In the new Elvis biopic the King shakes his hips and legs under loose pink trousers as girls and women in the audience stand up, scream, writhe. Film critics and Elvis fans have noted the general lack of historical accuracy in the movie, but in director Baz Luhrmann’s defence, his intention with his films is not to depict factual events carefully but to give you the feeling of what happened. “Now I don’t know nothing about music, but I could see in that girl’s eyes he was a taste of forbidden fruit,” says Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, homing in on one fan. “She could’ve eaten him alive.” For all the platitudinous observations of fangirls over the years, this isn’t a bad one.
Maybe “fan” sounds like a word from another age now. When I think of music fans I see pre-2010 images of fangirls ecstatic and crying, like in Elvis. They have Audrey Hepburn bobs, Peter Pan collars and faces filled with pain. There are colour images in my mind – flushed faces, glitter on cheeks – but most of what I see is in black and white.
That isn’t because fans are dying out. My brain probably goes there in part because we’re moving through an age that’s rife with nostalgia and repurposing the past, but mostly I think it’s because fandom doesn’t feel so straightforward any more. Both in “real life” and on the internet, fans elude prior definition. In the years since I wrote my book, Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture (2019), the word stan has been used increasingly and interchangeably with fan. Scholars recognise Eminem’s song “Stan” (2000) as the original source of the word – a portmanteau of “stalker fan” – but it wasn’t popularised online until about 2015. By 2017 it had been added to the Oxford English Dictionary both as a noun and a verb, defined as “an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity”. It’s no coincidence that this happened during the peak and growth stabilisation of Twitter, when people gathering virtually in their hundreds of millions allowed stans to easily speak to each other and, crucially, the rest of the world to watch and judge. The ways our emotional and inflammatory posting is rewarded online encouraged and mutated pre-existing fan behaviour, like arguing, competing with other fanbases and criticising journalists who review their artist’s work. More recently TikTok has provided a newer forum and medium for stanning to happen more quickly, and to spread.
A fan always felt regenerative, split at their core between a personal and the collective mission to be close to an artist. “Stan” is tied to the latter-day web 2.0, to anonymous accounts, to our insatiable consumption of content, to speaking to and for imagined communities every time we type an attack or defence (and we’re always attacking or defending when we type). A stan isn’t inherently negative, as has been framed by critics and those who wouldn’t consider themselves a stan of anything, but they do have an unreadable and ungovernable energy to them.
When Slavoj Žižek wrote about the Freudian death drive, he insisted it has less to do with a desire for self-annihilation and more to do with a longing to run after pleasure or some sort of sensation that remains elsewhere. “Humans are not simply alive,” he wrote in The Parallax View (2006), “they are possessed by the strange drive to enjoy life in excess, passionately attached to a surplus which sticks out and derails the ordinary run of things.” It’s why being a fan feels like the most natural thing in the world to so many people: we’re geared towards the excess of the artist and the consumption of art and a death drive of sorts. We embrace it most fully when we’re young and the options are limitless, before we’ve looked properly at our cards and played our hand. The standom of the past three, five, seven years is this and then some; it’s something modern and grasps at everything.
How can we talk about fandom when it’s ricocheting off the walls and changing tack? We were prevented from being with each other physically and communally through the pandemic for two years. Musicians who wouldn’t usually have a stan-like following, like acoustic artists or SoundCloud rappers, are now seeing obsessive crowds screaming at gigs like it’s a Harry Styles, Backstreet Boys or Elvis concert. Every day we reach through the screen to hold people accountable for ourselves, for the world we’re in and for the things we don’t have. Musicians receive our hate and love and lust and jealously; we project the anxieties of the age onto artists and we reward and punish them accordingly. Stans are just as likely to make content praising their favourite artist as they are documenting and analysing their failures and flop era. Though it’s difficult to predict the future for stans, I am certain they won’t slow down and they’ll never exhaust themselves.
Celebrities will only feel increasing pressure to appease stans, to listen to their needs and demands and apologise for their own behaviour. Already our parasocial relationships with anonymous people online are unnatural and excessive. The danger, if there is one, is that during the turbulent political times and economic downturn of this decade, anyone whose life we closely follow on social media will risk becoming more of an obsession. We’re going to be hungrier for justice, for escape and for something more.
I wrote about fangirls because I wanted to explain how girls are more than a powerful image or tableau, but now that project is complete I realise that quite a bit of what we want to know about the past, present and future of fandom is in those pictures. As music photography goes, they’re more vivid and affecting than any photo of a musician.
Usually I identify with the girls in those pictures, especially during a hot British summer like this one spent alone, when me and my female friends scroll and scroll and message each other saying we feel desperate, unsatiated, as though we could eat the world. Right at this moment I’m thinking of one photo: Elvis, devastatingly beautiful, in the left of the frame, mobbed by about ten girls. A precocious fan reaches hard for his hair. She has thrown her hand underneath his hat, which looks as though it’s about to fall. Her whole hand is on his famous pompadour. She got exactly what she wanted – selfishly, unconsciously directed to closeness at any cost, even to her favourite artist – but I doubt she knows what she’s going to do next.
This article has been taken from HUNGER 25: Celebrity