If I May: In Defense of Phish

Phish, a four-piece improvisational rock band hailing from Vermont, is my favorite band of all time. In my dorm room right now, there are no fewer than four Phish-related posters. I have nearly 5,000 Phish recordings in my iTunes library, and I’ve listened to nearly all of them. I’ve also seen the band in concert 37 times. One could say I am obsessed with the band. However, I am not alone in my obsession. Phish is one of the most popular touring acts in the United States. They routinely sell out Madison Square Garden every winter for their New Year’s Eve shows. They’ve toured all around the country nearly every year since 1983, and at each tier of venue type — small bars and clubs, college shows, larger amphitheaters and massive arenas — they’ve been able to garner crowds that fill the room.

Unfortunately for me, while Phish does have millions of devoted fans, the band’s reputation in American popular culture is not a good one. Phish routinely plays improvised sections of songs that can last ten, twenty or sometimes thirty minutes. While I, and most Phish fanatics, consider these improvised jams the most thrilling part of the Phish experience, the average music fan considers these aimless and self-congratulatory. This negative connotation of Phish’s music has rubbed off on the less-informed masses. I’ve had many conversations where I reveal that I’m a Phish fan and the response I get is something like, “How can you like Phish? They suck.” I then ask if that person has ever listened to a Phish song before. The answer is almost always no. Further adding to Phish’s bad reputation in American culture are the fans of the band litany of negative stereotypes associated with them. Many people believe that they — or, I should say, we — are just a bunch of drug-addicted hippies who live out of their cars and do nothing but follow around the band.

Now, I will not try and argue that there is not truth in these criticisms of the band. In terms of the music, of course, listening to an improvised jam for twenty minutes is not for everyone, nor should it be. Even I’ll admit that at times, Phish’s music can seem a little bit aimless and disjointed. However, I’d urge anyone to give the band a chance. Not all of their songs are thirty minutes — they have many very catchy and undeniably fun rock and roll songs. Check out “Sample in a Jar” or “Julius” or “Wilson.” Furthermore, some of their jams are really amazing displays of musicianship, showcasing brilliant communication between members and powerful group improvisations. Check out the Oct. 13, 1994 recording of “Reba” or the June 18, 1994 recording of “David Bowie.”

In terms of fans, the band does have some that are not the most well-behaved people in the world. There is certainly a great deal of Phish fans that are in fact addicted to drugs or are jobless and homeless. However, there is no archetype of a Phish fan. There are young fans, old fans, people who have been going to shows for years and people who are just attending their first. There are fans who love Phish for the incredible music that they have been producing for over thirty years, and unfortunately, there are those fans who love going to shows just to do drugs. But then again, at any concert, you will probably be able to find people there who only attended as an excuse to party.
I don’t want to suggest that everyone should be a Phish fan; of course, music preference is subjective and whatever you like is what you like. However, I hope that this article will convince some to give the band a chance, and I sincerely hope that it will convince all to disassociate the band Phish from the negative stereotypes that plague its reputation.