Book Reviews & Essays

Heading in One Direction

A tour of contemporary fandom

A version of this article was originally published January 17, 2020 in Times Literary Supplement

Anyone can be a fan, and almost everyone is. Perhaps this low bar to entry explains why fans don’t get much respect: a fan is a follower, a hanger-on, one in a crowd of interchangeable masses. Then there’s the curious behaviour of the most fervent enthusiasts – from screaming Beatlemaniacs to today’s online superfans, whose defence of their idols against detractors can turn vicious. In our culture, the archetypal fan tends to be mildly pathetic at best, and at worst, downright scary.

Hannah Ewens wants to change that reputation. In Fangirls: Scenes from modern music culture, she sets out to interrogate these caricatures and to pay tribute to the richness of the fan experience. She also seeks to complicate the usual hierarchy, pointing out the dependence of artists on their fans. “I wanted to look (and with care) away from the stars themselves towards the people who gave them any luminescent quality”, she writes. In particular, she focuses on teenage girls, partly because they make up such a large portion of many fanbases – their devotion and money are indispensable to the system – and in part because they bear the brunt of public ridicule.

To research the book, Ewens embarked on a kind of tour of contemporary fandom. She camped out on London pavements in front of music venues with girls determined to secure a spot in the front row; fans, she notes, have made waiting “a special experience that’s as fun, often, as the thing itself”. She watched Crazy About One Direction, an infamous documentary about obsessive One Direction fans, more than ten times, and didn’t see “anything extraordinary or necessarily unhealthy in the girls’ behaviour”. She interviewed “Little Monsters”, Lady Gaga’s superfans, some of whom were lucky enough to meet their idol in person: “They are overwhelmed by her physical form, the fleshy reality of her. It’s the one part they haven’t had access to yet, because Gaga puts so much else out there for her fans”.

Among these dispatches, Ewens intersperses historical context and insights from academic literature on fandom. One of her achievements is to reveal what has remained constant over the decades and what, as a result of various technological and cultural shifts, has changed. In one passage, she examines the “sexual pack behaviour” that teenage girls have often performed. Citing work by Barbara Ehrenreich and others on Beatlemania, Ewens observes that when girls in the 1960s fetishized boy bands “they could vocalise any sexual desire they had in ways they never could before. It just took a crowd of them to feel normal”. This phenomenon takes another form in the twenty-first century: girls typing out lewd comments to their idols on Twitter or Instagram. “On an individual level they don’t want to reveal themselves as a fan who would ‘cross the line,’ but as part of a stream of comments they’ve all made together it’s clearly acceptable”, Ewens writes. “Taken as a mass, the sexual braying feels benign.”

The author is an energetic reporter, and she was wise to recognize fandom as a fertile area of inquiry. Yet while she interviewed hundreds of women and girls, and her reporting took her as far as Japan, Ewens rarely includes vivid descriptions of either people or places. What does come through strongly is the nature of fandom itself: it is a potent blend of identity, community, fantasy and the intense responses people have to music they love. “To be a fan is to scream alone together”, Ewens concludes. “To go on a collective journey of self-definition. It means pulling on threads of your own narrative and doing so with friends and strangers who feel like friends.”

Ewens’s resolutely celebratory approach does not leave her much room to explore “toxic fandom”. But if she declines to judge unhealthy behaviour, she seems not to partake in it either. She comes across as introspective and restrained. At one point, it looks like she might have the opportunity to meet her own idol, Courtney Love, but she realizes that she doesn’t want to. “My adoration had almost transcended any need to meet her … I had to protect everything that she had been for me.” Reflecting on her adolescence, she recognizes the psychological usefulness of her fantasies about Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy and other male musicians: “They – crucially – didn’t know me, so couldn’t appear to ruin my mythology of them, disrespect me or worse, reject me”.

With these astute perceptions, Hannah Ewens reminds us that fans are not passive and predictable recipients of an artist’s greatness. Our idols give us their music and their personas; we bring to these our own desires and projections, and we take what we need. Sometimes the stars themselves are almost beside the point – sometimes they are the ones who could almost be interchangeable.

Source: Times Literary Supplement

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