Paul McCartney once said that the reason the Beatles stopped touring was because they couldn’t hear themselves play over the noise of their teenage fanbase – vast crowds of adolescent girls screaming into a frenzy, convulsing through tears at the sheer atomic sexiness of four mop-topped Liverpudlians playing radio-friendly pop. “Beatlemania” inspired a wave of similar trembling for everyone from the Bay City Rollers to the Rolling Stones.
Today these quivering fans have largely calmed down at concerts. Instead they dominate the internet, armed with GIFs and emojis and self-identifying as “Stans”, a term coined by Eminem in a 2000 track about an obsessive fan or “stalker fan”. For many, fandom can be a safe haven, one founded on love for a pop star but ultimately ending up as something more akin to a surrogate family, where teens can find advice, friendship and a place in the world, as artificial as it may seem from the outside in.
But it can also be a space of very specific digital-age toxicity, where hatred and anger run rampant, and antagonism and trolling trumps any sort of human empathy. This weekend saw pop star Ariana Grande turn off the comments on her Instagram account, following an onslaught of attacks directly blaming her for the fatal overdose of Mac Miller, a popular hip hop artist whom she dated between 2016 and 2018.
In May, Grande implied that Miller’s long struggle with addiction was a factor in her decision to end their relationship, and condemned implications from Twitter users that Miller’s troubles were exacerbated by their breakup and her subsequent engagement to comedian Pete Davidson.
“I am not a babysitter or a mother and no woman should feel that they have to be,” Grande wrote. “I have cared for him and tried to support his sobriety and prayed for his balance for years (and always will of course), but shaming/blaming women for a man’s inability to keep his s--- together is a very major problem.”
It would be easy to claim the attacks on Grande were a product of Miller’s fanbase. But in today’s social media climate, where fandom demands not only full celebrity devotion but also a willingness to attack any and all detractors and rivals, their source could quite easily be the fans of an entirely different pop star altogether.
In her 1992 essay Fandom as Pathology, American academic Joli Jensen argued that the image of music fans as “irrational, out of control and prey to a number of external forces” was a mistake, and betrayed the truth that fandom was in fact largely comprised of “deeply knowledgeable” individuals “engaged by their object of expertise.” It was a stance that, by and large, remains true to this day, despite how easy it is to giggle at some of pop fandom’s more outlandish elements.
But Jensen’s study also stems from an entirely different world to the one that fandom thrives in today. Published over 25 years ago, Fandom as Pathology arrived before Robbie left Take That to the sound of national tweenage devastation, before Justin Timberlake’s Nineties noodle-hair, the androgynous paisley shirts of Harry Styles, or Nicki Minaj’s army of “Barbs”. And most importantly, before the dawn of the internet, which has morphed expressions of fan devotion from posters on bedroom walls to a 24-hours-a-day obsession spread across multiple social media platforms.
The shuttering of Grande’s Instagram comments is the latest in a run of social media controversies to illuminate the darkness at the heart of digital-age fandom. None of this fan-on-fan antagonism, of course, is actually new; half a century ago, you might catch mods and rockers scuffling over the relative merits of Gene Vincent and the Small Faces. Fanbases, particularly for music acts, have always been driven by anger, rivalries and competition, from Blur and Oasis to Britney and Christina. In these feuds, chart statistics are regularly weaponised, along with looks, voices, instrument-playing ability and popularity – aspects still employed by today’s fandoms.
But following the lead of everything from football teams to Brexit, music fandom has become increasingly all-or-nothing in the era of Twitter, with any opposing voice or critic, however mild, targeted with abuse or harassment. Often it is vaguely humorous, notably the infestation of bee emojis that appear in the social media comments sections of anyone who publicly criticises Beyoncé (Kid Rock’s Instagram to this day remains regularly targeted after he commented in 2015 that he was “flabbergasted” by her success). More often than not, however, it can be terrifying.
The rapper XXXTentacion, real name Jahseh Onfroy, found incredible chart success last year, despite a lengthy rap sheet that involved accusations of false imprisonment and domestic battery of his pregnant girlfriend Geneva Ayala, as well as a jail term for home invasion robbery and aggravated battery. But to many of his fans, the allegations were outright lies, and only emboldened his image as the victim of a society determined to bring him down. In an interview with XXL Magazine, conducted while he was in prison, the rapper said that his accuser was “lying and scamming the f--- out of everybody.”
In an interview with the Miami New Times, Ayala revealed that she had experienced threats and harassment from XXXTentacion’s fans, both online and in person. She told the publication that within a week of starting a job at a Dunkin’ Donuts, the rapper’s fans had found her. After two weeks of being harassed and photographed at work and followed home, she quit the job.
Before his murder in a drive-by shooting this June, Onfroy took to Instagram to announce that he was renouncing the term “fans” and rebranding his listeners as “members of my cult,” adding: “This is far more genuine than a fanbase.”
Onfroy’s meteoric rise was orchestrated by fans themselves, who first discovered his work on the streaming site Soundcloud before major record labels came calling. Mac Miller had a similar career arc: internet popularity propelled him to become, in 2011, the first independent music act to hit number one on the US album charts since 1995. That fans accompanied their respective journeys created an unusual degree of intimacy, something only enhanced by a social media age that gives fans a particularly close peek into the lives of celebrities themselves.
It’s an important element of how fandom grew so toxic. Rapper Nicki Minaj rewards her fans not with the autographs of yesteryear, but with Twitter likes, which she doles out to fans whose tweets of support and adoration she particularly appreciates – likes that fans then use as a badge of honour proving their “stan” credentials. It’s a form of devotion that Minaj has personally weaponised. When a journalist for Billboard wrote a story declaring that Minaj had cancelled her forthcoming US tour (after she had postponed it), Minaj ordered her fans, dubbed “the Barbs”, to “get me the name of this writer and hit them.”
A Canadian journalist named Wanna Thompson, who tweeted that Minaj should release “mature” music instead of “silly s---”, has additionally endured months of harassment from Minaj’s fans since she posted the tweet, telling the New York Times, “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.” She also posted alleged screenshots of a private Twitter conversation she had with Minaj herself, in which the rapper insulted her looks and bank balance. And when Minaj herself is responsible for encouraging vitriol against her detractors, it’s no surprise that her fans are following suit.
A musician's tacit approval of their fandom’s rage, driven by “likes” of tweets that directly criticise their musical rivals, is a thankfully rare response, but also not the root cause of modern fan toxicity. One Direction, whose incredibly vocal fandom inspired more than a few hysterical think-pieces during the band’s prime, never encouraged the worst impulses of their fans, but it didn’t seem to matter. Women romantically linked to members of the band were regularly harassed anyway, while even apparently adoring fan stances proved toxic in the end.
“Larry Stylinson”, a portmanteau of One Direction members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, is the exhausting conspiracy theory that the pair were or continue to be secret lovers – a claim based on little but gestures and looks captured on film and jumped on by thousands of fans. The conspiracy went to such extremes that many believers claimed Tomlinson’s son, born in 2016, was either a fake baby or delivered by a surrogate on behalf of the pair, their love kept secret at the request of their management.
Tomlinson has said that he and Styles found the conspiracy funny at first, until it began affecting their friendship to such an extent that they became obsessively conscious of their own behaviour while together in case it could be misinterpreted or exploited by fans. He told Storyboard (via E! Online): “We want to joke around, but there seems to be a different rumour every time we do anything.”
Larry Stylinson is an extreme example of how the Twitter bubble can shape the delusions of pop fans, producing an echo chamber of extremities that to the casual observer read like bad jokes, but become incredibly believable if you were to exist solely within it. And when conspiracy and soap-opera theatrics dominate so much fan discussion, it’s not entirely surprising that a minority of Miller fans would bypass the complexities of addiction and instead lay blame at a single person’s feet. Despite the loops of logic fans have to jump through to have it make sense, it’s a lot easier than dealing with the truth.
For the most part, such extremes aren’t the natural order of things. Despite the delusions of Larry Stylinson, One Direction fans have largely moved past the hysteria that dominated their Twitter output during the band’s cultural peak. The recent hashtag #1000DaysWithout1D, commemorating the days since the band split up, is filled with joy, with fans thanking the band for bringing together what amounts to their second family.
Likewise the recent overdose of Demi Lovato inspired a wave of empathy from within her fanbase on the continued struggles of addiction, while Twitter threads devoted to the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna are more often than not incredibly joyous celebrations of their respective “black girl magic”, with vitriol and personal attacks regularly called out.
There is incredible love at the centre of much online fandom, and its ability to provide a haven for young women, gay men and people of colour, whose views and tastes are often undervalued in mainstream music coverage, is worthy of recognition. It may occasionally be messy, but it's worth remembering you are just as likely to find rage and toxicity in the discourse of middle-men on an internet forum about politics as you are in teenage girls' comments on Instagram.
That said, it’s also important to highlight a corner of the internet that is incredibly vulnerable to corruption, filled as it is with young people eager for connection and friendship. Pop fandom provides much, but it can become something that preys upon and exploits the most destructive and irrational tendencies of adolescence, where extremes of behaviour and a tendency to take things far too seriously are very much the norm. Fan communities can be some of the safest places on the internet, but also some of its most damaging.