September 26, 2020

Me, Myself, & I: A Self Reflection on Expectations

I’ve considered writing a post like this for over a year now, but I’ve always talked myself out of it. This topic has been on my mind a lot more lately, and I finally caved and let myself write a draft several weeks ago. I still talked myself out of putting it out into the world at first because I don’t mean to come off like I’m sharing this perspective from my perch atop a tall horse mounted on a soapbox (or as some may see it, from the cozy safety of my sheep pen). It may be better left in my own head, but once I put it into writing, I couldn’t let it go. I should probably throw in a disclaimer that this is just my own opinion and I don’t mean it to cover any broader personal social or moral issues. This is about being a fan of a band and the way we consume music. It’s a look at my own perspective as a music fan and an introspective journey I’m inviting you to share with me.

The topic I’m talking about is the growing dissatisfaction among Hanson fans surrounding their music and business decisions in recent years. It started pretty quietly after the release of Anthem in 2013 when it became apparent that Hanson wasn’t going to release another studio album for a while. At first there were vaguely dissatisfied but harmless questions: Why tour with a cover EP instead of taking time off to write new music? Why put time into a greatest hits compilation instead of releasing a new album? I didn’t share in these worries, so it was easy enough for me to brush them off. My stock answer became “Of course I want a new album, but I’d rather Hanson take the time to write something that inspires them than churn out something lesser for the sake of meeting a deadline.” 

In 2016, we got a double EP: Loud, and Play. One was released for fan club members only, and one was a public (albeit quiet) release. Combined, we got 10 songs that fit together as a cohesive single project. It didn’t carry the pomp and excitement of a new full album release, but to me, the content, the quality, and the time spent creating it were all there. Still, the questions remained. “If they can do this, why can’t they just put out a full length album?” I started to wonder if those comments would have sounded different if Hanson had simply put all of those songs on one disc and called it “Play Loud” instead. It reminded me of the time I went to Starbucks and absentmindedly asked for a “sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich”. The barista said “I’m sorry, we don’t have those.” I looked at the menu, searching for the fancy name that had slipped my mind, and tried again. “Okay, can I have the Spicy Chorizo, Monterey Jack, and Egg sandwich, then?” “Sure, that’ll be 7.95.” I left with my sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich under another name, amused by how the branded marketing could completely alter her perception of the ingredients she was actually serving. It tasted the same to me.

Several years passed and the things Hanson felt inspired to do turned out to be anniversary tours, orchestra collaborations, Christmas releases, and just about everything except for a full length album of new music, and the dissatisfaction and complaints grew. I could understand the fan frustration, but I still clung to my perspective of wanting things to happen organically on the timeline that felt right to Hanson. I still didn’t want an album that they weren’t excited to make. I didn’t want outside pressure and expectations to kill the joy they once had in doing a thing they’ve clearly loved. In 2019, we finally got news that quieted the concerns and left all of us happy: We’d be getting not one, but two new albums in as many years. The waiting would finally pay off.

Until it didn’t, because 2020 became the dumpster fire we’re all currently living and the promise of a new album was pushed back. While the dissatisfaction is probably a small minority in the grand scheme of things, if you’re super active in the fan world, it’s virtually impossible to miss the complaints that now range from “Where’s the new music?” to “These streams should be free” to “They’re selfish for selling this shirt”. While I sympathized at first, the optimist in me has a hard time not writing off the increased and frequent complaints as spiraling into “the boy who cried wolf” territory. Instead, I’m trying to open my mind and figure out why we have such a gaping hole between fan perspectives, expectations, and contentment.

The new album has grown quiet, the old questions have grown loud, and after years of brushing off the discontent and carrying on in my happy bubble, I decided maybe it’s time to ask some tough questions of my own and tackle some critical thought. My questions aren’t for the band, though; they’re for myself. I looked at the growing number of fans seeking new music and throwing increasingly pointy jabs at Hanson's music abilities, intent, and business decisions and I asked myself: Why don’t I feel this way? Should I feel this way? Am I letting Hanson off of some sort of hook by choosing to be happy instead of expecting more? Should I be pushing them to reach some higher musical potential? Am I the wrong one as I stand nodding and smiling in a crowd with an increasing number of shaking heads? There’s no denying that in an overly-simplified cross-section of the fan base, I fall on the “Hanson can do no wrong” side of the stereotype and tend to disagree with the “Hanson can do no right” camp. I thought maybe it’s time to question all of it, why I stand where I do, why I’ve remained content when others haven’t, and if I find that some of those opinions are founded in nothing, is it time to change my own mind?

I felt like the answers to those questions were buried inside more critical questions about my music consumption in general. How had I handled dry spells or disappointments from other artists I loved? I thought of my musical past: Relient K was my other forever constant. I'd been head over heels for Andrew McMahon’s piano in his SoCo days and still followed much of his career, always hoping to love something as much as I loved Leaving Through The Window and never quite getting there. In high school, it was Dashboard Confessional with hints of The All-American Rejects and a dose of The Ataris. Most were fleeting. I'd intensely loved an album or two and then moved on. Relient K is the only other band I've seen live several times spanning more than a decade and own all of their studio albums. So what did I do between their releases? How did I react to that one album that was instantly my least favorite? It was during the break after that one that I rediscovered Hanson. And when I'd had my fill of currently available Dashboard material? I found Andrew McMahon. When I didn’t like the newest All-American Rejects release? I bought a Regina Spektor CD instead. So there was my pattern and my answer to my first question. When life presented me with a musical hole, instead of asking questions or expecting changes, I learned to fill it with other good music and seek out my next new favorite. My loyalty was to my own musical tastes, not to the artists. 

Obviously I can’t ignore the fact that Hanson is in a league of their own in my life, which led me to my next question: What is different about the way I'm a fan of Hanson and the way I'm a fan of any other artist? How did I create this complex history that makes them something bigger to me than the rest? The answer is I’ve put a lot more time and money into loving and supporting Hanson than any other artist. I own every Relient K album, some EPs, a few t-shirts, and have bought a handful of concert tickets and a VIP pass. In the 16 years I’ve been a fan, I've probably spent less than $500 on them. And Hanson? I spent $2,000 on them this January alone. Every January since 2013. And that’s not including 100+ other concert tickets, travel expenses, 14 years of fan club memberships, and a lot of other things I don’t ever want to tally.

So next I asked myself: Should I expect more out of Hanson than I do out of other bands because I've invested more of myself and my bank account in them? If I add all of those numbers up and it's a really exorbitant, painfully embarrassing amount that I'd like to take to my grave, does that mean they owe me more than the other bands in my life do? Is it fair to expect more out of the people I've given so much to, whose career I've helped maintain, whose family I've helped feed? I asked myself all of these questions, and the answer I've landed on is still no. No, because giving them that much of myself is a decision I made without them. No, because for every single dollar I chose to spend, they've delivered on their end of the monetary transaction. My $2k got me a trip to Jamaica. My $15 got me a copy of String Theory. My annual $40 got me access to the fan club forums and an exclusive EP. They offer a product, I buy it, they deliver it. Repeat. The collective sum is irrelevant and doesn't entitle me to anything more.

Often they've given me more anyway: dozens of photos, conversations, private messages, song requests, drumsticks. I'm grateful because none of it was guaranteed and it always feels above and beyond. I don’t show up expecting those things to happen which means I also don’t leave disappointed when they don’t. I try to remember that every dollar I've spent was a personal choice that Hanson never asked of me. They never told me to get on a plane or promised to learn my name or make time for me after a show just because they put a tour on sale and I made the choice to buy 20 tickets. There isn't some unspoken "Buy 50, get special treatment for free" program where my money also buys me the right to weigh in on what they do. No amount of membership fees buy me entry into the band and the way it's run. And if I’ve ever been disappointed by something that didn’t happen? It's because I started expecting something extra that was never part of the bargain they willingly entered into when I bought their CD or their concert ticket. It's a conscious perspective that I choose to have: be grateful for every moment that feels above and beyond rather than ungrateful for every moment that doesn't. TL;DR? I'm probably an optimistic realist.

Ten paragraphs of rambling introspection have finally led me to what I believe is at the root of all of these feelings: Expectations. Whether you're feeling frustrated, disappointed, happy, or forever in love with what Hanson is doing or not doing, it all boils down to personal expectations. We’ll probably never agree on what realistic ones look like or where the line is drawn for expecting too much. I stopped for a moment and made myself question if maybe mine were too low, if maybe the reason I’m not upset by the lack of a new album or the way they run their business is because I set my expectations low to avoid disappointment. I thought about my brief time as a teacher and the hours spent in college classes discussing the importance of expectations and how sometimes raising yours can help bring a student to reach a higher potential. If you lowball what you want out of them, they won't push themselves to grow. They’ll coast and you’ll settle. But I am not Hanson's teacher. They are not my students. I am the fan and they are the band, and for me, that musical relationship means that the only shots I get to call are how I choose to consume (or not consume) their music. I can't control them; I can only control myself.

I guess in the end the thing that really colors my perspective the most is that I’ve always viewed music as a gift. It feels foreign and wrong to me to form ideas about what someone else's music should be and to place constraints around it, like claiming ownership over something that isn't mine to change. I can look at a painting and acknowledge ways I would have liked it more, but it’s not my place to ask the artist to do things differently when art is a form of self-expression, and we haven’t commissioned a thing from Hanson, try as we might. I’m not saying I don't have hopes and desires and my own personal tastes. I don't think it's wrong to want something, but I see a solid line somewhere in between hopes and expectations. They are truly not the same thing, and one is much more likely to leave you hurt.

So why am I writing this at all? What is the point if I'm just patting myself on the back and validating my existing opinions in the end? Because it's healthy to question yourself once in a while, and I find questioning my own beliefs and motives a lot more productive than questioning the band and other fans. I'll wrap this up just shy of bashing you over the head with a mirror while quoting "maybe you could take a look at yourself lately" and say that the point of this post is that I decided to look in the mirror to make sure I was okay with what I saw there. The truth is while I’m usually all rainbows and butterflies, I don’t love every single thing Hanson does. There are skip songs. I’ve employed the “keep scrolling” approach to plenty of their merch endeavors. I’d love love love a new full length album as much as the next fan, and yes I would have enjoyed that about a hundred times more than the Middle of Everywhere release. But I also never expected them to be my idea of perfect and I’m happy with the big picture—I still love their albums even if they aren’t new anymore, there are some real gems on the fan club EPs, I can lose my worries in a crowd, and no matter how many times they “recycle” an old favorite in a setlist, the right song can bring me back to the first time I heard it with the added bonus of dozens of other great memories I’ve collected from it along the way. Loving their music doesn’t feel like an obligation or a drain or a disappointment to me, and it hasn’t yet sent me searching for that next great band or someone else’s new album. And so here I am, and there’s my answer.
 I'm not done with these guys yet, and I'm glad.

Part of what makes our community and the friendships I've made in it exciting is the way music can bring together people who are otherwise very different. Maybe that means a deep difference in expectations is inevitable and it was silly of me to question why I didn't feel the same way others felt in the first place. I think the place I've landed is that if I can ask myself those critical questions--how I see myself, what my expectations are, how and why I formed those expectations--and I can still feel good about the fan staring back at me and the band she chose to support? Then that's all that matters.