Most bands host fan conventions long after their time in the spotlight has ended. It's an attempt to sustain life-long fandom--to remind folks that their love and dedication doesn't waver just because the group's success has. It's why both Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block have hosted events like these in the last few years, and why an artist like Kid Rock will host a fan cruise next spring. If anything, 5 Seconds of Summer is jumping the gun a little early with their annual fan gathering. After all, 5SOS aren't most bands.
5 Seconds of Summer has hosted a fan convention before. Derp Con (given this moniker because they guys claim to always be "derping" around) took place in November of last year in Los Angeles, the band's American home. Winners from all over the world were flown out to the West Coast metropolis, put up in the swanky Andaz Hotel in West Hollywood and told to head outside at an early hour. That was it. They were eventually corralled into groups, each marked by a song title from the band's self-titled debut album. They were placed on a tour bus and sent to Paramount Studios, where band-related stations were set up. Oh, and the kids got to meet the band… no one had told them this beforehand. Tears were shed. Moms were proud. All was good.
This year was a bit different. Winners from each country were given badges that reflected a song from the group's sophomore effort, Sounds Good Feels Good. I was to join the American winners, the "Airplanes" group. Although the fan convention was located in the U.S., the group name seemed fitting: These ladies were from different corners of this massive country, all connected by their love of this band.
Halloween fell on a Saturday this year, so on the morning of the 31st, Atlanta's downtown is vacant. Residual garbage of last night's weekend warriors litters the tiniest corners of the street. A few tourists pop in out and of a Starbucks. Hotel valets look mostly bored. The sky is gray and quiet. It's peaceful, until you near the Tabernacle concert hall, 5SOS' world and the New Broken Scene that lay within it.
We're told to enter through the side door at the Tabernacle. It's unmarked, but the sight of three giant security guards give it away. A group of girls who did not win tickets to the New Broken Scene show up at the gate, crying and begging for help. They have driven four hours for a hopeful glimpse of the guys.
A woman walks out and is clearly moved by the girls; she tells them, "This breaks my heart, I can't handle this," and disappears.
Moments later, the woman reappears with a handful of tickets. The girls immediately start bawling, and one of the security guards starts smiling. "They're crying! Happy tears! This is great," he says, genuinely excited by how genuinely excited these kids were.
We enter the side entrance of the venue to see a room illuminated by a pinkish-orange light. It reads "This Side Down," in the style of the Sounds Good Feels Good artwork. The other side is labeled with the band's name, and it becomes immediately clear that the band is upstairs, and that fans are going to meet them shortly.
We walk down the stairs to enter what can only be described as an art maze: it feels like being on the set of some '90s pop-punk music video. Each wall is covered in 5 Seconds of Summer artwork: The street art images from their global project, the individual posters from each show on their massive arena world tour, and photos from some of their best performances.
At one station, fans are asked to sit on drum stools and put on virtual reality goggles and noise-canceling headsets. A three-dimensional video of the band performing "Hey Everybody!" on a roof top appears, making it easy for "players" to get lost in the experience.
After 10-15 minutes, we're asked to file upstairs, where the band is presumably waiting. We're positioned in a green room: Victorian couches and Christian iconography litter the walls. It feels undeniably goth, and perfect for the Halloween holiday.
I sit next to two girls from Florida, who won the contest by Shazam-ing "She's Kinda Hot" whenever they heard it on the radio. The winner says she did it every day for over a week, multiple times a day. She tells me she's never won anything before, and that she still doesn't believe this is real.
Her friend pulls out four glittering bags of gifts for the boys: In one, a necklace made from the seeds of a Hawaiian tree for bassist Calum Hood. In another, "Sounds Good Feels Good" is etched into drum sticks for drummer Ashton Irwin. The presents are elaborate because the girls want the 5SOS guys to know: They mean so much to them, and they don't want to be forgotten.
When it's time for them to meet the boys, one girl grabs onto my arm and asks me to walk her in. She's shaking, but leaves me and bolts to the band as soon as she sees them--it wasn't clear if she'd ever let go of Ashton's arm. They hug the boys, they joke with the boys, they leave the boys…and that's when the waterworks begin.
It's a funny experience, standing with these girls after they have met their heroes. Some obsess over what they should've said. Some are excited they got to talk to their beloved bodyguard, the now infamous Dave. Some are bawling to their moms. Others appear to be in total disbelief. It's an intimate moment that everyone shares with strangers. The fans are excited, but more importantly, they are grateful for the experience. In this room, as they consider what happened just minutes ago, time stands still.
The day doesn't end there. Roughly an hour after the meet-and-greets, the fans are led into the 2600-capacity Tabernacle concert hall, and 5SOS puts on a performance that's also live-streamed to many others watching online. They rip through their set list from this summer's arena tour and add new tunes "Hey Everybody!" and "She's Kinda Hot"; at one point in the set, Ashton delivers a speech.
"You guys do more for the world than you actually know. We wanna write real songs for real people, real issues that everyone has in this room, everyone watching at home. Everyone's got their problems, everyone's got their demons, and we wanna be the band for you--we wanna be here for you because we have shit going on as well. We have our ups, and we have our downs, especially. But that's okay. We live in a weird fucking world these days, and I think if we can write music that's from our hearts for you, it doesn't matter if they're worldwide hits, that's for sure. We don't give a damn. As long as it means something to every single one of you guys, that's all we care about. I just want this next album and this band to mean something to you instead of some pointless shit that's on the radio. We want to mean something to you."
Before the words can be fully processed, guitarist Michael Clifford jumps in: "Holy crap, you just got 30 times more sexier than I thought you were before. All I can talk about is penis and boobs."
That exchange perfectly sums up 5 Seconds of Summer and its annual fan convention: These guys don't take themselves too seriously, but they take their fans more seriously than anything. It's clear that, no matter what "career phase" they're in, 5SOS will always give everything for their fans. All you have to do is listen.