Since there have been celebrities, there have been fans. Worshipful devotees to popular singers, writers, actors, or anyone in the public eye. Their unbridled passion and love for the subject of worship borders on religious, maybe sociopathic. The most extreme of fans have been known to obsess, to stalk, to collect thrown away tissues of their beloved and do anything to get closer to their idol. One fan literally paid $5,300 dollars for a tissue full of Scarlet Johansson’s snot. And if you think that’s gross, consider the $14,000 dollars someone paid for Britney Spears’ chewed bubblegum (oh baby, baby!). This behavior is not relegated to just the West either; South Korean idol Taecyeon received a fan letter written in menstruation blood (because, you know, regular blood wasn’t psychotic enough). Where did this phenomenon originate from and how has it evolved?
Before the days of TV and radio, the Ancient Greek ideal of a ‘celebrity’ focused on warriors and athletes, not local entertainers. These athletes were showered with gifts and had songs written about them. If gossip rags existed in Ancient Rome, it would the gladiator Spartacus’ bloody face on the cover of HELLO! magazine.
For most of Western history, however, royalty has played the role of the reknown and adored. Later on in the 18th century, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, became a national trendsetter, getting a whole generation of Regency wannabes to import wildly expensive ostrich feathers and wear them in their hair. However, geography was crucial. If one wanted to see the Queen or shake hands with Shakespeare they had to live in London. As cults of personality grew so did establishments like pubs and salons that advertised themselves as the meeting places of certain sought-after personages. Thus early fandom was very localized. So much so that when a famous king or general died, people (aka, “pre-modern fans”) went to their funeral. Huge crowds of the London populous attended ceremonies mourning Lord Nelson upon his death.
Occasionally fictional creations have become so successful that fans become genuinely overwhelmed with them, and heartbroken at news of their ‘deaths’. But fandom isn’t restricted to just real life public figures. When Arthur Conan Doyle “killed” Sherlock Holmes in 1893, fans of the famous sleuth held public funerals. Demand for more Sherlock mysteries meant that some of the first works of fan fiction came into creation. Doyle’s character showed that fandom could sprout out of anything, both real or imagined.
Psychologists have labeled the relationship between fans and celebrities as “parasocial.” The entire interaction between fans and celebrities is one-sided; fans only see the smiling, glittering, happy side of their idols. And because idols generally don’t directly interact with those who worship them, it allows fans to project their own personal fantasy upon them. That’s why intense adoration can turn into frightening anger. When you finally meet Justin Bieber and he isn’t smiling and crooning at you like he has every night when you’re alone in your bedroom, your fantasy is shattered, and suddenly you’re pissed off. It’s not difficult to see the mental hoops one jumps through to go from adoring fan to dangerous stalker. Clearly, once you’re obsessed, anything can seem reasonable; like the one fan who decided to break her leg because pop singer Jessie-J’s leg was broken too (I know what you’re thinking: why can’t Jessie-J just love this poor crazy girl?)
But the power of fandom has proven to be beneficial to many and not just exemplary of the most bizarre forms of the human condition. For instance, the power of social media has given fans not just a community and a means of better interacting with the icons they worship, but something far greater: influence. The collective force of fan communities have been able to revive cancelled or forgotten television shows. It’s happened with Joss Whedon’s Firefly sequel Serenity as well as the successful Kickstarter campaign for the Veronica Mars movie. Also, the intensity of the Harry Potter fanbase forced a level of attention, detail and craftsmanship upon the film adaptations; the fans refused to let the films become mere cash-grabs. In the 19th century, the most fans could do to express themselves was to throw rotten vegetables at a stage; now they can band together and create tremors throughout the entire Internet, the effects rippling into reality.
One Direction is an excellent example of a success story that owes a lot to it’s much mocked fanbase – One Direction never left the public conversation because fans wouldn’t let it. Then in 2015, One Direction fans were outraged that the band’s song ‘No Control’ wasn’t being released as a single. Banding together, the One Direction fans made such a fuss over the Internet, they succeeded in getting ‘No Control’ released as a single, music video and all. As observed in a wonderful Pitchfork article, Project No Control it was shown that the screaming mass of teenage girls were not an unthinking horde and a much more intelligent beast than met the eye— but one worthy of a bit more respect and a little less disdain.
Modern fandom has allowed for the lonely and weird to come together and form communities. Solitary obsessives around the world can now find friends to share their passions with. Nowadays fandom can sprout out of anything. Just look at Bronies (that is, bros who are obsessed with My Little Pony). Such fandoms allow for a greater cultural conversation between the culture consuming public, and the culture producing elite. More than ever before, fans have influence on the celebrities and cultural products they consume.
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