Understanding music fandom
Intense musical fandom is by no means a new phenomenon. Well before teenyboppers, Beatlemania and Frank Sinatra, crowds would clamour to see the musical idols of their day. As Daniel Cavicci describes, the term ‘star’ first emerged in the 1820s in relation to musical theatre. In the United States, the growth of concert halls and pleasure gardens led to extensive nationwide tours of musical stars. In the early 1850s, for example, the Swedish singer Jenny Lind became a focus for what was called ‘Lindmania’, and large amounts of Lind merchandise (including furniture and clothing) were sold. Meanwhile, across Europe, there was ‘Lisztomania’, among largely female followers of the composer and pianist Franz Liszt (as portrayed in Ken Russell’s 1975 movie): women reportedly swooned and threw their clothes at the stage when he performed. In the early twentieth century, the advent of recordings led to changes in music consumption, and the formation of the earliest fan clubs.
Psychologists rapidly came up with the clinical diagnosis of ‘musicomania’ – ‘a form of monomania involving an unnatural obsession with music’, as it is still defined in dictionaries today. This obsession was seen to bypass the rational faculties: sufferers were emotionally invested in music to an excessive degree, and for the wrong reasons – unlike their cultivated upper-middle-class counterparts, who were seen as connoisseurs rather than mere slavish fanatics.
While early criticisms of music fans were largely to do with social class, the focus soon shifted towards gender: it was women – and especially teenage girls – whose behaviour was deemed most problematic. The arrival of Frank Sinatra and other stars in the 1940s coincided with the growth of the teen market: the ‘bobbysoxers’ who mobbed Sinatra and Johnny Ray were among the first post-war youth cultures, albeit one of the more wholesome ones. By the 1950s, this market of teenage girl fans had become increasingly lucrative. Girls became a focus for consumer research, and were targeted with a growing range of products, including magazines, movies and what became known as ‘bubblegum’ pop. Indeed, it could be argued that the mainstream music industry is still highly dependent on this phenomenon: even today, its business model depends upon massive sales of a very small number of leading artists, whose success props up less profitable acts.
Yet even though girl fans are simply enjoying (and buying) the things that have been created for them, they attract widespread criticism. Girl fans are typically denigrated and stigmatized, unlike their male counterparts: for example, young men’s adoration of sports stars is rarely seen as problematic. While male music fans are often seen as active and discriminating, girls are condemned for being passive and easily manipulated: they are regarded as cultural dupes, consuming products that are largely condemned as worthless. The term ‘teenybopper’ itself is often used dismissively, to connote triviality and superficiality, and is clearly feminized: there are no male teenyboppers.
As Norma Coates argues, this reflects the general sexist denigration of women and female fans within the music industry, and in the ‘rockist’ commentary of many music critics. Here again, much of the criticism rests on the issue of authenticity. Thus, while men and boys enjoy rock, girls like pop – something that is deemed to be wholly commercial, fabricated and inauthentic. Where rock somehow stands outside mass culture, and aspires to the status of serious art, pop is merely lowest-common-denominator, ephemeral trash. As Coates argues, this is part of a longer history of the denigration of mass culture, which is often defined in gendered terms.
Much of this criticism today focuses on the phenomenon of ‘boy bands’ – although the lineage of boy bands stretches back from One Direction, through Take That and Duran Duran, at least as far as the Monkees and the Beatles. The music of boy bands is seen to be part of a wider commercial media culture that is responsible for manipulating girls in particular. As Gayle Wald points out, such bands are often accused of displaying a kind of ‘girlish’ masculinity designed to appeal to the nascent sexual fantasies of their fans. With the aid of neuroscientists, critics attempt to explain what goes on in the brains of Justin Bieber followers, as though they were suffering from some kind of mysterious pathological disorder. Aside from anything else, this would seem to ignore the appeal of ‘teenybopper’ music to boys, and indeed to many adults.
The unavoidable issue here, of course, is sex. While male fans are typically believed to be appreciating the music itself, girls are often accused of following performers primarily on the basis of their looks. Teen girls, it appears, are overly sexualised, and the apparent ‘hysteria’ of their fan behaviour is traced to an excess of raging hormones. The spectacle of large numbers of teenage girls apparently being whipped up into an erotic frenzy – especially at the time of ‘Beatlemania’ – appears to have horrified adults, but also to have fascinated them.
To be fair, this underlying fear about the dangers of such sexual fantasies is not wholly unjustified. History has told us that celebrity offers ample opportunities for exploitation and abuse on the part of older male performers: Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile are by no means isolated instances in this respect. As Norma Coates argues, the boundary between an under-age teenybopper and an adult groupie is perhaps not as clear as many might wish.
However, there is also a kind of double standard, or at least a contradiction, here. On the one hand, critics dismissively argue that pop fandom offers teenage girls a form of ‘safe’ or even ‘sanitised’ sexuality that is not really threatening – as opposed (presumably) to the authentic, animalistic sexuality of rock performers such as the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. The bland pop idols and boy bands they prefer are seen as merely vicarious objects of a distant fantasy, ‘practice boyfriends’ rather than real, sexual beings. Yet quite why young girls might be – or even should be – interested in what might seem to them to be gross, adult men isn’t entirely clear. Once again, it seems that girls can’t win.
Glam, girls and fandom
In some respects, glam fandom was simply another moment in this longer history. In the UK in the early 1970s, the attentions of teenybopper fans were partly focused on American stars such as David Cassidy, the Jackson Five, and the Osmonds (especially Donny). However, there were also several British bands that attracted a teenybopper following, including Amen Corner, Love Affair and (a little later) the Bay City Rollers. Glam rock overlapped with these more mainstream, ‘boy-next-door’ performers, and would have attracted the same kind of followers.
Marc Bolan, in particular, was at once a glam star and a teenybopper idol. While he liked to strike a sexy pose and strut the stage in the manner of Mick Jagger, Bolan retained a boyish, even child-like quality from his hippy days. It’s possible, as one of Simon Reynolds’ interviewees suggests, that Bolan was the kind of person girls would want to mother, rather than have sex with – although he must have retained a kind of seductive sexual appeal for younger teenagers. Bolan had a certain androgynous softness; yet despite his glittery cheekbones, his satin trousers and even his feather boa, he didn’t aspire to the level of camp or gender ambiguity of Bowie, for example. ‘T. Rextacy’, as it was known, was often compared to Beatlemania, and seemed to share a similar kind of sexual innocence.
Obviously, artists across the spectrum of glam would have attracted male fans as well – and certainly some, like Arthur Stuart in Velvet Goldmine, would have been gay. One striking and fairly unprecedented characteristic of glam fandom was that so many people in the audience (girls as well as boys) wanted to copy the performers’ appearance. While stars like Bowie were keen to set themselves apart from their audience, and to emphasise their otherness, it was as though their audience was nevertheless aspiring to become like them, to the extent of mimicking their clothing, make-up and hairstyles.
Even so, the large majority of glam fans would have been female and heterosexual. I suggested earlier that there seemed to be a paradox here, at least on the face of it. Why should teenage girls have been interested in a group of cross-dressing, heavily made-up, largely older male stars – as opposed to the more straightforward appeal of David Cassidy or Donny Osmond? This is a complex question. On the one hand, it’s possible that, for some heterosexuals, androgyny may be distinctly sexy, if perhaps in a different way from that of the ‘practice boyfriends’ of more conventional boy bands. On the other hand, it is also possible that androgyny – and perhaps especially the outrageous camp of some glam performers – is not quite as ‘safe’ as some have implied, but has a kind of risky appeal. Or it may simply be that (at least for younger teen fans) it is simply playful and fun, and does not necessarily carry sexual connotations in the first place.
As I have noted, academic commentary on glam rock and on the teenybopper phenomenon at the time – insofar as it existed at all – was largely negative. While Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber attempted to shine the spotlight on girls’ subcultures, they nevertheless continued to cast girls as passive consumers. Finding little evidence of girls’ active involvement in the subcultures studied by their male colleagues, McRobbie and Garber point to the more domestic focus of girls’ social and cultural lives. However, they interpret this ‘bedroom culture’ of dressing up, make-up, magazines and pop music, as a ‘quasi-sexual ritual’, and a ‘defensive retreat’ from (or a ‘defensive solidarity’ against) their subordination within the wider society. This culture is, they argue, highly packaged and commercialized: it is all about ‘the subordinate, adoring female in awe of the male on a pedestal’, and it can only lead to ‘future subordination’ in marriage. To say the least, there is very little ‘girl power’ to be found here.
Media and popular culture – including pop music – were the principal means through which this subordination would be achieved. McRobbie’s celebrated analysis of Jackie, the most popular girls’ magazine of the time, focuses primarily on the romance stories rather than the musical content; but across the various elements of the magazine, she detects a singular, coherent ideology, which is all about the imperative of getting and retaining a man. Girls, she argues, are being induced into conformity and obedience, rather than being encouraged to experiment or exercise choice. When it comes to music, girls are passively fantasizing about ‘safe’ male stars, rather than learning an instrument or getting into the ‘new wave or experimental’ music that McRobbie herself evidently prefers. While she disclaims the idea that she is treating girls as dupes, or suggesting that they swallow this stuff whole, McRobbie does implicitly see Jackie readers as victims of a kind of patriarchal ideological manipulation.
McRobbie’s account of the teenyboppers was self-evidently of its time; and subsequent feminist critics have repeatedly challenged it. Sue Turnbull, for example, accuses McRobbie of failing to understand the aesthetic pleasures of popular culture, and casting girls as victims of false consciousness; while Mary Kearney argues that she ignores the ‘homosociality’ (the group identity) of such girls, and the creative, productive nature of girls’ bedroom cultures. Kearney also notes how, in revising and republishing her earlier articles, McRobbie appears to give girls more credit for being resistant and powerful, rather than merely consumerist.
Some other feminist research appears to back up this more positive account of teenybopper fandom. Writing in 1992, Barbara Ehrenreich and her colleagues look back to their own early experiences as ‘Beatlemaniacs’. Far from seeing evidence of hysteria or manipulation, they argue that Beatlemania was an assertion of ‘an active, powerful sexuality’. Seen retrospectively in this way, they argue that Beatlemania was the first ‘uprising of the women’s sexual revolution’ – a form of protest and defiance, and a rebellious assertion of active sexual feelings, in which girls were the pursuers rather than the pursued. Rather than just unrealistic fantasy, it was based on the recognition that you could never marry the Beatle of your choice, and that you wouldn’t necessarily want a fate of domestic conformity as a ‘housewife’ in any case. Writing much more recently, Nicolette Rohr likewise sees the fans’ screams as a form of rebellion against social norms that expected girls to be ‘ladylike’: screaming was an expression of freedom, a release of inhibition, a letting loose. According to these accounts, teenage girls’ fandom is by no means a matter of colluding in one’s own subordination, but on the contrary of challenging gender and sexual conventions, and collectively claiming public space.
This redemptive analysis of teen girls’ fandom has been echoed in numerous research studies in recent years. It has become almost compulsory to challenge the pathological view of the teenybopper: along with studies of media fans more broadly, the fan is seen here, not as duped or manipulated, but on the contrary as empowered and discriminating. Tonya Anderson, for example, argues that fan-related bedroom culture offers a space for girls to play collectively with sexual fantasies, free from judgement by men; while Sarah Baker argues that contemporary ‘tweens’ are much more active and critical in their engagements with pop music than has been previously assumed. All these studies suggest that music fandom offers opportunities for girls to actively construct their own identities, rather than being passively shaped by forces beyond their control.
On one level, this is all very well, but it seems to take us to an opposite extreme. Fandom is no longer about consumerism and ideological manipulation, but about creativity and agency. Girls’ music fandom comes to be seen both as a celebration of the pleasures of girlhood, but also as a form of resistance to the constraints and pressures of femininity. It is a free space in which girls can construct and play with gender and sexual identities, and engage in ‘unfeminine’ behaviour. In this context, any criticisms of fandom come to be seen as snobbish and elitist, and indeed misogynistic.
In effect, we have moved from a view of female fandom as negative and pathological to a situation where it is effectively beyond criticism. Yet even if it appears to have been redeemed, fandom continues to be read from contrasting feminist perspectives as a primarily political phenomenon: other aspects of fandom – such as aesthetic pleasure – seem to rendered in solely political terms. In the process, fandom also becomes a kind of universal paradigm for media consumption in general. There’s little place here for more casual, less committed forms of engagement, or the hybrid, temporary identifications I described above; and little recognition of the forms of elitism and competitiveness within fan cultures. And it remains to be seen what one might say about male fandom, where some of the arguments might play out rather differently (could we make the same arguments about boys and football, for example?).
Glam rock doesn’t fit very easily on either side of these debates. It doesn’t offer the kind of ‘safe’ romantic fantasy that McRobbie and Garber are so keen to condemn; but neither, in my view, does it provide the proto-feminist empowerment that Ehrenreich and others proclaim. Part of the problem here is that it seems so hard to take it seriously: it seems so self-consciously ludicrous and excessive, such an obvious parody of ideas both about gender and sexuality, and about pop itself, that it resists any straightforward political reading.