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Stan by me: how super-fan culture turned sour

Taking their name from the Eminem song, stans mostly indulge in harmless fun, turning their love of an artist into something tribal and communal, like supporting a football team. But when super-fans turn nasty, especially when armed with the anonymity of a keyboard, things can quickly turn toxic. El Hunt investigates.

In the video for Eminem’s 2000 track ‘Stan’, the effects of obsessive fandom come to a head in fatal fashion.

Stan loves Eminem. Like, really, really loves Eminem: we’re talking inspirational pictures blu-tacked to his mirror, basement full of press cuttings, and incredibly creepy fan letters written in the ominous glow of a flickering light.

Unfortunately, the letters never make it to the rapper, and Stan’s frustration at being ignored grows. In a last ditch attempt to get his hero’s attention, Stan locks his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk of his car and drives off a bridge. By the time Eminem finally responds, it’s all too late.

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The track gave us a new word to describe an overzealous, obsessive fan in the pop culture sphere: a ‘stan’. 

Rihanna effortlessly gliding over a grill while wearing stilettos, stolen wine glass in hand? We stan! Beyonce and Jay-Z accepting their International Group award in front of a portrait of Meghan Markle at the BRITs? Very stannable. Kacey Musgraves performing ‘High Horse’, atop a literal horse? Proud to announce that we stan!

And most of the time, stanning is harmless. It’s old-fashioned fandom for the internet age.  But often, stanning manifests as a kind of blind, unquestioning devotion – the kind of thing that leads the BTS Army to talk about their idols like they’re gods on earth who can’t be criticised. Ask Capital FM’s Roman Kemp, who was reported to OFCOM for race discrimination for calling the South Korean sensations’s music ‘noise’. Few journalists here at NME or elsewhere have escaped a stan pile-on; these days, it’s an occupational hazard.

At its worst, it can lead to threatening behaviour, mob-handed bullying and it can even turn on the object of affection. 

Back when ‘Stan’ came out, in order to strike up a conversation with an artist you’d need to loiter outside after a show, or chance a lucky meeting. It was possible to track your fave’s movements with a bit of educated snooping or – in the case of acts like Bros – camping outside their mum’s house, but the gap between artist and listener was far wider before the advent of social media.

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These days, it’s possible to keep up with what Troye Sivan’s up to right now with a quick glance at his Insta Story. Mega-stars, even of Ariana Grande level, have been known to reply to fans’ tweets. When Rihanna quietly direct messaged a young gay fan in 2016, he came out to a friend, buoyed by her support. “Stanning for you was the best decision I’ve ever done,” the fan said in a message. “I’m so proud of you,” Rihanna replied.

On the downside, there is the damaging expectation that stars should be fully accessible, 24-seven. Stepping away from the spotlight is near impossible when fans upload stealthy phone snaps wherever you go.

”The internet is pivotal, and has amplified the whole ‘queueing outside venues for hours’ culture that’s been about since the time of The Beatles and Elvis,” says NME pop columnist Douglas Greenwood. “The difference now is that access is immediate, and stans can question their favourite artist’s every move.

“A great example is Marina [and The Diamonds],” Douglas points out. “Here was an artist who chose to step back from making music for three years and live her life like a normal person for a bit, but whenever she chose to upload a photo to Instagram, doing something that wasn’t “being in the studio”, she was met with fans commenting, pressuring her to drop new music. Social media gives artists nowhere to hide, which probably explains why so many of them have forgone the concept of album cycles and ‘eras’ to be constantly present instead. The thirst is so visible, and if you flop, everybody knows about it. The stakes are painfully high.”

The perceived accessibility of musicians in the internet age has even placed certain artists in an unique new position, having to call out their own fans when they go too far. After her ex-boyfriend Pete Davidson spoke out about the online bullying he had faced since their break-up, Ariana Grande stepped in and urged stans to stop sending abusive messages.

“I feel I need to remind my fans to please be gentler with others,” she said on Instagram. “I really don’t endorse anything but forgiveness and positivity. I care deeply about Pete and his health. I’m asking you to please be gentler with others, even on the internet.”

“I need to remind my fans to please be gentler with others. I really don’t endorse anything but forgiveness and positivity”
– Ariana Grande

Bebe Rexha, meanwhile had to call off some overzealous stans after they rushed to defend her… from her own dad. He’d texted Rexha saying that her video for ‘Last Hurrah’ makes him feel “sick” due to its more risqué scenes. After the the singer jokingly posted a screen grab of their conversation, a portion of fans mounted a fightback and things quickly got personal. “Don’t say mean things about my dad, please,” she later wrote. “I should have never posted that screenshot. I’m disappointed in myself”.

It’s not only artists who can suffer from the lack of hiding places left by online life. Frequently, stans aren’t just concerned with what their favourite artist is up to, but what their rivals are up to, too.

Pitting stars against peers is another pastime that has become far easier with the help of social media; log onto Twitter on any given day, and you’ll spot Cardi B stans having a pop at Nicki Minaj, or Swifties (Taylor Swift super-fans) sending snake emojis en masse to Kim Kardashian.

Any artist who ‘slights’ another star faces a potential pile-on, with similar amounts of vitriol reserved for journalists, other people on twitter, fans of rival stars, and anyone else who dares to cross a stanned musician.

In some circumstances, stans go to extreme lengths to defend their favourite artists from any form of criticism whatsoever, even when they face incredibly serious allegations.

In response to Leaving Neverlanda new documentary about Michael Jackson which outlines disturbing allegations of child sex abuse, and which airs on Channel 4 tonight, the backlash from superfans is deafeningly loud.

Some stans argue that the whole conversation is a disgrace since Jackson is dead and unable to defend himself, ignoring his alleged victims’ right to justice, along with the plain fact that Jackson defended himself plenty during his lifetime.

Others are taking shots at the documentary’s director Dan Reed, accusing him of profiting off somebody they say is an innocent man and questioning his motives. Many are also attempting to smear the two men who have accused Jackson. Bizarrely, many of them are doing this by referencing the case of Jussie Smollett (who was arrested for staging his own assault) as if the actions of one person can invalidate the words and experiences of genuine survivors. Defending an artist from all criticism, at whatever cost isn’t fandom. It’s a dangerous path to go down.

While it is true that people are innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, it is also an unavoidable fact that systematic failures in the justice system can make securing a conviction against violent and abusive men incredibly difficult, and that it is important to believe and support survivors when they are brave enough to speak out against powerful figures in music. This particular logic also fails to stand up when you consider the stans still protesting the innocence of Chris Brown and 6ix9ine, who have been found guilty of various crimes by a court.

READ MORE: Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed on Michael Jackson’s toxic legacy

 

(ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Occasionally, stan pile-ons also become as toxic as the behaviour that’s being defended; when I questioned Eminem’s frequent use of the word “faggot” in an article last year, hundreds of stans disagreed – as they’re entitled to.

Lots of them called me a snowflake, and to be fair to them all, I am a very sensitive little petal (shout out to Fairy Snow Non-Bio for being kind to my delicate skin). Then there were the people telling me to “cry harder, faggot” and suggesting I kill myself. 

Though Eminem later apologised for using the slur on his 2018 album ‘Kamikaze’, he’s been throwing around the f-bomb for years. When called out, some stans defend their word choices by citing freedom of speech, or the idea that a slur is “just a word”. Others send torrents of racist or homophobic abuse.

NME journalist Leonie Cooper remembers one chaotic weekend when she came under attack from superfans after she wrote a Guardian piece about Avril Lavigne posing naked with a guitar. In her op-ed, she questioned why nudity is often used as a marketing tool in the industry. There was outcry from a selection of Avril stans who disagreed with the piece, but ironically, a lot of abuse Leonie received took on a shockingly misogynic and personal tone.

Leonie says she originally wrote the piece with the intention of “laying into a music industry that still treats women in a drastically different way to men”. Some of the responses only amplified this idea.

“The abuse directed at me was horribly misogynistic – which was deeply ironic considering the fact that the whole gist of the piece was rooted in feminism,” Leonie says. “The fact that I was accused of not being a feminist for writing it made it even clearer that people hadn’t read it properly and were just jumping the gun in order to seem like they, above all the others, were the most deeply committed fan. Whoever let the truth get in the way of a good bit of a fake outrage, eh?”

“I really think that it comes down to the anonymity that you can get with online social media,” reckons 1975 stan Mia, who followed her favourite band around the UK on their recent tour. She camped outside the band’s Birmingham show, and even starred in the band’s video for ‘TOOTIME…’.

As a result of her cameo, other fans have bought her drinks before in Wetherspoons, and Mia says she has made new friends from following the band. She’s found the community of 1975 stans to be largely inclusive, but she recognises how social media can help things get out of hand.

“Of course, people are going to be protective of their favourite bands, but I think sometimes using the internet in the wrong way accentuates the divide,” Mia says. “People think they can do things that they wouldn’t necessarily do in person. I also think it’s very easy to get influenced. More people are susceptible to getting involved in this kind of behaviour. The internet can be amazing but when it’s used wrongly it can really cause pain to others.”

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{press play for audio clip} “honestly, i kinda wanna cry right now…” YES. me too. this podcast i just co-released wirh @dylanmarron is one of the hardest and best things i’ve done with my time for a while. i talked with colleen – the person who penned this tweet – for an hour. we went to some really difficult places. please take some time to listen to the whole thing – and if you’re a patron, i sent an extra off-the-record interview between me & dylan after we recorded the basic conversation. a portion of the patreon-thinging proceeds are going to the @trevorproject, who run a 24-hour confidential hotline to prevent LBGTQ teen suicide. follow dylan’s podcast info to listen, or join the patreon for $1 to get the full content – link to that locked post is in the bio right now and logging into patreon opens it up. THANK YOU DYLAN. AND THANK YOU HATERS, FOR MAKING ME A BETTER PERSON. xxx (📷 by @hayleyfiasco)

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At the beginning of this year, musician Amanda Palmer took the unusual step of meeting up with a person who posted negative things about her on Twitter, later describing it as “one of the hardest and best things I’ve done with my time for a while”.

Meeting for the first time on the Conversations With People Who Hate Me Podcast, Palmer spoke to a woman identified only as Coleen, who had previously tweeted “I’m not sure I hate any celebrity the way I hate Amanda Palmer”

Palmer asked Coleen if she might’ve reconsidered sending the tweet “if you could’ve imagined me on the other side of the computer reading it the next day?”

The pair talked for an hour in total, with Coleen admitting that she hadn’t considered the real-life repercussions her words could have. “Honestly, I kinda wanna cry right now,” she told Palmer. “Because [in the tweet] I’m telling somebody, who’s also a human being, ‘here’s a horrible thing I said about you.’”

Though the word ‘stan’ wasn’t added to the Oxford English Dictionary until 2017, the concept of the obsessive fan is nothing new. From The Beatles to The Osmonds to Bros, Take That, Michael Jackson and countless more, fans have been chasing stars around hotel corridors and camping outside venues since forever.

Ian Connick, who has been following his hero Bruce Springsteen since 1981, might not describe himself as a stan per se, but he’s still gone to some pretty impressive lengths to see The Boss live. “I’ve seen him 24 times now,” says Ian. “I still have the ticket for my first show, at Wembley Arena, which cost me £6.00! Unfortunately, that still makes me an amateur compared to some of the people you hear about.”

“As much as it breeds a toxic culture, and one that victimises women so hideously, stan culture also brings people together”
– Douglas Greenwood

Devotion aside, Ian’s adamant that he would never want to meet or speak with his idol. “While I would love to be his best friend, they always say never meet your heroes. I think I would be absolutely terrified, and doubtless come out with some gibberish that would leave him thinking I’m an idiot,” he says bluntly.

I’m beginning to think the internet makes it easier not to be nice,” reckons Springsteen fan Ian. “It’s very easy to hide behind an alias and say some pretty horrible things about people who simply hold different views from your own. It has certainly changed the world, but not always for the better.”

But really, stan culture is fan culture and it all comes down to loving music – not a bad thing in itself. It’s fun to obsess over your faves, and to spar with rival fans, but the limits should be common sense. Often, caught up in the moment, it can be difficult to know where the line is; perhaps it’s harder to visualise the real life consequences of your words when you’re flinging them into a digital black hole.

“As much as it breeds a toxic culture, and one that victimises women so hideously, stan culture also brings people together,” Douglas Greenwood says. “The pop women heavyweights are where all the ugliness and pettiness lies: Gaga, Katy Perry, Ari and Nicki stans are dangerous, and you dare cross them.”

And it’s true that a particularly toxic stan culture can exist around women. Often, adoration of women in pop can take on nasty misogynistic undertones, damning cries of “flop!” following every single misstep. Some stans rejoice the triumph of one female artist by gleefully celebrating another artist’s failure. “She outsold!” – meaning, she completely outcompeted her rival – is a common jibe.

“I guess that’s just because fans now see them as family, and will do whatever it takes to protect them,” Douglas says. “Stan culture is wrapped up in a sort of ‘ride or die’ mentality. Loving someone’s music and taking a bullet for them is different; stans tend to lean towards the latter,” he adds.

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