Female fandom being synonymous with hysteria is nothing new. When the word Lisztomania was coined in 1844, it was used by German essayist and poet Heinrich Heine to describe the “true madness, unheard of in the annals of furore” emanating from crowds of women in response to the pianist and composer Franz Liszt. By the time the Beatles became the zeitgeist of the 1960s, the media was as concerned with the “madness” of their female followers as they were with the actual band itself. So long as there’s been a cultural heartthrob, there’s been the prescribed label of hysteria to masses of impassioned women.
In her debut book Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture, music journalist Hannah Ewens takes the stereotype and flips it on its head. Through hundreds of interviews with fans of all ages and from different countries, she explores the appeal and expertise of fan groups by giving them the space to tell their own stories — something they’re typically not afforded in the media. Too often, they’ve been dismissed and ridiculed by mostly male voices, and Ewens aims to set the record straight.
Each chapter of the book dives into a different subsection of fandom, and the inevitable ways that each has been wrongly depicted, criticized and even attacked for their enthusiasm. The most jarring is a chapter on the 2017 Manchester bombing of an Ariana Grande concert — it was an act of gender terrorism, described as terrorism reinforcing gender stereotypes and aimed at keeping women in their place, yet the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners at the time rejected the gendered aspect of the attack and it was controversial for the press to label it as so.
The same misogyny, though not as menacing, echoes in other chapters. The 2013 documentary Crazy About One Direction cherry-picked the most extreme fan acts and passed it off as a homogenous, comprehensive look at 1D’s fan base; My Chemical Romance’s largely young female following was written about as a new “cult of suicide,” instilling fear and moral panic in their parents (and when some organized a march claiming MCR Saves Lives, it was infiltrated by Anonymous); and the grief of fans after Amy Winehouse’s death was considered self-indulgent and overly emotional, yet later grieving of David Bowie or Prince didn’t recieve the same judgements.
While reading Fangirls, it’s almost impossible to not think of how male-dominated fan bases don’t face the same anxieties or concerns. “It’s insane for teen girls to sit outside a hotel to see someone they like or cry at a concert, but grown men go to sports matches and have season tickets and swear at each other, and we are ridiculed,” a One Directioner confides to Ewens. Moreover, the dominant narrative sees female music fans lumped together as screaming collectives (i.e., squads or hives), while male fans typically get depicted as autonomous music snobs who are respected for their infinite knowledge. In the chapter about young female My Chemical Romance fans, Ewens mentions that older male metal fans didn’t think they had earned the respect to be called rock fans.
But as male counterparts and the press dismiss fangirls, they overlook an essential part of their being — the expertise they hold. To this end, included at the beginning of Ewens’ book is a tweet from rock critic Jessica Hopper: “Replace the word ‘fangirl’ with ‘expert’ and see what happens.” Sure, if you see Beyoncé’s Beyhive or Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters at a concert, they’re more than likely losing their shit. But the rest of the time, they’re absorbing as much music and information that they can about their idols; they’re digitally archiving video and audio clips on social media; and they’re sometimes even supplying news and tips about artists’ latest whereabouts to journalists. (In some cases, those same media outlets that criticized them are the ones using their footage.) “There’d be so much stuff we as journalists wouldn’t know about if we didn’t have the fans,” Ewens writes.
Despite the constant pushback female fans get, their perseverance is admirable. After the 2017 Manchester bombing, many of the Arianators that Ewens spoke to continued going to concerts despite the trauma they faced. One of the chapters, “The Waiting Game,” is dedicated to the teens trying to “get barrier,” or getting as close to the stage as they possibly can, by waiting in line not just hours, but days ahead of concerts. “We’re getting so bad at the skill of waiting that when we have to do so, we find it utterly intolerable, anger inducing, sitting in it like it is a punishment,” Ewens writes. Yet Gen Z teens, frequently portrayed as impatient and demanding, prove that they can be anything but.
It’s not all praise for fangirls, though. Along the way, Ewens doesn’t skirt over their own toxic habits. The same teens written about in “The Waiting Game” also expose the hierarchies within fan groups that come with wealth: More of it means better access to concerts, merch and VIP experiences. In fact, in Japan, excessive consumerism — i.e., owning multiple copies of an album and spending most of a paycheck on band paraphernalia — is essentially tied to the seriousness of one’s devotion to an artist. And in the social media age, fan bases are more equipped than ever to swiftly band together against their artist’s critics, or in Beyoncé’s case, track down exactly who “Becky” is and swarm her posts with bee emoji comments. Ewens is careful, however, to not let their worst traits overpower the narrative.
Overall, the most compelling aspect of fangirls is their sense of community. Fandom in their case is just as much about the communal screaming at concerts as it is about replaying an album on repeat until the lyrics are etched into their brain. They strongly support each other as well. The Arianators who experienced the 2017 Manchester attack were forever bonded and helped one another heal through music. Hopeful One Directioners keep in contact via social media, reminiscing about brighter days and awaiting a reunion. Meanwhile, numerous young women create worlds of fanfiction and share stories amongst themselves, allowing each other to explore their sexuality freely.
And though fangirls seem almost exclusively to be teenage girls, Ewens proves that they span all generations. In the final chapter of the book, she meets fellow fangirls of Hole — women in their 30s and 40s — in person to sneak a peek of the band’s rehearsal ahead of a concert. They nearly get caught and have to run away from a security guard after getting spotted.
For most of the media and outsiders, it’s easy to reduce fangirls to a product of hysteria. But that shows a total reluctance to try and understand how they’re engaging with music and one another. Thankfully, Ewens finally recognizes their time, effort and expertise, passing the mic to them so they can explain the why behind their actions. Because if there’s one truth to the fangirl stereotype, it’s that they’ll never be silenced.