Why understanding and embracing easy pop-culture targets beats deriding them
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Loving Phish has never been cool or fashionable, even at the height of the band’s fame and popularity. Phish has kept a relatively low profile since it reunited in 2009, but the band’s 30th anniversary has prompted the cool kids over at Vice’s music blog, Noisey, to remind Phish that it’s still on their radar, and they still think it—and its fans—suck.
That’s the blunt message of Ben Shapiro’s tongue-in-cheek piece “Phish Has Been A Band For Thirty Years Now And They Have Sucked The Whole Time.” The piece personifies the snarky emptiness that constitutes so much of what passes for discourse on the Internet, especially where Phish is concerned. It begins with a snide, click-bait title that promises to cut through the deafening white noise of the Internet, where only the assholes who bray loudest get heard. It aims at simultaneously mobilizing knee-jerk detractors (“Yeah, Phish does suck! It’s about time someone had the courage to say it!”) and zealots. (Shockingly, some Phish fans took offense to the piece calling them “human garbage.”)
Shapiro begins by establishing his bona fides as someone just familiar enough with Phish and its fans (he grew up in the northeast, owned some Phish CDs and a T-shirt, and even went to a show) to feel justified making histrionic insults snugly cocooned in sneering irony.
Shapiro pats himself on the back for making his way through an entire essay about Phish without resorting to the slurs that have generally been hurled at the band’s fans—“dirty,” “hippy,” “stoner,” “weed,” “Danny Tamberelli,” “trustafarian,” “jester hat,” “hackeysack,” “rainstick,” or “retard”—yet he manages to limply recycle the laziest, ugliest, most reductive attacks on the band and its fans nonetheless. His attacks are over-the-top provocation. He traffics in the hysterical hyperbole of the schoolyard or the average Internet message board with telltale section titles like “Trey Anastasio Is A Pill-Popping, Hypocrite Enabler,” “Their Music Is Not Good,” and “Phish Fans Are Pieces Of Human Garbage”; vicious, witless jokes (“Phish fans are basically dead-eyed jocks that are too drugged-up to rape”); and damning photographs conclusively proving that Phish fans do sometimes dress weird and look like they might be on drugs.
Thankfully, an antidote for all this vitriol exists in the form of Analyze Phish, an Earwolf podcast miniseries in which self-professed Phish super-fan Harris Wittels (whose writing and producing credits include The Sarah Silverman Program, Eastbound & Down, and Parks And Recreation) attempts to infect Comedy Bang Bang host and Phish skeptic Scott Aukerman with his bone-deep, almost pathological affection for Phish.
Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Comedy Bang Bang, Aukerman, and Wittels. And I’ve devoted much of the past three years to writing a book about fan subcultures. Over the course of the project, I went from an Aukerman-like skeptic, curious why my then-girlfriend, now-wife was so deeply invested in Phish, to a Wittels-like true believer who cannot imagine many things in the world more fun than a Phish show.
I was initially afraid to listen to Analyze Phish because I feared it would explain the band’s appeal to skeptical but curious outsiders more entertainingly and persuasively than I did. Those fears weren’t unfounded, but I loved the podcast anyway. Unlike Shapiro, host Scott Aukerman goes into this fascinating experiment with an open mind. He isn’t there to make cheap, lazy jokes at the expense of cartoon hippies, though he isn’t averse to cutting remarks, either: He genuinely wants to understand what motivates a smart, accomplished man like Wittels—a man he has much in common with, comically and musically—to devote so much of his time and passion to a group whose appeal Aukerman doesn’t understand.
It’s telling that Aukerman and Wittels’ vivid initial experiences with Phish revolve more around people than music, and more around emotions than songs. Aukerman talks about being introduced to Phish by a stoner dude in college who was fucking Aukerman’s girlfriend; this understandably left him with a lingering distaste for the scene. Wittels fell in love with Phish after an Ecstasy-fueled night of bliss in high school.
Phish is ultimately about the experience as much as the music. Listening to Wittels play clips of Phish songs on Analyze Phish in an attempt to break down Aukerman’s defenses and get him into the band, I was transported by vivid memories of specific shows or summers. In that respect, Wittels’ challenge was to try to use short clips to recreate a sense of the grand, giddy, overwhelming gestalt of going to a Phish show.
It’s easy, cheap, and sometimes even fun to be mean. It’s a whole lot braver to be open and sincere, and to acknowledge that it’s perfectly okay to unapologetically love something even people you respect might find suspect. Accordingly, there’s a strangely moving vulnerability on both Wittels and Aukerman’s part throughout Analyze Phish. The podcast provides some fascinating insight on Phish, but also a neat look into Aukerman and Wittels’ friendship.
Wittels fills Analyze Phish with reasons why people might love the group. He methodically appeals to Aukerman, trying to interest him in Phish’s whimsical sense of humor, its musical chops, its eclecticism and far-ranging covers. And through no fault of his own, Wittels mostly fails. Aukerman is respectful and sincere and genuinely tries to bridge the gap between Wittels’ passion and his own disinterest, but some gaps cannot be bridged.
Analyze Phish offers the rare, wonderful spectacle of smart people attempting to make a meaningful connection, and to understand each other and their individual obsessions better. That’s glorious and unexpected under any circumstances, but it’s especially welcome with such loaded subject matter. It turns out that honestly attempting to understand a much-derided but enduring pop-culture phenomenon isn’t just better for the spirit than glibly making mean jokes; it’s a hell of a lot funnier, and more entertaining as well.