[9 February 2010]
Urbandictionary.com defines “fangirls” as “young fanatical females… (who) suffer an absurd affinity for a randomly chosen object of obsession and base their life/daily schedule around it.” But we think of them as the girls who line up for hours and even days before meet and greets, book or CD signings, ticket sales openings, or some such event where their dearly beloveds are involved. Armed with homemade signs, T-Shirts and brain-splitting screams, fangirls can turn critically un-acclaimed albums double platinum and make shakily written fiction into a worldwide phenomenon. I can’t help but feel that if these girls gathered at the edge of the Red Sea, it would part.
What distinguishes a fangirl from the average fan are unrivaled displays of devotion and a willingness to spend countless hours and dollars paying homage to those they love. Fangirls are typically ages 12 -18, or as The New York Times put it, “old enough to be culturally aware but not old enough to second-guess themselves.” (“Cue the Shrieking Girls for the Band of Their Moment”, by Jon Caramanica, 10 August 2008) Mostly from suburban middle-class homes, they have the time and the disposable income to devote to their chosen stars. It may start as a crush or admiration, but what these girls end up being are the best publicists any celebrity could hope for. They will spread accolades all over the media free of charge. And to top it all off, they (or rather, their parents) will fund an artist’s big fat paycheck just by purchasing everything they put out on the market.
We don’t typically credit fangirls with being an astonishing breed of Super Fan – they’re not quite in the same category as people who dress up like hobbits or attend Star Trek conventions. Usually, we just roll our eyes at them, get annoyed when they occupy a row in the movie theater in front of us and “oh-em-gee” at trailers, and yes, we get upset when musical artists we like endorse things they like (cough) New Moon soundtrack (cough, cough). But take a quick look at fangirl history and you will realize that fangirls’ devotion has “made” some of the most significant players in pop culture history.
Consider the very first modern pop superstar: Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was the one millions of hearts beat for. Today, Michael Bublé’s crooning voice is a pop rarity, but in the ‘40s, the big band style wasn’t a genre that you had to look very hard for. Because popular music had until then been targeted primarily at adults, Sinatra and his teen fans offered up a previously untapped market. This is arguably what earned Sinatra his contract as a solo artist with Capital Records. Today, we remember him for Fly Me to the Moon, or My Way, but it was the intangible quality fangirls eat up like chocolate, that made Frank Sinatra become Frank Sinatra. Just take it from The New Yorker:
“Most of his fans are plain, lonely girls from lower-middle class homes. They are dazzled by the life Sinatra leads and wish they could share in it. They insist that they love him, but they do not use the verb in its ordinary sense. As they apply it to him, it is synonymous with ‘worship’ or ‘idealize.’” —E.J. Kahn Jr. (“Here’s to Sinatra and the Ladies who Lust”, 1946)
Even the Beatles quit touring after their third album because the fangirl frenzy around them made their live performances so difficult. Pat O’Day introduced the Beatles at what was then the Seattle Center Coliseum in August of 1964. He recalls catching a glance from George Harrison, “George looked at me and he reached down and pulled the electrical plug out of the bottom of his guitar for a minute. And then he put it back in and kept playing, and he shrugged like ‘What difference does it make? No one can hear us anyway.’”
The Beatles had the type of following that today garners more eye rolls from those with “refined” taste in music. But we can’t just dismiss the validity of something merely because the initial fan base is female and has a mean age of 14. After all, that would mean throwing out your copy of The White Album.
Even Johnny Depp, the eccentricity King himself, started out as a teen heartthrob on 21 Jump Street. Now he’s an Oscar nominated, highly respected actor and Hollywood icon of all that is badass. We just choose to forgive him of his previous dealings with tweens. But why is that even something that needs forgiving?
The same goes for Elvis. According to Rolling Stone, “it was Elvis who made rock ‘n’ roll the international language of pop.” (This quote is so commonly used on a range of online bios of Elvis, its proper citation is uncertain.) Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly what all those girls were “tweeting” about back in the day. I’m going to go out on a limb here. At the time, the Elvis phenomenon wasn’t just about his music. The great icons of pop may be remembered for their music now, but it was largely a fangirl thing at the time. Today we don’t take things with a fangirl following seriously as high art.
So, what I’m proposing here is that we separate the phenomenon from its following before forming an opinion about its validity. I’m not saying that everything fangirls like is fit to be legendary, but historically speaking, fangirls have been largely, if not wholly responsible for cementing the status of many, many, cultural icons. Which begs the question: without them, where would all those icons be?
And what makes a fangirl tick? If there is a formula, it is deep in the minds of teenage girls. Oh, we females can be a fickle bunch. We can talk about why we like what we do, but can that then be applied to production and marketing? Eh, maybe not so much. Amy, the owner of the largest fan site dedicated to Robert Pattinson, was asked simply, “Why Robert?” And she responds, “Because he’s gorgeous.” Yep. That’s all.
Looking for more answers, I set to figure out the Fangirl equation. This past summer I went to a Jonas Brothers concert, and about halfway through it I became distracted from worrying about if I’d ever be able to hear again when I noticed something, or rather someone. Who was that dude on the bass? Out came the Blackberry. Google “Jonas Brothers bass player” and BAM. Greg Garbowsky. Hails from New Jersey, is allergic to peanuts, and is two days younger than I am.
Not that I expected to be the first to have noticed the guy, but I was a little surprised to find he has over 60,000 followers on Twitter (that’s more than Al Roker, people). Having learned from Garbowsky’s fanpage that he was going to be in Bass Player magazine, I proceeded to the bookstore to buy it.
If a wee crush had driven me to seek out needless information and to buy a magazine I would have never even glanced at before, this estrogen flowing through my body had more power over me than I was willing to admit. This was as close to being a fangirl as I had ever been. “You play bass?” the check out guy at Books-A-Million asked me, “Um… no. My little brother does.” Well, he does.
Imagine it as unbridled devotion floating around the atmosphere just waiting for a subject to fix itself upon. Therein lies the real power of fangirls. No subject is too small to be deemed worthy of obsession. That’s one really fascinating part about the Jonas craze. The brothers each have their own base of manic fans down to their little brother Frankie (the “bonus Jonas”).
In an essay entitled “1,000 True Fans” Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, defines a true fan as “someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce.” (The Technium.com) Kelly’s theory is that all any artist needs to survive in the “long tail” environment of the web is a core of one thousand true fans who will spend one hundred dollars on the artist’s products each year. That’s about one concert ticket and a couple of CDs, which by my calculations would put a fangirl at least one notch above a “true fan” in the hierarchy of fanhood. And that is precisely why the earth shakes when girls decide that something is likable. Greater than just buying power, true fanhood is about participation, and the web presents a multitude of fangirl opportunities both to consume and produce idol information. Of course all this includes a willingness to follow a band, artist, or celebrity until they are no longer working in the industry – well, maybe even a little after that too.
Hoping to find out more, I asked girls who ran fanpages how long they saw themselves being active fans. And acting a little taken aback, they had to pause to think, but then they all said something to the effect of, “until the artist makes it known that they don’t want to be in the spotlight anymore.” In fact, my favorite quote was, “I guess until (he) gets married and has babies or something.”
Fangirls are one of the primary drivers in popular media and today they are more empowered than ever before. History suggests that appealing to this special type of super fan and their unparalleled loyalty is one of the best ways to achieve superstardom (even if the mania doesn’t last, your retirement is funded). Yes, fangirls can be loud, perhaps obnoxious, and not all their picks end up at exalted heights in the artistic pantheon, but it is unfair to dismiss fangirls merely as a gaggle of girls suffering from puppy love.
They raised the likes of James Dean, Heath Ledger, Michael J. Fox (who interestingly enough, changed his middle initial from “A” to “J”, because he didn’t want teen magazines referring to him as “Michael, A Fox!”), Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, and kept them in the spotlight long enough for the rest of us to fall in love with them too. Thank you, fangirls.