The power of fandom
During the waning years of the 19th century, a British performer named Lily Brayton met and wed Geelong-born actor and director Oscar Asche. The pair travelled the world performing in collaborative works of theatre and musical comedy. And where they went, a fan followed. Her name is as important to this story as theirs: Maysie Hailes.
Hailes assembled two scrapbooks relating in great detail to the lives and achievements of Brayton and Asche. They are currently in the care of the National Library of Australia in Canberra, where a fundraising appeal is under way to assist in the preservation of these scrapbooks – and 15 others – to ensure their delicate and fading contents aren’t lost to time.
Catherine Aldersey, the library’s ephemera officer, is especially impressed with the way the scrapbooks’ creator paid tribute to the performers she loved. “She was collecting anything she could find about them. It’s like she got every press clipping and every review and program and photograph of them that she could and put them all together in the one spot, just to look over. For her. It’s the ultimate work of fandom.”
To pay close attention is an intense act of love, one I observed and participated in for years during the peak of the boy band One Direction. Moulded like hunky clay at the hands of Simon Cowell on The X Factor in 2010, five painfully ordinary boys from around England and Ireland were assembled into a band, led onto a stage in a television studio, and became the objects of obsession for millions of people.
As a one-time music snob who preached the gospel of punk and DIY and believed anything mainstream was, by definition, inauthentic and not worth my time, I was shocked to find myself joining the ranks of Directioners, who spoke in unique code and memorised performances and quotes and moments from the dossier of One Direction. But, as the American editor and actress Tavi Gevinson has attested, embracing a fandom – even one whose arrival stuns you – is at its core about embracing “enthusiasm and the refusal to try and act cool and disaffected”.
In 2013, on the stage of the Sydney Opera House, Gevinson declared, to her audience of predominantly young women, that “fangirling is not purely about the subject of your fandom; it’s actually almost entirely a reflection of you”.
In a talk that began with the stories of her recent break-up and diagnosis of depression, Gevinson shared the realisation that she is at her happiest when she is simply a set of eyes: a vessel to view and consume the world around her. She implored the audience to abandon the shame or fear or judgement that comes with obsessing over and fantasising about a writer or singer or idol, to see this as the purest expression of love and freedom.
The relationship between a super-fan and the artist to which she is devoted extends well beyond just consuming their work. It encompasses watching, analysing, researching, interpreting, cataloguing, collecting and archiving everything about the objects of her affection until she is expert in them. This was as true with the girls who pressed against barriers to greet The Beatles at airports during the British Invasion as it is with the Beliebers whose attention propelled a busker from Canada to stratospheric heights of fame. While today fans are most visible on social media sites such as Twitter and within digital communities on Tumblr, there is an expansive historical precedent for the work modern fans do. That precedent is in Hailes’s meticulous scrapbooks.
Once an obsession is established, a fan’s regular rituals are not just about blind, unrequited love. Aldersey says that Hailes, in creating her scrapbooks, expressed her devotion with leather binding and gold letters. But beneath the surface level, she also “drilled down into their celebrity”.
Similarly, there is an expert criticism that permeates online fan spaces – after all, who better to thoroughly read and interpret an artist’s work than someone with an unfailingly comprehensive knowledge of it? The idea that all girls in the audience are interested romantically or sexually in the men on stage not only ignores the existence of queer fans, it also disregards their potential to engage with music on a complex or emotional level.
During a stop on One Direction’s 2015 tour in Columbus, Ohio, band member Liam Payne introduced a beloved song titled “Girl Almighty” by saying, “This is my favourite song off the last album, and it is about trying to find that No. 1 woman of your life – which none of you can relate to, because most of you are girls.” Not only blind to fans’ attachment to the song because of its message of female empowerment, he also overlooked the One Direction fans who found, in the band’s music and online communities, an image of their own queerness reflected back at them.
These fans not only retrofit songs such as “Girl Almighty” to correspond with their specific internal lives, but they also actively and wholly reject the song’s creator when his definition of his work opposes their interpretation of it. It’s defiant and rebellious and essential work, and it’s what fandom is ultimately and truly about: treating something as beloved, and transforming it until it fits you personally and specifically.
The artist King Princess’s breakout single “1950” earned her a fan in One Direction’s Harry Styles. Before annotating the lyrics of the song for the website Genius recently – it draws its title from the postwar era, when Patricia Highsmith’s novel about hidden lesbian love The Price of Salt was set – she decisively advocated for fans who need to project their subjective readings onto her work. “I understand the importance of an artist explaining what the song is about,” she began, “but I also understand the importance of people claiming the song for themselves and having it mean something to them.”
To perform fandom and obsess over idols, to attach the work of a person to our image of ourselves and to believe that our identities are inextricable from the things that we like, can set us up for failure. In her Opera House talk, Gevinson advised against putting people on pedestals. She quoted a 2013 TEDxYouth talk “Pressure, Power, Punk Rock” by then 17-year-old Emma Simons-Araya. Gevinson said that retrofitting the old punk maxim “Kill Your Idols” meant “stop worshipping your heroes; you should instead humanise them and understand that you have a place right next to them”. This is the crux of fandom. To stand on your feet and look your idol in the eye is to see both of you as equally real and important.
During the years I spent examining fans and participating in their unique and specific rituals, I learnt that to intensely examine something is to show a deep devotion to it. But my own role in the universe of my obsession is something just as significant. Fans cannot exist without an idol at their centre – but the reverse is also true. The girls who scream and cry are going home to read and criticise and connect. And, best of all, they’re doing it with full awareness of how essential they are. The preservation of Hailes’s fandom in the collections of the National Library of Australia is proof of that.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 23, 2018 as "Fanning the fame". Subscribe here.