Throw Your Wands in the Air

And wave them like you care soooo much about Harry Potter.

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“Don’t worry, ‘muggle’ isn’t a derogatory term or anything. “ But I wasn’t offended by 28-year-old Freya Fridy’s using the M-word that Friday afternoon on the phone, mostly because I had no idea what the hell she was talking about. “It’s just our term to refer to people who don’t know much about Harry Potter.”

 

“Well, in that case,” I thought to myself, “thank God, I’m a muggle.” Or more apropos, I suppose, thank Aberforth Dumbledore. Or Kingsley Shackleport. Or Mundungus Fletcher. Or Sir Nicholas Mimsy-Porpington. Or Nymphadora Tonks. Or Cornelius Fudge. Or Whoever the Fuckingdweedle…

And I don’t thank all these wizards, witches and, um, Metamorphmaguses because I think I’m too good for Harry Potter. Quite the opposite, actually: I’m probably not good enough. As I would soon come to find out, to become a part of Harry Potter’s überfandom, I would have to sacrifice hours upon hours of my time, which would certainly cut into my Tool Academy 3 viewing. See, if there’s one thing I learned during my foray into this world of adults who dress like wizards on a semi-regular basis, it’s that to be truly un-muggle — that is, to obtain wizard status — you have to turn this hobby into a bona fide lifestyle. From pick-up games of quidditch to tattooing yourself with Gellert Grindelwald’s mark, Harry Potter überfans have thought of it all. Most intriguing, though, might be the music, which has grown from a quirky, folksy off-shoot to a veritable rock genre, or rather wrock genre. (Get it?) Wizard rock is real. However, with Harry Potter’s saga almost over (Part I of the final movie is set for release at the end of this year, Part II for July 2011), will the magic live on?

A quick perusal of wrock’s Web presence, including Fridy’s site, the Wizrocklopedia, it seems wizard rock isn’t even done growing yet. According to her site, there are just under 750 (!) Harry Potter bands out there. And by  “out there,” I mean they exist in just about every corner of the United States and several international locales, including Germany, Japan, Russia and several countries in-between. Of course, not all of them play regularly, nor do most of them have albums (that’s only about a handful), but still. With hundreds of bands and thousands of fans, wrock isn’t just a passing fad.

And, according to Fridy, who is studying to be an interior designer, wrock is about more than just the music; it’s about “the community.” She said that while some people listen to it for the musicality, most people seem to be into wrock because it’s another excuse to talk about Harry Potter, and perhaps more so, a way to bond with new friends.

And to be honest, this is kind of a relief to my non-deaf ears. After checking out a wrock show in New York last month, I’d have to question the general sanity of these people had they touted the musical ability of most of the musicians, most of whom play just a few times a year at these quarterly New York shows. According to a friend (another muggle) who accompanied me to the show in the cramped backroom of the Sidewalk Café and Bar in lower Manhattan, “It sounds like Phoebe from Friends.” To me, it sounded like standard coffee shop music with simple melodies, sung maybe just a little off-key.

But, really, what else would you expect two acoustic-guitar-playing, young 20-something females called Madame Pince and the Librarians to sound like? And hey, Bob Dylan doesn’t have the best voice either. Not that the two are exactly comparable, but I think it’s safe to assume both are more admired by fans for their lyrics. Even as a muggle, I found it pretty impressive to hear Madame Pince and the Librarians rhyme “transfiguration” with “incantation.” Chances are, you’re not going to hear Nickelback do that. Actually, hopefully, you’re not going to hear Nickelback at all, but I digress…

While most wizard rock bands fall into the “sounds-like-Phoebe-from-Friends” category, there are some wrock bands out there that have achieved a slightly more professional sound. They can play their instruments better; their voices are better; they just sound better, at least to this muggle’s ears. Harry and the Potters have probably the most polished sound. And with 83,104 friends on MySpace — the main social network for musicians — they’re the most popular, as well. They’ve been flown around the world to play at the world premieres of the Harry Potter films and, as I learned from multiple überfans, their song “The Weapon” is to Potter fans what the “Star-Spangled Banner” is to U.S. citizens. It’s “a veritable anthem,” one fan at the show told me. Another started reciting the lyrics: “We may have lost Sirius Black / But we’re not turning back / We will fight ’til we have won!”

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t hear Harry and the Potters that night. Instead, and luckily, I heard another band that has achieved enough status to tour without needing a regular day job, as well: The Whomping Willow. Fronted by Rhode Islander Matt Maggiacomo, TWW has released two albums and an EP. With the most friends on MySpace (12,867) and, in my opinion, the most musically talented (he played his guitar with confidence and his voice reminded me slightly of a younger Conor Oberst), Maggiacomo was also the last to perform.

Unsurprisingly, the crowd of 50 or so fans grew a little rowdier and a lot louder when Maggiacomo took the stage. Some raised glowing magic wands and most crowded the stage to sing along with him. The audience knew every lyric, word-for-word. The noise level crescendoed when Maggiacomo, who resembles a beefier Michael Cera, belted out the first few words of his pièce de résistance, “Wizard Rock Heartthrob.” It was hard to hear him between the shouts of  “You’re hot!” and “Ooo, sexy!” coming from the female fans. Perhaps, a reality dating show called Wrock of Love is in Maggiacomo’s future?

Or maybe not. While wrock is fun live for these Harry Potter superfans, it seems to lose its magic (pun intended) when the group members part ways and go home. At least that’s what 24-year-old Matt Bufford, an überfan who works for the government in Washington, D.C., told me in a Northern Virginia Starbucks one evening. “I don’t really listen to wizard rock unless I’m with other fans,” said Bufford, who prefers to listen to Lady GaGa and Muse on his commute to work. “It’s really more about the community,” he continued. “The community is what’s keeping people in it.”

The community is also what got him into it in the first place. Having been a fan of the Harry Potter books in high school, Bufford said, “A friend just forced wrock on me in college.” It wasn’t until graduate school, however, when Bufford found himself alone in New York City, that he truly understood wrock’s charm. “It was a way to have a whole group,” he said about the wrock scene in New York. Incidentally, he knows both Fridy and Maggiacomo. Not only that, but despite likely preferring Justin Bieber to Justin Finch-Fletchley, Bufford has taken it upon himself to organize and host the first wizard rock festival in the D.C. area, Sonorus. Alas, ticket sales so far have been marginal, according to Bufford. Only about 80 seats have been sold. “I was hoping for a little bit more than that,” he said without revealing his original target.

But after seeing the turnout in New York at the Sidewalk Café (before the show I was told to expect a crowd of 75 to 100, about twice as many as actually showed up), I can’t say I’m that surprised about the low sales. “Wrock peaked probably about three years ago, just before the final book was released,” Bufford said. And so, with all the books released and with only one movie remaining, it seems logical to assume wrock will one day fade away.

And maybe I’m right. Realistically, I don’t think wrock will last forever,” one fan told me, as long as I promised to keep his (or her!) identity a secret.

The New York Harry Potter Club’s leader, 30-something John Rosenthal, spoke more openly of wrock’s future. “It’s not self-perpetuating,” he said pausing to order a Malibu and Coke. “We know that if we don’t push it, it will die.”

But not everyone agreed. Wizrocklopedia’s Fridy said that while the wrock fandom may shrink, the movement will probably exist forever, perhaps just not in its original form. Cue meta-wizard rock, or songs about the wrock movement, like Maggiocomo’s “Wizard Rock Heartthrob,” which unlike Harry and the Potters’ “The Weapon,” goes beyond the Potter stories and adds lyrics about the wrock fandom.

“Meta-wrock’s a growing sub-genre,” said Fridy. “It tells the experience of being in the fandom and it’s a chance for us to get to hear the story that a lot of us have participated in, like, we know what the bands are talking about when they sing about going to cons.”

I later found out that “cons” is short for wrock conferences, of which there are more than you’d think; instead of zero, there are several, the biggest of which garners hundreds of attendees — Wrockstock. Last year Fridy, Rosenthal, and Bufford all attended this three-day festival — endearingly described to me as both a “SXSW for wizards” and “a summer camp for nerds” — along with hundreds of others. And with those same hundreds willing to shell out $500 or more for the shows and plane ticket to, um, scenic Potosi, Missouri next November for Wrockstock 2010, perhaps Fridy’s got it right. While it looks like wrock might slowly fade out as a weekly night out, perhaps it will remain a nice yearly excuse for the Harry Potter community to keep in touch. “It’s always been and continues to be just one giant group of friends.” • 28 April 2010

 

Marissa Payne is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. In her spare time she writes The Anti DC.

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