Aging Out Of Diehard Fandom Is Bittersweet

As an adult, my pop culture passions have to serve as a brief and joyful escape instead of an all-consuming obsession.

Earlier this summer, I taught at the Kenyon Young Writers workshop in Gambier, Ohio. Some of the best teenage writers from all around the world converged on this small liberal arts campus and wrote poetry and fiction for two weeks. In their downtime, many of them wanted to talk about music with me, and I found myself entertaining their opinions, which were wild and passionately stated (“Metro Boomin is John Lennon”). When I pressed them (“their musical lineage doesn’t line up for that kind of comparison, does it?”), their logic would disintegrate, but there was something touching about watching them chart these seemingly absurd paths through music and its roots. They were steadfast in their devotion, immune to irony and cynicism.

That pre-irony devotion tends to fall apart as a music fan ages, or at least the boldness with which we publicly attach ourselves to a single musician and take wild swings at logic in their name. At Kenyon, I first found myself approaching the proclamations of students with slight frustration, shutting them down at every turn, often with dry and somewhat boring and very adult rhetoric, not realizing how much I was becoming the older generation that once shut down my own rampant and sometimes illogical analysis of the things I love. It occurred to me as the week went on that the way we arrive at our musical and cultural passions is this way, recklessly feeling and talking our ways through the many layers of the artists and art we believe to be infallible.

When you are young — particularly young and of a marginalized identity — there is no shortage of people telling you that something you love is stupid or unworthy of love. Despite how profitable the memes, ideas, and online presence of young music and culture fans can be for adults and their media publications, adults themselves can be dismissive of the young people behind their feelings of ardor. There is a part of this from the adult end that — I imagine — stems from a kind of envy. Envy not entirely rooted in any strong feelings for an artist, but in being left out of a community that they were once eager to be a part of, left out of a passion they can’t access anymore due to time, age, or cynicism.

Fandom as an adult looks different, feels different, and is generally performed differently. There are fandoms that mirror some of the delightfully aimless youthful exuberance of intense stanning. But often, there is a winking irony in adult fandom. In part because there are so many more life commitments that come with being an adult and thus less time to engage in these passions. As an adult, I’ve found my pop culture passions have had to serve as a brief and joyful escape.

This is, of course, not to say that young people don’t have responsibilities, or that they aren’t concerned with the world outside of their ability to be a fan of things and people in it. But I do envy the comfort in which a very particular youthful standom is performed as freedom — the young people who change their Twitter and Instagram handles to the names of their heroes, who tweet exclusively about — or in defense of — some musician they may have been lucky enough to get close to in real life. It speaks to a single idea that I appreciate, and an idea that I stopped believing in myself when I grew older and began to worry too much about what everyone thought: If you love something enough to be that loud about it, you will only appear foolish to the people who don’t matter.

Even if one does not self-identify as a stan — for fear of being seen as too over the top in your enthusiasm — there is empowerment in not only developing your own bubble, but also finding people to pull inside of it. Stans are no longer just people shouting at concerts or decorating notebooks. The internet has made it so that there are communities within stan factions that operate as almost familial. There’s something great about this, especially in the moments where you see this behavior stripped down to its most human elements: young people reaching out to other young people within their fandom who might be struggling, or when the name of a person from a fandom begins trending on Twitter because some tragedy has fallen upon them. To be committed to an artist is no longer simply to be committed to an artist. The love for a musician, at its core, is surely about the music, but it can evolve in such a way that the music itself becomes a seed, sprouting into an opportunity for kinship, which sprouts into a conversation for the world at large and the varied and unique ways in which we fit into it, while still remaining tethered to our common interests.

I wonder when I stopped being the person who, on a school bus in 1997, argued that Puff Daddy was a strong and important MC. Or the person who — in the great teen pop battles of the late '90s and early aughts — chose Christina Aguilera instead of Britney Spears, in part because I was raised to love big-voiced singers but also because the Catholic schoolgirl entry point of Spears wasn’t exactly catered to my type of interests, having lived just down the street from a Catholic school and spending the occasional weekend attempting (and failing) to date actual Catholic schoolgirls.

As a music critic, it isn’t my job to fawn over everything in the manner of a stan on the internet, but what I like about the engagement of the stan is the willingness to be carried away on a wave of something that you imagine to be greater than yourself, even if it isn’t. I miss that, even when I see glimpses of it: I see music fans and music writers in person, and we argue passionately about the latest noise filling our ears for several minutes in a bout of absurdist one-upmanship, and then we laugh it off and go our separate ways. This, too, is what is left of the stan that lives inside of us still, though it's quieter now.

To engage closely with young stans is to see what you once were and be unafraid to run back into it. There is a vulnerability in openly loving something, and so, naturally, there is a shame that comes with that. Particularly when you find yourself defending that love to strangers. It is a defense not just of the artist, but a defense of your right to love them, a defense of what they mean to you.

This isn’t to say that adult fandoms don’t exist with a similar kind of ferocity. But there is something that rings more socially acceptable about the Beyhive, for example. They have, within their ranks, adult celebrities — brilliant writers, thinkers, and artists who all have the same reaction to Beyoncé and her work. It helps, also, that Beyoncé has certainly crafted a body of work — particularly in the past half-decade — that caters to more adult sensibilities than, say, early One Direction.

The risk in publicly fighting for your fandom exists on an operating scale, at the center of which sits an intersection of various identities. I do not believe, internally, that pop culture is stupid. And so, with that in mind, I am working to realize that the people who love pop culture the most vocally and sometimes aggressively, also are not stupid. The older we get, the harder it can be to remember ourselves as people who were once excited about the minutiae of a sound or a personality. Especially with the world as it is, perhaps as it has been for all of our lives — tilting toward the edge of something perpetually on fire. It’s easy to dismiss everything that isn’t an overt act of resistance or survival as petty and unworthy of discussion. And yet, I grew up with music that helped keep kids alive, and so I have to believe that there is, today, music that is doing the same. To turn an ear toward someone who loves something as you perhaps loved something is not only an act of care and respect, but it’s also an act of growth. ●

This essay is part of a series of stories about stans and super fans.

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