I Used To Be Normal
Writing about pop music fandom is never not tricky. I have been doing it for years: after being vocal about my genuine love of the boy band One Direction, editors began asking me to cover the band’s new records, stories from deep inside its fandom, its eventual dissolution and all five members’ subsequent solo careers. I delivered a paper on One Direction fandom at an academic conference for music critics in Seattle; a keynote on the history and legacy of teenage pop music fans at the Bigsound music conference in Brisbane. Earlier this year, in this very newspaper, I described myself as a “Directioner”.
I cashed in on the trend and the momentum because there were stories inside the fandom – of global support networks for LGBTQIA fans and writers scoring mainstream publishing deals after sharing online fan fiction – that the broader world was totally unaware of, and I was uniquely positioned to extract and share those stories in the hopes of shifting the narrative of uncontrollable and embarrassing hysteria that had become shorthand for the young women who obsess over music made by young men.
But writing about it was always difficult and it never got easier – there was always a current of defensiveness that fizzled and sparked beneath discussions of the songs, the people who sang them and the people who loved them.
Fans were supposed to be embarrassed about loving these bands – and if they weren’t already, they would inevitably be one day – that had an expiry date affixed to them before they had even left the major label assembly line. The band should have been – to anyone with ears and a critical perspective – little more than a guilty pleasure. And thus, it was impossible to capture and explain the pure joy and unique ache of fandom without taking an exhaustive/ing detour to acknowledge cultural snobbery or what nameless observers thought or whether the bands even wrote their own songs. The passion and expertise of fans could never just be the story.
So, when I finally watched director Jessica Leski’s feature-length documentary I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story after years following its production journey – first as an interview subject (I was ultimately left on the cutting room floor, which is a place I’m very comfortable being) and then as an enthusiastic backer of its Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign – more than anything else, I was overcome by how effectively Leski and her four key subjects were able to capture that specific joy of obsession. While watching the documentary, I’m not sure I managed to do anything but mumble, “It’s so real”, to myself – and to no one in particular – until the credits rolled. And that’s because Leski made the essential decision to focus not on the titular boy bands, but solely on the girls and women who love them.
I Used To Be Normal got its title from Elif, who was a 16-year-old Long Island student when she first sat in front of Leski’s camera to declare her adoration for “the boys” – One Direction. She howled the line, her face red with tears, at a pizza party with fellow Directioners, to illustrate how extreme her transformation had been from “normal” to fan.
Elif is somewhat of a tragic figure in the film. The eldest daughter of Turkish immigrants, she rebels in both tiny and big ways against the traditions and rules of her parents: by dreaming of Harry Styles’s eyes or cutting school to travel to New York City by train in the hope of taking a picture with the band after a TV appearance. Elif’s parents warn her that she’ll grow up, get married and forget about One Direction – whose new presence in all their lives they resent and reject. She bats away this ultimately semi-prophetic message.
When Elif attends the band’s concert, Leski is there with her. Her camera is trained not on the band on stage, but on the faces of the girls in the crowd, each one having her own specific experience, but who are often thought of only en masse, as a heaving, shrieking collective.
Elif represents the latest, most intense and most connected fan in this feature documentary, which also serves as an educational piece about the history and structure of boy bands more broadly.
Before her there was Sadia, a 25-year-old writer from San Francisco whose teenage love of the Backstreet Boys threatened to become her identity until she took a step back to consult it with careful and loving criticism.
It’s through Dara, a 33-year-old Take That fan from Sydney, that we experience a pivotal and devastating stage in every fan’s life – the break-up – and become students in her virtual class on The Theory of Boybands. With a whiteboard marker in hand, she runs through the desired make-up of a band – between three and five young men, aged 17-21 – and what features each much possess to qualify. Boyz II Men, she posits, cannot be a boy band because they sing too directly about “making love”, whereas classic boy bands must only imply or stick to G-rated topics. To that I will only say: listen to “No Control” by One Direction and get back to me.
The Monkees are a clear inclusion because of their success with rule No. 1: “You can’t take yourself too seriously.”. Hanson, on the other hand, are excluded because they’re brothers. “These guys have been singing together since they were five,” Dara explains, which gives their group “a different element”. At first, I dramatically refused to accept this theory, but I soon realised she’s right – so much of what makes boy bands special to their fans is the chance, once-in-a-lifetime quality to them. What if John and Paul had not lived in Liverpool at the same time? What if Zayn’s mum had let him sleep through his alarm and he’d missed his X Factor audition? If the formation of a band was inevitable from birth, some of the specific magic falls away. Also, writing gay fan fiction featuring the band members, an essential activity that millions of fans have partaken in since the beginning of time, becomes fraught if they are brothers.
Through the women Leski interviews, we see how dramatically fandom has changed – but also how it has persisted and thrived over time. In Melbourne, we meet Susan, a film producer in her 60s. Susan still has sepia-toned press clippings of The Beatles and autographed plates lovingly archived in her home. Similar personal catalogues are present in the bedrooms or storage spaces of each of the film’s four fangirls.
During a Q&A following the film’s premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival earlier this year, Leski remarked that, despite its gendered name, the act of “fangirling” is not reserved solely for women, but is, rather, a universal way of expressing adoration and obsession. Despite this, the stories in her film are indisputably those of women.
Susan describes the climate the Beatles’ music was first pumped into – a conservative period when she felt lost between the choices of traditional domesticity and the burgeoning feminist movement, and a time when her father forbade her from studying medicine at university because it would’ve been “a waste of time and money”. Sadia remembers how affronted her Pakistani father was that she plastered her bedroom walls with images of the blond, blue-eyed Nick Carter. Boy band hysteria is formulated to hit when you’re starting to have feelings for boys, she explains, “which is a totally natural and normal thing … but it freaks a lot of dads out. And it’s a double standard; we’re really afraid of female sexuality, as a culture.”
Having the fans tell these stories of adoration is what sets I Used To Be Normal apart from boy band documentaries such as Backstreet Boys: Show ’Em What You’re Made Of or One Direction: This Is Us or whatever untitled Beatles project a prestigious Hollywood director is working on right now. There is a gentle touch in Leski’s direction – one that comes, no doubt, from the fact that she started work on this film after being hit with a late-in-life obsession with One Direction – and as a result we’re allowed an intimacy with the women who are truly responsible for the fame and success of their favourite bands.
The fans’ love is not blind. But watching this film a few months after sexual abuse allegations were levelled against Backstreet Boy Nick Carter – and almost 40 years after John Lennon confessed in Playboy to hitting women, an interview published two days before his death – felt somewhat like an elephant wandering into the cinema and daring you to acknowledge its entrance. We see, in Leski’s film, remembrances of the bands’ music guiding Elif, Sadia, Dara and Susan through difficult times in their lives. Understanding how they personally grapple with the band members they love admitting to or being accused of causing darkness in other women’s lives would have added dimension to their stories. (No charges will be brought against Carter.)
Over the course of several years, Leski checks in with Elif – we see her braces come off, we see her struggle with trigonometry and learn to drive. We watch her discover a love of performing music herself, and then, in tears, bravely describing her parents’ resolute refusal to allow her to accept the partial scholarship she was offered to attend university to study it.
By the time the film ends, One Direction has broken up – or, in pop parlance, gone on “an indefinite hiatus”. But I imagine that Elif would have moved on even if they’d remained a unit. “I don’t get that emotional anymore,” Elif tells Leski as the film draws to a close, in what is a genuinely devastating final evolution for the formerly euphoric teenager. When we say goodbye to her, Elif has completed a key teenage rite of passage – rejecting mainstream pop music in favour of something more legitimate, more acceptable, more mature: jazz.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 1, 2018 as "I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story ".
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