December 2018 – January 2019

Arts & Letters

Female fandom and Jessica Leski’s ‘I Used to be Normal’

By Anwen Crawford

Photo by Elisenda Russell

They’ve been dismissed and patronised, but Beatlemaniacs, Directioners and other fangirls are very self-aware about their boy band ‘affliction’

At the beginning of Jessica Leski’s documentary I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story (in limited release), there is a brief YouTube clip of Elif, a teenage One Direction fan, reacting to a concert DVD of her idols. She is almost literally beside herself, attempting to expel a sensation too huge to be contained by the body. She moans, weeps, bends double, lifts her hands into the air. This could be called joy, even rapture – actually it looks a lot like grief. One wants to be carried away by a sound – and, within that sound, a sensation – and can come so close to being so, until the limits of a body, and particularly the limits placed upon a girl’s body, drag one back again. This is a kind of agony.

Do I seem to give the moment more solemnity than it deserves? Consider the girl fan, and how easy it is to disparage her. She consumes – as we are all obliged to, girls especially, consumer selfhood being what makes a girl acceptably girlish – but too much. She forgets how to regulate her feelings, her appetites; worse, she wilfully abandons her self-regulation of these things. She becomes undisciplined. She lets herself go. Her consumption of pop music opens up a maw of feeling that, in turn, threatens to consume her, and, finally – horror of horrors – is poised to annihilate the music’s very makers. Who drove The Beatles offstage? Oh, we all know who: it was the girls.

It is an old, old fear, this one, of the male artist consumed, in the most violent way, by female enthusiasts. It’s Orpheus torn to shreds by the Maenads, his severed head floating in the Hebrus. “The danger for artists, for geniuses … is woman,” wrote Nietzsche, in reference to the work of the composer Richard Wagner, his popular contemporary. “Adoring women confront them with corruption.” The love of girls drags men from the rarefied heights of artistic creation down into the muck of feminine feeling. “Directioners own them, in a certain way,” observes Elif, of the dynamic that exists between fans of One Direction and the band. “They” – the band members – “just don’t know it.” But they do, the risk and the sublimity of worship being a chief reason why a certain kind of young man pursues a certain kind of musical ambition in the first place, even if they later deny it.

Leski’s film follows four fans – two in Australia, two in the United States – of various ages. Each adores a different boy band. Elif, the youngest, from Long Island, is a high school student when the film begins. Sadia, in her twenties, lives in San Francisco and is devoted to the Backstreet Boys, while Dara, in her thirties, is based in Sydney and worships at the church of Take That. Lastly there’s Susan, who was there amid “The Great Beatle Crush”, as The Sun newspaper described it at the time, when The Beatles hit Melbourne in 1964, and 10,000 or more fans thronged outside the Southern Cross Hotel to try to catch a glimpse of them.

I Used To Be Normal is more observational than expository. Occasionally we hear Leski, off camera, ask a question of her subjects, but there’s no narrative voiceover, nor are there any “talking heads” in the form of musicians, sociologists, psychologists or (god forbid) critics. “There was a version of the film where I would have loved to do the anthropological exploration of fandom,” Leski tells me. She researched the ancient popularity of Roman gladiators and the mid-19th-century fan frenzy directed at the young, talented, dishy Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, a phenomenon known at the time as Lisztomania. But, as Leski followed her subjects over more than three years, she came to realise “that what was more unique was allowing these girls and women a chance to tell their stories”. Her fans speak for themselves, and often with the kind of insight into their own fandom that it is generally assumed obsessive fans could not possibly possess.

“I needed to be the best fan,” comments Sadia, of her long-term devotion to the Backstreet Boys, “because I sort of always knew that their success was tied to my involvement. I’m making this happen.” She’s right. The fandom of girls and women has driven every superstar phenomenon in pop music, from 1940s Sinatra mania on. The scandal is just how often that fandom has been disavowed. On the one hand, if girls like it, it’s probably “bad”: silly music for shallow minds. But on those occasions where the music itself cannot be so easily dismissed, as with The Beatles, then it must be the case that the girls don’t get it, not really. Their fandom, rather than the music, becomes the problem; they are fans in the wrong way.

“I’ve made enemies – mostly men, I guess – who don’t want to think The Beatles are a boy band,” says Leski. “And with the distance of time, and their full catalogue, of course they evolved to be something else. But it’s teenage girls who were driving their career largely, who were being laughed at for liking this repetitive, cheesy pop music about wanting to hold your hand.”

The disavowal of female fandom can run so deep that it shapes the very artefacts made for these fans to consume in the first place. One of the most illustrative examples of this is an episode from the first season of The Monkees, the television showcase for a boy band that, even more so than The Beatles, was marketed explicitly to girls. The episode opens with our heroes hard at work in the rehearsal room on a version of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”. But there’s a problem: lead moppet Davy Jones keeps getting distracted – by girls. There’s a girl hidden under the staircase, one inside the fridge, and then a bunch more materialise on the rehearsal stage in order to comb his hair and press themselves close. Each girl must be pushed out the door by the other, exasperated, Monkees. The title of the episode is “Too Many Girls”.

Girl fans are bad and wrong, it is assumed, because they don’t know how to listen, not in the discriminating, temperate, knowledgeable way that other listeners (male listeners) know how to listen. Instead, they lust. They look, and the gaze of innumerable girls upon the pretty faces of their boy band idols is a kind of embarrassment, both to the idol and to the world. See how I used the word pretty there, without even thinking why – the male musician is made girly by girls. And who would want to be made into a girl, if you don’t already have to be one?

A decade or so after The Monkees, “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” was covered by the Sex Pistols – a group that was, when you think about it, also a type of boy band, assembled by a manager with the idea of selling clothes and making a splash. But it’s only male musicians, and male fans, who get to indulge in the idea of their own authenticity, as if their personality and image were formed in the absence of consumerist norms. Punk’s great semiotician, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, who had a voice like an ambulance siren and a look like a church lady rolled in plasticine, was both candid and sarcastic when she sang, “I want to be Instamatic / I want to be a frozen pea.” A great part of the scorn directed at girl fans stems from the notion that they are credulous; few stop to consider the possibility that girls know they’re being sold, and sold to.

There are girls who never become besotted fans or who direct their fandom somewhere other than towards the boy band pop music that, in itself, is understood to be the normal thing that girls like. I remain as suspicious of those who uncritically celebrate every pop artefact marketed to girls as I am of those who dismiss such culture out of hand. Not all pop music aimed at girls is, ipso facto, bad; not all of it is good, either. Too often, within the history of pop music criticism, girls have been patronised even by those who purport to be their champions, as if the apparently undiscerning, instinctive taste of girls can be used to bolster the critic’s own informed judgement. Girls love it, but I love it knowingly, goes a certain strand of pop criticism. In this formulation the girl is still figured as the naif.

“The whole reason why this exists, apart from world peace,” jokes Dara, the Take That fan, “is that it’s a commercial venture.” Like many fans – and this will surprise no one who’s ever been a fan – she understands very well the contours of her own fandom, and turns its energies to her own ends. The back of her guitar is precisely collaged with Take That photos; she sneaks Take That songs into her work presentations. Sadia spent her early adolescence writing a daily Backstreet Boys newsletter; now she’s a journalist. “The level of humour, and creativity, really surprised me,” Leski says, of the fan communities she discovered, especially the online network of One Direction fan Twitter accounts and Tumblr pages. “I wasn’t expecting that at all.” Fandom is rarely, if ever, a passive state: fans use the products they’re sold in order to make new artefacts, new meanings.

There is sadness, too, in I Used To Be Normal. Susan talks about the fact that she wanted to go to university and study medicine, but her father forbade it. It just wasn’t the thing for a young woman to do. Parental interference didn’t die with the ’60s, either. Elif, who is 18 when the film ends, has become passionate about her own music. She has taught herself how to play the guitar, and wins a partial scholarship to the music college where she most wants to study. But her parents refuse their permission, their blessing.

A music photographer once asked me why girls scream so much at concerts. I answered him: Because they don’t have anywhere else to scream. Where else is there a space – unless it’s a sports field, and we know how bound up in machismo a sports field can be – for girls to unleash at full volume their frustrations, their ecstasies, their sorrows? Where can girls give voice to their too-often thwarted desire to become creators, if not in the midst of these concerts where their role is to be fans? “I don’t love Gary Barlow,” Dara reflects. “I want to be Gary Barlow.”

“The screaming ten- to fourteen-year-old fans of 1964 did not riot for anything,” write Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs in an essay on Beatlemania, “except for the chance to remain in the proximity of their idols and hence to remain screaming. But they did have plenty to riot against.” The girl fan, even when she becomes an adult woman, retains the possibility of being something other than sensible, respectable, good. “The feelings are always there,” says Susan. But what to do with them, and how to bear them, outside the realm of fandom.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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