I’ve been a fan of Ben Folds since my ex-husband dragged me to a Ben Folds Five concert in the 90s. In the early days his music was more peripheral, but I often joke that I won him in the divorce. In the early days, even though I liked Ben Folds Five okay, at 17 I was way more into the girl rock: Alanis Morisette, Lisa Loeb, No Doubt…
Okay, look, it’s a 90s thing. See, unlike Gen Z with their mashups, cross-genres and ironic ukulele-over-techno placement, if you were in high school in the 90s, you either liked Top 40, R&B and Hip-Hop OR Nirvana and Pearl Jam OR Ben Folds Five and Jeff Buckley. You had to choose. It was high stakes. The radio stations played specific playlists and the station you listened to determined who your friends were. Serious business.
Bootlegs and mix tapes gave you social status among peers. A high quality, ad-free recording of a song from your Top 40 of choice was both art and science. You couldn’t risk changing stations, because you might miss the song, or even worse, miss the beginning and have a bad recording for a whole week. The shame.
The radio station had tremendous influence over your identity. It determined whether you watched Rage or Video Hits. Whether you spent your limited funds on Triple J’s Hot 100, Smash Hits or Top Hits. Whether you went to Sanity at the mall, or took the bus to 78 Records in the city. Which magazines you bought for posters, and most importantly, the Sophie’s Choice of which cassettes you’d gotten for Christmas you’d be sticky taping so you could record your favourite songs from the Top 40 Countdown.
Who you listened to and became a fan of was a big decision.
It was a 90’s thing, kids.
Basically, music was kind of what online political media is today. Fandoms. Market segments as identity. Religious wars over dumb shit, even though everyone is fighting over the same American commercial music. Coke vs Pepsi. Both really bad for you and, ultimately, neither give a fuck about anything but nudging the needle for an extra 1% market share. You’re not allowed to just like good music. You must be in a fandom, it must consume you, and the main way you show your love and appreciation is by hating on the Goths, who kind of have a point but are super annoying.
Okay, that’s kind of fair. Everyone dunks on the goths. They’re right to do so.
White noise and monkey farts
If you don’t know, my career in digital started out as a fan. I was on the Internet early, and some of the very first communities I fell into were “online street teams”, email lists and forums. I participated, enthusiastically and with epic amounts of cringe, but over time I built up credibility as a moderator, mediator, and both fixer (and occasional stoker) of conflict. I learned to handle tension in a forum the same way a standup comic handles tension in a room – release here, tighten there, let it figure itself out, intervene there, and keep it ticking along.
My ‘career’ in digital started by moderating (and eventually running) Lisa Loeb’s fan forum. That community was a breeding ground for developing skills. Understanding how people interact online, as I graduated from running a guitar tab fan website, to running the community, to designing the entire website, to now what is a quarter-century career in digital strategy, design and … whatever this thing is I do now, where I am basically shouted at and attacked by troll farms and mass report scripts. It’s fun. The internet turned out great.
Working with Lisa and a few other artists and comedians over the years, and being, first and foremost, an advocate for fans (and later, users), I would push hard for them to actually use their own forums. I’d nag them to put out unfinished music more frequently, and go direct. Years before the True Fans Principle went mainstream and the marketing gurus all moved in on my Internet, I was pushing this stuff. LinkArtist was the name of my business. Linking Artists with Fans and I was a link artist. Get it? Cringe.
It was a hard sell at the time. Being in Australia, and being somewhat of an anti-marketer didn’t help. People were also still embedded in the “use the Internet to leverage a record deal” mindset. Even as MySpace started to break artists, the focus was still on getting the attention of A&R reps and signed by the Big Four. I wanted artists to be free to connect with fans and go direct. In 2007, I even prototyped a similar version of what is now Spotify (except it was also an indie label where artists got 95%), but when I went to secure seed funding, I was told nobody would stream music. Being condescended to in this way was a theme that would emerge frequently in my always-5-years-too-early-to-make-money-from-it career. But oh well.
When talking about this, I would always use Ben Folds as as example. Again, this may seem odd in 2023, but there was a time where people only put out polished and finished stuff from a studio and nothing else. You didn’t know about their day, and most definitely not the minutiae. You didn’t hear demos or work in progress. You only saw what was in the magazines and heard what was on the radio station, and even as late as 2010, even the most internet-savvy artists were only using their websites to post about their appearances in traditional media.
Lisa was sometimes hard to convince, but generally open-minded, and I learned a lot. One of the coolest experiences I ever had was receiving a bunch of Lisa’s reels, music videos and every imaginable appearance in a package for me to digitally encode and upload to YouTube. I was a fan first, always, and I wanted to share all I could with the other fans.
Trying to persuade artists to put demos out online, or present an unpolished, more intimate version of themselves for their fans and going direct… well…. that was a hard sell. Especially to any signed artists who were more private and measured, and had a carefully curated image for radio, TV, and Smash Hits magazine. Also, artists were far more dependent on infrastructure provided to them by a label – eCommerce, marketing, PR, merch… that stuff was expensive, time-consuming and technically difficult (usually custom) to implement. And, also… record label contracts and lawyers. Yikes.
But, I still pushed them wherever I could.
This is an actual thing I said once:
“You don’t get it. Fans will buy white noise and monkey farts if it has your name on it“.
Enter Ben Fucking Folds.
Like I said (good heavens, this post is almost as long as 2020), with Ben, I started out as a casual fan. Ben Folds Five was my boyfriend-then-husband’s thing, and I was along for the ride. I, of course, went to every show. Loved them. There is even a bootleg of him doing Song for the Dumped in a Minor Key floating around the Internet, and because the guy who recorded it turned out to be sitting in front of me, I am now “goofy laugh girl” till the end of time. Yes, there are cover songs and cringey bits all over the Internet and yes, I have them and no, you can’t.
There was always something odd about my Folds ‘fandom’. It always felt kind of …sacred. Like, he was just my bro. Having worked and been acquainted with varying flavours of celebrity over the years, I don’t tend to get star struck or get hit with the fan bug. I like to consider myself fairly immune to parasocial feelings. It’s just not my disposition to put people on pedestals. Especially ones they don’t ask for and can’t ever live up to.
But, much like I’ve had an uncanny ability to show up and be in the right place at the right time when [admittedly much fewer] people need me, over the years (up until the great Gentrification of the Internet post-2016), he’s ended up being that for me.
It boggles the mind to think that it is one of the most stable things in my life. For 25 years, Ben has been in my life, with absolutely zero idea who I am. He’s been there through babies, ugly divorces, deaths, illness and …pandemics. When my daughter was born on September 10, 2001 and America went bonkers, there he was with an album. When I was getting divorced and grieving my grandmother’s death, there was an album (this is where my ex-husband decided he wasn’t a fan anymore, because Way to Normal was a pretty angry divorce album, hence the joke that I got Ben in the divorce). When I was grieving my father’s death, there was an album. When I was returning, tail between my legs, from Sydney, having severely miscalculated a relationship’s chances… there was an album. When I met my new husband, Ben was branching out and growing and so was I, and there…. was an album.
To put someone on a pedestal and to be a Superfan is to be blind to the fact that they are a human. Humans are flawed. We fuck up. We try harder. And it seems that, for some reason, this person who has no idea who the fuck I am, really, yet seemed super human, super flawed and yet wise… was someone I looked to for guidance.
Professionally, he was also an artist I would highlight as an example of putting out Demos on iTunes. He was one of the first artists to adapt in this way. He would do fake albums that would show up on Napster and Limewire. He got it, and I would nag people to death to follow suit and find different ways of earning income outside touring. Not only because touring is gruelling and sometimes unsustainable as you get older, but because you already have hungry fans online that will give you money if you just show up. It’s also good, you know, on the off-chance that, say, you couldn’t do a tour anymore.
Because of his focus, flexibility and always uncanny timing, over the years I have taken it somewhat for granted that Ben would show up when I needed him to. Despite knowing I am one of a million identical faces who blend together and all feel the same way, it is still a weirdly sacred thing. Right place, right time, right words, right key and I could feel instantly better. It’s cringe as fuck, and parasocial as shit. Shut up.
I try to be like that for others. I’m not perfect, and often a complete asshole, but generally my goal has been to make myself a crash test dummy and report back. Sometimes, I miscalculate and go flying into a wall. And, sometimes I fly into a wall and have forgotten my seatbelt and it fucks me up. But, I learn from it, adapt, and for the most part I know how to manage tension and release, know pressure points and release valves and where people may need to see someone else rant about how they’re feeling so they can feel some relief.
Over the years I have somewhat accidentally created this larger-than-life persona (which, in current year, has come to bite me in the arse, but …alas). Using myself and my tiny experiences as scaffolding for a bigger point, or using myself as the target of the joke to I can talk about an uncomfortable subject, created a version of me that leans into extreme vulnerability that others can maybe relate to and feel less alone.
I also do that to process my own emotions. I tap the keyboard and feelings come out. Sometimes accidentally and mostly in first draft. I do nothing but unfinished thoughts, unpolished work, incomplete answers. Literally millions of words. I put out demos, white noise and monkey farts so that others can maybe understand how they feel.
Folds is for me what I have been in my little world in varying small ways – tapping the keyboard to make the feelings come out, poking something that looks a bit uncomfortable and seeing what happens next. And every time I need some comfort, Folds shows up to help me process my sperged-up inarticulated emotions and helps me find words for how I feel.
At the beginning of the pandemic, like many, Ben found himself stranded in Sydney in the middle of a tour. He had to cancel a bunch of dates, including Perth, and, well… you all know by now that a whole bunch of shit went down.
Everyone was confused, scared, and trying to adapt to a new normal that we really had no template for. Most freaked out, some made way too much sourdough, some cleared the supermarket shelves, some tried desperately to micromanage every aspect of something that scared the shit out of them. And, you know, culture wars culture warred because that’s what the culture war does and it just wouldn’t be a poorly managed global pandemic with no universal healthcare and economic inequality without somehow making it all about the trans.
Me, native internet person, felt like I needed to help. Somehow. I offered to admin a bunch of Facebook groups to manage the varying trauma responses and tribal wars that were threatening to implode everywhere. A few COVID groups had exploded into 100k members within a week, with admins who had absolutely no idea what to do or how to manage it. Fan communities were going ballistic and shattering in two over George Floyd. America was losing it and it was fast becoming everyone else’s problem.
I offered as much free advice as I could give to anyone who needed it. I hung out on Twitter, trying my best to try and keep people thinking straight. Which, of course, failed. My attempts to get people thinking straight and managing tension and release and meet them where they were at and try to pull them back, well that completely blew up in my face, and I found myself on the shitty end of all of it.
I had no template for that, either, because I was a Pied Piper and my instrument had been taken away.
The closest experience I could recall was when 9/11 happened and Americans lost their minds on every internet forum. It was insane. Funnily enough, Ben Folds was there for me then, too. So, I tried to show up in the same way, just being there and trying my best to help within my skillset. As someone who had been trying to diagnose all this fandoms-gone-wrong-shit that was already about to implode pre-pandemic, well, it did. And… I failed.
But, everyone failed. Tone-deaf celebrities. Community Managers. Brands. Politicians. Media. Beloved Authors. Tech companies. We watched everyone who was supposed to be in charge completely drop the ball, abandon us all and many their principles, and leave us to our own devices, because they had no fucking idea what to do either. I sure didn’t. And whilst I came out relatively unscathed (still haven’t had COVID…), professionally, I failed. I dropped the ball, I misjudged so many things, and am still trying to crawl back and get my flute back.
But there he was.
Whilst everyone else was scrambling to figure out how to use tech (if only they’d taken my advice), the man who I always used as an example of new ways to do the music business, who would show up when I needed him, without fail… did it again.
Stuck in Sydney, with no belongings, a tiny apartment, a cancelled tour and an uncertain future, he started live streaming on YouTube. He didn’t start any shit. He didn’t mouth off. He didn’t make it about him. He just… showed up and started playing.
Obviously I have been a Patron for many years, so watching him do this was no real surprise. I was just… proud of him for being Ben. As I have said, I tend not to ‘fan’ out on people (this post excepted), and I like to be in the background and quietly appreciate the fuck out of people without making things weird. Or, having the misfortune of being attached with any of the dumb hyperbolic internet performance art that is ‘brand tealou’.
But even in the face of everyone being weird, and everyone wanting to claim Ben Folds for their Fandom whilst they were collectively losing their shit and punching in any direction that would land, he just got to work. He showed up. We even had the odd exchange where I checked in, and one time completely overstepped, by kicking his arse and telling him he was being an asshole.
But, he showed up. He listened. He took the time to connect and keep people as sane as he could in those moments, and, much like I have tried to do on the ground, even with all my stuff taken away, I showed up as best I could to meet people where they were at, and do what I could.
I even had to be the asshole, too, sometimes. It sucks.
He did writing exercises where we would take headlines and turn them into songs, mostly so that he could make himself write an album when the world had absolutely no idea how they felt, and were all banging the keyboard and making feelings come out 24/7. I still have half-written essays from that time. I was trying to help, but also suffering (both figurative and literal) paralysis, and it was all just… too much.
People who were not super online were suddenly all super online, and people like me who were trying to help, and explain what was happening, and give people advice on how to keep their communities from imploding… were suddenly in the cross-fire between Coke, Pepsi, Big Juice, Cottees and letterbox drops from the Cult of Harvey Fresh. Being neutral was not an option and if you were, you were being punched in the face, kicked in the rear, and, even worse in my case, violently fucked in the arse by algorithms for doing absolutely nothing wrong except finding myself on the wrong side of a mass report script.
But, Ben was there.
And this week, the first song of the new album I had the privilege of witnessing come to fruition, is released. A song, that takes a moment in time, and in true Ben fashion, humbly understates and yet entirely captures how we all feel. An album that will be a time capsule for a time where I won’t forget who showed up and who didn’t. An album that has one track on it about QAnon shit that I called him an asshole for, but I know he didn’t mean it that way and was just trying to help with no template.
I could have just tweeted a link to this new song, and believe it or not this started as that Tweet and it appears to have spilled out of me. But a tweet isn’t enough. To you, it’s just another song on a streaming service among millions of other songs with ironic ukuleles and confusing mash-ups. And now, it is more likely to show up on 94.5 than Triple J. But, like always, he was there. I was there. Our little community of not-Nirvanas and not-Goths and not-Woke and not-MAGA and not-Coke and not-Pepsi and simply fans of Ben Folds, figured out a way to put aside our differences and just like music, and somehow keep it all together. Ben showed up, which helped me to show up for others at a time when everyone else was letting their fans down and had no idea what to do. He showed up when our leaders didn’t, and the media failed us, and traumatised a generation in a way that we are still trying to unpack.
He showed up, and he chatted, and he played through 25 years of memories, life events and intense emotions that in some way have always had Ben Folds show up in them. He will be humble about that, understated, and always glib, but he will always show up.
This is no different.
Thanks, old man. You’re a fucking asshole.