End of an era: The life, death of Harry Potter fan culture

Sara Rasmussen

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Graphic by Sara Rasmussen

“We’re here because we love Harry Potter, but we’re not here for Harry Potter. We’re here to celebrate the stuff being created around Harry Potter.”

So spoke Hank Green, an entrepreneur perhaps best known for the VlogBrothers project, in reference to the vibrant fan community that surrounds the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling’s seven-part story of the boy wizard is, without a doubt, a literary and cultural phenomenon. It sold a record-breaking 450 million copies, won numerous awards and inspired children and adults around the world to pick up a book and read. Harry’s story caught the world’s attention, creating an enormous, diverse fan base.

Indeed, the Harry Potter fandom is a world unto its own––perhaps unlike any other. It emerged just as the Internet was taking off, and for Harry Potter-themed music, known as wizard rock, just as MySpace was taking off. Fan communities existed before the Internet, of course, as any Trekkie from the 1970s could tell you. However, the ability to connect instantaneously with other fans from across the globe was what truly catalyzed the fan movement, with websites like MuggleNet, The Leaky Cauldron and Harry Potter Lexicon leading the way in the early 2000s.

These connections forged a ready audience for fans who sought to keep their experience of the series alive through their art, games and hobbies. As Hank indicates, the fan community is a celebration of Harry Potter. But even more than that, Harry Potter fan culture is a celebration of what the book and film series have inspired fans to create. And create we have.

Armed with the messages of love and literacy, outfitted with the power of the Internet, we fans thrive best when expressing our grassroots, do-it-yourself spirit––reflecting examples like Dumbledore’s Army and S.P.E.W. that we found in Rowling’s books.

From midnight premiere costumes to community events, from fan websites to online forums, from fan fiction, illustrations and videos to wizard rock, from puppet shows to Quidditch games to conferences, from social justice movements like the Harry Potter Alliance to professional documentaries like “We Are Wizards,” the spectrum of creative Potterhead projects is seemingly endless.

“Our band is our art and we embed a lot of our philosophy into it, and a lot of our values and ethic,” said Paul DeGeorge to me in a 2011 interview. Paul is one half of wizard rock band Harry and the Potters.

I myself am no exception to the DIY spirit––I picked up The Sorcerer’s Stone in 1999 and have been a huge fan of the books since. I truly joined the fan community in early 2010, when senior Mehera Nori and I began a program on KWCW called The Witching Hour. The radio show fuses our commentary on the books, movies and fan culture with a playlist of our favorite wizard rock tunes.

There was the sense––back when we started The Witching Hour––that the capacity of fans to generate new, wizardly content was just about infinite. But we soon discovered that our fledging radio show was, in fact, catching the tail end of the Harry Potter fan phenomenon. Many of the wizard rock artists we regularly profiled had been performing under their wizard monikers since 2005.

Now, the fact that the book series finished in 2007 is quietly floating in the back of our minds. The movie franchise ended in the summer of 2011. For the fan community, Harry Potter has been our language, but we’re running out of new ways to combine our words.

In “Phoenix Song,” off their 2006 album Harry and the Potters and the Power of Love, Joe DeGeorge sings, “And it won’t be over ‘til it’s over / No, it’s we who will decide / When to stop the fight and get on with our lives.” Harry and the Potters sing exclusively from the viewpoint of Harry himself, which technically limits them from writing songs that opine on the state of wizard rock, as The Parselmouths and The Whomping Willows (among others) have done. But in these few lines, ostensibly about Harry’s fight against evil, the band speaks more to their unwillingness to acknowledge that Rowling’s completion of the books means the end of their experience as Harry. For them, the fan world will continue to live for as long as its constituents continue to write, draw, sing and otherwise express their passion for the Potterverse.

And that passion still has a few outlets, most notably in the Harry Potter Alliance. The HPA is a non-profit organization that seeks to be “Dumbledore’s Army for the real world.” The group has enacted this goal in various ways, from their classic campaigns against illiteracy to their more recent war with Warner Brothers over fair-trade chocolate frogs.

“I think the Harry Potter Alliance is maybe the most amazing thing that came out of the Harry Potter fandom, which is to take this enthusiasm that people have for these books and to sort of harness it in a way that is really concrete and productive, and it’s allowing people to be the heroes they read about,” said Paul, who currently serves on the HPA Board of Directors, in the interview for The Witching Hour. “That’s really empowering, and the books are really empowering . . . and we’re just trying to provide people a forum for that.”

But despite Harry and the Potters’ wishes and the HPA’s efforts, perhaps the time to “get on with our lives” really has come. When my co-host Mehera and I interviewed Alex Carpenter, frontman of The Remus Lupins in 2010, I asked him if he thought wizard rock was dead.

“Wizard rock will never be dead as long as there are those who are loyal and keep it alive,” he responded with a grin.

As it turned out, Alex ended his six-year stint with the Lupins about a year later. He’s still a mainstay on the YouTube circuit and made a splash in 2011 with his decidedly Muggle cover of Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” which received over a million hits. But his days of howling about being a teenage werewolf have come to an end.

Likewise, Kristina Horner of The Parselmouths, a band which occasionally tours, but whose future album plans seem to be on infinite hiatus, explained how she saw herself moving on with her new nerd-rock duo, ALL CAPS, and other projects.

“We are musicians and we had a lot of music about Harry Potter that people liked, that made us this community, but like, now, you know, we’re writing about other things,” said Kristina in a 2010 interview with The Witching Hour. “So I kind of see that as the future.”

Meanwhile, transitioning to the Muggle world has proven an interesting challenge for full-time wizards (that is, people who make a living through Potter-related occupations) who may have outgrown Harry’s world.

“When I’m at a party and somebody asks me what I do, and I say I’m in a band . . . I always just say like, indie rock. I usually don’t say wizard rock,” Alex said. “And then somebody invariably will always be like, ‘Ahhh you’ve gotta tell them! This dude’s in a Harry Potter band! It’s about Harry Potter!’ And then people will either react very excitedly, or will just shun me and just walk away. So, the idea of saying ‘wizard rock’ is sort of dicey, out in the real world.”

Despite the long life and vibrancy of the Harry Potter fan community, the fan culture has faded and will continue to fade. Fewer websites will continue to update, fewer records will be released, fewer fan fictions will be written. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Full-time wizards like Paul, Joe, Alex and Kristina have found (and will find) inspiration in new fan communities. They’ll pursue projects made possible by their experiences in the wizard rock world.

I don’t mean to suggest that they, or other fans, will ever stop loving the books––that personal connection to Harry’s story will perhaps remain forever embedded in the heart of the HP generation––but the active, community-based element will not last. Draco and the Malfoys performed their last show this past December; The Mudbloods retired in 2009. MySpace, the former hub of budding wizard rockers, has long since been abandoned. The Harry Potter Lexicon has not been updated for years; MuggleNet has almost no news on which to report.

Some might say there is the hope and the promise of Pottermore, Rowling’s interactive online reading experience that couples additional insights about the Potterverse with opportunities to be sorted, brew potions and duel. I was one of the million people who stayed up until 3 a.m. this past summer to find a secret quill and answer a riddle about the Triwizard Tournament, all so I could get early access. But presently crippled with technical problems, Pottermore feels like it has been banished to eternal Beta hell. I admit, the chance to learn about Professor Quirrell’s preferred pastimes was exciting. (Pressing flowers, in case you were wondering.) But Pottermore is primarily an individual experience––not truly part of fan culture as I envision it.

Likewise, there will occasionally continue to be conferences; LeakyCon 2012, hosted by The Leaky Cauldron, is set for early August in Chicago and HPEF’s Ascendio will be in Orlando in July. 2011’s LeakyCon attracted the likes of Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood in the films, Darren Criss of “Glee” fame and the rest of the Very Potter Musical crew, the top tier of wizard rock bands and more, all rolled in with the final movie premiere and trips to the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter. But it seems undeniable that it was the last great gathering of Harry Potter fans from across the United States. It’s the end of Harry Potter fan culture’s golden age, and the beginning of an era of decline.

Being part of the Harry Potter community has been magical––I’d go so far as to say it changed my life––and I intend to enjoy every last moment of it. But it seems that Oliver Boyd and the Remembralls had it right with his song “End of an Era,” off the 2007 record Welcome to Wizard Rock:

So I will miss the train ride in
And the pranks pulled by the twins.
And though it’s nowhere I have been,
I’ll keep on smiling from the times I had with them.

Soon we will see it closed.
The final chapter exposed.
It’s an end of an era
And I’m seeing clearer
That nothing will ever be the same.

Missed out on the world of Harry Potter fandom? No matter. Get the emergency wizard kit, complete with links, resources and a free wizard rock mixtape here.

Catch The Witching Hour on KWCW 90.5 FM Walla Walla on Mondays 8-10 p.m. Streaming online at kwcw.net and podcasted at thewitchinghourkwcw.tumblr.com.

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