From Beatlemania to the Beliebers, What Makes a ‘Fangirl’?

A new book wants to understand the individuals – and identities – beneath the ‘somewhat derogatory label’

In any field of pop culture, but particularly music, fans are the reason successful artists exist. Yet, they are almost constantly dismissed, derided or demonized in the media – especially if they are young and female. In her recently published debut book, Fangirls (2019), journalist Hannah Ewens looks at music fandom from Beatlemania to the Beliebers, combining chapters on some of the 21st century’s biggest pop stars (Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, One Direction) with short interviews with musicians and fans, as well as musicians who are fans of other musicians. As is often the case with those writing from a perspective not always taken seriously, Ewens opens by staking out her subject position: as someone whose youthful fandom led her from riot grrrl and punk towards an LGBTQ+-inclusive feminism, she wants to understand the individuals – and identities – beneath the ‘somewhat derogatory label’ of ‘fangirl’.

Taylor Swift in concert, 2017. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons

Taylor Swift in concert, 2017. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons

Ewens occasionally brings in sociologists, gender-studies professors or journalists to reinforce her observations about the evolution of fan culture. However, she ensures that the voices heard most often are the most interesting: those of the fans themselves, who are far more erudite and self-aware than their critics – such as journalist Paul Johnson who, in a 1964 New Statesman article, referred to female Beatlemaniacs as ‘the dull, the idle, the failures’ – have credited them as being. Fans’ angry reactions to being cast as a deranged, delusional mob in the Channel 4 documentary Crazy About One Direction (2013) offer a way into a complex contemporary culture of people tweeting at artists or waiting hours to see them at ‘meet and greet’ sessions, writing (often homoerotic) fan fiction, forming groups on social media and, in many cases, establishing deep friendships with fellow fans.

Ewens quickly establishes that – besides social media being to One Direction what television was to The Beatles – there is little difference between those fandoms. She places both within a tradition that predates 20th-century mass media and extends back to the public’s obsession with Lord Byron and ‘Lisztomania’ – a term coined by Heinrich Heine in 1844 to describe the ‘true madness’ that broke out at composer Franz Liszt’s recitals. This ‘hysteria’, and the moral panic concerning the influence that artists might wield over those who love them, is as old as culture itself. When, in a 2008 article, the British tabloid Daily Mail blamed My Chemical Romance for a rise in teenage suicides – entirely missing the point that, for most of the group’s acolytes, the darkness and despair expressed in the songs made them feel less alone and less misunderstood – it was certainly nothing new.

The Beatles arrive at Schiphol Airport, 1964. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The Beatles arrive at Schiphol Airport, 1964. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Mostly, Ewens’s sense of historical context is acute, although one might question her assertion that ‘no one in Britain has been hounded by the press like Amy Winehouse, neither before nor since’. The hypocrisy of the UK media’s voyeuristic attacks on Winehouse before her death in 2011, and sanctification after, could have benefited from a comparison with their coverage of Diana Princess of Wales. Mainly, the fan cultures Ewens interrogates are contemporary: she lets older women who were obsessed with The Beatles or Elvis Presley speak for themselves, and their consistent, kind-hearted refusal to dismiss their own teenage passions is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Ewens acknowledges that, while young pop fans are widely mocked, they are at least considered. In the final chapter, looking at how fans of Hole have aged alongside the band, some having formed strong bonds with lead singer Courtney Love over shared experiences of addiction or sexist oppression, Ewens points out that virtually no research has done been into older female fans, or the loneliness that comes with sustaining their interest after the intensity of their initial attachment has passed, and most of the people who shared their passion as teenagers have fallen away.

Older fans may deserve a book in themselves, but Ewens’s mission here is to treat younger ones with a respect that is typically withheld, especially by middle-aged male journalists who decry the explicitly sexual nature of female fandom – even when musicians themselves are obviously marketed as sex symbols. She notes how teenage fans were the first to notice, and express concern for, the changed appearance of Lady Gaga before the singer was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and had to withdraw from her mentally and physically demanding tour schedule. Ewens’s chapter on the 2017 Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, which was subject to a terrorist attack that killed 22 people, pays close attention to how the singer and her fans handled their trauma together: both fighting a media that policed their responses to grief and refused to acknowledge that the bombing was a targeted, misogynist attack on young women; both finding ways to continue to express themselves through music in the face of an enemy that wanted to silence them.

Hannah Ewens, Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture

Hannah Ewens, Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture, 2019, cover image. Courtesy: Quadrille Publishing

Like nearly all of Ewens’s case studies, Grande is a mainstream pop star. Of the artists explored here, only Hole had any connection to an ‘underground’ music scene: this is definitely a book written after the collapse of the counter-culture, which no longer inspires the same sort of tribal obsession as it once did, while pop clearly still does. The music press doesn’t register in Fangirls – the decentralized landscape that today’s fans interact with is made up of opinion columnists, broadcast and online documentaries and social-media celebrities, with little place or need for (self)-appointed arbiters of taste. If punk, rave or hip-hop emerged because certain types of young people couldn’t see themselves in popular culture, then there are parallels here. Modern pop stars may not express it through formal innovation, and there may be a bigger gap between supporter and (more expensively backed) producer than in counter-cultural movements, but many succeed because they provide points of identification for different communities, whilst also reaching wider audiences – Beyoncé for black women, Halsey for bisexual people – with the level of validation they provide being linked to the level of their fame. At heart, intense fandom springs from a universal need for identification and representation – as much now as at any other point in history.

Main image: Young fans of Canadian singer Justin Bieber attend his concert as part of the ‘Believe Tour’ at Telenor Arena in Fornebu, Norway, 16 April 2013. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Daniel Sannum Lauten

Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London, UK. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015. She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts.

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