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So I went to a Phish show. It was a big deal, not because I love Phish, but because my partner Leah loves them, and I emphatically do not. In our nearly 14 years together, this hasn’t been a problem (apart from the time she tried to make the case that a band I like is similar to Phish, and I, uh, did not respond well), but after I reluctantly agreed to finally go to a show with her, it started to feel increasingly consequential: If ever an event could shatter any notion of our fundamental compatibility, it would be this one. And ending a long-term relationship surrounded by 25,000 people whose collective drug haze effectively constitutes its own microclimate seemed less than ideal. So I decided to do everything I could to approach the live Phish experience as gracefully as possible.

I listened to Analyze Phish, in which Harris Wittels tries unsuccessfully to convince Scott Aukerman of the band’s virtues. I read You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, in which Nathan Rabin is won over by the much-maligned subcultures surrounding Phish and Insane Clown Posse. I read Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, in which Carl Wilson uses the chasm between Céline Dion’s critical and commercial receptions to unpack our notions of “good” and “bad” taste. And I listened to Phish’s music, in which four best buddies from Vermont play a psychedelic hybrid of prog rock and white funk that has been selling out arenas for decades despite the fact that most members of the general public cannot name a single Phish song.

Until recently, I too was unable to name a single Phish song, but that didn’t stop me from regarding the band with extreme disdain, and I’m not at all alone in that opinion. Phish fans—or at least my favorite Phish fan—seems to have a hard time understanding where that hate comes from, and I have some theories.

To begin with, there’s the aesthetics. In a popular culture that assumes most songs will be in the three-minute range, Phish’s trademark jams, endless and noodle-y, bear the mark of an unseemly self-indulgence. Even for music fans attuned to extended improvisation, something about the jam band version of it is uniquely ponderous. And then there’s the lyrics, which, well:

Won’t you step into the freezer
Please her with a tweezer

It’s gonna be cold cold cold cold cold
It’s gonna be cold cold cold cold cold
It’s gonna be cold cold cold cold cold
It’s gonna be cold cold cold cold cold

Look who’s in the freezer
Uncle Ebenezer

But let’s say you’re willing to tolerate all that, and maybe you even kind of like it. We are social animals, and music is often judged less on its own merits than on those of the culture that surrounds it. This is key in Phish’s case, since the band is definitely better known for its improbably massive following than for its actual music. And assessing that following inevitably leads to those two most taboo of dinner party topics: religion and politics, whose potency is somehow exacerbated by the fact that Phish is apparently neither religious nor political.

Like many rabid fanbases, Phishheads fit the description of a cult. Their devotion is benign, but to the outsider, their degree of devotion is curious at best and unnerving at worst. This is most famously exemplified by fans following the band on tour, Deadhead-style (the biggest fan I know claims to have seen Phish about 150 times), and that is undoubtedly noteworthy. But it’s the record-keeping that takes the obsession to the next level. Every single show is recorded, documented, and analyzed against the band’s entire history in startling depth: What was the longest song they played? The shortest? Were any songs a first for this tour? How long had it been since each song was last played? Any songs that had never been played before? Phish’s improvisational nature means no two performances of a song are the same, and fans reference specific performances by date and location like bible verses. Attaining this level of familiarity with a catalog this vast—bearing in mind also that any given show will have upwards of three hours of material—requires an investment of time and energy that goes well beyond garden-variety geekery. Some fans seem to enjoy Phish to the exclusion of all other music. To the many people who can’t fathom Phish’s appeal, this devotion borders on grotesque.

To those same people, Phish culture’s preppie-infused hippie essence is equally off-putting. Maybe it’s because punk happened; or because we’ve internalized the war on drugs; or because Don Henley saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac; or because Phish’s music generally has no discernible message; or because it all seems so anachronistic and naive and lazily escapist. Whatever the reason, ingesting an assortment of psychedelics and blissfully writhing along with a 30-minute Trey Anastasio guitar solo while wearing a donut-patterned beach towel as a cape is the kind of behavior that might make you more enemies than friends.

It all adds up to something that no respectable tastemaker would touch with a ten-foot pole, and regardless of how immune to popular opinion you believe yourself to be, no amount of antipathy for the hollowness of fashion can prepare you for how powerfully uncool Phish is.

This was the baggage I brought with me to Camden, New Jersey’s BB&T Pavilion, where we set up a blanket on the lawn about 20 minutes before showtime. There were six of us: three fans and three non-fans, which sounds like a nice even split until you remember that my two pseudo-anthropologist compatriots and I were actually outnumbered by about 8,000 to one. And let me tell you, those many thousands of Phishheads were very, very happy to be there. When the first few notes of the poetically named “Mike’s Song” kicked off the show, the crowd reacted as if Prince had returned from the dead and announced he’d be producing new episodes of The Wire. The segue into “I Am Hydrogen” nine minutes later elicited equivalent rapture, as did the reveals of “Weekapaug Groove,” “Divided Sky,” and every other song the band played. Through it all, the crowd high-fived, danced, and smiled dazed smiles of transcendent joy.

I wish I could tell you the music won me over. At one point, my friend and fellow skeptic Paul remarked, “This sounds like it should be playing over the end credits to a Steve Guttenberg movie.” His tone was more bewildered than wry. The men of Phish like to harmonize with each other in falsettos that just don’t suit them. It makes my ear canals want to cave in on themselves, and when they fail to do so, my brain is forced to absorb ridiculous word salad like “Wash Uffizi, drive me to Firenze” or some other similarly doofy lyrical nonsense. I’m not sure any other singers have made my intellect resent my hearing in quite the same way. Seemingly luckily, Phish songs tend to have relatively little singing, as it’s usually crowded out by the whole endeavor’s raison d’être: the jam. But if the singing amounts to a violation, the jam’s sin is arguably worse: it’s just really boring, and it’s really boring for a really long time. To be fair, much of Phish’s music is perfectly innocuous pop/rock that doesn’t always overstay its welcome or fill me with regret. But that’s a low bar to clear.

I wish I could tell you the fans won me over. Their unfailing friendliness is a virtue, to be sure, but one that made this self-identified interloper nervous. While I was waiting for friends to come out of the bathroom, someone came dancing right at me, and I had to pretend something else urgently required my attention and dash off to avoid failing to reciprocate the attacker’s overflowing enthusiasm. Enthusiasm was in abundant supply, and I can only guess it was roughly proportionate to the supply of illicit drugs available on the premises. If my own sobriety impeded my enjoyment, it underscored the fatal flaw of this culture: The arhythmic gyrating, the coordinated meteor showers of glow sticks, the whole frat-boy-cum-flower-child vibe—a clear head is more likely than not to find the whole atmosphere unforgivably lame.

But so what? Am I, the guy who maintains a detailed online diary of nearly every live show he’s ever attended, really going to give people shit for obsessing over their favorite band’s every move? Am I, the guy who’s spent the past 11 years jumping around onstage in leather chaps playing an invisible guitar, going to give people shit for their goofy attire and stuporous twirling? Am I, the guy with a predilection for music that willfully provokes anxiety (sometimes at great length), going to give people shit for immersing themselves in music that brings them unadulterated joy?

Like most people, I don’t believe taste has objective value, and like most people, that doesn’t stop me from behaving as if it does. I guess it’s got to do with status seeking and tribalism. Spending some time in the Phishbowl was a good opportunity to interrogate that, to ask whether the things that keep me from joining the ranks of the Phishheads really matter, to ask if we’re even all that different in the first place. As Carl Wilson puts it in the aforementioned Let’s Talk About Love, “A few people have asked me, isn’t life too short to waste time on art you dislike? But lately I feel like life is too short not to.” Besides, it’s worth remembering that my scorn is best reserved for art and culture that actively perpetuates harmful, regressive attitudes. Some of my own favorite musicians have some pretty shitty things to answer for. As far as I can tell, Phish doesn’t.

As for Leah and me, thankfully, there is plenty of overlap in what we each enjoy. Phish just happens to be the most conspicuous outlier. This show didn’t change that, but seeing the huge grin they put on her face was more than enough to make me glad they exist.