CMU Opinion

Why do people want autographs anyway?

By | Published on Friday 2 March 2018

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift once wrote, “I haven’t been asked for an autograph since the invention of the iPhone with a front-facing camera. The only memento ‘kids these days’ want is a selfie”.

I often think about this. My head is full of dumb stuff it calls up randomly for no obvious reason. Here’s a thing – when I think about this, I don’t visualise Taylor Swift, I see in my mind’s eye that old Vodafone advert where David Beckham gets asked for a selfie in a supermarket. See? It’s just wall-to-wall nonsense up there in my brain.

And don’t think I am just saying all this to pad out the Beef Of The Week column. Don’t be thinking “yeah, he doesn’t really think about Taylor Swift’s remarks on autographs at least a few times a year”. Because I really do. One of the reasons I think Swift’s comment keeps coming back to me is because it doesn’t ring true.

For all the technological advances of the last decade or so, people still like having other people’s names written on stuff. I can’t see that changing. Also, if you Google ‘Taylor Swift signing autographs’, you’ll see that the internet is full of pictures of Taylor Swift signing autographs. Doing so also serves as a reminder that Taylor Swift doesn’t know how to hold a pen properly.

The strange currency of autographs, and meeting and greeting celebrities in any kind of formal way, is something that also enters my mind from time to time. The idea of asking someone to write down their name in order to prove that you were once momentarily side by side has always seemed odd. Even weirder is buying the autographs of people you weren’t ever even close to. In either of those scenarios, what ultimate purpose does it serve?

Anyway, as you can see, I have overthought this subject to quite some degree. But, holy shit, this is nothing compared to Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum.

Elverum this week took part in a Reddit AMA, and in preparing to do so took the maverick decision to look up what people were already saying about him online. It turned out that a common theme was that he often left people feeling unsatisfied when they asked him for an autograph.

As a response to this, he posted the text of a pamphlet he now apparently hands to people when they ask him to sign something. It contains 2733 words on why he doesn’t like doing so. I’m not sure this would necessarily leave people feeling any less weird about having their autograph request rebuffed, but it at least gives him time to run away while they read it. Or maybe he stays and waits for them to finish. Either way, I’m still not sure it’s helping.

However, despite the enormous length of this “no”, he does make some very good and interesting points in the document about how it feels to ask for an autograph, how it feels to be asked for an autograph, and the nature of people’s relationships with others they admire.

He starts by recounting a story from his childhood. At around ten years old, he sent his apparently quite large collection of trading cards featuring American football player Walter Payton to the man himself. Against all the odds, Payton signed them all and sent them back.

“I treasured them and they are still in my parents’ attic today”, writes Elverum. “These little pieces of cardboard were important to me mostly because the boundary had been crossed and erased between this god-like football man from TV and me, a kid from the forest outside a small town in Washington”.

When I was about ten, I paid a pound to have my photo taken with Formula 1 driver Martin Brundle at some sort of fete, which he then signed. This was weird for a number of reasons. He’d just got out of a helicopter. That was one. Also, I have no idea what the pound was for. I assume charity. Or maybe he was hoping to recoup his costs. Helicopters are quite expensive to run.

I haven’t seen that photo for years, but in my memory it is of a man who looks like he’s just arrived in a field slightly unsure of why he’s there, and a small boy confused about what’s happening. I had my picture taken with an owl around the same time, which I definitely remember more fondly. I don’t remember how much money I had to give the owl. Though it didn’t then sign the photo, so probably didn’t deserve payment.

Anyway, Elverum continues, things changed for him when Nirvana suddenly became the biggest band in the world in the early 90s. “I saw Kurt Cobain on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and recognised a regular person”, he says. “A peer of any of the older scrubby young men that worked with my dad doing cement work in the bad weather and played in bands at night. Hearing Nirvana on the radio station barely coming in from Seattle breached the boundaries of fame and accessibility and made me realise that people, humans, make this music (obviously) and that the door was theoretically open to me or anyone”.

He later discovered that a record store where he and his friends bought CDs was run by Bret Lunsford of Beat Happening – a band cited as influential by many of the grunge bands they were now getting into.

“I remember when my friends bought the new Beat Happening album on release day”, he writes. “All three of us had ordered a copy. Jeremy and Brandon took the shrink wrap off the jewel case right there in the store and asked Bret if he would sign it. I felt embarrassment wash over me”.

He explains: “We’d been hanging out at the store for months, becoming more comfortable, acting cool (we thought), and earning trust and respect. Not gawking too much, letting the weirdness of that celebrity perception wash away and blur into a mutually respectful young person/old person relationship. When my friends asked for Bret’s autograph (and I didn’t) I felt embarrassed for them, and to be with them. I wanted it to be known that I didn’t care if Bret signed my CD”.

One of the things I get asked when people find out that I’m a journalist is whether I get to meet lots of famous people. The answer is no. Not least, because I’m not the sort of journalist who gets to meet famous people. But also because I try to avoid any situation where I might. Sometimes I get asked if I’d like to meet the band after a show. But if you do that, it usually ends up being weird because the balance of power is immediately off centre. This is mainly because I can never really think of anything to say except, “I enjoyed the show”, and where do you go from there?

What you really want to do is to meet someone in a neutral situation and speak on a level playing field. Make some kind of connection that doesn’t feel contrived, or strained, or just without substance. Something that Elverum and his friends seemingly had up to the point autographs were sought.

He continues: “I could sense a slight awkwardness on Bret’s part when they asked, which now I know in hindsight was just gentle bemusement at these quaint small town teens, nothing very bad or truly uncomfortable. He obliged. I remember clearly that he opened the jewel case and with a dull black sharpie wrote ‘BRET’ on the disc, almost like one would do if they were labelling their property”.

I actually signed an autograph once. It was weird. I was backstage at a very small festival with a band I was working with at the time. A little kid came and asked us all to sign his programme, assuming that anyone he found backstage was famous. He was wrong on all counts. Particularly with me. I signed my name anyway, because it was easier than explaining all this to a seven year old. Something it seems at least some people actually of note also do when asked to sign a photo or programme.

“There’s a pattern”, Elverum says of what happens when he mans the merch table at his shows and does comply with fans’ autograph requests. “The evening starts out with people looking at the records, buying them, not talking very much, just occasional chit chat. Nice mellow compliments, human interactions”.

He goes on: “Then at some point someone buys a record and is like ‘I don’t mean to be weird or anything but would it be at all possible for you to sign this?’, and then I swallow all of my turmoil and say ‘yes sure’ and write my name. When they see that I’ve merely written my name I can usually sense, and it’s possible I’m projecting this, I can sense a slight embarrassment and disappointment on their face when I hand the record back”.

He goes on: “It’s possible they detect my resistance to the act – that me writing ‘PHIL ELVERUM’, often on the back of the record or on the inside, because I actually worked really hard designing the artwork without my name written on it and I prefer it without the defacement, that me writing my name in that direct caps lock way – conveys an attitude of mockery and derision toward them for asking in the first place. The already fraught imbalance in status that we were operating in then quickly crumbles and I become the asshole who signed his fan’s record in a snarky sarcastic way”.

I have a record like this. At one of the first Independent Label Markets I bought an album by an artist I was enjoying at the time. I went to pay and the guy running that label’s stall said, “Oh, I can give you a signed one of those for the same price”. Not wanting to seem rude, even though I really didn’t want a signed copy, I let the copy I was already holding be replaced in my hands.

Across the front, spoiling the artwork, was the artist’s stage name written in all caps in slightly smudged silver marker. It looks like someone did it by mistake. It’s made all the more weird by the fact that I wasn’t even there when the artist did this. I have never played that record. I should have just said I didn’t want it, but interacting with people is weird, isn’t it?

As for his own reasons for being uncomfortable with autographs, Elverum says: “I believe in equality and I don’t believe in god. That shift that happened for me when Nirvana got popular, the opening up of possibilities and the recalibration of my ideas about access, that has stayed with me. I believe that successful and well-known people are regular people, of course, and I am made uncomfortable by our tendency as humans to elevate some people while not elevating others. What is the deal with royalty? Why do we do that?”

“Of course some people become more well-known than others”, he concedes. “Of course the ground is not flat. But the adulation behaviour that comes so easily to most people seems dangerous and bad to me. It’s not that I don’t have long rich fantasies of the conversations and interactions I’d like to have with my favourite artists, writers, thinkers. I do. I want to personally know these brilliant people, and I enjoy hearing about their secret unglamorous regular life moments, the mechanics of their normalcy. I enjoy the reminders of my sameness with them because it reinforces the possibilities that lay open for me, always. An autograph is detrimental to all of this door-opening”.

As well as Martin Brundle, I have had my photo taken with one other celebrity. It was more recently. I just checked – it was 2014. I’d normally avoid any such situation nowadays, but it was someone it seemed slightly weird to see near my house who I thought it would be fun to stand next to. Also, I had been drinking.

In the picture, we both look delighted to be together. He’s got a big American smile and he’s sticking his thumb up. I am raising my drink towards the camera, toasting the fact that we have – as it appears to depict – just been spotted together. But that photo is a lie.

In many ways, I think I prefer the awkwardness of the Martin Brundle photo. This more recent photo doesn’t look awkward, but it is probably more so. I don’t think I said anything more than “hello” before the picture was taken. I was one in a line of people having their pictures taken with a guy who, I think, was just minding his own business. It makes me feel a bit sad to think that for a short period of that day, the interactions that guy had with people were mostly silent because all they wanted from him was a picture of his face.

On reflection, the owl picture is still my favourite. And I didn’t talk to the owl much either. That said, the owl didn’t attempt to engage me in conversation. Nor did the celebrity, for that matter. Either would have probably felt weird though, so I should probably carry on feeling bad about it.

Back to Elverum’s experiences of signing autographs, he says: “I die inside while doing it. My skin crawls. I hate it so much. The embarrassment of being placed on a stupid and absurd pedestal, of performing this pointless and ugly act, writing my name on a thing that shouldn’t have my name on it so a person can feel superficially connected to me, the shame of sitting there signing everyone’s thing without being able to speak up about it feels horrible”.

He also notes that, as an independent artist, he gets “intimately physical … with pretty much every single copy of every record” he makes. After “stuffing, folding, packing, lifting, dropping” them, “these things have my literal hairs and cells in them, fingerprints, body parts, fluids. Way more significant than a written name”.

I guess that is part of the appeal though. It’s one thing for an artist to have possibly sneezed on a record, but people want proof that the person who made it actually touched it. What better proof than a signature? If it’s good enough for a bank, then it’s good enough for anyone else. And I guess that’s why some people even like the autographs that were written down when they weren’t there. So that they can feel some connection to musical history. They can say, “Elton John once clasped this onion”. Or whatever.

Realising this, and that therefore an autograph request isn’t really that unreasonable, Elverum concedes: “I even owe you an autograph”. He adds: “I am not being sarcastic when I say I am your servant and employee. Essentially, I should shut up and sing. I should suck it up and do the relatively easy things requested of me. If I am rambling about equality and rebalancing the unhealthy celebrity power dynamic, yeah, I should let go of asserting my views and whims”.

But that doesn’t change his feelings though. So he concludes: “I am opposed to autographs and it hurts my soul to sign them. Please don’t ask me to do it. And please don’t be embarrassed when you do ask and I hand you this pamphlet and say no. It is the only way I could think of to release us both”.

So, there you go. You know what? I’d pay good money for a signed copy of that pamphlet.