The Identity, Obsession And Escapism Of Fandom
As I sat down to watch 'I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story', I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Although I’ve been a fangirl, a stan, a teenybopper, and a superfan since I was 11 and first heard the Spice Girls, and have been completely and utterly devoted to Britney Spears since 1998, I’ve never been a boy band fanatic.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of tracks by boy bands, and I was deeply into Hanson’s first era and covered my walls with posters of Zac, but none of my boy band obsessions stuck in the way that my love for, say, Leonardo DiCaprio or Britney. I wasn’t sure if I would relate to the specifics of boy band standom.
I also wasn’t sure if the film would treat fandom with the reverence and nuance that I consider it to have. I’ve spent so much of my life having to defend my adoration for pop music, for pop culture, for all the things that bring me so much joy in life.
Of course, working at JB Hi-Fi for years didn’t help much. Although I generally spent my time and energy with lovely people who I’m friends with to this day, it was also a breeding ground for insecure people to try to use their niche music tastes as a way to assert their own intelligence and worth, and to try to bring down others. It happened to me plenty of times, and I didn’t want the film to be derogatory or mocking toward its subjects.
Ten minutes into the film, I was able to cast those worries aside, as I sank into the documentary that showcased with glee and adoration so many of the aspects I love about being a part of a fandom.
Laughing in recognition, the film warmly reflected my own standom back to me, showing me the way my own fandom intertwines with my identity, the way it works as a lens to view the world through, the way it punctuates the good times and helps me through the dark times, acting as both a comfort and a source of escapism.
“I can’t imagine a world without Take That. I can’t imagine my life without Take That,” says one of the women in the film, with a laugh that acknowledges how absurd the statement is.
After 20 years of stanning Britney, I can relate. I can barely remember a time before she was famous, at this point, as I’ve been a fan for nearly two-thirds of my life. Her albums have been the soundtrack to so many different parts of my life, and I can remember exactly where I was the first time I heard some of her songs with the clarity of the meeting I was in an hour ago.
Britney and I have grown up together, we’ve partied together, we’ve gone through dark times together and we’ve come out the other side together. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t had her and her music with me through everything.
Aside from being intertwined in my own memories and experiences, though, she’s so much a part of my life that my fandom of her is almost a personality trait, at this point. “Stephanie? Oh, she’s the one who really loves Britney, right?” When a new Britney meme hits, people will be tagging me in it, sending it to me for days, even weeks after.
“They mean a lot to me. They mean more to me than my family,” says a young One Direction fan at one point during the film.
While I’m personally unwilling to go this far in my standom (at least… not on the record where my family could see it), I can wholeheartedly agree that Britney means a lot to me. Back when things were rough for her, I can remember multiple times where I cancelled plans with my real life friends in order to stay home and check for updates that would assure me she was okay. As I watched my idol be taken to the hospital twice in a matter of weeks, I needed to be around my online friends, the people who were on the same level as me, who cared as much as I did.
At another point in the film, one of the girls talks about how people don’t understand her fandom. “Nobody I knew was as hardcore as me,” she says, explaining that she went on to create her own Backstreet Boys fan site, where she found a tribe of like-minded BSB fans.
Being a part of an online fandom is to enter into a secret society, where you’ll learn a new language of secret code words and acronyms, share in-jokes and references, and find yourself a tribe of people who understand a part of your identity so often misunderstood in the real world. It’s a place where your obsession isn’t just accepted, it’s encouraged, rewarded. Why wouldn’t you spend that money on that rare collector’s item? Of course you need to go to multiple concerts! Within fandoms, we spend a lot of time talking about “locals” -- people who don’t understand standom. They don’t get it.
“Whenever things are going wrong, I’m just like ‘boy bands are the answer’,” says one of the fans in the film.
The film does a great job of displaying the duality of how fandom works as both a comfort and an escape. The last eight years of my life have been taken up with chronic pain and mental health struggles, but Britney and my fandom have been a continuous source of strength, comfort and escapism for me through it all. I draw strength from seeing Britney battle her own demons, I find comfort in her performances, her interviews and music, and logging onto Twitter and seeing what my fellow stans are laughing about at any given moment never fails to lift my mood.
Being a fan, sinking down into the rabbit hole of fandom, it gives me a place to run to when the real world seems too bleak -- if I don’t want to think about what’s going on in my actual life, I can just sink a few hours into any of the unsolved mysteries of Britney’s career.
“I used to be normal!” gasps one of the fangirls in the film.
Maybe I was once, too, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.
I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story is in selected cinemas on November 22.