There’s a sort of plague that seems to exist in circles surrounding almost everything in the world that one could theoretically enjoy, where elitist factions try to define who has “earned” the right to be called a fan of it. To say it exists more prominently in any one medium than another would probably be inaccurate (not to mention impossible to quantify and prove), but certainly I think some of the more exhaustingly elitist mentalities I’ve encountered have been within musical circles.
It is baffling to start that one would care about this at all; personally, when I encounter people who enjoy an artist, album, or song in a different way than I do, it tends to broaden my perspective and therefore my appreciation in talking to them, encouraging me to revisit something to try and see what they see. I can understand that not everyone is like that, but if you don’t get something out of it, you can merely seek out like-minded individuals and let others be.
What gets me the most is that defining any narrative of experience as the singular “true fan’s” experience is incredibly flawed. I remember back about a decade ago, I heard a discussion of this nature regarding Yellowcard and their shift in style between Ocean Avenue and Lights and Sounds (admittedly a lesser style shift than most of the ones I’ve observed), and there was presented a dichotomy: One could argue that a “true fan” would love the band enough to follow them regardless of how they changed, but one could also dispute that mindset on the grounds that they loved them for their original style, and a “true fan” would branch off when the band veered away from what made the fan love them in the first place.
I think the answer to this “dilemma,” in any such scenario, is that both perspectives are valid. There are a lot of ways to appreciate music, and different people have different tastes. Maybe you got into an artist because you found their lyrical style compelling, or maybe it was their specific genre of music. The former case might lead you to follow them throughout their career, whereas the latter would make you more likely to lose interest as time passed and inevitable changes occurred. Maybe you can’t even verbalize what you like about the artist and, throughout drastic shifts, they still offer something compelling for you. Maybe they made one song that you think is perfect but the rest of their work doesn’t do anything for you, so you don’t ever “follow” them. Everyone’s experience will be slightly different, and there should be no master narrative of how your love for an artist should go.
Granted, I do think there is a line of respect that many people cross. Sometimes artists change, and sometimes you change, and that means that they can produce an album you love and then never have another one that appeals to you specifically, and that’s just how it goes; I don’t find it particularly productive when people insist on comparing and contrasting every new effort by an artist to something they produced over a decade ago because it’s their “definitive” or “best” album, criticizing the artist for not putting out a rehash of that album, and I think that tends to hinder discussion and needlessly close oneself off to new things. But—disappointing as it can be to observe—that still doesn’t necessitate gatekeeping. There’s no need to try and quantify appreciation for the sake of comparison, nor to demean someone’s appreciation because they prefer an artist’s newer/older work.
The bottom line is that “fan” is an arbitrary term with an arbitrary definition; it is a self-identifier, a means of acknowledging your love for something, and not some badge to be earned. If you disagree with someone’s opinions or your experiences don’t overlap, you don’t have to socialize with them, but even if someone is arbitrarily calling themselves a fan of something of which they have zero knowledge, it isn’t harming anyone; gatekeeper mentalities that drive people away from things they enjoy and the communities that surround them, on the other hand, are.