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[The following post is an interview with Denise Goldman (phish.net user denisegold) about her article, “You Were the Song that My Soul Understood.” The interview is part of an AMA series celebrating the publication of the “Phish and Philosophy” special issue of the Public Philosophy Journal, edited by Stephanie Jenkins and Charlie Dirksen. Denise will also be answering your questions in the comments throughout the week. The next post will feature Kate Aly-Brady, Daniel Budiansky, Adam Lioz, and Rupa Mitra of Phans for Racial Equity, so please submit your questions now.]
Tell us about yourself. Who are you? When was your first show? Why do you come back?
Hi everyone! I am an adjunct professor of freshman writing & research at Long Island University. I teach a class in ethnographic research using this research as a model for my students. I am also a college admissions coach who helps high school students with their college applications. My first Phish experience was at the Boston Garden on 10/30/1992, which was actually Phish’s first time playing the Garden. It was a one-set show which was part of a larger multi-band show. My first official Phish show was at Red Rocks on 6/10/1994. I also went to Big Cyprus, which was one of my most memorable experiences. I identify as a Phish fan and value both the band (who has kept things fresh and exciting for 30 years) and the community (my soul-sisters and brothers) who have made me feel like every show is home.
Why did you decide to write this essay? What do you want your readers to take away from it?
My story is unique amongst the other scholars published in this journal because I was inspired to conduct this research after meeting some Phish “aca-fans” during the Baker’s Dozen, who were joining forces to create “Phish Studies.” At this time, online communities were on the rise and the novelty of “Phish Chicks” really fascinated me. I loved listening to the discourse that was created by women finding other women with whom they connected over the shared love of Phish. Although all discourse communities, including this one, alter over time (with new members coming in), the onset of this community was really a beautiful thing. As I have used this research in my own teaching, I would love for others to take away the same message: discourse communities form from a shared goal for which communication is the conduit for achieving the goal. With that, you see a unique language that forms as well as various genres that satisfy the needs of the members. Since we are naturally drawn to these communities based on our interests, it is important to recognize how we adapt this second language into our daily lives. This research allowed me to develop a curriculum that I use in my teaching and for which I was published in The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. I believe that a real understanding of your audience allows you to learn how to be a better writer and communicator. While there will always be some controversy that arises within discourse communities, the overall nature of them as well as the learning potential that can be gained from them should be prioritized.
What is the shared ethos of the Phish Chicks group and how does it differ from other fan groups?
The concept of a discourse community (DC) is defined by John Swales who created the criteria for identifying a DC. They include: interpersonal communication taking place, a shared goal that instigates the discourse, a specialized language that forms and can be used to identify outsiders of the community, the use of genres that are used as primary forms of communication (which are based on the expectations of the members and can also be used to identify outsiders), and a continuous flow of new members coming in and old members leaving. With this, I teach my students that the genres that are used to communicate are directly based on the shared ethos of the community. What do members care about and which genres prioritize communicating it? For example, a genre in “Phish Chicks” that I write about is the NPR (not Phish related) post. Remember, a genre (as opposed to what we were taught in elementary school) is any pattern of communication that is easily recognized and followed in order to make certain information clear. So the NPR posts formed as a result of the members wanting to expand the conversation to more personal matters. As a result, when someone titles their post with NPR, you can expect that it will not be a post about the band. This genre was created because members started prioritizing advice that came from women who they felt they shared a similar outlook on life.
Another example of this is from a totally different type of fan group: sports fan communities. Although I am not a sports fan, I have learned through my students what they care about, one of which is expressing their own thoughts on their favorite teams. One genre that I noticed is useful in allowing such fans to express these thoughts is the meme. Memes are used for two reasons: to make you laugh and to make you think about the general theme of the meme (some deeper societal issue). Sports fans love to harbor anger over the mistakes made by their favorite teams over the course of the season, but they also still love their team and want to express their support. The meme is the perfect genre for this expression. Members can use them as a little dig, while also starting a discussion about both their disappointments and unconditional love for the team. All of this means that when we look at the genres of a discourse community, we can see their shared ethos.
By looking at the genres that have formed within “Phish Chicks,” we can see that the shared ethos includes non-judgement, self-empowerment, the value of shedding one’s mainstream identity, support of artisans, and the importance of music to feed one’s soul. It is hard to compare this ethos to other fan groups because there are so many types. I see many similarities in music fan groups because they stem from the shared love of a band or musician, so their values tend to align with that of their object of fandom. Again, understanding the shared goals of the communities helps us to define the ethos of the groups.
Can you speak to what it’s like to be a participant and researcher of Phish Chicks? Does this dual position give you a unique perspective or create any conflicts? Has doing this research changed what it means to be a Phish Chick for you?
To begin, I have to explain what ethnographic research is and how it is conducted. The goal of ethnography is to understand how cultural forces affect people’s lives. In order to do that, researchers must immerse themselves in the culture in order to observe naturally occurring conversations, and to better understand how society constructs meaning and what drives human behavior. Ethnography requires visual observation that is documented and then reflected upon, as well as interviews that aid in finding patterns in the discourse or behaviors of those participating in the culture. What this basically means is that ethnographers are supposed to feel a deep connection to the observed culture in order to fully understand it.
When I began observing the community, most of the discourse revolved around the feelings these women had when they listened to the music as well as the joy they felt connecting to other women who also loved the band. They were sharing stories and voicing graciousness at finding other women who could validate their existence, their obsession, not only with a band, but with a community that oozed into their daily practices. They expressed consternation at the lack of like-minded women in their lives and made plans to meet up at shows. When I began my ethnographic research of the community, I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew there was something special unfolding before my eyes. I had explored other fandom scholars like Henry Jenkins and Joli Jenson, as well as scholars such as Nancy Baym and Rhiannon Bury who specifically looked at music communities and female fan communities respectively. So I understood that my role as a researcher of the “Phish Chicks'' community required reflecting on my own experiences and feelings about being a female fan of the band. Incorporating this into my approach to the research helped me to better understand what it was that I was seeing.
What has been most interesting is the way the community developed and some of the negativity that spawned in more recent years. While, as I mentioned, the onset of the community involved a lot of discourse about the feelings from the music, it developed into a place where the women were asking for help with personal problems from a group of women for whom they had a deep respect. In addition, the fact that many of the women identified as artisans (as we see at Phan Art shows), a unique way to market themselves developed, including giveaways. All this made me realize how special and important participation in this discourse was for the developing identities of the women as well as their developing fandom for the band.
I will say that when some of the negativity started developing, I was disappointed because I had previously observed so much support within the discourse. While I understand that this is a common occurrence in any community, I wanted to believe that “Phish Chicks” were different. By the time this happened, I had completed my research of the community and moved onto my research of writing, so I needed to clarify that my research was conducted between 2017 and 2019. I will forever be grateful for all the insight I was able to glean from this research and I will always consider myself a “Phish Chick.”
How does Phish Chicks compare to fan groups for women associated with other bands?
This is a great question and I will answer it as best as I can because the only other female fan group of a band that I am a part of is “Goose Chicks” on Facebook. Still, a major benefit of teaching this type of research is that I get to learn about the discourse in a variety of online fan communities; some of this includes looking at gender roles. In addition, Rhiannon Bury, whose book Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandom Online, was really enlightening for me while conducting this research.
To start with, in her analysis of online female communities, Bury states that “members of women-only lists challenge the normative order simply by refusing to accept fan practices engaged in by male fans in spaces of their own” (Bury 17). In her research, Bury found that in the spaces she observed, “the bulk of the exchanges involved the sharing of life experiences” (Bury 21). Does this mean that women see their fandom as a means to a place where they can meet like-minded women, or is it simply the result of females’ discourse practices? This is something that I am still exploring.
Looking at “Goose Chicks,” I see a space that was created with “Phish Chicks” in mind (I mean, they adapted the same type of group name). But we must remember that “Phish Chicks” began during a time when a group like this was a novelty amongst fans who had been seeing Phish since the beginning (pre-internet) and had most likely craved this type of connection for a long time. With Goose, we see a younger crowd who grew up with the ease of the internet for making connections with people across the world. Therefore, I am curious to see how this group changes over time when new members join. Still, I see the same type of conversations occurring in that group: sharing artisanal creations, expressing feelings about the music, and connecting over the shared love of a band.
A quick search of “female fans” on Facebook, results in groups for women that typically have a male-dominated fanbase such as “Female Fans of the NFL” or “Female Fans of Wrestling.” One of my students explored her experience as a gamer and the prejudices of that male-dominated community. While we cannot fall into the trap of stereotyping “female” communication, we have to acknowledge the similarities in the discourse within a space that does not mimic mainstream society. While it was once considered a peculiarity, fan culture has become more acceptable and common as an act of identity formation, a necessity if one is to survive in today’s world. The resistance involved allows for a connection in more satisfying ways than acceptance of the norm.
How is “Chick” defined in "Phish Chicks"? Does the group only include cis-women or is it open to trans-women and fans who are gender non-conforming?
"Phish Chicks" welcomes ALL PEOPLE IDENTIFYING AS FEMALE, and is an LGBTQ FRIENDLY group.
First, really nice article! A tight, insightful analysis of a unique subgroup of a subgroup, lol. Question: How do you think of "Phish Chicks" in relation to feminism? By feminism, I mean the desire to end sexism and to achieve equality for all genders. Do feminist discussions come up within the group? Are they perhaps coded as to avoid the term? Something else?
Circling back to the definition of a discourse community, I said that communication is centered around a common goal, whether it is an intended, stated goal or one that is implied.
I mentioned in my article that there is a shared identity amongst members of “Phish Chicks” that stems from the shared desire to shed one’s everyday existence in order to become someone else for a moment in time. They understand that Phish serves as a means for that identity transformation. As a result, we can assume that a goal of the community is to find that same feeling outside of shows. Especially for those who do not live or interact daily with others that understand their love for the band. “Phish Chicks” find it empowering to participate in discourse that allows for identity transformation, so naturally some of it revolves around feminist concepts. The genres that tend to encompass this goal range from posts asking for advice for how to handle an overzealous date to posts that share articles on such things as embracing body hair. Participation in a discourse community allows one to solidify their identity, which is why people tend to join them. The act of communicating in ways that are unique to the community directly affects the way in which one self-identifies. So rather than outright discussions that are labeled as feminist, “Phish Chicks” engage in discourse that recognizes and speaks to their marginalized status.
The feminist bell hooks argued that different types of oppression are interlocking and power depends on where one is located on the matrix of class, sex, race and gender. I too believe that equality for all genders is something that is difficult to desire because oppression involves so many other factors. But I also believe that participation in the discourse of “Phish Chicks” involves an underlying understanding of marginalization in some aspects. While the scene still lacks much of the minority representation that would allow for productive discussion on oppression, the women in the group foster a discourse that allows them to reflect on the concept of inequality. In this regard, they are working towards an identity that validates and fights against the inequality that exists in our society.
Do you think the existence of Phish Chicks has transformative potential for changing the male-dominant nature of our scene? Does the online group have effects that spill out into the community in general?
While looking through some posts recently, I came upon one in which the poster was asking if her male friend could buy a “Phish Chicks” t-shirt because he had been asking her for one for quite some time. The responses ranged from a simple no, to yes, as long as he truly supports us. Another poster spoke about overhearing a male talking about wanting to be a “Phish Chick” for a day. I love these types of discussions because it means that there is a potential for changing the male-dominant nature of our scene. On the other hand, there was a post that led to a discussion about how males react if you tell them “nice shirt” when they are wearing a Phish shirt outside of a concert setting. The consensus was that they receive odd looks as if they do not think the women are really true phans. All of this seems to say that there is a long way to go, but small steps are important. I would love to know that there is a general respect for the boldness of the female fans, who despite being overshadowed by their male counterparts at shows (albeit the only place with shorter lines for females for the bathroom) are using their evolving identities to teach others a little more about how we think. With the pandemic, and the growing reliance on the internet for connection, online discourse is constantly evolving. In fact, ethnographic research has evolved into the subcategory of virtual ethnography which takes into account the various ways we set the tone for communication, including the use of emojis (which are also constantly developing). Communication is life and the more we use technology to develop it, the more likely it is to spill out into our everyday physical world.