Pop Music Stans Aren’t Crazy, They’re Having A Conversation
Pop fandom has historically been embodied by the screaming white girl. But the rise of queer men “stanning” for pop divas signals the growing power of fan perspectives outside the straight white norm.
Britney Spears’ infamously lethargic performance of her comeback hit “Gimme More” at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards shocked viewers and prompted an outpouring of online vitriol. But the aftermath didn’t just affect Spears’ media image. Chris Crocker, a Spears fan who was also a MySpace and YouTube performer with many viral video hits to his name, reached a new career peak when he responded to the snark fest with his own video. “She’s a human! ... Leave her alone!” he yelled, tears dramatically smudging his eyeliner. “You’re lucky she even performed for you bastards. Leave Britney alone! Please!”
Crocker’s melodramatic performance, which turned 10 this year to great fanfare, became perhaps the most indelible symbol of the hysterical excess of pop fandom in the digital age. The video may have become a viral hit as a kind of irrational primal scream, but it also acted as a prototype for a now-flourishing (and profitable) genre of online fan reaction videos, and launched Crocker into a new level of mainstream media attention. He appeared everywhere from the Today show to Howard Stern. And in many ways, Crocker — now forever known as the “Leave Britney Alone!” guy — was a harbinger of a new mode of fandom, linking pop stars with their media-savvy gay male devotees, that would arguably define the face of pop adoration in the aughts.
Eminem’s December 2000 song “Stan” gave rise to the term that’s become shorthand for this phenomenon. In the music video, the titular “biggest fan” of the rapper (played by Devon Sawa) kills himself and his girlfriend when Eminem fails to respond to his impassioned letters, evoking the specter of murderous fandom that had claimed the lives of pop icons like John Lennon and Selena. By 2006, Urban Dictionary had defined a stan as “an overzealous maniacal fan for any celebrity or athlete.” But the word “stan” was also specifically adopted by the fans of Top 40 pop stars, especially queer male fans engaging each other and debating pop stars — their images, their record sales, their cultural significance — in the forums and fansites that began to populate the internet throughout the early 2000s.
Just as Crocker circulated as a kind of cartoon of irrational hyper-identification, the coverage of standom often relied on caricatures. In 2011, the New York Times addressed the stan phenomenon, but still depicted the stans themselves as fluctuating between being savvy self-marketers or self-deluded fans, rather than focusing on the queer specificity or cultural significance of stan discussions. The more recent — and numerous — reports on Beyoncé or Taylor Swift fans’ social media attacks also feed into the idea of fans as angry and overinvested.
This presentation of pop fans as feminized hysterics is part of a long-standing media fascination with the “excess” of fandom that can be traced back to the teen bobby-soxers associated with Frank Sinatra in the early 1940s. But just as those white teenage girls were using fan performances for their own ends — and gaining something of value from the community they formed in the process — so are modern stans. Stan wars aren’t just irrational fan fights; rather, they are shade-throwing contests and spaces for queer of color performance and reading; they are often spirited debates over the racial and sexual politics of pop fandom. Ultimately, standom represents new critical perspectives in the ongoing theater of enthusiasm that is pop music.
Two of the most famous and famously labeled forms of fandom in rock history are the bobby-soxers and the Beatlemaniacs, both terms that call to mind the figure of the screaming — and supposedly naive and shallow — white teen girl.
The bobby-soxers, who emerged in the early 1940s during the rise of Frank Sinatra, were given that name because of the innocent symbolism of their ankle socks worn with saddle or oxford shoes. These fans were shown on television performing their jubilant shrieks and “swooning,” or fainting — or at least feigning it — in ecstasy. This fandom earned Sinatra the joking nickname Swoonatra, and newspapers ran headlines about the “Columbus Day Riot” after his fans mobbed the Paramount Theater in New York during one of his performances and then refused to leave.
Meanwhile, Beatlemania reached its peak in the mid-1960s, and the media coverage similarly described these white girls in aggressive terms — for example, pushing across police barricades and “mobbing” their idols. “Why the Girls Scream, Weep, Flip,” read one headline the New York Times. The article that followed managed to be both patronizing and racist: “It is probably no coincidence that the Beatles, who provoke the most violent response among teen-agers, resemble in manner the witch doctors who put their spells on hundreds of shuffling and stamping natives.”
Fandom is never just about unmediated ecstasy over a performer; it is also about the creation and performance of the fan’s own identity.
Both forms of fandom resonated in the media — and have resonated historically — because they hinted at uncritical consumption and the kind of hysterical, girlish enthusiasm often associated with white teen femininity. But fandom is never just about unmediated ecstasy over a performer; it is also about the creation and performance of the fan’s own identity, making themselves visible through whatever technologies are available to them. That performance often is, and historically has been, very deliberate.
One former bobby-soxer later explained that she and her friends would rehearse the “swooning” expected of them as Sinatra enthusiasts. "[W]e would gather behind locked bedroom doors, in rooms where rosebud wallpaper was plastered over with pictures of The Voice, to practice swooning. We would take off our saddle shoes, put on his records, and stand around groaning for a while. Then the song would end and we would all fall down on the floor.” Despite these accounts of fans savvily crafting, or at least reinforcing, their own public image, the Historical Dictionary of American Slang still describes a bobby-soxer as a “teenage girl usually regarded as naively immature and an enthusiastic follower of youthful fads in music, fashion, etc.”
Even as midcentury rock stars were replaced by pop stars like Madonna, fans were still understood as uncritical consumers and followers. Labels like bobby-soxer, Beatlemaniac, or, in the case of Madonna’s fans, “wannabes” were all imposed on teenage white girls through the authority of straight white male critics, seeking to make sense of what appeared to be potentially disturbing outbursts of adolescent emotion and agency. The term “wannabe,” which implies an unfulfilled or somehow inauthentic imitation, was coined by John Skow, a Time magazine journalist who wrote about the meaning of Madonna in a 1985 cover story advertised with the cover line “Why She’s Hot.”
The condescending essay begins with a depiction of wannabes as “twelve-year-old girls, headphones blocking out the voices of reason” who are “saving up their baby-sitting money to buy cross-shaped earrings.” He describes Madonna’s rise as a result of “three-fourths mass hysteria,” but in fact, the few “wannabes” that he interviewed spoke quite nonhysterically about their identification with Madonna’s attitudes about gender and sexuality. (“It’s really women’s lib, not being afraid of what guys think”; “I like the way she handles herself, sort of take it or leave it”; “She’s sexy but she doesn’t need men.”)
In other words, these fans were grappling with ideas about their own femininity and feminism through Madonna’s star image. Still, “wannabe” became a popular media label to talk about Madonna fans, despite the fact that — as it became clear in the age of online fandom — the pop diva’s followers actually called themselves Iconers. But this imagining of fandom started to change in the post-Madonna pop music landscape, precisely as online fandoms created a space for young queer men’s voices to emerge and be heard more explicitly on their own terms.
Eminem’s song “Stan,” and the video for it, came out in December 2000 during what was still a peak moment of MTV’s Total Request Live. TRL’s daytime top 10 music video countdown was the centralized channel through which millions of teens were experiencing pop music, and it was a major platform for artists during the teen pop boom of the late ’90s. Though Eminem is a hip-hop figure, he has always been fascinated with pop spectacle; from allusions to Madonna and Michael Jackson in his videos, to calling his album The Eminem Show, to his autobiographical movie 8 Mile (in the mold of A Star Is Born), he came the closest of any popular rapper at the time to pop diva–style stardom.
Eminem’s video appeared at a moment when MTV fan cultures began to shift to the internet and young gay men found a space to assert their agency.
Eminem was famously involved in feuds with Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey, who turned the tables on the rapper by playing a caricature of him as a creepy basement-dwelling stan who gets run over by a Mean Girls–style bus in the 2009 music video for her song “Obsessed.” And so it wasn’t as odd as it may seem for the originally unflattering, murderous-stalker connotations of “stan” to be reappropriated by devoted pop star fans. Eminem’s video appeared at a moment when MTV fan cultures began to shift to the internet — in forums and comment sections — and young gay men found a space to assert their agency. One such forum, initially called Absolute TRL in 1999 (then PopFusion, and now ATRL), had by 2005 become pop diva stan central — or, as Urban Dictionary put it at the time, a place filled with “many Britney fanatics & just plain weird people who make stupid posts.”
Populated by user handles that, in the drag tradition, often fused the user’s own name with their favorite pop diva’s, Absolute TRL was — and is — a space for fans to argue in favor of their chosen artist with statistics and ideas about cultural impact. Recent posts include one by a fan — whose motto is “I Stan for talent!” — who tallied Beyoncé’s entire worldwide sales throughout her career. These stans, many of whom explicitly identify themselves as queer, feel invested in these performers’ commercial standings, which (accurately or not) are held up as proof of cultural legitimacy and personal freedom. Another thread about rocker Marilyn Manson’s announcement that Rihanna — and her song “Love on the Brain” — inspired his album became a debate about her impact and whether a song needs a music video to succeed.
Fights about who is more legendary versus iconic also break out in the music news comments sections of websites like That Grape Juice, which appeared in 2007, the same year that the Chris Crocker video garnered major mainstream attention. And indeed, most have forgotten that Crocker’s video was arguably part of a mass-mediated forum fan fight; the “leave Britney alone!” video was recorded in reaction to Perez Hilton’s posts on Spears, which led one newspaper at the time to cover the story with the headline “Gay Men's Online War Over Britney Spears."
Over the same decade or so, the late-’90s generation of pop divas started engaging more actively with their fanbases, initially through their websites before the advent of more interactive forms of social media. The early 2000s saw Mariah Carey, the pioneer of stan cultivation, encouraging her fans, whom she called “lambs” or her “lambily,” to make scrapbooks of their fandom, even devoting a section of her website to them. Carey’s “Lambs” prefigured the rise of fan group names like Katy Perry’s “KatyKats,” Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters,” or Nicki Minaj’s “Barbz,” usually cutesy labels made up and taken up either by fans or the stars themselves, rather than imposed from the outside by critics. (Though this still leaves the question of names to get sorted out between diva and fans; Minaj has since tried to rename her fanbase “The Kingdom,” to the dismay of many self-identified Barbz, and earlier this year Taylor Swift trademarked the fan moniker Swifties.)
By 2010, the website Stan Wars emerged as a kind of meta-commentary on this style of pop diva fandom, through its parodic re-creations of ATRL forum fan fights, faux pop diva Wikipedia entries, and articles about standom. In this campy landscape, "stan," with its original connotations of psychosis, wasn’t a term of denigration. The site embraced, even as it mocked, that kind of excess, and the agency and community it granted to people who might not find it elsewhere in their lives.
“Stan wars ... have three groups who refuse to be denied: teens, tweens and queens," the site explains. In one of the “stanipedia” entries, Britney Spears is humorously described in terms of her role as part of the history of gay men: “Although the millions of teenage girls who had stanned for Britney had moved on, their power-bottom younger brothers had found their thrown away CDs and became Britney stans themselves.”
The lines of fandom are structured not just by gender or sexuality, but also by race, and these fan forums became a rare space where differences — and overlaps — between white gay men and gay men of color got hashed out. While the ATRL forum often had discussions and debates about race in pop, Stan Wars took on a more explicitly queer of color perspective in its writing, highlighting the racial nuances of pop diva stanning through the faux Wikipedia entries. In hilariously shady writing, the website’s Beyoncé entry includes both the “stan” and “hater” version of the truth. The “hater” version elucidates the racialized reception she gets from some “pop” (meaning white) fans: “I guess Beyoncé thinks she’s too good to use the same overused beats, sounds and producers as her peers, but I don’t see the point in releasing music for any purpose other than going Top 5 on the Hot 100 or appeasing Caucasian bottoms and 12 year olds. Let me just be clear, I don’t completely hate Black music or Black artists.”
The outside coverage of standom still gets framed largely in terms of whether the fans’ investment is creepy or not.
This is an inside joke for stan war soldiers, but it’s also a thoughtful commentary on the way pop is structured by our ideas about race, gender, and age. Yet the outside coverage of standom still gets framed largely in terms of whether the fans’ investment is creepy or not. A New York Times article from 2011, “Scratching the Celebrity Itch,” featured an artist manager comparing pop diva standom rivalries to sports teams and referring to Ciara fans as mindless minions: “Her stans will defend her to the death. It’s a little scary.”
Even the creator of the Britney website BreatheHeavy was quoted as saying, “A stan will follow a celebrity blindly — it’s a little creepy,” seemingly trying to separate himself from the worst traits of “stanning,” but he ultimately implicates himself. “I like to look at myself as a fan who knows Britney’s best interests, maybe even better than she does. But now that I think about it, it’s weird because I’ve never met her, even though I’ve been following her every day.”
In other words, stans are still often portrayed in personal and psychological terms as potentially creepy or overinvested, rather than as participants in a cultural phenomenon that involves arguments about race, gender, power, and how all of it influences the way pop artists are received. As Stan Wars suggests, the world of standom, from early on, has included space for self-criticism. But as with bobby-soxers and wannabes, outside observers have not often given stans credit for their own self-awareness.
As fans emerged from comment sections and forums into Twitter and Instagram, most of the media attention on standom has been focused on the way particular fan armies — especially the Beyhive and Taylor Swift’s Swifties — attack enemies of their preferred stars. But the Twitter wars about pop divas are not just attacks on outsiders; they are also sites for shade-throwing and reading, an affirmation of identity through wit — their own, less passive form of knowing “swooning.” One of the fans interviewed for a Mic article on the Beyoncé–Rihanna stan wars, identified as 17-year old Devin Francis, hinted at this: "Well, the Twitter feuds have became more and more entertaining. The BeyHive have their shady one-liners, we the Navy have ours. ... Will it ever stop? I don't think so.”
Queer men’s readings get projected onto these women performers who become complicated stand-ins for their own feelings of disenfran-chisement.
These stan wars emerge, in part, through the particular sensibilities and cultural conundrums of queer men. There is not — and there may never be — a gay male Beyoncé or even a gay male pop diva. Thus, queer men’s readings get projected onto these women performers who become complicated stand-ins for their own feelings of disenfranchisement, particularly in terms of mainstream visibility and desirability. (Chris Crocker, for example, explained in a 2007 interview at the height of his fame, "I'm not really inspired by many men, even if they're gay. I'm more inspired by women who are accepting of gay men than gay men.")
And ultimately, some of these “stans” have achieved their own form of media power, often by expanding from the specific focus on one pop diva into the larger field of pop music or entertainment news. Throughout the later aughts, a generation of internet-savvy digital fans were able to turn their supposedly hysterical enthusiasm into financially rewarded labor. While Crocker was not mentioned in the 2011 New York Times article about pop diva stans, a number of other Britney fans or stan connoisseurs — including the twentysomething creators of pop music site MuuMuse, the Britney fansite BreatheHeavy, and the parodic Stan Wars — were all profiled, in part to show that they parlayed their fandom into positions in the creative industries as bloggers, graphic designers, or entertainment journalists.
In other words, these fans became producers and insiders in the media cultures that have tended to name and interpret fandom — whether bobby-soxers or wannabes — from the outside. And what used to seem outlandish is now simply part of the pop culture lexicon; a Daily Beast entertainment writer, for instance, referenced Crocker’s video to defend Mariah Carey (“Leave Mariah Carey Alone”) after her disastrous New Year’s Eve performance earlier this year. In both campy and more serious ways, pop diva standom is now reclaimed from within.
For some, that’s a double-edged sword; recently, Todrick Hall — a YouTube star and RuPaul’s Drag Race guest judge who performs elaborate mashup tributes to pop divas like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift — became, in some ways, the ultimate insider when Swift chose him to appear in her latest music video. But the resulting backlash, with Hall branded a “sellout” to his race and the LGBT community by some fans, once again highlighted the complicated racial and sexual lines of standom.
The ongoing media fascination with the supposedly destructive side of stan passion is, in some ways, just a continuation of the same narrative that characterized earlier fandoms’ feminine enthusiasm as hysteria. But, as even a brief foray into the websites and wars of standom reveals, stanning is also a new kind of public identification and affirmative self-making for queer men, and their fan debates provide a critical perspective that challenges the supposed universality of white and straight pop histories. Each pop generation gave rise to its own style of fandom, and perhaps the parodies of stans — by stans themselves — suggest that a different narrative about the way fans relate to their chosen artists might soon be emerging. For now, however, these queer connoisseurs seem here to slay. ●