On Joy Devotion

Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike tells us about her upcoming Headpress title, Joy Devotion: The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture on the fanatical fan culture surrounding Joy Division.

HEADPRESS: Tell us about Joy Devotion.

DR. JENNIFER OTTER BICKERDIKE: ‘Joy Devotion’ is a tag line I created while I was getting my PhD—which focused on fandom, authenticity and image, using Ian Curtis (and Kurt Cobain) as the case studies to examine these phenomena. For me, Joy Division had played the part of saviour when traditional religion and worship did not work for me—the music and the myths surrounding the group pulled me through times when even the longest times on my knees in my Catholic church could not give me peace or grace. So the idea of ‘Joy Devotion’ started as a riff on the idea of religion—of devotion to a secular godlike figure I looked to for guidance. In this case, for me, Ian Curtis. It is also obviously a play on the band’s name. But as I have gotten further along with writing, reading and speaking about fandom, the idea of the Joy of Devotion—the same fevour usually reserved for traditional theological contexts – also can be seen and felt in fandom. So the concept of ‘Joy Devotion’ goes beyond the singular of Joy Division and can be applied to any devout audience member. I actually am starting a podcast called ‘Joy Devotion’ which is all about fans.

As for the idea for the book Joy Devotion: The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture, that came out of not just the role that this mythologized Curtis played in my life—but how Joy Division as a band and Curtis as the martyred lead singer figure have affected and impacted a variety of people around the globe. It is not just about Curtis, or Joy Division—the book is a love letter to the importance of identity and community found between the grooves of the record.

Photos by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike

And what would you say distinguishes Joy Division fanhood from other cult bands?

Joy Division is the only band that I have come across where a majority, if not almost the entirety—with the exception of a very small group of folks who saw them when Curtis was alive—whose popularity and influence have occurred in such a dramatic, profound matter after the lead singer has passed away, after the band is essentially just an idea, a history, itself. Kevin Cummins made the case to me that the Manic Street Preachers also experienced a similar burst in popularity and success; the difference I would argue is the cultural currency of Joy Division across such a wide breadth and depth of media—from Disneyland to skateboards—is pretty much unbridled by any other group who has a minute cult following while intact, and have exploded in importance through the power of social media and a global community.

What’s the most striking example of Joy Division devotion that you came across in the course of researching the book?

My friend Ian who is in the book—he has been going to Curtis’s grave at least twice a year for over thirty years. That is dedication. However, there are other things I have seen and heard, like the story of Cornelia, which I also include in the book, a young fan who is interred several graves away from Ian. One of the last times I visited Ian’s grave, there were cremated remains scattered all over it. I guess it was someone’s last wish to be as near to Curtis as possible in death.

Can you tell us a bit about your own history as a Joy Division fan? How significant a role have Joy Division and their music played in your life?

Joy Division have completely changed the trajectory of my life. I first heard them on a discarded mixtape at the cafe I worked at when I was at college. It was the nineties, and it was very hard to get hold of any information about the band. I was already a HUGE New Order fan, and had Kevin Cummins’ pictures all over my room—but the connection between Joy Division and New Order had someone not translated to me. I started collecting any and all Joy Division fodder I could find- which was not much and rarely come across until the late nineties in the States (I am originally from Santa Cruz, California). My first trip to England did not happen until I was win my early thirties. Most people have the crown jewels or some other typical tourist destination in mind. My top list was going to Manchester, seeing all the spots made famous by the post-punk and Madchester bands I loved, and to pay my respects at Ian’s grave in Macclesfield. So when it came time to pick a topic to write a PhD on, I could not think of anything else I would want to spend as much time researching and writing about as Joy Division. I have made lifelong friends, met my heroes who I had pinned to my wall through my adolescence, met my husband and been so humbled by the incredible community of people who are joined together by their love of the band. I will always be indebted to them.

Want to know more? Pick up a copy of Joy Devotion, edited by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike. Available in paperback and a limited special edition hardback.

A book about Joy Division fans written by Joy Division fans.

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