The event begins in eight hours, but the parking lot is already teeming with several hundred fans in colorful costumes. In an hour or so, around one and two in the afternoon, that number will increase to a few thousand. Grills are already firing up, and the sound of whirring blenders competes with similar sounding music emanating every few yards from another car’s sound system. A sense of community is already setting in as old friends catch sight of one another, and new friends share stories, food and yes, shots.
This is one of the parking lots for the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, NJ, just outside Philadelphia. But today, as the crowds wait for Jimmy Buffett to take the stage inside, it has been transformed into Margaritaville –- a place where Parrotheads gather to celebrate their own brand of fan lifestyle.
In one of his songs, Buffett sings that he and his Parrotheads are "the people our parents warned us about," but they are also the nerd group that no one is talking about.
It would be easy to call Parrotheads -- the name for diehard Buffett fans -- a bunch of boozed-up bros and babes who just want to revel in a sun-soaked hedonistic existence of food, drink and sex while listening to oft-disregarded countrified tropical music. Heck, many Parrotheads would even happily embrace that definition.
But they are not in complete contrast to the crowds at cons and comic book shops, or in gaming circles and LARP groups.
While maybe not daydreaming about going on a quest or having super powers, Parrotheads also fantasize about being in a mythical land where the confines of society fade away, and they can be their “true” self. Sure, that world is one of relaxation and no responsibilities, but aside from the salted rim and lack ofcheeseburgers in paradise, Margaritaville is not so dissimilar to Middle Earth.
Although not typically considered part of the nerd community, Parrotheads behave in a way that is incredibly similar to other fan cultures, and it is time to welcome them to the party. And boy, do they know how to party.
Yet behind the party atmosphere celebrated among Parrotheads is the source material. Buffett’s first album, “Down to Earth” was released in 1970. He gained mainstream success with his song “Come Monday” in 1974, but it was his third album, 1977’s “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” that introduced the world to “Margaritaville.” Outside of performing a cameo on Alan Jackson's "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere," the musician hasn't had a Top 40 hit since 1979, but that hasn't kept the Parrotheads away or kept Buffett from playing.
The fan base, which gelled around the mid-’80s at his concerts, maintains a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of the albums, songs, and punchlines in the Buffett repertoire –- as well as continuously paying for tickets, books, clothing, tequila, beer and the chance to dine at his Margaritaville restaurants. And like some are awaiting George R.R. Martin's next installment in "A Song of Ice and Fire," Parrotheads anticipate Buffett's new studio album, "Songs from St. Somewhere," which drops today.
The Buffett brand is financially strong and earns him much respect as an entrepreneur; Celebrity Net Worth has put his fortune in the $400 million range -- Yahoo! Music points out that, if true, that puts him in the company of Paul McCartney and Jay Z. Also, he reportedly drew 50,000 people for a show at his brand spanking new $35-million Margaritaville complex in Atlantic City.
Still, the Buffett music and lifestyle have long been fodder for mockery for mainstream critics. And Parrotheads are mocked even more. If outsider status is required to be a nerd, as has often been brought up, then Parrotheads qualify. One only need watch the January 2012 episode of “30 Rock” called “Idiots Are People Three” as a point of reference.
Then again, outsider status doesn't prevents most nerds from proudly shedding the uniform of daily life and donning their “real” clothes. Much like a member of the 501st rocks their stormtrooper costume as often as possible, so does
the Parrothead engage in cosplay.
In fact, the cosplay element so expected in most fan groups is active with the Parrotheads. Like other nerds, they don their colors to show their fan loyalty, express the level of that loyalty and knowledge to others, and to signal to like-minded fans that they are part of the tribe. The Parrothead cosplay activity does often include a grass skirt, coconut bra and lei combo -– just as a Slave Leia costume is standard at most cons –- but creativity and originality are rewarded more. At these massive tailgating gatherings, that “more” includes building a full size traveling bamboo tiki bar and working Jacuzzi setup, complete with sandy substrate.
There is a language and shared behavioral patterns at play among the Parrotheads, as well. Many involve lyrics from Buffett songs, which are traded like "Star Wars" lines between the true believers. But instead of "These are the not droids you're looking for," it might be "Fins to the left, fins to the right" -- a chant from the song "Fins" that causes thousands of to raise press their palms together above their head, and sway back and forth in a near-religious zeal.
Of course there are interlopers who basically show up to get wasted without appreciating the Parrothead culture. After all, they do serve up great drinks. And yes, sometimes those drinks are tropical shots served up in the orifices of (male and female) blow-up sex dolls. But most of the community celebrates a few core concepts that extends beyond the songs of Jimmy Buffett. There is substance behind the substances, a passion the drives the pursuit. It is the reason there are so many children at the Parrothead pilgrimages. Or, like one group of early arrivals in the Susquehanna parking lot, the celebration includes two generations of revelers –- including a a father, his adult daughter, her boyfriend and a group of their friends and neighbors. The pater-Parrothead of the group gathered them because he wanted to share the experience with his little girl, and because it was an event that he believed everyone
should see what it’s all about.
The Parrothead is not the traditional nerd, but they walk the walk, talk the talk. To reject them a place in the nerd community is to reject much of the criteria that defines the tribal movement. So even if they’re doing it with a lot more booze, they live the nerd lifestyle.