt Super Voice Girl" Idol-type contest on Hunan TV, also in 2005. One of the reasons given by the authorities for not proceeding with a "Super Boy" contest or further "Super Girls" was fans' unruly behavior in shopping malls and other "public" places as they canvassed votes for their favorite contestant. In other words, we need a term to describe the occasional irruption of politically volatile meanings from marginal places, be they Shillong, Cronulla or Hunan, into mainstream media attention. I think "mobile publics" might just be that term.

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