The Overlooked Cultural Power of Girl Fandom
The intensity of girls’ extreme fandom — the screaming, the crying, the clubs, the social media stalking — can be confounding. Why spend so much time listening to the music of callow musicians, or following the lives of people you’ll never meet? It’s unanswerable, for most adults, which is why we often write it off immaturity. But there’s a neurological explanation for the intensity of their reaction — and a long history that suggests young female fans should be respected as arbiters of good taste.
A brief history of girls’ extreme fandom
The Beatlemania of the 50s is often blamed for the advent of girls’ extreme fandom, but it actually dates to the mid-1800s, when a Hungarian pianist was taking the female hearts of Europe by storm. Franz Liszt, a prodigy who also revolutionized orchestral conducting and whose compositions were considered ahead of his time, inspired the following extreme response, described by by NPR:
Women would literally attack him: tear bits of his clothing, fight over broken piano strings and locks of his shoulder-length hair. Europe had never seen anything like it. It was a phenomenon the great German poet Heinrich Heine dubbed “Lisztomania.”
“We hear about women throwing their clothes onto the stage and taking his cigar butts and placing them in their cleavages,” says Stephen Hough, a world-renowned concert pianist.
There are clear echoes — high-pitched, frenzied, squealing, underwear-tossing echoes — of that in the female fan culture of The Beatles, of course, but more recently in Justin Bieber’s Beliebers and in Directioners, the name for the boy-band One Direction’s legion followers. And those echoes are closely tied to the developmental changes of adolescence.
Listening to familiar, favorite music prompts the brain to release dopamine, the “happy hormone” that rewards us by making us feel good, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin told reporter Melinda Beck, who looked into the neuroscience behind “Beiber Fever” for The Wall Street Journal in 2012. And teens are particularly given toward chasing that happy high; human levels of dopamine release are highest in adolescence compared to any other stage of life.
Dr. Levitin’s research also showed that musical tastes formed in the teen years become part of the brain’s internal wiring, as that is the time when some neural pathways are solidifying and others are being pruned away. That’s why the music adults tend to be nostalgic for is the music from their teenage years.
Boys also develop musical tastes in this phase of life, but adolescent girls are far more likely to become infatuated with pop stars, experts say, because they are awakening to romantic and sexual feelings that are both intoxicating and scary. Having a crush on a celebrity they are unlikely to meet is a way to try out such feelings at a safe distance.
But it’s an explanation that Francesca Coppa, a professor of English and film studies at Muhlenberg College who studies the way in which fandom fuels culture, challenges.
A cultural usurping of girls’ king-making credit
In a recent interview with Billboard, Coppa says the fan culture of girls may seem like it’s all about boy-crushes, but it’s actually about developing relationships with peers and organizing social networks:
Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about Beatlemania and girls hanging out in their bedrooms together and forming networks and clubs and using pop culture and music and films to organize their own social lives. If you were a little girl and you liked John somebody else would have to like Paul and somebody else would have to like George or Ringo. It was a kind of organizational strategy. … now with the Internet there’s starting to be a sophisticated language for the kinds of things that girls know how to do really well.
She also says the common explanations of and attitudes toward girls’ fandom overlook a critical factor: actual, insightful good taste. Coppa says the fact that tween and teen girls are the first to become invested in groups that later go on to achieve critical acclaim gets “written out,” particularly in the Internet age.
I think they (girls) are really good at finding the interesting story in a band, in an act, not just in terms of the quality of the music but seeing the whole package or recognizing that there’s a kind of interesting narrative to engage. I think girls make that narrative interesting and then organize, in music, a lot of the infrastructure that tells everybody else how to like and understand this music.
I think girls saw something in the Beatles that the Beatles then picked up on. So by the time the Beatles are making A Hard Day’s Night and Help, they’re essentially writing the fanfic that the fans were writing about them.
Coppa calls out Justin Timberlake, of *NSYNC, and Harry Styles, of One Direction, as successors to the same discerning taste of tween girls:
Harry Styles is going to be a major movie star. They picked him out, not me. I’m too old for Harry Styles. The twelve-year-olds today looked at the landscape and went, that one there. And now he’s in Dunkirk. He’s big but he’s going to be bigger. It’s obvious he’s going to be bigger….
Yet while this trajectory is rooted in girls’ OG fandom — which lays a foundation for how ‘mainstream’ fan culture (that is, everyone not an adolescent girl) engages with these artists’ work — girls’ original king-making contribution is forgotten, while others reap the rewards:
… Girls are often very good at picking that person. … There’s a way in which they become mainstreamed and serious. I think with Harry Styles people may not forget he kind of started out in a boy band. But people have certainly forgotten about John Lennon. They’ve forgotten about Bowie. That there are various kinds of artists that gain a certain kind of critical respect and then they forget [they started out with a primarily teen girl following].
… When these things tend to mainstream it becomes a geek thing, which becomes a boy thing. And, no it’s not. Social media is not a boy thing. Fandom is not a boy thing, geek culture is not a boy thing. You have all these geeks making good now. You have the guy who’s doing Doctor Who and Steven Moffat’s doing Sherlock. J.J. Abrams getting to grow up and do Star Wars. You have all these boys who were fans who are now going to make millions and millions of dollars. Again, you see a thing [uber-fandom] that was innovated with girls becoming a thing that becomes very profitable for men, and women are kind of pushed out of it.