from Even If Your Voice Shakes – Issue #2, Fall 2008
A member of the radical union Industrial Workers of the World IWW, in his maybe his 40’s, came up to me once in Chicago: “I’m not into autographs, but I am into irony”. With that he handed me his Red Card, the little folded piece of paper that shows his membership to the IWW, and a pen. “Me too”, I said, as I took his Red Card and signed it. I thought it was a lovely and rather funny scenario. Here is this sorta-old timer, a radical union-member asking me to sign one of the most significant papers he carries, out of respect because I am singing songs that make him feel the power of his/our politics, and carrying on the tradition of the IWW hero Joe Hill. So some coming from this dude it was certainly a gesture of solidarity and respect, and a big compliment. Not giving me the social power in the situation, but a mutual-appreciation of each other.
Unfortunately, most autograph run-ins are much more awkward, star-struck, and weird, and undoubtedly give the social power to the signer. As a radical musician and increasingly a “personality” (the name given to you when people think they know who you are because they listen to your music or have read about you), I wanna take a stand against autographs and autograph-culture. And I wanna do this because the autograph represents to much about our society and culture.
Wikipedia traces the big autograph craze to the 1920’s and the emergence of major U.S. sports stars, like Babe Ruth and Red Grange, and the emergence of autograph collecting and trading to the murder of John Lennon and attacks against Reagan and Pope John Paul II, which caused a world-wide increase in personal security details. So when it became much harder to approach these famous people, the autograph, according to the general rules of economics, became an expensive scarcity.
By the 90’s, the online-autographs trading industry seems to have become the typical medium for profiting form people’s signatures. Collectors hassle famous people in various way; outside of sports arenas, at the airport, on the street outside of a restaurant, and, according to Wikipedia, “some dealers would locate a celebrity’s home address and write to them repeatedly asking for autographs.” These people then sell the autographs to collectors, who I assume worship them from the other side of glass cases before the re-sell them later when the price increases.
Within this culture, there are those who refuse their signatures and there are those who sign often, and of course there are in betweens. People like Michael Jordan didn’t sign for safety reasons, because autograph-nuts would threaten to pile his vehicle. George Foreman allegedly records the names and addresses of every person who has requested an autograph from him so he can check against repeat-offenders. Kinda crazy huh?
Some stars also personally sell their autographs to the harassing trader, recognizing the value of their signature and wanting to get a piece of it, which is arguably economically fair. Of course, sports stars are not hurting for money, as we all know, but the autograph collecting eBay dealer probably isn’t either.
As I see it, there is a larger social and cultural context through which to view the autograph argument, one in which the star carries a lot of social power and responsibility.
TO SIGN OR NOT TO SIGN
Sometimes when someone approaches you for you signature, you feel as though refusing would be taken as a gesture of holy-than-thou stardom, or a selfish disrespect for “your fans”. A typical scenarios is a younger person, perhaps in their mid-teens, who approaches you in a very shy and submissive way, and they want you to sign something. So you are faced with the decision to sign or not to sign, taking in the context that you are in a dominant social position. While this doesn’t happen nearly as much in the “underground” radical music scene, it certainly happens enough for me.
It is hard, when approached with an autograph request, to go separate ways without one feeling awkward. For instance, if someone asks me for a signature, and I flatly refuse, the asker is gonna walk away feeling shit-on, like I’m a selfish asshole and they a re not important. If I refuse nicely, with a conversation, they may leave feeling silly. But what about me? I don’t want people coming up to me for my signature, as if that represents anything about or contributes in any way to a friendship or the development of an alternative culture. So why should I sign? If I sign flatly, I leave feeling like I didn’t stand up for my desire to not be a “star”. If I refuse to sign flatly, I leave feeling like that was a mean thing to do. It’s all complicated.
To add to the general social complications involved in such encounter, involving multiple layers of social and cultural power, dominant and submissive “roles” being played, and multiple options of where to take the encounter, there are the personal complications of the moment. Like, say I just finished performing and I need to take a piss because I just woofed down 4 glasses of water during my set. Or I just sang an emotionally-charged group of songs about deeply important issues/people, and someone comes up not to talk to me or relate or introduce themselves and share a story, but just to silently get my signed-name on a piece of paper and then leave, maybe just to have it, maybe to show it to someone, or, hopefully not too much for me, to sell it to one of those freak autograph-worshiper. Point being, there are several reasons why you would be annoyed at being approached.
Most of all, when people approach me for an autograph, I say to myself “What have a said or done that makes someone want my freaking signature?”. I thought the whole way I perform, booking my own shows, playing small or non-venues, avoiding stages, talking to folks and being personable, and in most ways differing from anything in the mainstream pop-culture, created a new cultural appreciation for music and would make people a little less starstruck and awkward.
So what do you do? Some people love it. They sign it and it boosts their big rock-ego. Some sign it blushing, probably an early stage in the process of developing the previously mentioned response. Some people sign it reluctantly or without any emotion of thought at all, just to get it over with and continue heading to the bathroom. Some with the rock-star attitude refuse flatly, using their power to refuse to boost their big ego.
Others, like myself, try to engage the person while refusing to sign. “What’s your name?”, “Do you make music or anything?”. Become human. Remind them that you are two humans. Defuse the autograph culture. While this can still leave someone feeling a bit foolish for getting caught up in the “submissive fan role” (read my Friends NOT Fans writing in issue #1), it also helps humanize both parties and ideally erase any notion of dominance between the performer and the audience member.
So then next time you see that person , you can say “Hi” and catch-up, now that you’ve introduced yourselves. And you can interact as fellow humans, not as a “star” and a “fan”.
A good organizer, as well as a good radical musician, sees each awkward autograph moment as a moment of intervention, a time to put stuff on the table and do some cultural work. So I try to fight it each time it appears, respectfully if possible.
You can’t usually pick the venue for cultural change work, typically it picks you. To fight racism, you don’t just go into certain neighborhoods and setup a table and start talking to people (I mean, you can certainly go to certain neighborhoods and talk to people about racism, but that’s not typically how you’re gonna change minds). More often, you battle racism as you encounter it in your life, with family members, with yourself, with your close friends, co-workers, etc. It rears its head and you either stay silent or you challenge it. That’s cultural work, and taking on autograph-culture is too. And as with most things, you can preach til your lungs collapse, but you gotta practice what you preach. So sing what you sing, but if you don’t work respectfully in your life according to the principles you espouse, you are really just a “performer”, not a culture-changer.
So, while writing this little article about autograph-culture, I may give some folks some food for thought, but the real “fight” against stardom takes place in the moments on-and-off “the stage”. To all you musicians out there who may encounter the awkward autograph-request, remember: You have a choice. You can explain your position, defuse the situation, and make some sense out of an otherwise senseless encounter. Or you can reason with the autograph culture and find some sense in it. Or you can pump the ego. I recommend the first option.