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How social media defined a decade of music fandom

The landscape of pop music irrevocably changed over this decade, and we have the internet to thank.

Fans now have unprecedented access not only to their favourite artists and bands, but to each other, and the ramifications have been unprecedented. A dedicated fandom, cult following, or huge numbers on Instagram can now make or break an artist’s career.

Hugely popular artists on social media such Selena Gomez – who once held the most-followed account  on Instagram – may rarely put out chart topping hits, while artists with huge hits can struggle to maintain a career if they can’t keep fan attention.

Like former pop princess Katy Perry, who has been eclipsed by new icons like Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus, artists with decade-spanning careers now risk losing their crowns to younger peers if they can’t manage the delicate balance of intrigue and openness that the social media generation demands.

This is the democratization of music, where former gatekeepers have far less sway over who “makes it big” and social media and streaming hold just as much, if not more, sway over music.

When Lil Nas X’s playful tune Old Town Road reached viral popularity and became the longest running Billboard chart-topper ever, Nas X’s social following boomed as young audiences flocked to his irreverent Gen Z humour and apparent honesty with fans, so much so that the country industry was left scrambling to catch up to his challenges to the form.

Even with country old-timer Billy Ray Cyrus gracing the track, debates abounded as to whether a rap-trap-western hybrid could ever truly “be country”, and industry professionals overlooked the song for a Country Music Award.

A remixed version was later awarded “Musical Event of the Year” at the CMA’s, but even so, Old Town Road was conspicuously absent from this year’s country Grammy nominations.

 

Yet the democratisation of music can have a dark side. After dedicating money, time and tears into the careers of their favourite artists, some fans can come to claim a certain ownership over them and their music.

Toward the end of this decade, a term emerged to describe the most obsessive of fans. The word “stan”, which ostensibly grew from the Eminem song about an obsessive fan, nevertheless resembles an uncomfortable portmanteau of “fan” and “stalker”.

Dedicated fans spend their entire online lives engaging with content about their “fave”. It becomes part of their identity, and to attack their fave can feel like an attack on themselves; a criticism of the time, energy and effort they have poured into their fandom.

This pressure cooker of intense emotion, silo-like communities, and the high stakes of appearing to have true access to the object of their affection, can encourage fans to act in extreme ways to get attention.

One fan-turned-writer detailed how, at the height of her obsession, she threw herself in front of a bus to express her unbridled love of the Jonas Brothers.

Others express their devotion by defending their “faves” from other fans groups, critics, and even journalists. In at least one fandom (for the K-Pop group BTS – more on that later) stans literally refer to themselves as an army.

Some Ariana Grande stans for example, took debate around whether Ariana appropriated black aesthetics in her music video for 7 rings as a rallying cry, rather than a discussion about who gets to be “seen” in pop.

In some cases, the fierce dedication of true stans can form a pointed weapon which artists throw recklessly at others. Australian music journalist Ash London learned this lesson the hard way after her two male co-hosts made disparaging comments about former One Direction star Louis Tomlinson.

Thinking she was behind the mean jokes, fans subjected her to a barrage of online abuse, forcing London to make her Twitter private. When she called out this behaviour Tomlinson himself responded, suggesting she “stay on private a bit longer“; all but inviting his fans to continue the attack.

 

In other cases, the toxicity of fandom turns itself back on the artist. Some of the most pointed examples of this are in K-Pop – a phenomena that has swept across the Western pop consciousness online and left many radio stations struggling to catch up.

K-Pop bands are often created in “academies”, bound to multimillion-dollar contracts at young ages, and released upon the world once polished to perfection. Any one band may have upwards of 20 “Idols”, all chosen by industry leaders for their talent and marketability.

The incredible success of K-Pop is not just down to stellar bops that infuse Korean elements with hip-hop, pop and trap or the slick music videos and tight choreography, (though these are all staples of the genre), but also the way Idols portray a desirable persona to their young fans.

Sophie*, a dedicated K-Pop stan and owner of a popular Twitter account dedicated to the boyband NC-17, says, “there’s so much pressure to do well and succeed that a lot of them succumb to pressure in extreme ways.”

“Over the past two years, three K-Pop artists have committed suicide. Others have left their groups due to injuries and personal reasons.”

K-Pop fandom encourages fans to pick a fave, and band members are expected to indulge the infatuation by being every fan’s fantasy boyfriend or girlfriend. In some cases their contracts preclude then from dating in order to protect the illusion.

“They think that if their artists stay single and seem available they’ll be more appealing to their fans, and if artists do date someone and it’s revealed there will be so much hate towards the people involved,” says Sohpie.

 

This intense relationship between fans and artists is not new, especially with boy bands. Obsessive fans have always been a part of fame. But The Beatles turned the dynamic global, then One Direction perfected it for the digital age.

The first global act of the social media age, “1D” owe their huge success in part to amassing extremely dedicated fans from the outset.

Internet natives with a sense for organic engagement, the band built an obsessive following before they’d even left X Factor UK, by posting weekly “diaries” on YouTube and cultivating fans on Twitter.

Their team encouraged on-the-ground engagement from fans called “street teams” who voluntarily did work usually reserved for promoters. By the time they’d been voted out (in a respectable but forgettable third place) they were headline news and ready to embark on a tour of Europe, America and then the world.

Early 1D fandom identity was built on your favourite member and, like K-Pop, the 1D brand was built on the availability of the members. “The boys” loved you back.

But being millions of teens dream boyfriend is an exhaustive undertaking. Their real-life partners often suffered misogynistic abuse, and all five former members of One Direction have since expressed some level of discomfort with the intense scrutiny they were under.

Combined with a non-stop schedule that saw them record five albums and perform five stadium world-tours in five years, the pressure of keeping the fleeting attention of young fans got to members – one of whom opened up about how the intensity led to an eating disorder and anxiety after infamously leaving the band mid-tour in 2015.

 

 

For female artists, who often face added challenges as their bodies, relationships and work are assumed to be open for debate, fame can present even more prickly issues in the social media age – when the barrier that would have kept some of the worst of fandom out of their eyeline is crumbling.

A survey by The Musicions Union this year found that almost half of respondents had experienced harrassment, and recent pop history is filled with examples.

This year a fan of pop star Charli XCX crossed several boundaries to by having her pose with his dead mother’s ashes during a meet-and-greet, reigniting debates about the role of female icons in queer culture.

Brian O’Flynn detailed in an insightful piece last year how queer fandoms, largely consisting of gay men, can express a version of misogyny in their interactions with female pop stars – from calling Mariah Carey “skinny”, to gleefully following Britney’s breakdown.

At the height of her career, Taylor Swift, too, was subject to a near constant barrage of slut shaming over her dating life.

Closer to home, Aboriginal Australian singer Thelma Plum has been open about how her career has been characterised by near-constant racist and sexist abuse.

 

This is not to say all internet fandom is bad. There’s real merit to the sense of community that fans, especially those who are young or marginalised, get from their experiences of fandom. There’s nothing like being at a concert knowing the people around you are as deeply, obsessively in love with the artist on stage as you are.

At its best, fandom, or “standom”, is a place to mutually discuss something you love and maybe learn something about yourself and your identity. Just as emo bands are an outlet for teenage angst, Taylor Swift’s lyrics provide a conduit for the broken hearts of a generation of lovelorn young girls, One Direction fandom was a safe space to explore budding attraction, and K-Pop provides a combination of the three.

Asian fans of K-Pop groups have spoken about how seeing people who look like them be successful in the West is incredibly affirming, while Harry Styles’ concerts have become a celebration of the young women & LGBTQ people who make up his fanbase post-1D.

Artists also have incredible access to young fans in ways that – for better or worse – news media, politicians, teachers, and even parents don’t.

Taylor Swift, who broke her political silence in 2018 to publicly endorse the Democrats, was responsible for the number of young people registering to the US Electoral Roll almost doubling overnight. Similarly, Ariana Grande recently registered of record numbers young voters at her concerts.

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I’m writing this post about the upcoming midterm elections on November 6th, in which I’ll be voting in the state of Tennessee. In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now. I always have and always will cast my vote based on which candidate will protect and fight for the human rights I believe we all deserve in this country. I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG. I believe that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color is terrifying, sickening and prevalent. I cannot vote for someone who will not be willing to fight for dignity for ALL Americans, no matter their skin color, gender or who they love. Running for Senate in the state of Tennessee is a woman named Marsha Blackburn. As much as I have in the past and would like to continue voting for women in office, I cannot support Marsha Blackburn. Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me. She voted against equal pay for women. She voted against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which attempts to protect women from domestic violence, stalking, and date rape. She believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples. She also believes they should not have the right to marry. These are not MY Tennessee values. I will be voting for Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives. Please, please educate yourself on the candidates running in your state and vote based on who most closely represents your values. For a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway. So many intelligent, thoughtful, self-possessed people have turned 18 in the past two years and now have the right and privilege to make their vote count. But first you need to register, which is quick and easy to do. October 9th is the LAST DAY to register to vote in the state of TN. Go to vote.org and you can find all the info. Happy Voting! 🗳😃🌈

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In Australia, high-profile artists often move political issues to the front and centre of public discussion. Aboriginal two-piece A.B. Original led debate over changing the date of Australia Day when they released their hard-hitting single “January 26”.

Triple J has since stopped playing their Hottest 100 on the day, bowing gracefully to the wishes of their politically conscious young fans.

 

The divide between fans and artists only looks set to break down further. As society adapts to the beginnings of what is proving to be an industry-shifting change.

In the best timeline, it will lead to more breakout artists like Lil Nas X getting their moment and building on their newfound limelight. But artists with previously unprecedented levels of reach now, more than ever, have a responsibility to wield their power responsibly.

 

*Editor’s note: name has been changed to protect the identity of the person in this story.

Image by Chloe De Gennaro