The Intellectual vs. the Common fan: How drum corps is caught in the middle

One of the reasons I started this blog was because I wanted to dig deeper into the how and why design and general effect are developed and how they come together in the modern age of the pageantry arts. Ultimately, I wanted to help create a better way to define and understand GE. We talk about when designs fail and we talk about when designs succeed and break new barriers. What we don’t often discuss is when a design does or doesn’t find a connection to its audience.

In many ways, drum corps parallels the real-life drama being played out in our present environment. This is far beyond the Democrats vs. Republicans and the Conservative vs. Liberal. I am referring to the division between the intellectual and what some might refer to as the common man.

“Intellectuals tell us things we need to know: how nature and society work, what happened in our past, how to analyze concepts, how to appreciate art and literature. They also keep us in conversation with the great minds of our past. This conversation may not, as some hope, tap into a source of enduring wisdom, but it at least provides a critical standpoint for assessing the limits of our current cultural assumptions.” ~ Gary Gutting. NY Times, 2011

Those who do not exist within the intellectual sphere view intellectuals as snobs and the common man feels that they are being looked down upon and viewed as less cultured, less intelligent and less open-minded. More importantly, they do not want to be told how to think or what they even should be thinking about. They do not want their ideals challenged and in some cases, their minds opened to new possibilities. They mostly resist the idea of change altogether.

The great divide

This raises a question: Is there a growing divide in the pageantry arts, particularly with drum corps, between the intellectual, in many cases the designers, and the common or generational fan, who just wants to be entertained?

Over the last decade, in particular, designers have increasingly created programs with a more intellectual spirit. These are individuals who exist and even thrive in the intellectual sphere. Their livelihoods exist because of it. They continue to create a product that attempts to educate, open minds and push the boundaries of how we perceive and define the marching arts – both indoor and out.

The evolution of the marching arts into its modern form isn’t something that kicked into high gear over the past decade. It started in the late ’80’s and has slowly progressed to its present form ever since. Drum corps has more recently begun to tackle deeper, more intellectual themes such as psychology, math, science, literature, the philosophical debate of life, death and the after-life. We have seen corps present an exploration of cultures, environmentalism and even dabbled with politics. Now we can add into the mix a challenge to what society perceives as “normal.”

The subject matter itself isn’t as much of the issue as it is with how the message or idea is being delivered. Fans of the pageantry arts are, in my opinion and generally speaking, more accepting, more progressive and more open-minded than society as a whole. However, at times, the design and the audience fail to find a connection. The need for the audience to be wowed and entertained isn’t being satisfied and the sense is that some fans spend more time trying to interpret and understand the whole point of what a corps is trying to accomplish rather than deciding if they were entertained. They are, at times, left asking themselves “What the fuck did I just watch?” or “What the fuck was that even about?”

How does intellectualism fit into drum corps?

The word intellectual is important for this discussion, because it factors into how general effect is judged. According to Drum Corps International, “the GE judges are doing the romantic job, they’re feeling what the show is offering and responding to what the show is. There are three parts to GE, the intellectual, the aesthetic, and the emotional.”

The designers and instructional staff in modern day drum corps have taken those three words in particular to heart. These are the three factors they set out to achieve each year.

Last season, The Cavaliers, an all-male corps who has historically produced robust and super masculine programs challenged social norms by ending their show with “Oh what a world” by Rufus Wainright. In that portion of the show, the color guard adorned large colorful skirts while the corps proper sang the following lyrics:

“Men reading fashion magazines
Oh, what a world it seems we live in
Straight men
Oh what a world we live in”

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To some, that is quite a challenge to what we conceive a man is or should be. Yet, that very theme is playing out in everyday society. What we perceive an individual should be isn’t necessarily who that individual is.

Over the last few seasons, the Blue Knights have consistently presented highly intellectual programs including “That one second,” “Because,” “The Great Event” and this seasons with “…I remember everything.” These shows challenged the typical fan. These are heavy, if not difficult, themes and cause the audience to think deeper about their meaning, ask questions and find their own answers.

Designers see what is playing out in the real world and like most artists they want to create their own way to express that in their design. That makes a lot of individuals uncomfortable because generations of drum corps fans go into a show with the expectation of having their face blown off, wanting to tap their foot to a recognizable tune and be astounded by striking visuals. There are some who feel the intellectual and more artistic direction the activity is heading is driving the audience away from drum corps. They don’t want to think, they just want to be entertained.

I happen to think both are possible.

Finding common ground

There is a middle ground between presenting intellectual ideas and satisfying the audiences need to be entertained. Corps have shown the capacity to throw a bone and satisfy the need of the designer to express themselves artistically and try new ideas and concepts while also giving the fan something to whistle to and be dazzled by.

Carolina Crown found their own way to portray intellectual arguments with “e=mc2” and in 2019 with “Beneath the surface.” Who would have ever thought that a show with a heavy dose of mathematics could ever work in drum corps much less be entertaining? Yet, Crown did just that – twice now. One of them led to their first championship and the other already has them in contention for another. Who says mathematics cannot also be entertaining? They found a way.

Then we have the Bluecoats, who took inspiration from a contemporary dance company and created a program in 2016 that I not only consider one of my all-time favorites but one of the most innovative shows ever. There is no doubt that “Downside Up” changed the activity forever. Fans loved it. The Bluecoats entertained while finding their own path to intellectualism through a different way to present artistry.

Last season, Santa Clara Vanguard “discussed” the idea of how we communicate as a society. They connected with the audience with exciting and rich musical selections, a horn snap and probably one of the most exceptional performances to even adorn a football field. The corps pushed the limits and again redefined how we perceive drum corps and fans were on their feet a minute before their finals performance was even finished. They entertained in an artistic and intellectual fashion.

There really isn’t, nor has to be, that much of a divide as we want to believe there is perceived to be. Corps are doing better at letting their staff have their cake while the fans eat it too. There is a reason they are producing social media posts explaining the method behind the madness of their designs. There is a reason they are choosing more mainstream and familiar music to the drum corps scene. It is all about finding and maintaining a connection.

Designers are still and will continue to infuse artistry and intellectualism, but that doesn’t mean it cannot also be enjoyable. Fans should be more open to drum corps evolution because the entertainment value is also there and we cannot forget that the designers in the activity today – grew up and are still fans themselves.

Change is inevitable and that is the only expectation we as fans should have.

Photo by Clever Visuals on Unsplash

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