How Pop Music Fandom Became Sports, Politics, Religion and All-Out War

4 weeks ago

On social media this year, the stan was ascendant, fueling commercial competition, trolling and other arcane battles. How did we get here?

Benjamin Cordero, a high school student from western New York, has a thing for pop divas, but especially Lady Gaga.

Previously a casual fan of whatever was on the radio, Cordero was converted when the singer performed during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2017, and in the bountiful time since — which included “A Star Is Born” — his devotion has only grown.

Earlier this year, as Lady Gaga prepared to release her latest album, “Chromatica,” Cordero joined Twitter, the current hub of pop superfandom, where he dedicated his account to all things Gaga. He tweeted thousands of times during the pandemic, often in dense lingo and inside jokes, along with hundreds of his fellow travelers, known as Little Monsters — internet friends whom he calls his “mutuals.”

But these days, in these circles, joy and community are rarely enough. There are also battles to be waged and scores to be settled with rival groups or critics. And for Cordero, that meant trolling Ariana Grande fans.

In October, with “Chromatica” having registered as a modest hit, Grande’s own new album, “Positions,” leaked online before its official release. Cordero, who liked Grande well enough but found her new music to be lacking, shared a link to the unreleased songs, much to the consternation of Grande fans, who worried that the bootlegged versions would damage the singer’s commercial prospects.

Taking on the role of volunteer internet detectives, Grande fans proceeded to spend days playing Whac-a-Mole by flagging links to the unauthorized album as they proliferated across the internet. But Cordero, bored and sensing their agita, decided to bait them even further by tweeting — falsely — that he’d subsequently been fined $ 150,000 by Grande’s label for his role in spreading the leak. “is there any way I can get out of this,” he wrote. “I’m so scared.” He even shared a picture of himself crying.

“They were rejoicing,” Cordero recalled giddily of the Grande fans he’d fooled, who spread the word far and wide that the leaker — a Gaga lover, no less — was being punished. “Sorry but I feel no sympathy,” one Grande supporter wrote on Reddit. “Charge him, put him in jail. you can’t leak an album by the world’s biggest pop star and expect no consequences.”

This was pop fandom in 2020: competitive, arcane, sales-obsessed, sometimes pointless, chaotic, adversarial, amusing and a little frightening — all happening almost entirely online. While music has long been intertwined with internet communities and the rise of social networks, a growing faction of the most vocal and dedicated pop enthusiasts have embraced the term “stan” — taken from the 20-year-old Eminem song about a superfan turned homicidal stalker — and are redefining what it means to love an artist.

On what is known as Stan Twitter — and its offshoots on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Tumblr and various message boards — these devotees compare No. 1s and streaming statistics like sports fans do batting averages, championship wins and shooting percentages. They pledge allegiance to their favorites like the most rabid political partisans or religious followers. They organize to win awards show polls, boost sales and raise money like grass roots activists. And they band together to pester — or harass, and even dox — those who may dare to slight the stars they have chosen to align themselves with.

“These people don’t even know who we are, but we spend countless days and months defending them from some stranger on the internet,” said Cordero, who later revealed his Grande prank, gaining nothing but the ability to revel in the backlash.

“When someone says something about Lady Gaga that’s negative, a little bit of yourself inside is hurt,” he explained of his own loyalty. “You see yourself in your favorite artists — you associate with them, whether it’s just the music or it’s their personality. So when someone insults your favorite artist, you take that as a personal insult, and then you find yourself spending hours trying to convince someone in China that ‘Born This Way’ was her best album.”

“It’s definitely a playing field to us,” Cordero said. “We throw them in the ring, they battle it out, we cheer them on.”

This year — one in which so much of everyday life was confined to virtual spaces because of the coronavirus — such antics garnered mainstream attention when fans of the K-pop group BTS targeted President Trump (and donated to Black Lives Matter) or when Taylor Swift supporters spit venom at those critics who thought her new album was anything less than perfect. Recently, NBC was forced to apologize after fans of Selena Gomez revolted in reaction to an off-color joke about the singer in a reboot of “Saved by the Bell.”

But these battles also occurred at a near-constant clip on a smaller scale, in large part because of the incentives of the platforms where we now gather.

In the past, “the media that we had didn’t facilitate these huge public spaces where attention is a commodity,” said Nancy Baym, an author and researcher who has studied fan behavior online since the 1990s. “There’s been this very long process of fans gaining cultural attention, gaining influence, and recognition of how to wield that influence, and now we’re seeing it more because media are at a point where it’s really putting it out there in front of us.”

Before destinations like Twitter, YouTube and Spotify — where numbers and what’s trending are central to the interface — there were self-selecting mailing lists, bulletin boards, Usenet news groups, fan sites and official URLs, where Grateful Dead or Prince fans could gather to digitize lyrics, sell tickets or trade tapes.

The availability of analytics, including sales figures and chart positions, has helped transform fandom into something quantifiable.
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“It was more about the community within — connecting with other fans of the same artist — and wasn’t as competitive,” Baym said. “In some ways it was competitive, but it was more, ‘How many times have you seen them live?’”

In the early 2000s, Myspace in many ways marked a turning point, presaging an era of social media in which fans could connect directly with artists in a way they hadn’t before, causing some people to become more hostile, abusive or entitled, Baym said. At the same time, “American Idol” pitted fandoms against one another in the form of a popular vote, and what were once more insular conversations among enthusiasts began oozing outward.

Matthew James, 22, who started the nostalgic blog Pop Culture Died in 2009 when he was 15, recalled when music forums like ATRL or LiveJournal communities like Oh No They Didn’t! were a temporary escape. “You would log in after your day at school or work, and you had that small window of time on the internet,” he said. “Even 10 years ago, it was still confined to these corners — you could really distance yourself very easily. Now that is not possible since everything has been moved from separate websites to these centralized social media platforms.”

“With iPhones and everything, we’ve seen that small window of time you could be a fan turn into 24/7,” James added. “People never log off.”

Paul Booth, a professor of media studies at DePaul University, researches how people use popular culture for emotional support and pleasure. In an interview, he noted that in the last decade, “It’s gone from a general understanding that there are people out there that call themselves fans, but we don’t really know who they are or what they do to, ‘I’m a fan, you’re a fan, everyone’s a fan.’ It’s absolutely become everyday discussion.”

“Before, those people existed, but they were meeting in the basement yelling at each other,” he said. “Now they’re meeting on Twitter and yelling at each other, and everyone can see it.”

While early stereotypes about fanatics focused on possessed, shrieking teeny-boppers or stalkers and killers, from Mark David Chapman to “Misery” and Yolanda Saldivar, fans were taken more seriously as a subculture in the late 1990s and 2000s, when they were seen as creators themselves, spawning zines, fan fiction and YouTube montages.

But with the rise of internet-first congregations like Beyoncé’s BeyHive, Justin Bieber’s Beliebers and Nicki Minaj’s Barbz in the 2010s, an evangelical fervor became a prerequisite and the word “stan,” used as both a noun and a verb, continued to gain prominence and even positive connotations.

“It’s a reclamation of the negative term as a badge of honor — ‘I am a stan because I feel so much for this artist,’” Booth said.

As the politicization of the internet ratcheted up after Gamergate in 2014, fan groups increasingly adopted the tactics of troll armies from 4chan and Reddit, working in large anonymous groups — often behind celebrity avatars that broadcast fealty — to bend online conversation to their will. And unlike admirers of “Star Wars” or Marvel properties, which are more sprawling narrative fandoms, music fans — like supporters of Bernie Sanders or President Trump — are often investing in a single individual, making things even more personal.

“It all boils down to emotions, which is something we don’t take seriously enough in our culture,” Booth said. “When people are passionate about something to the point that they’re identifying with it, and it becomes part of who they are — whether it’s a political party, a political person or celebrity — they’re going to fight.”

They’re also going to buy. As artists have come to recognize their direct influence over swaths of their online public — sometimes siccing them on detractors, or at least failing to call them off — they have also come to rely on their constant consumption, especially in the streaming era.

“You might have a local” — stan slang for a casual fan — “buy a record,” said Cordero, the Lady Gaga loyalist. “But a person on Stan Twitter probably bought that record 10 times, streamed a song on three separate playlists and racked up hundreds and hundreds of plays.”

He added: “It’s basically promotion, free labor — we’re practically chained against the wall with our phones.” (Lady Gaga recently advertised “Chromatica”-branded cookies as an “Oreo Stan Club.”)

In addition to fueling a merchandise boom, these pop fans have taken it upon themselves to learn the rules governing the Billboard charts and the streaming platforms that provide their data, hoping to maximize commercial impact for bragging rights.

“Shall we tighten up our muscles and get ready for a long march?” asks the “Ultimate ARMY Streaming Guide” posted to one fan site for BTS, whose faithful call themselves Army. Tips include to avoid bulk buying (“there is usually a purchase limit or it will count as one purchase only”); to compile playlists instead of looping tracks (“it will appear as a bot”); and to not put the songs on mute (“Don’t worry, you can plug in earphones if you’re planning to stream the whole day!”).

The guide was written by a BTS fan named Avi, who is 26 and lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. She went “down the rabbit hole” after seeing the boy band perform at the American Music Awards in 2017, she said, and found community in the fandom. In addition to gathering online, Avi and her fellow BTS fans like to get together in person to celebrate the members’ birthdays from afar, buying them a cake, posing for pictures and making charitable donations in their name.

“I’ve never seen anyone insincere when it comes to BTS,” Avi said in an interview. “No one is forcing us to do anything. It feels like we’re promoting BTS, but we are also promoting our own voices, our own struggles, our own hope for a better world.”

By running up the group’s numbers, landing them atop various charts and trending-topic lists, the fans hope to inspire curiosity in others to check out BTS and take in the group’s messages of self-love. “I think of it as my own voice,” Avi said. “What I do for BTS, it’s not for them. I’m doing it with them.”

But some see these relationships between fans and idols as parasocial ones — largely one-sided interactions with mass-media figures that masquerade as friendship — and worry about the long-term mental health effects of such devotion.

Haaniyah Angus, a writer and former teenage stan who has written about her experiences in the subculture, noted that standom was “very heavily dependent on capitalism and buying” in a way that convinced consumers, on behalf of “really rich people,” that “their win is your win.”

“For me and a lot of people I knew, a lot of it stemmed from us being very lonely, very depressed and anxious being like, ‘I’m going to forget what I’m going through at the moment and I’m going to focus on this celebrity,’” she said.

This dynamic often served to stamp out dissent within the ranks, which was once seen as a crucial component of fandom.

“I don’t think that toxic fandom is synonymous with stan culture,” said Booth, the fan studies researcher. “But I think one of the dangers of stan culture — that is, the danger of a group of fans who are so passionate about something that they’ll shut down negative comments — is that it can often shut down much-needed conversations where our media and celebrities let us down.”

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