Q: What do you think [“Phonogram”] says about the nature of fandom and/or criticism?
KIERON GILLEN: Everything.
The premise for Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s series “Phonogram” is simple: music is magic . . . literally. These magic-users, known as phonomancers, are able to use their connection to the music they love. They read radio broadcasts like they’re Tarot cards. To them nightclubs are a place of worship and ritual, the DJ set or live gig are a sermon. Your band T-shirt is as potent as any holy symbol. Fanzines are grimoires. It’s music fandom taken to it’s most allegorical extreme. Through the series’s three volume — “Rue Britannia”, “The Singles Club” and “The Immaterial Girl” — Gillen and McKelvie explores the concept of fandom, looking at how we appreciate and consume music. It’s a comic by music obsessives for music obsessives.
Music means a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s an emotional cure. It’s a distraction; it gives you a purpose; it’s empowering; it’s inspiring. It’s all of the above. Music isn’t just music. It’s a powerful force. A vinyl copy of Blondie’s “Atomic” is like a powerful relic that can only be handled while wearing safety gloves and goggles.
There’s a moment where David Kohl, a phonomancer and thinly veiled Gillen analogue, reminisces about seeing his girlfriend for the first time in over a month and putting on the seven-inch of Kenickie’s “Come Out 2nite.” Every time the track ends, he stops fooling around with her and restarts the two-minute song over and over for two hours. (“Because in a contest between how much I love the girl and how much I love that record there was no contest.”)
It’s a moment that perfectly distils what it means to be a fan, to truly fall in love with a song. That moment where you can submerge yourself into something you love and everything else in the world melts away. Nothing else matters except the music.
The first arc of the series, “Rue Britannia,” focuses on David Kohl’s fandom and his relationship with the Britpop movement. His personality is rooted within it. For better or worse, it defines him. His very existence is challenged when Britannia, the deceased Goddess of Britpop, is being resurrected by retromancers. They’re phonomancers who use their magic to feed off nostalgic energy, trying to forever live in that special moment of the past (Kohl describes them as being “Nostalgia parasites”).
Kohl’s connection with Britpop gives him the power to stop Britannia from returning, but it also nearly destroys him in the process. Reviving the Goddess changes the narrative of the movement, so it’ll change who Kohl is on a fundamental level. He almost becomes someone who likes Kula Shaker, a fate worse than death. Letting your fandom shape your personality is fine, but you shouldn’t let that fandom consume you. It hurts to see something you love repackaged and resold, but something like that shouldn’t shake the foundations of who you are as a person.
“Rue Britannia” is both an anti and pro-nostalgia story. Britpop resulted in some amazing bands and songs, but it also produced its fair share of stinkers. Those songs you love will always mean something to you, but you shouldn’t try to recapture that specialness. You can’t resurrect something and expect it to be exactly the same as it was (In her heyday Britannia is a beautiful woman ready to party, but the modern version looks like the walking dead). At some point you need to move on past your worn out copy of Definitely, Maybe. The past is the past: enjoy it for what it is and what it was.
“The Singles Club” casts the net a bit wider. Instead of focusing on the experience of one person and they’re relationship with one genre, it explores how music affects everyone differently. Penny B loses herself while dancing to The Pipettes’ “Pull Shapes.” Marquis can’t listen to CSS’ “Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death From Above” without remembering his past relationship. The song is cursed by bad memories. Laura speaks in musical quotes. She craves attention, but lacks a personality that warrants it so she uses The Long Blondes’ lyrics as a substitute (she even dresses like frontwoman Kate Jackson). Lloyd writes zines that dissect pop music while attempting to find the deeper meaning within them. He puts so much of himself into them that when Laura starts cutting them up he’s physically torn apart. With TV On The Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” acting as the soundtrack for the night, Kid-with-Knife’s eyes burn like red coals as he runs through the streets. There’s something empowering about hearing a song you love, like your whole body is on fire. For 4 minutes 37 seconds, he’s invincible.Continued below
Seth and Silent Girl, as DJs, are the ferrymen who help you cross over and reach that euphoric moment where the music takes control and it’s the only thing that matters. Their playlist controls the micro-world of the club. McKelvie places them in the centre of the spread (the DJ booth is the centre of the club’s universe) with all the club’s patron’s energies are tethered to them.
At least one of these situations is familiar to you. The personal theme song, the one with emotional baggage and the one you can’t help but dance to. It captures the essences of what it means to be a fan, to be so passionate about something that it both shapes and defines your world.
If the underlying theme of “Rue Britannia” was about how you shouldn’t let your fandom consume you, “The Immaterial Girl” is that redefining yourself through fandom is flawed. Emily Aster, a Phonomancer who appears throughout all three volumes in the series, reinvents herself through a Faustian pact. Originally called Claire, she sacrifices one-half of her personality (the half she’s no longer happy with) so she can become another person.
It’s people who define themselves by the musical scene they exist in, usually only engaging with one specific genre. If you want to be a metalhead you can only listen to metal. Punks only listen to punk. By changing the type of music she listens to, Emily changes too. Her taste in genre defines her but it transforms her into something shallow and two-dimensional. Emily listens to Lady Gaga, Claire is none more goth. The grimoire Claire uses to create the pact is just a scrapbook of album covers and celebrity photographs. It’s everything she wants Emily to be, but it means Emily is just pure image with no substance. The music video without the music.
It doesn’t matter how many personality changes you go through, those past experiences still define you. In her issue of “The Singles Club” Emily is literally haunted by the ghost of her past, who silently glares at her from the other side of the mirror. It’s also proof that no matter how different she is now, she can’t fully escape the past. Who she is always there, below the surface. That might not be who you are now, but it was who you were.
“Phonogram” is about music . . . except when it’s not. It’s about everything. You can swap in practically any entertainment medium — television, movies, books, comics — into “Phonogram” and it’d still make sense. Somewhere out there is a David Kohl whose personality is defined by his love for Quentin Tarantino or Charles Bukowski.
Everyone has that one special television series that can throw on and become totally lost in. Retromancer’s are the people who moan about modern movies not being as good as when they were kids. There are comic-book fans that define their personality about how much they love a certain publisher. It’s that feeling of discovering that movie or book that just strikes at the very core of your being and screams, “This is for you.”
Speaking with Kohl at the club, he recommends Lloyd the band Los Campesinos! “They’re never going to be BIG big. But they’re going to be big to some people.” Lloyd goes home and starts listening to their track “We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives” and after the first verse, he instantly rewinds it and listens to it again and again and again. It’s that beautiful moment when a song speaks to you a deep personal level. That sudden realisation that this thing is forever yours. That’s the real magic of “Phonogram.” That album or movie or comic run you love so dearly isn’t just something. To you it’s everything.
In the final issue of “The Singles Club,” Kid-with-Knife, a non-phonomancer asks David Kohl to explain how magic works.
“Choose a track. Doesn’t matter what it is – but that it matters to you,” Kohl tells Kid, “Stick it on, and turn it up. Close your eyes. And listen hard. Focus. Just feel the song. Let it sweep over you. Breathe it in. let it possess you. And when you can feel it filling every single cell in your body just ride it as long you can.”Continued below
“That? That’s magic?” Kid responds, “Hell, everybody does that.”