Fans, stans, and everything in-between are an avid part of social media. There are Lady Gaga’s Monsters, Beyoncé’s Beyhive, Ariana Grande’s Arianators, Taylor Swift’s Swifties, Rihanna’s Navy’s, Nicki Minaj’s Barbz, Cardi B’s Bardi Gang, One Directioners, and even the BTS Army, and each of these factions duke it out on social for supremacy. Whether it’s creating accounts dedicated to their favorite artist, touting their favorite artist’s Billboard stats, or creating fancams, fandoms are a driving force for an artist’s success. Their efforts are often successful: Minaj specifically thanked her fans for helping her and Doja Cat reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart with the “Say So (Remix),” and fan-hosted streaming parties and coordinated playlists certainly help boost chart position for their faves.
These fandoms can also mobilize for good—the BTS Army recently donated more than a million dollars to the Black Lives Matter organization after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. But what about fandoms that take it a step too far in defense of their idols? Just last week, we witnessed a fandom at its absolute worst, when devoted Swifties began harassing any music critic who dared offer anything but fervent praise of the musician’s recently released eighth album, folklore. Pitchfork senior editor Jillian Mapes experienced the worst of it after publishing an even-handed review of folklore that surveyed the album in its totality to reach clear conclusions about its importance and impact—in other words, doing her job. Mapes and her colleagues gave folklore a score of 8.0 out of 10—a rating that most musicians would consider indisputable acclaim. Instead, it sent Swifties into a frenzy: They doxxed Mapes, sharing her phone number and address on Twitter and even sharing photos of her home.
This isn’t the first time stans have gone to extremes: The Barbz have sent death threats to journalists and fellow celebrities for not being undyingly devoted to Minaj, and the Beyhive once so badly hounded a woman on Instagram that Beyoncé’s publicist had to step in. Stans, for better or worse, are stitched into the fabric of the internet, and they flex their power however and whenever they can. But understanding their investment in idols like Swift is key to dealing with standoms—or, at least, that’s one takeaway from Hannah Ewens’s Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture, which will have its U.S. release on August 18. Ewens, a features editor at VICE, traces the history of fandom—from the days of The Beatles until the present—to contextualize what fandom means, how it functions, and how it both reflects and drives cultural conversations about everything from teenage girls to mental health. Ewens also differentiates between fans and stans, the latter of whom go to extreme lengths to prove their devotion. Bitch spoke with Ewens about what we can all learn from the often-terrifying world of standom.
What motivated you to write a book about fan culture, particularly among teenage girls and women? What drew you to the subject matter?
It was around 2015. Music journalist Jessica Hopper had written a lot about fangirls and fan culture. She tweeted something [along the lines of] “Replace the word ‘fangirl’ with ‘expert’ and see what happens.” There was a lot of discourse about fangirls at that point, because One Direction had decided to disband and everyone was shaming girls for being upset about Zayn leaving [the group]. The media and the general public were disparaging One Directioners for publicly grieving online, which was a twist of the knife for those teenage girls. They finally said, “This is ridiculous. Why are we being talked about in this way?” There were a few female journalists at the time who wrote a couple of celebratory pieces about fangirls. I was 24 or 25 at the time, and I’d read these pieces, but I wanted to read stories that took their [perspective] into consideration. I knew I wanted to write a book about fan culture through the lens of teenage girls.
The book includes quotes from teenage girls and women from all over the world who were once avid fans of everyone from The Beatles and Elvis Presley to Ariana Grande and Beyoncé. How did you approach sourcing and researching?
It was different for each fandom. At the very beginning of the book, where I write about One Direction fans, I found that loads of those accounts had been abandoned. It was the early 2010s when [people still had usernames like] CuteAngel66, so just trying to find out who those girls are [was difficult] because there are no [public] email addresses and no one’s using the account. I thought the One Direction chapter would be easy, but it was quite difficult because I was going back in time and I wanted to speak to One Directioners about a specific documentary. The Beyoncé chapter was also fairly difficult because of how demonized the Beyhive has been. The fanbase is made up of mainly Black women in their late 20s to early 40s, and I’m obviously a white writer coming into that space.
Fans also can be very suspicious of journalists coming in because they’ve been so criticized in the media. I wanted to speak to not just Beyoncé fans from North America, but ones from African countries as well, which involved [building relationships] and gaining their trust. The chapter about Ariana Grande was easy: I wanted to talk to fans who had been at the Manchester Arena concert and that was easy to source. I was just messaging fans on Twitter and then asking if I could speak to their mom to get permission because these girls were under 18. I would also go to a lot of shows and just hang around afterwards or I’d go early in the day [to talk to fans] who were camping.
There are many reasons that fans become devoted to specific artists, but what is the primary reason teenage girls join fandoms?
All the reasons are so similar. It’s wanting to belong and feeling a really strong connection to the artists themselves. The fan believes the artist and their work helped them come into their own. The artist’s work becomes a comfort—almost like a friend on their journey—as they figure out who they want to be. I’m definitely not the first person who has said this, but the more fans you speak to, the more you [realize] their experiences are so universal.
Often, artists who attract a fan base composed primarily of teenage girls are derided or treated as if they don’t take their artistry seriously, and dismissed as “bubblegum pop.” What does that reveal about how our culture values teenage girls?
The book points to the media’s massive role in shaping and maintaining stereotypes about teenage fangirls and the music [they love]. It’s interesting how some of those anxieties and stereotypes have transferred from fangirls to stans. Within the fandoms that I talked about in the book like One Directioners, for example, have now been transferred to the Beyhive and K-pop stans. There’s this media narrative about fangirls that [proclaims them to be] unstable and hysterical. And then, when things like the Manchester arena attack happens, the media begins celebrating fangirls and calling them powerful and brilliant.
A month or two ago, when the K-pop fans used fancams to derail the Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the whole media narrative around it was “stans are so powerful,” but K-pop stans have been saying for a long time that there’s a lot of unchallenged racism, sexism, and homophobia within fandom itself. And now, a month later, the narrative is “stan culture is toxic” because Taylor Swift’s fans are doxxing critics. People don’t really know what to think about fangirls or teenage girls in general.
What causes a response like Swift’s stans, especially on social media?
As I see it, stan culture is a slightly separate thing from broader fan culture because stan culture is all about the artist winning and helping the artists win. It’s all about streaming and it’s facilitated by social media. Stan culture is very competitive; it’s all about proving that your artist is better than other artists. And now there are so many different metrics in the music industry to prove that your artist is good. It used to just be the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but now there are all these different charts, which creates this weird competitive nature. That’s the reason stans become so irritable about specific things. Jillian Mapes gave folklore a 8.0, which made stans angry because it brings Swift’s overall Metacritic rating down. Metacritic aggregates all the reviews for cultural products, so an 8.0 brought Swift from a 90 to an 89. It’s just so extreme. Why is that the thing that makes people feel impassioned enough to dox a critic or call their cell phone in the early hours of the morning?
Fans have always trashed critics, but it used to take them so long to do it. If it was NME, Melody Maker, or another [print] magazine, they would have to write a letter; tell some old music dude that they’re trash and terrible at writing; send the letter to the magazine; and then wait a week or more for it to be published, or learn that it won’t be published at all. Now, it’s just so easy for an entire stan base to trash Jon Caramanica from the New York Times. They’re going to find out where the critic lives, share that information, and every other stan is going to agree with them. There’s a big thrill in that—or there must be, because every stan acts this way on social media.
Social media has to create better restrictions to keep stans from doxxing and being abusive.
What responsibility, if any, do artists have to address their fans’ behavior and attempt to correct it?
Social media has [to create] better restrictions [to keep] stans from doxxing and being abusive. If it’s not that, then the artist [has to step in]. I don’t see any other way. Stans genuinely believe that they’re working in the artist’s best interest, but we know that if artists tell their fans to stop doing something, they’ll actually stop. Lady Gaga has always directly told her fans, “Can you stop doing this?” In 2013, when her fans were being aggressive to a critic, she told them to stop—and they did. When Ariana Grande broke up with Pete Davidson and her fans were being abusive to him, she told her fans to be kinder—even on the internet, which was really telling.
When Beyoncé released Lemonade and the Beyhive was [trying to track down] “Becky,” people were saying, “Why doesn’t Beyoncé do something about this?” Beyoncé is a goddess to her fans; she has power over her fan base, so she rarely breaks that [wall to] address the fans. So I don’t know what it would take for someone like Beyoncé to address her fans if she needed to. But I’m surprised that it has gotten to this point in 2020 where artists aren’t stepping in. We saw Lana Del Rey sicced her fans on [NPR music critic] Ann Powers for writing a positive, amazing, piece of criticism about Norman Fucking Rockwell! There’s a very good case to be made that artists are also becoming more entitled.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
I would love people to come away with an immersive, 3D experience of what it really means to grow up with music as the most important thing in your life. I don’t necessarily want people to come away thinking being a fan is [either] really positive or [that] these girls are deranged, but I do want people to see how complicated, powerful, and emotional it is to be a fan. I feel satisfied that I achieved that [goal]. I end with a chapter about Courtney Love’s fans who are in their 30s and 40s and have grown up with her. Their relationship with their favorite artist has really evolved and changed. I wanted women to leave this book feeling warm about their teenage fangirl experiences, but also thinking, “I don’t need to leave this experience behind.” Women in their 30s and 40s can get back into their teenage fandom.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.